What Science Is And Isn’t

What Science Is And Isn’t April 22, 2017

Hurrah for positive science! long live exact demonstration!
Fetch stonecrop mixt with cedar and branches of lilac,
This is the lexicographer, this the chemist, this made a grammar
of the old cartouches,
These mariners put the ship through dangerous unknown seas.
This is the geologist, this works with the scalpel, and this is a
mathematician.

Gentlemen, to you the first honors always!
Your facts are useful, and yet they are not my dwelling,
I but enter by them to an area of my dwelling.

“Leaves Of Grass” (1891), Walt Whitman

When it comes to science, I consider myself a booster. In college I was a physics major for a while, trying to do a dual degree with computer science, until my brain started to melt my junior year and I decided to just finish up the CS degree.

(It’s worth noting that “science” is being used in two different senses here: “science” in the sense of the natural sciences, the scientific method, and so on; and “science” as an organized body of knowledge, as in “motion picture arts and sciences”. Computer science has very little of the scientific method about it.)

There are two space science projects on my software development resume, and I take pride in that. The background wallpaper on my computer and my phone is the Hubble Deep Field image; so the beauty of the scientific view of the universe greets me every day.

Hubble Deep Field, via Wikipedia
Hubble Deep Field, via Wikipedia

But I’m ambivalent about the “March For Science” taking place today. In these partisan times, I worry about “science” becoming a partisan shibboleth. What percentage of those marching today have ever looked up an article in a peer-reviewed journal? How many know what a p-value, or error propagation, is?

When I look at the “I fucking love science!” Facebook page, I don’t see any discussion about the replication crisis or the Bayesian-frequentist controversy. Someone who really loves science ought to have at least some interest in those topics.

Scientism Is Not Science

I worry that too many people are letting the lab coat replace the clerical stole as a symbol of social authority, rather than respecting the methods of science, of publicly reviewed disciplined critical thinking based on empirical observation.

Professional scientists are human. Sometimes they don’t do science, even in their professional lives. They end up doing politics (civic, academic, or professional politics), or they become emotionally attached to ideas. Or they get corrupted, either consciously or unconsciously, by the possibility of money or prestige.

Or they use their social standing to wrap their cultural or political preferences in the cloak of “science”. From eugenics to Prohibition and the War on Drugs to the labeling of homosexuality as a mental illness, there are plenty of instances of that.

These things are bad. But they’re not science.

Science Is a Process

But still, the human failings of scientists can make people skeptical about the whole enterprise of science. A recent Facebook interlocutor asked, “What if science was wrong about pretty much everything?”

So it’s important to understand that science is a process, not an authority structure for a lab-coated priesthood and not a fixed body of knowledge.

Science is a means of finding things out about the objective, external, consensually-observed world. And the cool thing about it, the great breakthrough it represents in our thinking, is that it is a self-correcting process. If our model is wrong, if it contradicts what we can observe, eventually the truth will come out. Even if a bunch of professional scientists are stuck on the bad model, eventually the data will win out.

That seems so obvious to the modern mind that it’s easy to miss what a revolutionary idea it is. But even the concept that there is such a thing as a common, public space and time that we can all observe is a relatively new one, emerging from the work of Galileo and Newton. As F.S.C Northrop explained,

What Newton was saying here is that the space in which the laws or postulates of his physics locate the colorless, odorless physical objects is not the immediately sensed spatial extension of, and relation between, sensed data (which is a purely private space…), but is instead a single public space of nature which has the same mathematical, geometrical properties always and everywhere and is the same, regardless of the varying, distorted, sensed spaces which appear to different observers.

[Northrop, The Meeting of East and West, p76]

Now, there is a whole philosophical can of worms here. But for now let’s just say that given this ontological assumption of an external world with a number of observers who can each perceive only imprecisely (an assumption that is itself outside the realm of natural science, in the realm of metaphysics), science shows us how to pool our observations.

XKCD, by Randall Munroe
XKCD, by Randall Munroe

Science, Democracy, and Cosmopolitanism

Without that idea of public space, the observations and ideas of those at the top of the power hierarchy dominate. Before Galileo and Newton, the space in which the king dwelt was not the same as that in which commoners lived. This public space is the most critical philosophical substrate of democracy.

The public space is also the same for Americans as for Russians, the same for Christians and Muslims. Scientists often work with peers in other nations. That interaction leads to a certain cosmopolitan culture associated with science. That culture is a good thing — at least, I think it’s a good thing — but it is not, in itself, science; just a result of the circumstances in which scientists often work.

I emphasize that I think that culture is good, because value judgments are outside of science. That’s a point that came up recently in another Facebook conversation, where a different interlocutor envisioned putting scientists in charge of a project to formulate a system of morality for our society.

Science and Ethics

Science is an inquiry into what is, while ethics is an inquiry into what should be. If scientists have good ideas about ethics, they are not doing science when they talk about them.

Now that’s fine, scientists get to do other stuff. But it is a fallacy to believe that someone who knows science therefore knows about ethics. I see no evidence that on average, professional scientists have better or worse ethics than other educated professionals.

Indeed, to even answer that question we’d have to agree on an ethical framework within which we could judge people’s ideas and behavior.

What is, ethically, good? Is murder bad? Does human life have value? Is it good if the human species survives? The social sciences can tell us what different cultures think about these questions, they can even tell us what influence social norms have on behavior and whether a culture with such norms can sustain itself, but cannot say which answer is better than another.

And science’s professional ethics have not proven to be as self-correcting as scientific knowledge about the world. As an institution it has been continually reformed by outside forces of law and politics. Informed consent laws, for example, were not a self-correction by science, but were externally imposed.

So certainly, let us join with Uncle Walt in saying “Hurrah for positive science!” But let us not try to make scientific facts, free of the possibility of value, our dwelling place. And let us not make scientism into a cultural shibboleth, where accepting the word of someone in a lab coat without checking their work is considered a virtue.


Browse Our Archives