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Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Nobody Expects the Science Inquisition



This episode of James Burke's "The Day the Universe Change" is particularly fascinating and well worth watching. Science snobs always hate this bit. Burke's description of the structure of scientific progress is straight out of Thomas Kuhn's seminal work "The Structure of Scientific Revolution" and Burke is dead on. It upsets those who adhere to the modern cult of sciencism to think that their religion would actually hang on to bad ideas and false theories, but it does. I mean how many college professors are comfortable standing up in front of their classes and telling them to pitch out the $200 book (written by the professor) that they all were forced to buy for his class last year is all wrong. What Ph.D, wants to tell his grad students that some basic concept he forced them to memorize last year wasn't true at all this year? That's why science advances in plateaus and then big jumps. It's a lot of trouble to change out the textbooks.

I love Burke's idea that computer technology could make elitist centralized governments obsolete. The spectre of a human-utopia yields in this fantasy to a machine-utopia. Both optimistically assume that humans or machines can make things perfect, without the pesky need for God or for his work on changing the human heart. This episode dates back 3 decades or more from the beginning of the personal computer revolution before the Internet rose to it's current power. Burke had little idea just how much the existence of a machine-based free market of ideas would rattle the great halls of human power, whether for good or evil.

Of course politicians hold politics in the same reverence that scientists and science fans hold science and with the same naivete. A person's belief system greatly influences how he sees the world and what he believes to be true can lead him to do some pretty appalling things. Burke was right. If you are not comfortable with what he said in the episode about science, then you probably aren't a scientist, but a person who treats science as a religion. I expressed this, as I thought, reasonable opinion in the comment section of the video and immediately got romped on and called "vapid" an "idiot" and a "troll"

One expects this sort of reaction from science true believers when you challenge their religious devotion to the idea of the purity of science. Thomas Kuhn ruffled plenty of science fan feathers half a century ago, when, in his book, he pointed out the Achilles heel of science - the human factor. This factor tends to be ignored by science fanboys with the same intensity that Catholics ignore pedophilia amongst the priesthood. Anything that violates your religious belief (and make no mistake about it, sciencism is a religious) is rejected with disdain. Science personality Neil deGrasse Tyson does this sort of thing a lot. His predecessor Carl Sagan at least left a little room for things science doesn't know - in my opinion making him a more honest practitioner of science than deGrasse.

If you've ever hung around scientists and are at all free from the grip of overwhelming science adoration, you will be disturbed to find that scientists can be as prissy, self-centered a gang of egotists as the college of cardinals or attendees at an international congress on climate change. It is ironic that the religion of science, which purports to be so objective, is so prejudiced against opinions which differ from the accepted canon of science. Truly objective science allows for data from all sources. It doesn't puff itself up and push away any idea which challenges it's own opinion. The truth is that whether it's the practitioners of some narrow religious dogma or the "I believe in science" true believer who believes that science is the only pure way, either group deliberately wears blinders to anything upsetting. It's a form of cowardice.

I have found that there also exists a group of folk in the world who are scientists, theologians, philosophers, farmers, philosophers, and teachers who are not afraid of knowledge or of the experience of others which may challenge their own preconceived ideas. Such folks are the most wonderful examples of Homo-Sapiens I've ever known. Whether it's science, theology, psychology or philosophy, there are individuals within each intellectual pursuit who tend to ossify around a set of core beliefs. They shout down anyone who challenges their belief.  

The best of those who practice these intellectual disciplines realize that whether it be the physical, spiritual, mental, or intellectual world, there are mysteries yet to discover. Anyone who decides their particular belief system and their core collection of beliefs is the only unchallengeable one, is missing the incredible intellectual crossover benefits one gets from examining data from other sources than the ones familiar to you. Newton established ground-breaking physics principles that held to be the standard for centuries until folk like Einstein noticed some holes in them. Newton wrote books on theology too. Einstein famously said that he did not believe God played dice with the universe. C.S. Lewis drew upon science in his great works on Christian apologetics. Freeman Dyson once said that it looked like the universe knew we were coming. The best of scientists, theologians, philosophers and psychologists tend to have the broadest minds.

Neither science, nor theology, nor psychology, nor philosophy is at it's best when it sits back on its haunches and confidently proclaims, "I am all there is that is worth consideration." This is a terribly narrow view for science especially, which relies so heavily on informed speculation to support its theories; theories which, by the way, have a disturbing habit of being over-turned every half century or so. Every advance of science, every great discovery, every miraculous advance in technology happens because someone dares consider an idea that the rest of the herd at first thinks is a load of claptrap and then fastens it into a web of knowledge that has been woven by generations of previous scientists who also dared to think independently.

It is disturbing to see how rigidly narrow so many Americans have become around the "I believe only in science" faith. We are, after all, the descendants of a culture which embraced physical science, medicine, philosophy and theology with such unbridled enthusiasm that we changed the world forever. It would be a shame if we abandoned that heritage to embrace an entirely too limited faith in science that rejects any other opinion or idea that challenges the narrow views of its adherents.

In the old days, they used to burn people with different opinions at the stake, imprison them, chop off their heads, banish them or whip them. It starts with calling anyone whose opinion challenges the status quo a "Troll".  I like James Burke. I don't agree with everything he believes (he's pretty sure global warming is on the way), but he does make one think, which practice is the thing that drives the increase of human knowledge.

Just one man's opinion,

Tom King © 2017

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