The Religion Of Science

Hello from dissertation land. As the Moron Horde meme goes: #Twoweeks! (if all goes well at least).

I wanted to write briefly about Verad Mehta’s mini tweet storm that starts here:

Mehta goes on to ask how we ended up with what amounts to a faith-like belief in “sciences” that the “I f’ing love science” (IFLS) crowd seems to have. I agree that it’s an interesting project, maybe I’ll be lucky enough to work on it at some point. The question of how society perceives science is related to my dissertation project (in my case, specifically how the public perceives animal research) so I thought I’d weigh in with some rough hypotheses for this. A few points before I begin:

  1. These are rough, and I mean that. They may not even be “hypotheses” in that how I formulate them they may not be testable. I’m brainstorming to an extent. I’d certainly love to refine them at some point.
  2. There will be a lot of overlap between these hypotheses. The way society interacts with “science” is a complex phenomenon heavily tied into culture and education. I’ll presents these as somewhat independent hypotheses, but they are more than likely interconnected.
  3. These aren’t comprehensive. I’ve probably only scratched the surface with these.

With that out of the way lets discuss several reasons we’re seeing a quasi-religious approach to science. Friend of the blog @tmi3rd jumped in and articulated much of what I was thinking about the state of science. Much of the gist of it is that science has become insulated in the academy and cynically could be said to be regressing to what’s called the “grant chase,” i.e. pursuit of grants rather than actual discovery. Tmi3rd notes that this is leading to a public distrust of science. I think this is generally correct, but would note that distrust is only one side of the coin. After all, we’re all children of the Enlightenment, with that comes a certain adoration of the idea of science as seeker of Truth, capital “T” (a wrongheaded opinion, but that’s another post.) Couple this with the tangible impact science has had on our lives (I note as I write this from my fancy tablet while watching my flatscreen TV) and you’re left with an incredible desire to believe in science’s perfection and ability to perfect the world. Science is however, a human enterprise and thus prone to all our human flaws. I would suggest then that the quasi-religious approach is a cognitive defense mechanism to this contradiction. Rather than engaging in the subtlety of separating the ideal of science (echoing Plato here) from the reality of science as carried out by humans, people retreat to a “believing without seeing” view of science. In a sense they worship the reality of science as if it were the ideal. This of course is not a healthy view of what is very much a fallible practice. (Not that I think the cynical side of the coin is much better. They’re both vices at opposite ends of the virtue.)

Secondly, I think we need to consider the hyper-specialization that’s occurring in science. More and more science is specializing to the point of balkanization. Even where collaboration is up, collaborators are often unfamiliar with the area they’re colleagues are working in. When I did my grad assistant work study research misconduct, one consistent theme was that when collaborators did something wrong the primary author would often say “I didn’t understand their part so I can’t be guilty!” The International Committee of Medical Journal Editors (ICMJE) has released guidelines attempting to address this by saying an author must agree to be responsible for all aspects of the work. But, frankly, that’s not working out well in practice.

This siloing is happening both within fields and across them. If you’ve ever sat in a room of biochemists trying to discuss evolutionary biology you’ve seen this first hand. They’ll talk about how “nature” (alternatively “evolution”) has “designed” some process to function in a specific way. This is an interpretation somewhere between Lamarckism and a weird sort of intelligent design. Evolution doesn’t “design” anything. It selects for or against random mutations. Yet, the idea of “designed” organism persists among even PhD level scientists. Basically what you’re left with is conditions in which scientist basically treat the work of their colleagues almost like scripture, in that they don’t critically analyze it. The fact that many scientists are incapable of reading a methodology section outside of their narrow specialty with a critical eye leads to an almost faith based reasoning that their colleagues “did science” and therefore are correct. To quote Prof. Farnsworth: “Hail science!”

It’s not surprisingly that a similar effect, though more pronounced, could be described as happening in laypeople (i.e. non-scientists) as well. Bluntly, we’ve become very bad at teaching what science is and how science works to people in grade school and high school (where it will have the most effect.) Thus, students leave with a conception of ideal science, but a poor understanding of the realized science I discussed above. This results in a similar effect to what I describe among scientists, but all the more pronounced. I would suggest this is also why the IFLS crowd often “ooohs” and “ahhs” over pretty star pictures and blatant oversimplifications of science presented in memes. To them that is science. Me in the building basement cutting open mice is just work.

For my dissertation I’ve been reading (OK skimming) Frederick Grinnell’s Everyday Practice of  ScienceGrinnell does a great job of separating this idealized science from it’s reality. He does this by concocting two hypotheticals: a “Professor Anybody” (idealized scientist) and a “Professor Particular” (realized scientist) which he uses to discuss how the commonly taught “linear model” of science is more of a fantasy than anything. The book is written for a lay reader (and far more approachable than the 70+ year old, translated from German Genesis and Development of a Scientific Fact or Kuhn’s Structures of Scientific Revolutions both of which it references heavily) and would be a great incorporation into high school (or early college) curricula. (With the caveat that we don’t swing people to the cynical view described above!) If you’re looking for some reading I recommend it.

Moving past the questions of education and understanding I think we also need to consider the role of the media in propagating this uncritical view of science. I don’t mean this in a “har har journalists are dumb” media pile-on sense (though the lack of scientific understanding of journalists contributes to it.) But rather suggest that we look at the Public Relations/Media complex as a driver of an unreflective attitude towards science. PHD Comics’s Jorge Cham has a great comic on what he terms the “Science News Cycle.” You’ll note that Step 2 in this cycle is a university’s PR team blasting out some finding with a bunch of fine print caveats. (I’m going to focus on universities since that’s what I know.) This gets us back to the grant chase discussed earlier. Universities want to increase their status, which helps get more grants, and they do this by pushing every study as “groundbreaking!” A fallible view of science is incompatible with this narrative, and so as the story gets pushed out the idea that “science is Truth” (capital “T”) goes along for the ride. The media organizations pick this up, “TRUTH” gets deeper embedded and amplified and the masses get an accounting of science that’s, quite simply, wrong. Worse yet there’s an element of whiplash from the inevitable back and forth (think “Red Wine good/Red Wine bad” type stuff) which contributes to the cynicism/faith dichotomy I discussed above.)

Finally, I think we need to consider how changes in our culture with regard to religion itself may be driving this change. I know towards the end of the tweetstorm Mehta suggests that the idea that science will replace religion is not new, so there must be more driving it and there is. I think to get a fuller account of what’s happening we need to marry the old idea of “science replacing religion” with the themes embedded in Ben Wiker’s book Worshipping the StateWiker’s theme is that it’s not just true that religion is fading away, but that there’s an active push towards secularism, the “freedom from religion.” Specifically in this we see a turn towards replacing faith in God with in government. To be clear Wiker is not using “government” to mean specifically “the US federal government”. I would suggest that one element of the government Wiker describes is a dependence on (secular) science. So that caught up in the “worshipping the state” Wiker outlines is also a worshipping of science in a similar fashion. (I freely confess, this idea needs more fleshing out. Indeed, when I have time I think it would be beneficial to reread Wiker’s book with this secondary thesis in mind.)

So, coming full circle here, I’ve outlined more or less 4 overlapping theories to answer Mehta’s question. As I said on twitter, I think this is an interesting project that needs consideration. The way in which we approach science, in this case putting it on an untouchable pedestal has huge implications. First and foremost, there are policy implications. Yes, science should inform our policy, but it is not the main arbiter of our policy. Furthermore to the extent that it does inform policy we should recognize it’s fallible nature. Science is a method of inquiry about the natural world, not a method for determining (Capital “T”) Truth. When we treat it as the latter, we do a huge disservice to other important values.

Secondly, I would suspect that if any (or all) of my hypothesis are true it would have an effect on how and if people choose science as a career path. Downstream of this, you’d have an effect on science itself via a self-selection mechanism for who becomes scientists. (Put differently, my second hypothesis is a feedback loop!) It’s a bit murkier to tease out. As I noted at the outset, some of these hypotheses aren’t easily testable. I think we can get at some of it, but we’d need to use highly validated (and targeted) opinion surveys. Of course such things cost money, so you’d need to get in on the grant chase and find interested collaborators. Given the effects of a “faith-like” belief in science I think this is an important area of inquiry, not just idle curiosity. Now all I have to do is go convince a bunch of other people of that.

3 comments on “The Religion Of Science
  1. On the popular worship of science, I think it stems, at least in part, from the metastasizing of post-modernism. It’s sometimes called “liquid modernity,” because the cultural undercurrent changes so fast it’s hard to grasp hold of anything or establish foundations normally associated with culture. Just think about the things we “knew” ten years ago that are now up for grabs, even the very definition of what it means to be a man or a woman.

    All of this just to say that science (or “science”), with its pretense of objectivity and rationality, presents a very attractive alternative to a world that is jettisoning religion very rapidly.

    • Gotta be a bit more than that IMHO. Also if you’re note, Mehta calls out postmodernity, noting that it sought to call the practice of science into question (Foucault especially) and yet now there’s a fanatical devotion to it!

  2. This is what I get for not reading the source material.

    How about this: From a cultural perspective, it’s easy to be a part of the communal religion on a purely passive basis. It simply formed the basis of the social canopy.

    As you described above, there’s a push towards secularism, politically, academically, and culturally. Especially in the age of the internet, when the zeitgeist is secular, and proselytizing for the “faith” is a constant bombardment, it’s pretty easy to understand how we arrived here, though worrisome towards where we’re heading.

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