On Being Anti-Science

On Being Anti-Science

Consider this a part II in my criticism of science.

It is usually considered “shooting fish in a barrel” or “straw-manning” to attack weaker forms of an opposing argument, or to pick on weaker arguers rather than the stronger advocates. Yet in opposing science, what is one to do when the largest institutional spokesmen make obviously weak arguments?

Large institutions are beginning to notice an uptick in “anti-science” sentiment, at least in the United States. Pretending to be baffled, these large institutions define “anti-science” in the following language:

Antiscience is the rejection of mainstream scientific views and methods or their replacement with unproven or deliberately misleading theories, often for nefarious and political gains.

Scientific American, March 2021

I loosely define an “antiscience movement” as an organized and funded rejection of science and scientific principles and methods in factor of alternative views, often linked to the targeting or harassment of individual scientists.

PLOS Biology, March 2020

I say “pretend to be baffled” with confidence because the sorts of people who define opposition to science with malicious motives and outside funding (as if the direction of science was never motivated by funding, or directed by emotion) will, elsewhere, admit that they — the experts — actually do know what everyone else already knew:

Prior research into religious conservatives’ views on climate science is helpful in understanding today’s COVID and science skepticism on the right, said Theda Skocpol, Ph.D. ’75, Victor S. Thomas Professor of Government and Sociology. It isn’t that religious conservatives were unaware of science or rejected scientific findings, the studies found, “It’s that they resent the use of experts as political authorities. And I think that is exactly what we see here.”

Harvard Gazette, October 2020

Everyone can see the obvious political motivations and questionable funding (i.e., pharmaceuticals) behind much of modern “science,” which claims to speak on behalf of objective truth… not unlike priests of old, who claimed special access to God, and who warned the laity against “doing their own research” in theological matters. Rather, they should trust the experts.

We can see in stark relief that religion was not outmoded by science, but rather one religion was replaced by another religion. This is not a unique observation when made as a metaphor, but it is worth fleshing out in more detail.

A religion is a worldview described by myth which ascribes meaning to the world. Myth is not “fiction,” though many myths are not literalistic in nature (and so described by modern, scientifically-minded, as false). Rather, myths are sacred stories, which are ritually re-enacted or re-told by ordained priests of the religious institution.

Science is often imagined to be a mere tool for inquiry about some given question or other… like a hammer that one picks up when needed, and hangs back up otherwise. But this was not true at the inception of science, and this conception fails to capture the nature of science, much as Moralistic Therapeutic Deism fails pathetically to capture the true nature of Christianity. Science is a worldview, a full-fledged religion which can be described with the following points:

The worldview:

  1. The world is comprehensible
  2. It is noble to understand the world
  3. We understand the world by perceiving truths
  4. What is true is what is objective
  5. What is objective can be approached by purging subjectivity

The myth:

Once, the world was dark and haunted by ghosts and demons. Humans were afraid, and in their fear, they fought and killed each other. But one day, a human discovered Science. Science burned like a candle in the dark, illuminating a very small portion of that dark world, but in its circle of light, we saw that there were no ghosts and demons. The light of science banished our illusions, and we saw clearly. And with our clearer sight, we fought each other a little less. At least in that small circle of flickering light.

The myth is my summary, but not my invention. I borrow from the venerable and respected Carl Sagan (lest I be accused of straw-manning science by those who have read less about science than I have).

The myth is reenacted and retold in the history and science classrooms of schools and universities, whose entire implicit (once explicit) purpose was the pursuit of this elusive knowledge.

Schools were once the abode only of monks and obscure academics–throughout most of history, the wealthy sent their children to tutors to learn skills particular to politics and statesmanship. The children of the laity–if they could be “educated” in any institutional capacity–learned a trade, perhaps with a guild.

But Science has grown as a religion. Perhaps it is the fastest growing religion in the world now. Once an outgrowth of Christianity (of “natural theology” to be precise), Science has surpassed its parent and now challenges it — and other religions too — seemingly unaware of its own religious nature. Science is now a path to wealth, fame, and power, certainly influence. Not that every scientist is wealthy in the manner of a well-oiled politician or a sports star, but rather, those who can persuasively speak on behalf of science achieve great influence because the bedrock values and assumptions of science have been accepted by the broader public.

Now all children are encouraged — almost to the point of force — to attend school, including higher academic degrees once reserved for only the most hopelessly lost down some esoteric rabbit hole (like studying Homer). Science, or at least fluency in the language of science, has spread far beyond its initial sub-categories, so that now management, business organization, marketing, athletics, and all variety of other activities incorporate science, or at least its pretense. The result has been a dilution and corruption of science, as well as a growth in “scientism,” which can best be understood as a religious faith in science divorced from the activity of science (including scientific skepticism).

We see this most clearly in the world of Reddit and other social media groups tacitly or explicitly dedicated to appreciating science.

But I wish to defend anti-science here. Anti-science is not merely rejecting the living straw-men who would give science a bad name through their own best efforts to promote the word.

What anti-science posits is that science is flawed at the root, that the strong, idealized conception of science, and not its imperfect and corrupted manifestation, is the problem (although there is good reason to believe that the seeds of the corruption are quite old).

The anti-science movement today is motivated by one prevailing and unifying belief which threatens scientific hegemony, and perhaps even science itself. That belief is this: there are other, more noble activities and values than merely pursuing knowledge.

In current COVID debates, the conflict clash is between what is most likely to save lives (or at least mitigate risk), against the completely unscientific value of freedom.

Like beauty, freedom is subjective, and so science cannot even perceive (let alone value) the matter. To science, all that exists is measurable–what cannot be measured does not exist, or at least is not relevant. Some clever scientists will occasionally try to amalgamate and average large groups of subjective experiences, creating conceptual categories and thus attempting to turn otherwise purely subjective phenomenon into objective entities. But this stretches the tools of science, perhaps beyond its reach. When attempted, it often looks like a tacit acknowledgment of the incompleteness of the scientific worldview.

When we think scientifically, Laplace’s famous rejoinder to Napoleon about God “Je n’avais pas besoin de cette hypothèse-là” (“I had no need of that hypothesis”) suddenly applies not merely to God, but to all kinds of other subjective phenomenon, including freedom, beauty, consciousness, love, and the idea of evil.

Are these demons too, in our demon-haunted world?

Or are there categories of truth which are not inherently objective?

One could just as easily posit examples of falsehoods which are objective — the decision of a jury, for instance, could very well be wrong, and the precise penalty is — no matter the decision — somewhat arbitrary. Its objectivity does not make it “true.” Peer-review operates in a similar manner, manufacturing a degree of objectivity out of pure subjective opinion.

The scientist could say that of course these systems are imperfect–what is important is not in absolute truth, but in the movement toward the truth. We achieve more objectivity, and that is better than less.

But is it?

In his writings, philosopher Matthew Crawford has written much about the nature of skill and how one develops it. In contrast with abstract knowledge, which can be acquired purely by reading, skill is a kind of knowledge which is inseparable from the physical experiences by which one acquired them. One cannot, for instance, become a skilled rock-climber merely by reading about it. Certain instincts, muscles, and systems of the body must practice, and these processes have an inherent subjectivity to them. They are contextual, subject to psychological triggers, tactile stimuli, and other unmeasurable influences which coalesce to create a reality that is greater than the sum of its isolated parts.

Science pursues objectivity and a check against faulty assumptions by controlling and isolating variables. But in a world where 1+1 sometimes equals 3 and where combining organs can create an organism which cannot be wholly understood merely by understanding the isolated parts, this objectivity can skew scientific models and lead to false understandings. As Crawford puts it, “reality is its own best model.”

Hobbes once argued that we can never establish causation unless we ourselves are the cause, thus challenging all of natural science. Maybe he went a little bit far in his epistemological skepticism, but we could perhaps make his argument more functional by saying that our best relationship with the outside world, and the best evidence of our correct understanding, is not by arguing causation, but by causing. We can, of course, create things without understanding the totality of what it is we are creating (by having a child, for instance), but perhaps this is a better and more noble way of being than to know (or to pursue knowing) without creating.

Such an argument is aesthetic, but has epistemological implications. For example, it would lead us to trust the understanding of an engineer over a materials scientist–at least where decisions in the real world are to be made. Likewise, we would take advice from an experienced body-builder over that of a physical therapist where fitness is concerned.

What is lost by rejecting science is the objective structure which, however small, gives a “solid foundation” upon which future knowledge can be built. But of course the argument here is that that solid foundation was only an illusion, one which gets thinner the closer it approaches to reality. And any good scientist should welcome the dispelling of illusions…

Which brings us back to the question of what to do with those who speak with the authority of science who grossly and obviously misunderstand the skepticism toward science.

Those like Scientific American and PLOS Biology.

I’m inclined to wonder if this kind of dishonesty and rhetorical manipulation is what happens when subjective qualities like “honor” and “integrity” are rendered invisible by science (Steven Pinker famously argued that honor is ‘that curious phenomena which we believe exists only because we believe everyone else believes it exists’). The objective view, and the isolation of discreet situations from broader contexts and relationships, seems like it should naturally incline believers in science toward an amoral behaviorist attitude which justifies all kinds of “noble lies” in order to achieve desired outcomes.

What should I say to get people to do what I want?

Cause and effect is a matter of science, and is visible to science.

Morality, virtue, honesty, and so forth, are not. At least not beyond how one might associate certain virtues with desirable outcomes.

I believe that much of the growing “anti-science” is beginning to notice this in the behavior of Anthony Fauci, who has lied repeatedly and unashamedly in public (on HIV transmission information, on the efficacy of masks, and on his own involvement with gain-of-function research), and did so with the tacit or explicit blessing of the scientific community as a whole. This is what we would predict if science tends toward blinding its adherents toward subjective values like virtue, in favor of objective (measurable) values like health.

But when we approach our subjective experience of life holistically — armed with all of the tools given to us by nature, and not just the ones we can explain on graphs — we are confronted with the existence of subjective truths which science is unequipped to even see, let alone value. We might even call some of these truths “self-evident,” and are — to many of us — important enough to found a nation upon.

We can see that those in the ancient past were in fact just as wise and knowledgeable as we are today, and that the optimistic myth of science as a candle in the dark is a grandiose delusion, the mirror image of the “Golden Age” and “Fallen World” myths that often characterizes the right (who believe that the past was infinitely better and wiser than the present). We are haunted by no more or fewer demons than in the past. Some of them are the same, but some of them are new. As of the present moment, it is an open question whether science is a shining light that scares away demons, or is itself a demon.

In any case, there do exist strong arguments against science — not merely the corrupt and imperfect institutional brow-beating that crassly passes itself off as science today, which everyone can see we are dealing with now, but even the more ideal and noble form. There are aesthetic reasons to question whether the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake is a noble undertaking at all, let alone the highest undertaking; epistemological reasons to question whether objectivity is truly the best gauge of and guide to truth. There is even a perception-based question as to whether the world is comprehensible in objective terms, since our perception itself is subjective.

And given the subjective nature of what we perceive to be the good and the beautiful, there is reason to doubt the goodness of abandoning the everything valuable in our subjective experience in favor of an elusive ideal of truth, which is good because… because of which objective, scientific reason? How might one test the optimal nature of the scientific process, and how might one draw up unbiased, objective standards by which this goodness could be measured?

Anyone with even a moderate education in philosophy understands the insufficiency of science to help us live well. That’s a given. The only interesting question is after taking a closer look at the foundations of science, and how the behavior of scientific institutions maps onto these founding principles, was science ever a good idea to begin with?

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