Eddington is more agnostic about the material world than Huxley ever was about the spiritual world.
-- G. K. Chesterton, "The Well and the Shallows"
1. The Rise of Modern Science
Ancients and medievals had studied Nature, but the Modern Ages were a time when Science could be spelled with a capital-S, and the mere act of wearing a white lab coat could endow the speaker with the magical ability to sell products on TV. Science, with its effort to describe the world “as it really was” went hand-in-glove with representation in the arts. Though which was the hand and which the glove is a fine point.
The medievals had sought to appreciate the beauty and interconnectedness of Nature -- how Her ends meshed with one another. But in the early 17th century, a number of remarkable men revolutionized the way in which science was done by wedding physics to mathematics and engineering in a ménage a trois.
- Mathematics. Descartes believed that if physical theories were expressed in mathematical language, they could be proven with the same rigor as mathematical theorems!
- Engineering. Francis Bacon compared Aristotelian natural philosophers to little boys, who could talk, but not impregnate women [i.e., Nature] to bear children [i.e., useful products]. Descartes agreed that the purpose of science was not simply to learn about Nature, but to make men her “masters and possessors.”
The heart of the Scientific Revolution was a re-imagining of man’s relationship to Nature. Science shifted from art appreciation to handmaiden of industry.
I am come in very truth leading to you Nature with all her children to bind her to your service and make her your slave. … [S]o may I succeed in my only earthly wish, namely to stretch the deplorably narrow limits of man's dominion over the universe to their promised bounds.In the 1660s Robert Boyle listed the most pressing problems for scientists to tackle:– Francis Bacon, The Masculine Birth of Time, ch. 1. [FB]
- Prolongation of Life;
- Recovery of Youth, or at least some of the Marks of it, as new Teeth, new Hair colour'd as in youth;
- A ship to saile with all winds and a ship not to be sunk;
- The attaining of gigantick dimensions;
- The acceleration of the production of things out of seed;
- The art of flying;
- The making of armor light and extremely hard;
- The practicable and certain ways of finding longtitudes;
- The cure of diseases at a distance, or at least by transplantation;
- Potent drugs to alter or exalt imagination, waking, memory and other functions, and appease pain, procure sleep, harmless dreams, etc.;
- Freedom from necessity of much sleeping exemplify’d by the operation of tea and what happens in mad-men;
- The emulating of fish without engines by custome and education only.
Now, not every scientist is personally motivated by the Baconian program. But the idea of practical applications to improve human life is never far from his thoughts. Or at least from those of his funding source. Even the most abstract theoretician hastens to assure us that his research project will eventually have practical uses someday, somehow.
2. Vermis in pomum
And that was the worm in the apple. If, as Stephen Schneider wrote, “we are not just scientists but human beings as well. And like most people we’d like to see the world a better place,” then we run the risk of breaking Science to the saddle of our goals and objectives. What exactly does it mean to make the world “a better place”? Hence, Schneider’s concern about “the right balance between being effective and being honest.” [Discover, Oct. 1989, pp. 45–48] Or Eisenhower’s concern in his Farewell Address about the effects of the government-science complex. He who pays the piper will eventually call the tune.
The goal of “mastering and possessing” nature necessarily focused scientists on just those aspects of nature that could be predicted and controlled; and this required Descartes’ quantitative, mathematical approach. Baconian science thus ensured that Nature would be “quantifiable, predictable, and controllable” by defining nature as quantifiable, predictable, and controllable.
|F. McGee and closet|
|Popper goes the weasel|
The reaction began with Karl Popper, whose subversion of the scientific program was so successful that today even scientists themselves talk of his “falsification” thesis as the very hallmark of science. Science was demoted from “certain knowledge” to “educated opinion.”
Objections to the mechanistic account appeared early on. What does it mean to say that the perfectly engineered machine of Nature is “really” a cloud of particles, a “colorless nothing.” The idea had lasted because"science worked," but science would "work" regardless of the mental metaphor held of nature. Who knows? It might even work better.
Starting in the early 1900s physicists began to abandon the old mechanical model as too simplistic. Galileo had distinguished “objective matter” as having “size, shape, and location,” but modern physics denies these properties to the subatomic world. What exactly is the shape of an atom? Where precisely is an electron located? Werner Heisenberg wrote in The Physicist’s Conception of Nature that “the desired objective reality of the elementary particle is too crude an oversimplification of what really happens.” Physics, he said, no longer describes the world, but our perceptions of the world. Matter itself was suddenly subjective and materialism could no longer account for matter. Physics became very strange.
Biology lags behind, a bastion of 19th century thinking; but even there genes are no longer seen in the role of "atoms." Philosopher James Chastek writes:
The Postmodern world is conflicted about what to do with the old modern account of nature. Many of the conclusions that were drawn from the Modern account are still around, but the basis they stood on has vanished. People still try to force quantum physics into the old billiard-ball mold of nature, but such attempts are more and more the stuff of lower and lower amateurs. Philosophers no longer call themselves “materialists” – since they realize that the billiard/mechanical model of matter is no longer rational.
Meanwhile, radical movements had emerged in the late 1960s that were profoundly suspicious of the whole Modern mythos of “progress, science, and industry,” preferring a new mythos of oppression and pollution.
- Feminists noted the “masculinist” terms in which Baconian science was conceived. Man’s relationship with “feminine” nature was one of power and domination, and a matter is “scientific” to the extent it can be conveniently manipulated. The Enlightenment philosophers – Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau – supposed a “state of nature” depicting men as “atoms of force” and disregarding children, women, families, and other complications. Women were valued to the extent that they approximated the male as controller.
- The environmentalist movement regarded the Baconian-Cartesian project of dominating nature with horror. Technological innovation began to be viewed with suspicion by a small but growing fraction of the Western world. The Precautionary Principle pushed the idea that it was better to do nothing than to do something that had risks. The old slogan “Better Living Through Chemistry” began to seem a sick
joke. In 1989 the American Chemical Society commissioned an exhibit at
the Smithsonian Museum of American History to be called “Science in
The ACS scientists naturally expected an exhibit celebrating the triumphs of 20th century American science and did not imagine that this needed to be spelled out in the contract. But five years and $5 million dollars later, what the scientists got was an exhibition that presented American science as a series of moral debacles and environmental catastrophes: Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Silent Spring, Love Canal, Three Mile Island, and the explosion of the space shuttle. [CS]
These critiques - from philosophers, quantum physics, feminism, and environmentalism - had some merit. Scientists are creatures of their time no less than anyone else, and few of them are out to dominate nature in the manner of the Early Moderns. Seventeenth century-style vivisections are no longer done. Female corpses at convenient stages of pregnancy are no longer fortuitously available to study the anatomical course of pregnancy. Black men are not left untreated in order to study the course of syphilis. Most people now sympathize with the basic ideas of feminism and environmentalism, even if they balk at the more extreme expressions.
Yet, the scientific world expressed wariness not at the pomo threat from the academic left, which gnaws at the very roots of modernist science, but at such fringe groups as creationists, whose deepest yearnings are to have their religious beliefs exalted to the higher level of Science™. This, despite the fact that the creationists will never be taken seriously within the Academy, while the pomos have been.
The trend was set by a cluster of ideas emanating mainly out of the French philosophers Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida. These philosophers' work is often subtle and insightful (more so in Foucault's case), but that of their herds of followers rarely is, and can be summarized by two complementary principles: look for the power structure, and do not indulge in fantasies of "objective truth." You want to understand why astronomers refer to certain phenomena as "black holes"? Look to the astronomers' bosses' skin color and forsake any notion that this may somehow have to do with the intrinsic properties of the phenomena in question. The two "principles" have thus spawned an entire generation of studies that amount to little more than nonsense. Worse, they have propelled a fundamental change in attitude toward nature and the spirit of research among our academics, supplanting the basic wonder at the world that animated previous generations of scholars with a ubiquitous and deep-seated cynicism. If everything is power and nothing is truth, such a change in attitude was inevitable.
-- Uriah Kriegel. “Autumn of the Humanities.”
4. Destinatum edacissimum
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Example. In a letter to the Financial Times, 9 April 2010, Martin Rees (President of the Royal Society) and Ralph J. Cicerone (President of the US National Academy of Sciences) wrote: “Our academies will provide the scientific backdrop for the political and business leaders who must create effective policies to steer the world toward a low-carbon economy.” Read that again: the purpose of the two scientific academies is to help steer toward a predetermined policy goal. As science becomes progressively more subordinate to goals, its mystic aura in the culture will fade.
5. Scientia voodoorum
|Needs more than the appearance|
to capture the essence of science
There can be no science of any hard empirical variety when the very act of identifying one’s object of study is already an act of interpretation, contingent on a collection of purely arbitrary reductions, dubious categorizations, and biased observations. There can be no meaningful application of experimental method. There can be no correlation established between biological and cultural data. It will always be impossible to verify either one’s evidence or one’s conclusions-indeed, impossible even to determine what the conditions of verification should be.
in a sense, Dennett is himself a cargo cultist. When, for instance, he proposes statistical analyses of different kinds of religion, to find out which are more evolutionarily perdurable, he exhibits a trust in the power of unprejudiced science to demarcate and define items of thought and culture like species of flora that verges on magical thinking. It is as if he imagines that by imitating the outward forms of scientific method, and by applying an assortment of superficially empirical theories to nonempirical realities, and by tirelessly gathering information, and by asserting the validity of his methods with an incantatory repetitiveness, and by invoking invisible agencies such as memes, and by fiercely believing in the efficacy of all that he is doing, he can summon forth actual hard clinical results, as from the treasure houses of the gods.
-- D.B. Hart. "Daniel Dennett Hunts the Snark"
To us skiffy folks, this potential change stings the most. But we can certainly imagine that we are moving into an age when science will be nudged by the goals of its practitioners and funding sources to supply the findings needed to support the goals. Publish or perish, after all. But this can only undermine the scientific program, as more an more people come to see that what is being done is not Science™ but Policy-mongering. Even generations ago, when covering the Scopes Trial, G.K.Chesterton saw that the real root of the resistance of the Tennesseans (dare we say "the 99%"?) was not to evolution as such, but to what they perceived as socio-political bullying.
|Latest attack on science|
6. Pulsu pergitWilliam M. Briggs, "Statistician to the Stars," has noted a recent trend in Goal-Oriented Cargo Cultism; viz., the use of pseudo-scientific coloring to disguise attacks on untermenschen. In the present instance, the untermenschen are conservatives, Republicans, and Christians, often conceptualized as one and the same thing. Case in point is a new book, The Republican Brain: The Science of Why They Deny Science–and Reality. That's right, sports fans! They actually claim to be doing Really-Truly Scientificalistic Stuff! But since it is obviously tendentious propaganda using Science™ as a masque of approbation, it can only serve to discredit science in the Postmodern world.
One of the blurbs for the book reads: "A significant chunk of the electorate, it seems, will never accept the facts as they are, no matter how strong the evidence." One is tempted to wonder strongly what might follow from "and therefore..." on a statement like that. Perhaps such untermenschen should be excluded from the electorate. Or perhaps, as Sam Harris has said, "Some propositions are so dangerous that it may even be ethical to kill people for believing them." However, the people saying these things are genetically superior, smarter cogitators. We know this because they tell us they are.
From descriptions, the book seems to be not actual science but only a compilation of statistical studies by non-statisticians, confusing correlation with causation. The aforesaid Wm. Briggs, as a public service, has made a similar list of tendentious peer-reviewed papers, pointing out the methodological and statistical flaws of each.
One factor not often mentioned is that these "neurological" and "behavioral" studies almost always employ a small sample of college students as their subjects -- so called WEIRD people (i.e., Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic) -- and then purport to generalize to the human race as a whole. But the inferences of a sample can only be extended to the population from which the sample was taken (or to one identically distributed, which of course is that which was to have been proven.) The Briggs list is, as of 5/5/12
- fMRIs can tell the difference between Christians and non-Christians (Sam Harris): I, II, III, IV, V, VI, VII. Link is to Part I, which contains links to the remaining parts. This is a detailed dissection of an exceptionally badly-designed "study."
- Conservatives suffer from Dark Triad personalities
- Brief exposure to the American flag turns one into a Republican
- Exposure to 4th of July parade turns one into a Republican
- Differences In Brains Between Believers And Atheists
- Science Explains Belief In God Through Genetics
- Bright Minds and Dark Attitudes: Lower Cognitive Ability Predicts Greater Prejudice Through Right-Wing Ideology and Low Intergroup Contact
- Atheists More Motivated By Compassion Than The Faithful
- More Analytical Thinkers Are Atheists: Study
- Conservatives Produced By “Low Effort” Thinking: Study
- Brain Atrophy Responsible For Religious Belief?
- Do Conservatives Distrust Science More Than Liberals?
- Experts Say People Aren’t Smart Enough
- A Pill To Eliminate Racism? What’ll Science Think Of Next!
- Ten Politically Incorrect So-Called Truths About Human Nature: 1 — 5, 6 — 10
- The Selfish Genes Of Dennett’s Atheists
- Bad News For Conservatives? Or Bad News For Rational Thought?
- Your Belief In God Is Causing Your Denial Of AGW
- Kanazawa Uses Statistics And Evolutionary Psychology To “Prove” Black Women Less Attractive
- Belief In God “Rooted” In Human Nature Say Academics
- Do Americans Still Dislike Atheists?
- Religion May Become Extinct, Experts
- Will The Religious Out-Breed Us All?
- Eliminating Randomness Reduces Need For God And Increases Belief In Evolution
It is difficult to conceive of such a concerted freshet of papers as the coincidental product of a dispassionate sense of scientific inquiry. More likely, practitioners are tworked off at the untermenschen and are using the Masque of Science in order to strike back. After all, if in pomoland there is no such thing as objective truth and everything boils down to power relationships, all that matters is effectiveness in achieving a sociopolitical goal. This leads to conformation bias, to tendentiousness, at worst to outright fraud, depending on whether one is fooling oneself along with everyone else.
Late Modern science is under attack, not by creationist outsiders but by academic insiders. It does not require a majority of the Academy, nor even a large minority. The trust of the public is easily lost even when a very small percentage is involved. Ask Detroit automakers or the Catholic priesthood. The question for the future (a venue within which skiffy folks like to cavort) is whether this will be a passing fad or whether it represents a genuine implosion of Modern science. (There is also the separate problem of Paralysis of Analysis.) If so, what will come next? If Medieval science was a kind of "art criticism" and Modern science was "dominating Nature," will Postmodern science be a kind of "salesmanship"?
On the positive side, there are evidences that certain positive features of Medieval science are making a comeback, and of course not everything in the feminist/environmentalist/Popperian critique is without merit. The result may be an improved foundation for natural science, and the present difficulties may be only a temporary bad spell. We will still "do science" in the Postmodern Ages. But we might not "do it" the same way as in the Modern Ages.
- Briggs, William M. Why Republicans Deny Science—And Reality: Request For Help Statistician to the Stars (5 May 2012)
- Chastek, James. “The Modern account of nature,” Just Thomism (10 August 2009)
- Eisenhower, Dwight. “Farewell Address.” (17 January 1961)
- Feser, Edward. “Blinded by Scientism,” Public Discourse (March 9, 2010)
- Flynn, Michael. "The Autumn of Modern Science," The TOF Spot (12 January 2012)
- Hart, David B. "Daniel Dennett Hunts the Snark," OrthodoxyToday.org
- Kriegel, Uriah. “Autumn of the Humanities.” TCS Daily, 8 March 2006.
- Lukacs, John. At the End of an Age. (Yale Univ. Press, 2002)
- -----------------. The Passing of the Modern Age. (Harper & Row, 1970)
- Sommers, Christina Hoff. “The Flight from Science and Reason” (Wall Street Journal, 7/10/95)
- Zimmer, Carl. "A Sharp Rise in Retractions Prompts Calls for Reform," (New York Times (4/16/2012)