Is Science losing its clout in our society? This is a crucial question: some would say key to our survival as a race. The “Ideas” program on CBC has done an engrossing three-part series on the subject. The answer, I’m afraid, is a resounding “Yes,” for several reasons.
In the first place, I blame Aristotle.
Reason 1. Deductive Science.
Now, I don’t deny that Aristotle was a pretty bright light, and one of the greatest thinkers of the last three millennia. However, his strength was also his weakness. He was so good at thinking that he assumed that thinking was the only way to figure anything out. So his method of science was to deduce what should be true, then go looking for proof.
But he missed one of the worst tendencies of the human mind, which I cover in the chapter on “Interpreting Data” in my book of social commentary, “Why Are People So Stupid.” This is the habit we have of noticing only the evidence that proves what we think, and ignoring all the incidental stuff that might show that we are wrong. (A bit later we will see how this applies to the use of the scientific method in modern industry.)
However wonderful the results of Aristotle’s mental magic, he made a couple of real bloopers that messed up science, and especially medicine, until the last century. Take for example the concept that there are four “humours” in the human body and that many ailments are caused by an imbalance. This led to letting blood out of people who had been wounded on the battlefield and other idiocies. Another example was their insistence that the nerves radiated from the heart, a theory that was not disproven until the late Middle Ages, when dissections demonstrated conclusively the correct answer. (They connect to your head, no matter how romantic a person you are.)
The Fall of the Roman Empire
So Aristotle and his deductions ruled the roost for several centuries. At least they were trying. The Romans were much more practical. They wanted to make things work, and had no interest in finding out why. If you had a useful scientific fact they didn’t care how you got it, as long as it worked.
But there is another human failing that is brought out by this type of scientific attitude. The average person doesn’t have the time, energy, or brains to deduce new ideas all the time. So we have a tendency to say, “It is true because so-and-so said it,” which allows the speaker to duck responsibility for doing any thinking.
For example, there was an Aristotelian scientist in the early Renaissance who observed a “modern” scientist dissecting a cadaver. The surgeon demonstrated in the most graphic (and icky) way that the nerves did, in fact, centre on the brain, not the heart, and radiate out to the body from there. After the demonstration, the older scientist’s response was something like, “You have made me see this so plainly that if Aristotle hadn’t said the opposite, I would certainly believe you.”
So there are scientifically minded historians today who suggest that the Roman Empire declined because they stopped studying the natural world and trying to predict what it could do, but looked backwards to what the Greeks had already figured out (some of it erroneous). The great civilization of China had a similar rise and fall, accomplishing great scientific and medical breakthroughs up until the 15th century. At this point, China fell under the sway of autocratic rulers. No new science was created, and the empire fell into the decay from which it is presently recovering.
And therein lies a message for us today. A major cause of the fall of empires is a lack of new scientific thought.
Reason 2. Science is Political
The second reason Science is having problems today is the relationship between knowledge and power. Political leaders, from the churchmen who put Galileo under house arrest onward, have preferred the Aristotelian method of science – if they allow any science at all – because it leads to the “we’ll tell you how it is and you follow along,” sort of thinking. Because, no matter how scientists try to stay apolitical, science is basically anti-authoritarian. Scientists from Galileo onward have taken nothing at face value. Francis Bacon’s scientific method states that you start with no preconceived ideas. First you collect the data. Then you create your theory from that data. Which means that you don’t take nothin’ from nobody. And that includes government and industry. Galileo discovered that this attitude didn’t go over big with the Vatican, and it doesn’t play very well in the boardrooms and cabinets of modern nations. People who keep saying, “I don’t believe you,” don’t tend to be first in line for funding.
Reason 3. The Misuse of Scientific Philosophy
But modern science has fallen prey to a sliding of its standards, at least in the media. Scientific knowledge is based on truths that are “self-evident.” This is information of the 2 + 2 = 4, or “take away the oxygen and the animal will die” variety. But people who want their opinions to be believed tend to refer to them as “self-evident” when really they are not, as in, “It is self-evident that I need to carry a concealed gun for my safety.” We have reached the stage where “This is self-evident,” contains about the same amount of clout as “Trust me, it’s true.”
The second problem is the convenient slipping of Aristotelian deductive science into modern testing methods. Companies that want tests done on their products hire scientists who start out with a bias towards their employers. Thus their “evidence” is skewed, whether on purpose or not, before they even start to interpret it. Add in the spin-doctors and admen, and you can’t believe anything “science” tells you.
Reason 4. Complexity of Science
Even if it is properly attained, the complexity of scientific data today makes it impossible for average citizens to look at any set of data and make their up own minds. It isn’t good enough to get data. Then you have to think about who collected it, who paid for it, what was their sample, and other even more complicated factors. If you even understand the concept.
Science has become so complex nowadays that it has passed back over the line into being magic. We have to take everything on faith. Thomas Jefferson believed that people who are well informed can be trusted to with their own government. But what if all the information is suspect? We are right back into people with strong beliefs looking for the evidence that agrees with them, and ignoring that which might disprove their ideas.
Reason 5. Erroneous Science
Just like Aristotle, modern science is not without its mistakes. We have come a long way since Marie Curie died of radiation poisoning because she had no idea what she was messing with. But recently the media have spread several examples of completely false concepts created by “science,” both intentional and otherwise. The “research” of the tobacco industry saying there was no connection with cancer. The well-meaning studies in Sweden of people who lived near high-tension power lines, which concluded – through misapplication of statistical methods – that this caused leukemia. Then there was the idiot who falsified his data to “prove” that immunization causes autism, and all the pain that has caused.
So when we have hundreds of scientists arguing for and against the idea that cell phone radiation can cause users to have cancer, what is the public to think?
Reason 6: Proper Application of Scientific Theory
Yes, even using Science correctly is a problem. People like Science to tell them the Truth. They want to depend on Science. But even the most rigorously tested theory is only correct until someone comes up with evidence to the contrary. So science can no longer “prove” anything with absolute certainty. Everything is a matter of stating the odds. If you have ever been told that the lump has “a 95% chance of being benign,” you will understand how this feels.
So it seems that free, “Science for the sake of Science” institutions are a cornerstone of democracy and a vigorous economy. If we allow industry and conservative governments to turn universities into technical training institutes, close “knowledge for the sake of knowledge” government-funded research facilities, and, worst of all, control the dissemination of knowledge and the subjects that scientists may explore, then we are doomed to follow in the declining footsteps of the authoritarian empires of the past.
It has been said that the Roman Empire was a grand Ponzi scheme that had to keep expanding in order to survive. Maybe that’s wrong. Maybe it is scientific knowledge that has to keep expanding, in order to keep our society a living, vibrant entity.
I think it’s worth the cost to find out.