The battle for science

Our digital age – what I have called the fifth wave of information – is characterized by the bursting forth, from the silent cocoon of the mass audience, of a public that talks back.  The effect has been a blurring of the boundary between professional and amateur, and a sharp decline in influence by accredited authority in every domain – government, academia, and journalism being obvious examples.

The institution of science may be the exception.  I’m not sure about this, so let me put it forward as a subject for your consideration, the way Rod Serling used to do.  Public voices today delight in being anti-government or anti-religion, but even denizens of the most fevered swamps in the web will cry foul if called anti-science.  A dispute is never between those who are for and those who are against science, it seems, but between different claims to represent its true spirit.

In public debate, science becomes identical with truth.  It rises above opinion, political doctrine, religious claim, and moral tradition, to an infallible Olympus which contains the solution to the human condition.

To some degree, this is cargo cult superstition by people who have abandoned more traditional faiths.  “The belief in science,” Hans Reichenback observed some time ago, “has replaced, in large part, the belief in God.”  One catches more than a glimmer of this attitude when President Obama talks about stem cell research.

Mostly, of course, the authority of modern science rests on its extraordinary success over the last three centuries.

I’m currently reading Kevin Kelly’s What Technology Wants – an intriguing book by a truly original mind.  Kelly is a former back-to-the-land hippie who has become a technophile with a difference.  He advocates getting new technologies out to the public as soon as feasible, then carefully monitoring and evaluating its long-term effects.  The last-mentioned tasks, he holds, can only belong to science.

More science, done openly by skeptics and enthusiasts, will enable us sooner to say:  “This is okay to use” or “This is not okay to use.”

Kelly envisions a democratized form of science, to support a public-driven – rather than bureaucratically controlled – rollout process for technology.  Unfortunately, the very authority of science will make democratization unlikely.

If an institution is seen to stand for revealed truth, it will attract the attention of powerful interests.  Governments everywhere wish to exploit science.  Consider our federal government alone:  the National Academy of Science, the National Institutes of Health, the National Weather Service, NASA, the National Science Foundation, and 17 National Science Laboratories, among other agencies, dispense billions to those who persuasively claim to do good science.

In the commercial world, companies invest vast amounts on scientific research, expecting even greater returns.

The result isn’t science but a science establishment:  an incestuous insider game, conducted by players who rotate between academia, industry, and government, which often ignores its own rules because some places, people, and outcomes must be preferred over others.  Chummy game-fixing is a constant theme in the Climategate emails.

But this is an old story.  The primary impulse of an established institution, no matter how idealistic, must be political – or else it will be quickly disestablished.  The German science establishment embraced Hitler, and manufactured evidence for his racial theories.  The Russian science establishment groveled before Stalin, and invented proof that the environment trumped heredity.

A more recent if equally predictable trend is the attempt by authorities, newly battered by the public, to climb on the science bandwagon and thus restore their hierarchical influence.  Journalists and academics dealing in the softest subjects constantly wrap themselves in the authority of science, for example – but I will pass them by.

My concern is with government.

With the death of communism and the zombie-like rot of socialism, politicians lost all theoretical justification for top-down control of their population.  In democracies, they find the public less easily swayed and more willing to criticize than ever.  Certainly, among American politicians, there is a pervasive sense of doom, of being judged and found wanting.  Polls confirm a popular disgust with the political class.

Science provides the means to regain top-down control and ignore popular opinion.  If one can posit a scientific reason for increased state power – a climate catastrophe, say – then debate is superfluous if not actually harmful.  Science is about the description of reality – and that isn’t up for a vote.  While only a chosen few can understand (say) quantum physics, the populace, now as always, is mired in ignorance and superstition.

Once politicians put on their white lab coats, they feel free to express their contempt for the unruly public.  Thus President Obama:  “Part of the reason that our politics seems so tough right now, and facts and science and argument does not seem to be winning the day all the time is because we’re hardwired not to always think clearly when we’re scared.”

The battle for science is an attempt to impose a definition of what science is, yet success – as in the cases of Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia – will threaten true science, which is largely defined by what it is not.  Science isn’t a self-selecting establishment like the college of cardinals.  It isn’t a consensus or a law.  Nor is it any given gathering of scientists or any particular method of research.

Science, that most theoretical of activities, is a wholly practical affair, and is revealed in the doing rather than in abstract definitions, mottos, or methods.  One becomes a scientist through apprenticeship in the lab, not by reading manuals.  Like all practical institutions, science is informed and directed by a tradition of previous work, and can be hijacked by narrow interests only with the loss of much knowledge.

In a real sense, we can say there is no such thing as science, only many sciences, each guided by its own tradition.  A family practitioner, after all, would appear to share few work habits in common with a cosmologist like Stephen Hawkins.

One practice shared by all the sciences is a ruthless institutional skepticism of authority.  Reality matters:  people, no matter how brilliant or well-meaning, less so.  It is no paradox to say that science as an institution has retained its authority because the public perceives its doubts – and that science’s exceptional credibility will vanish if it is ever wielded with dogmatic certainty by political interests seeking to impose their agenda.

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One Response to The battle for science

  1. montejo says:

    The battles over science have indeed moved away from academia and more into the public sphere. Just look at Wikipedia. Ten years ago it would have seemed silly that the contents of any given web page would be fought over so intensely. But there are pages and pages on Wikipedia that are battled over every day. You’re right that everyone wants to be on the side of science; even the most superstitious people claim to have reality–the only thing science can address–on their side.

    It’s interesting to ponder whether the wiki model leads to more objective results. After all, it seems to employ the criterion of majority-rules, with no weighing of voters’ qualifications. All the contributors are volunteers, so they necessarily have some personal stake in their efforts. It seems to me that a majority acting in their self-interest will reliably silence the minority view, but I’m not sure what else would be better.

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