Tuesday, February 22, 2011

The Limits of Science: when scientists speak

Rich Lewontin, in his book Biology As Ideology, writes that science is "a social institution completely integrated into and influenced by the structure of all our other social institutions." Lewontin is a leading geneticist and is certainly not anti-science. He simply calls for a "reasonable skepticism" when it comes to evaluating scientific claims and theories because scientists, like everyone else, can be influenced by a variety of other factors.

Having an exaggerated view of science's objectivity and purity can lead us to make some mistakes. First, it can lead to an exaggerated belief in the objectivity and purity of scientists. We need to be careful to distinguish between science (i.e. empirical claims) and what scientists say. It is common for scientists to express personal opinions within the pages of science texts, and it is also common for these pronouncements to be seen as "scientific" by the public. For example, in his influential book Sociobiology: The New Synthesis, E.O.Wilson makes sweeping claims about human nature that go far beyond what any empirical biological studies can tell us. One example, described by Lewontin:

     "He [Wilson] says, 'Human beings are absurdly easy to indoctrinate. They seek it...Man would rather believe than know.' That statement is, we must note, found in what is called a scientific work, used as a textbook in courses all over the world, filled with the mathematics of modern population biology, crammed with observations and facts about the behavior of all kinds of animals, based on what Time magazine has called the "iron laws of nature."

For many readers Wilson's statement will be perceived as having the same scientific authority as other claims in the book. Please do not misunderstand my point; I am not commenting on whether this particular claim is true. Rather, I wish to point out that Wilson's claim, though thrown in with the mathematics and science, is not itself supported by that science. It is actually an expression of Wilson's own social and political views.

Another example comes from zoologist (my favorite and yours) Richard Dawkins, who in his book River Out of Eden: A Darwinian View of Life, writes that, "the universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind pitiless indifference." Really? Which microscope, telescope, or meter stick did he use to discover this? The content of this statement falls almost completely outside the bounds of science. Science may have something to say about design or purpose in the universe, but good, evil, or "pitiless indifference"? No way. This is his particular view and interpretation of the how things are, and we need to be careful to distinguish between someone's scientific work and the opinions of a scientist in areas outside of their own expertise.   

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

The Limits of Science: is science ever pure?

Philosophers of science have tried for over a century to establish a rigorous, logical foundation for science, one that justifies science as an objective source of knowledge. No obvious solution is forthcoming. Instead, historians and philosophers of science have come to realize that, despite the protests of self-proclaimed rationalists, science is not the ultimate, infallible source of knowledge we might like it to be.

In case some relativists out there are getting too excited, it is equally clear that science is not merely a social construct or a human invention that has no connection to an underlying reality. As mentioned in a previous post, the success of science is indisputable. Someone once said that thanks to modern science, an elementary school student now knows more about the world and the universe than Aristotle did. Science is a not a social construct, but it is a human enterprise that is influenced by everything that affects humans.

Examples of the influence of culture and ideology on science abound. Probably the most famous example is Darwin's particular theory of evolution by natural selection and sexual selection. Darwin's theory of individuals struggling to survive has an undeniable parallel to Victorian ideas about economic competition and societal progress. His ideas about sexual selection also came straight from his cultural view of men and women. Genetecist Rich Lewontin writes, "In reading Darwin's theory, one can see the proper young lady seated on her sofa while the swain on his knees before her begs for her hand, having already told her father how many hundreds a year he has in income."

Another example involves the religious and philosophical views of James Hutton and Charles Lyell. Together they are often regarded as having started the field of geology and are hailed for their "modern" scientific outlook. In fact, their views on the Earth were rooted in beliefs in Deism and an eternal Earth. This led to the formulation of "uniformitarianism," the idea that everything about the Earth (both in the past and now) can be explained by the sorts of slow, everyday processes that we currently see. This idea proved to be helpful in getting scientists to think correctly about many of the formations we see on the Earth (e.g. mountains, river valleys, etc.).

Uniformitarianism, though, being rooted ultimately in ideology also hindered science in some ways and was flat out wrong in others. The obvious problem is that the Earth is not eternal, and in fact has a history. It has not always been the same, and therefore not everything can be explained through the processes we see at work today. The existence of ice ages and the massive glacial erosion they can cause was at first denied by scientists who followed Hutton and Lyell's methodology. They insisted that "catastrophes" had no place in the science of geology. As we now know, unique, catastrophic events have played an important role in the history of the Earth. These include everything from the formation and cooling of the early Earth, to ice ages, to asteroid impacts. These phenomena were initially ruled out because science had been influenced by a preferred ideology.

This is not to say that the influence of ideology is always bad. After all, most scientists consider Darwin to have been right about a great many things and geology no doubt benefited from Hutton's insistence on paying attention to the slow processes happening around us. Acknowledging the influence of culture on science does not mean giving up on science. It simply means that we must pay close attention to be able to distinguish where the empirical claims end and the ideology begins. In other words, to be aware of the limits of science.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

The Limits of Science

The success of science is indisputable. One only needs to look at modern medicine and technology for convincing evidence that science works. In the approximately 400 years since the birth of what we might recognize as modern science we have undoubtedly gained considerable knowledge of the natural world and its inner workings. In that time science has become a central part of our culture and, in many ways, has replaced religion as a major source of authority.

Since the Enlightenment there has been a steady trend of secularization in public life. Where once the Church wielded tremendous social and political power to uphold their own dogmas (e.g. the flat earth; just kidding, they actually never said that), some critics allege that the scientific establishment has in some ways taken the Church's place, forming a kind of scientific priesthood.

In fact, one famous proponent of science in the Victorian age and one of the first professional scientists, Thomas Huxley, had exactly that in mind. To Huxley and his supporters, science needed to replace religion as the supreme source of cultural authority. Historian Peter Bowler observes that the great museums of natural history built in Britain and America during the 1800s are rather cathedral-like (see the London museum above), and that this "helped confirm the role that science had usurped as the source of moral authority in the modern world."

Leaving aside the problem of "science" being a source of moral authority, what does this mean for us? One thing it means is that science's dominant position in our culture can cause people to accept pronouncements or conclusions uncritically. No doubt it was common in earlier centuries for people to uncritically accept what religious authorities told them, and we can have the same problem with scientific authorities now. In fact, in some ways it is probably worse today because science has become so specialized that it is sometimes hard for other scientists, nevermind lay people, to make sense of theories and concepts outside of their own fields.

As a former science educator, I am interested in helping people achieve science literacy, part of which includes being able to critically evaluate scientific claims and evidence as well as being aware of the nature and history of science. Over the next few weeks I intend to write further on these topics because while science is clearly an important source of knowledge, science (and especially scientists) are hardly infallible. Let's not accord to scientific theories the same blind faith and adherence to dogma that rationalists are so quick to criticize in our religious forebears.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Science and Culture, or, who needs kingdoms and phyla anyway?

I recently finished reading The Earth Encompassed, a history of the environmental sciences by Peter Bowler. A major theme in the book is to show how all sorts of things can influence the development of scientific knowledge. Commonly viewed as having a lofty epistemic status and often claimed to be the sole source of objective knowledge, science is in fact strongly influenced by culture, political ideologies, religious ideologies, and even geography.

I plan on posting more on these topics later, but I'll start with an interesting discovery made by philosopher Michel Foucault while he was looking through an ancient Chinese encyclopedia. While discussing the history of classification (i.e., the different ways that different cultures have categorized parts of the natural world), Bowler relates the story of how Foucault became interested in questions of language and representation in the first place.

We are probably all reasonably familiar with the Western approach to taxonomy in which we divide plants and animals primarily according to their physical characteristics (kingdoms, phyla, genus, species, etc.). As Foucault discovered, however, the ancient Chinese apparently had a very different approach to classification which resulted in placing animals in the following categories: a) belonging to the Emperor, b) embalmed, c) tame, d) sucking pigs, e) sirens, f) fabulous, g) stray dogs, h) included in the present classification, i) frenzied, j) innumerable, k) drawn with a very fine camel hair brush, l) et cetera, m) having just broken the water pitcher, n) that from a long way off look like flies.

Anyone have a good mnemonic to help memorize that?