Blue States Press
Madness about a method
By Jim Holt,
New York Times
Published: December 11, 2005
Science is the distinctive achievement and crowning glory of the modern age. So, at least, we are often told. It is also something that, relatively speaking, the United States is pretty good at. By many measures, this nation leads the world in scientific research, even if our dominance has been slipping of late. Oddly, though, Americans on the whole do not seem to care greatly for science.
Traditionalists, especially on the right, fear that science promotes godless materialism. Its insistence on finding purely natural explanations, they maintain, threatens to drain the world of moral purpose and spiritual meaning. On the left, fashionable thinkers of recent years have declared that science is an ideological prop of global capitalism. In the guise of giving us an objective picture of reality, they say, science encodes a hidden justification for the dominance of one class (bourgeois), one race (white) and one sex (male).
As for the great ruck of ordinary Americans, they are merely uninterested in, or perhaps bored by, science. Only one in five has bothered to take a physics course. Three out of four haven't heard that the universe is expanding. Nearly half, according to a recent survey, seem to believe that God created man in his present form within the last 10,000 years. Less than 10 percent of adult Americans, it is estimated, are in possession of basic scientific literacy.
This ignorance of science, flecked with outright hostility, is worth pondering at a moment when three of the nation's most contentious political issues - global warming, stem-cell research and the teaching of intelligent design - are scientific in character. One reason that has been cited for the dislike of science is that it is "irresistible" - that its influence tends to overwhelm and drive out competing values and authorities. But the Bush administration seems all too successful in resisting it. Time after time, critics say, the administration has manipulated and suppressed scientific findings for political reasons.
In rationalizing his opposition to the creation of new embryonic stem-cell lines, for example, the president informed the public that existing lines would be sufficient for medical purposes - a claim that left researchers flabbergasted and proved to be wildly off the mark. On the issue of climate change, American inaction on curbing greenhouse gas emissions is defended on the grounds that there is still some uncertainty about the magnitude and causes of global warming. Administration allies have even maligned the motives of climate researchers, arguing that their "alarmist" predictions are aimed at ensuring a steady flow of scientific grant money - and conveniently overlooking the fact that many global-warming skeptics are themselves financed by the energy industry. (As Richard Posner has observed, the industry with the keenest financial interest in getting climate change right - the insurance industry - is taking global warming very seriously, indeed.)
Are we to conclude that the Bush administration is anti-science? Not necessarily. Its selective aversion to scientific evidence may be more strategic than philosophical. Perhaps the administration accepts the authority of science but has a scheme for reckoning costs and benefits that it is not entirely candid about - a scheme in which, say, the next quarter's corporate profits outweigh rising sea levels or third world drought a half-century hence. When it comes to science, a cynic might remark, there is little point in "speaking truth to power": power already knows the truth.
In fairness, resistance to the authority of science can sometimes be detected even within the scientific community, and in its more progressive precincts, no less. Take the issue of race. One of the most durable sources of evil in the world has been the idea that humans are divided into races and that some races are naturally superior to others. So it was morally exhilarating to discover, with the rise of modern genetics, that racial differences are biologically trifling - merely "skin deep," in the popular phrase. For the last three decades, the scientific consensus has been that "race" is merely a social construct, since genetic variation among individuals of the same race is far greater than the variation between races. Recently, however, a fallacy in that reasoning - a rather subtle one - has been identified by the Cambridge University statistician A.W.F. Edwards. The concept of race may not be biologically meaningless after all; it might even have some practical use in deciding on medical treatments, at least until more complete individual genomic information becomes available. Yet in the interests of humane values, many scientists are reluctant to make even minor adjustments to the old orthodoxy. "One of the more painful spectacles of modern science," the developmental biologist Armand Marie Leroi has observed, "is that of human geneticists piously disavowing the existence of races even as they investigate the genetic relationships between 'ethnic groups."'
For nonscientists, it may be the sheer difficulty of science - its remoteness from any "common sense" view of the world - that makes it seem alien and dangerous. Nothing could be more contrary to intuition than quantum mechanics, in which everyday categories of cause and effect break down completely; or the theory of the Big Bang, according to which the universe somehow leapt into existence from a pointlike singularity.
Science is also a rival to other worldviews that most people find more congenial. In hopes of allaying the sense of rivalry, it is often said that science and religious faith are compatible, since the former deals with "how" questions, the latter with "why" questions. As an empirical matter, however, that does not seem to be true. On the whole, around 9 in 10 Americans say they believe in a personal God. When scientists are surveyed, that figure falls to 4 in 10. Among the scientific elite - members of the National Academy of Sciences - fewer than 1 in 10 say they believe in God, with the biologists in particular professing agnosticism or atheism at a rate of 95 percent.
Vaclav Havel once observed, in a transport of anti-science afflatus, that "Modern science. . .abolishes as mere fiction the innermost foundations of our natural world: it kills God and takes his place on the vacant throne, so henceforth it would be science that would hold the order of being in its hand as its sole legitimate guardian and so be the legitimate arbiter of all relevant truth." So what are the options for someone who is determined to resist this usurping arbiter? One of them is to insist that science can't possibly tell the whole story: by limiting itself to "natural" explanations, it blinds itself to the supernatural order that gives meaning to the universe. The problem is that no one has ever shown how supernatural causes can be accommodated by the scientific method, which relies on testability to produce consensus.
That suggests a second option. You might concede that science is a path to the truth but deny that it is the path. Here, though, you will find it difficult to locate much opposition, even among scientists. No one these days wants to be guilty of "scientism," the belief that science is a uniquely privileged form of knowledge and that everything else is at best poetry, at worst nonsense. Yet if science is merely one among many paths, it is a path that is inherently expansionist, absorbing others whenever it draws near. Is there a believer today who does not feel slightly threatened by current research into how the wiring of our brains might have evolved in a way that encourages faith in deities?
This leaves a still more radical option. You might deny that science is a path to truth at all. That is not quite so crazy as it sounds. Among philosophers of science, there is a perfectly respectable (if minority) view called "instrumentalism." According to this view, scientific theories do not yield a true picture of a mind-independent reality; they are merely useful tools that enable us to predict our experience and have a measure of control over it. History provides some support for instrumentalism. Scientific progress, it has been observed, takes place by funerals. Since past scientific theories have invariably proved false - phlogiston, anyone? - we can expect the same of our present and future theories. That does not take away from their utility as engines for turning out cures and weapons and gadgets, or at their most picturesque, as abstract stories to keep us in awe before the cosmos.
The problem with this line of thought is that it makes the success of science something of a miracle. How, asks the Oxford zoologist Richard Dawkins, do we account for science's "spectacular ability to make matter and energy jump through hoops on command" if not by assuming that the world, deep down, is more or less the way science says it is? Only a philosopher, and perhaps an oversubtle one, would advocate acting on science without believing it is really true. But to believe it and yet refuse to act on it - now, that takes a politician.
Jim Holt is a frequent contributor to the magazine.