Today in various spots around the country, folks are #MarchingForScience or something.
I’m not sure – they’re thinking that the Trump Era threatens Science in some way?
Renders people less scientific?
But here’s something to consider #resisting – the temptation to idolize “science” and buy into the current secular, popular narrative about “science.”
First of all, scientific theories develop and are often shown, in time, to be spectacularly wrong.
Here’s a list of “superseded scientific theories.”
And here’s a list composed by scientists themselves, an answer to a question posed by a scientist.
The lists range from very specific phenomenon – the persistent notion, for example, that a vacuum couldn’t exist to bigger ideas like the notion of the Four Humours underlying all human physiology to the static universe to the biggest idea of all, really – the conviction that all reality was predictable and fated, upended by quantum mechanics.
What will be next?
And the sanctity of medical experimentation and government-supported scientific work?
Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment? The Guatemala STD study (US government-funded scientists deliberately infecting Guatemalans with STDs) Lobotomies? Eugenics? Atomic weapons? The ways in which scientists and medical professionals have historically cooperated with authoritarian governments?
No. There’s nothing sacrosanct or infallible about “science.” It’s like any other field of knowledge: it changes and develops, it’s prone to error, it can be misused and exploited and used to oppress, its practitioners can become intolerant, narrow-minded and blinkered, and just as in every other area of human endeavor, in order to grow in truth and shed error, it must be open to criticism and correction.
And it can be politicized, from any direction. “Science” – even, and perhaps especially government supported “science” – can be used to harm, objectify and exploit vulnerable human beings (and other forms of life). Scientists can skew their work for all the reasons that other human beings in every field skew their work and bend their efforts: power, money, ego and pride.
I am very pro-science. I am just resistant to idealizing any field of endeavor or study and also very much for never, ever forgetting Original Sin. Seek Truth with Passion and Skepticism might be my motto. Events like this tend to confirm participants’ conviction of their own righteousness and lead to more closed ranks than open minds.
So there are serious issues in many areas of scientific research these days, and they’re not all Trump’s fault, believe it or not. Concerns about method abound, concerns about politicization, about “ambulance chasing” of sexy theories and purported results. Judith Curry resigned from her position at Georgia Tech because of the politicization of her field, and she runs an interesting blog and here she quotes from an article in Nature by physicist Sabine Hossenfelder on this very issue:
But we have a crisis of an entirely different sort: we produce a huge amount of new theories and yet none of them is ever empirically confirmed. Let’s call it the overproduction crisis. We use the approved methods of our field, see they don’t work, but don’t draw consequences. Like a fly hitting the window pane, we repeat ourselves over and over again, expecting different results. But my issue isn’t the snail’s pace of progress per se, it’s that the current practices in theory development signal a failure of the scientific method.
In particle physics, jumping on a hot topic in the hope of collecting citations is so common it even has a name: ‘ambulance chasing’, referring to the practice of lawyers following ambulances in the hope of finding new clients. What worries me is that this flood of papers is a stunning demonstration for how useless the current quality criteria are.
Current observational data can’t distinguish the different models. And even if new data comes in, there will still be infinitely many models left to write papers about. The likelihood that any of these models describes reality is vanishingly small — it’s roulette on an infinitely large table. But according to current quality criteria, that’s first-rate science. The accepted practice is instead to adjust the model so that it continues to agree with the lack of empirical support.
But in the absence of good quality measures, the ideas that catch on are the most fruitful ones, even though there is no evidence that a theory’s fruitfulness correlates with its correctness.
The underlying problem is that science, like any other collective human activity, is subject to social dynamics. Unlike most other collective human activities, however, scientists should acknowledge threats to their objective judgment and find ways to avoid them. But this doesn’t happen.
If scientists are selectively exposed to information from likeminded peers, if they are punished for not attracting enough attention, if they face hurdles to leave a research area when its promise declines, they can’t be counted on to be objective. That’s the situation we’re in today — and we have accepted it.
To me, our inability — or maybe even unwillingness — to limit the influence of social and cognitive biases in scientific communities is a serious systemic failure.
WHICH brings me to…Roger Bacon.
My favorite BBC radio program, In Our Time, ran a fantastic discussion this week about the 13th century polymath Roger Bacon. It was a model of such discussions – fair, thorough, open to differences.
Of course, many, if not most serious intellectuals of the medieval period were polymaths since knowledge was not quite as compartmentalized as it is today, and the bottom line was a foundational vision of life as a unified whole that could and should be studied in that way, so that “scientific” thinking was an extension of one’s philosophy which was, in turn, probably traditionally Christian, even as, particularly in this period, it might be flirting with that newfangled Aristotelianism.
So, as the program made clear, Roger Bacon was quite interested in what was called natural philosophy (and we would call “science”), but it was a reflection of his religious beliefs, made clear in a particularly interesting way by the scholar Amanda Power , who is the author of a book called Roger Bacon and the Defense of Christendom. From the book description:
The English Franciscan, Roger Bacon (ca.1214–92), holds a controversial but important position in the development of modern science. He has been portrayed as an isolated figure, at odds with his influential order and ultimately condemned by it. This major study, the first in English for nearly sixty years, offers a provocative new interpretation of both Bacon and his environment. Amanda Power argues that his famous writings for the papal curia were the product of his critical engagement with the objectives of the Franciscan order and the reform agenda of the thirteenth-century church. Fearing that the apocalypse was at hand and Christians unprepared, Bacon explored radical methods for defending, renewing and promulgating the faith within Christendom and beyond. Read in this light, his work indicates the breadth of imagination possible in a time of expanding geographical and intellectual horizons.
So very interesting.
Which brings me to my main point this morning. At the end of the discussion, the scholars on In Our Time looked at how Bacon has been viewed and positioned in the history of science. As the book description indicates, he has often been held up as a Brave Proto-Modern in the face of Medieval Darkness and Superstition. Not so, they said. First, to describe him in this way assumes a narrative about the history of science that is just that – a narrative, and as such, ideological. We really learn nothing about anyone or anything when we take them out of their own cultural and historical context and refashion them for our own purposes.
Roger Bacon was part of the history of scientific inquiry, a history that is complex, deep and not a simple trajectory from faith-bound darkness to secular, metaphysics-free enlightenment. He was passionate about understanding the natural world, because he was passionate about pursuing truth, which he believed was an attribute of the Divine. And, as Power intriguingly argues, he saw his scientific inquiries and efforts as part of a pastoral program and an expression of his Franciscan vocation.
As one of the presenters mentioned, one can understand the temptation of later generations of scientists and historians to appropriate him for anti-Catholic, pro-English-nationalist, secular-science narrative purposes, but it is certainly an affront to the truth of history to do so.
One of the presenters was an expert on a figure who was very influential on Bacon – Bishop of Lincoln Robert Grosseteste:
An Oxford-educated English clergyman who in 1235 became the bishop of Lincoln, Grosseteste believed deeply that faith could be reconciled with reason. So he sought rational explanations for the natural world. He advocated the use of observation and experiment. He even recognized the value of theory. In considering a possible explanation for a fact, he said, you could perform observations or check your explanation against a theory that had previously been confirmed by observations. It was advanced scientific philosophy for the early 13th century.
Grosseteste’s own theorizing encompassed most of the natural world. Besides his prodigious writings on theology, he wrote about sound and heat, comets and rainbows. He was an authority on optics and extended his interest in light to the study of cosmology. He proposed a scheme to explain the entire Aristotelian cosmos — the series of concentric spheres on which the planets and stars supposedly rotated around the Earth. Those spheres embodied perfection and harmony; their rotations generating the “music of the spheres” that nobody heard. Grosseteste attempted to describe how those spheres had been created.
Nowadays, that task would require physicists to compose equations full of Greek letters corresponding to various physical quantities obeying laws of motion and interaction. Grosseteste appreciated the need to apply math to nature, but today’s elaborate mathematics was not available to him. Nonetheless he described his idea precisely enough for modern physicists to express it mathematically. And in fact, an international, interdisciplinary team of medievalists, linguists and scientists has actually translated Grosseteste’s words into modern mathematics. It turns out that his theory really is amenable to mathematical rigor.
Life is complex. History is complex. Lazy, ideology-bound narratives, convenient dichotomies, labeling The Enemy and politicization are simple. And also boring.
You can listen to the program here, and perhaps in honor of Marching for Science and Earth Day and such, it might be a particularly appropriate way to spend an hour or so…