Why is Science Doubted?
As I stand upon the earth, I appear to be motionless. The breeze ruffles the leaves, the clouds approach and hang breathlessly above. A car passes briskly by, and then, far up in the sky, an airplane does the same. To the unaided senses, things move upon and around the earth, as I might if I take my next step, but the earth is itself static and unmoving. Even the erosion of eons or the explosion of a sudden Vulcanism, the torrid heat and desolate drought, the sodden rain and blistering wind, are effects upon the earth, movements that alter its image but do nothing to its being. And it’s being seems nothing other than eternal.
More so even than the firmament, for the stars do appear to move! And surely I am, in my widest definition, part of what they orbit or move past. Until the Ionian school in Ancient Greece, the earth was thought not merely unmoved but immovable, the center of things, the focus of creation. Today, we are decentered, constructed not created, in constant motion both in life and in character. It is thus, in this day of anxious doubt and in this tomorrow of anticipated unknowing, a most pressing question to examine how we as a species have come from one place to the other, from the center to the margins, from Being to mere beings.
Yet this is a question that must be approached from both places at once, as it were. It takes little enough to imagine the perspective of our predecessors, and indeed, the very fragility of modern scientific knowledge when placed beside simple sense perception – and this aside from customary bigotry and personal experience – is what puts today’s self-understanding at such risk of consistent, even constant, doubt. Even so, it is more than germane to imagine the center, to formulate Being, for it has remained a magnetic value for us even if it has not retained the same cultural status it once possessed. This is the larger question, of course. The doubting of science at once proceeds towards, and emanates from, the resonant ideal of Being.
There is a list of commonplace traits to which the ‘anti-science’ person holds, but for the moment, let us cast the net more widely to see what characteristics are present for anyone struck by the knowledge presented by the sciences. The following is not meant as either an exhaustive or a ranked compendium, but surely each of these traits must be present for anyone who doubts science as a source of rationally reliable and cross-culturally valid truth:
1. My personal experience contradicts the findings of science, especially those of the human sciences.
2. Science always seems to be changing ‘its’ mind about what is a fact and what isn’t. How can I trust it?
3. Scientists themselves appear to regularly disagree about not only the validity of this or that finding, but also their general value.
4. And speaking of value, how do I translate the often acutely picayune and abstruse knowledge of science into a language and experience I can understand?
5. My cultural upbringing does not admit to human truth as the ultimate arbiter of the cosmos.
6. Science is itself beholden to political and corporate interest in the questions it asks in the first place. How can I trust its claims to objectivity?
7. Finally, it seems you have to either be a genius or at least well-heeled even to become a scientist. If I am neither, as the vast majority of people are not, how can I simply hand over my life to those who don’t know what it’s like to be me?
The ‘feeling’ each of these difficult objections to the sciences brings to us is one of passive mistrust ever verging into a more active distrust. At once these are questions of loyalty, of literacy, and of location both social and personal. Let us then take them one by one, in the above order, with a view to examining their premises as well as suggesting possible alternatives. In doing so, we will not be simply defending a popular view of science, nor will we be attempting to construct an ontology that will forever be unassailable to such questions or yet others. At base, however, the question of Being is unavoidable, and so we will in the end have to face up to the problem of what can in fact, and more or less, function for our mortal existence as a source of reliable knowledge.
1. My personal experience contradicts the findings of science, especially those of the human sciences. At the heart of this doubt is the problem of intersubjectivity. Each of us knows our own heart, but equally, we also know that the other’s heart differs from our own. My experience will not be yours, and in many contexts, cannot be or can never be. As a white male, I cannot know ‘what it is like’ to be a non-white female, and so on. And if the devil is in the details, God will be thus found in the abstractions. It is at either ends of the human existential spectrum that I must look for common ground. She and I remain human beings to one another just as we both love Bruckner. It is mostly the mid-range, shall we say, of our shared humanity that casts us up as different from one another. This is not at all fatal, though it is a too fashionable thing to overemphasize this middle range of values and validities – I am a white, heterosexual male of European consciousness and background who is highly educated and relatively wealthy when compared globally – and make it the sole arbiter of my being-in-the-world. As the bumper sticker states, ‘The person with the most toys still dies’. My suggestion to this first doubt is to look for that which makes us the same as one another, for these contrasting poles are the two spaces in which science in fact operates. The very small and the very large, the devils and the gods.
The question of the human sciences is less simple, of course, because it’s very subject matter, ourselves, occupies mostly that very middle ground wherein difference is highlighted. But even here, such differences that do exist need not be seen as divisive. Indeed, the very understanding of ‘social location’, first presented as thematic in the study of humanity by Vico in 1725 and made proverbial in Nietzsche’s ‘perspectivism’ in the 1880s, is necessary to expose the facts of historical and cultural existence. But beyond this, the most important thing for each of us to recall to themselves is that I am but one perceiver. That when I am confronted with a social fact that contradicts my personal experience, it simply means that others, many others, have experienced the world differently than I. To not accept this is tantamount to denying that these others even exist at all.
2. Science always seems to be changing ‘its’ mind about what is a fact and what isn’t. How can I trust it? The methods of science are classically understood to be ‘self-correcting’. What does this mean? It is old hat to trot out all of the historical shifts in perception a better equipped and more technically astute science has undergone. That Newtonian physics is a kind of local charade and quantum mechanics the truth of things. There is no need to cite the history of science as over against its historical mechanism. The underlying fact of science is not in fact scientific at all. This fact is that science has been and remains a human and thus an historical endeavor. This not only in the sense that it is we humans who ‘do’ science, also old hat, but more penetratingly, that through the doing of science we have discovered, astonishingly, a manner in which to construct a bridge over the chasm of difference represented by the diversity of historical epochs as well as across the polyglot of contemporary cultures. Science is yet historical through and through, but what emanates therefrom is, at least for a time and from the human perspective, transcendent of once again the middle range differences that divide we contemporaries from our predecessors, no matter how historically recent or distant.
Indeed, to make a distinction between the historical and the temporal is one of science’s chief aims. The first is all about difference, and this can be seen with no greater gravity than the fact that it is at the foot of history upon which all moralities fall. But the second is about sameness. The Sumerian was a human being like myself, able to contemplate his existence in much the same manner as do I, gazing up at the stars and imagining the heavens yet beyond. Feeling the basic desire of a living existence, expressing himself in art and in craft alike, and having to make meaningful his mortality. He ate and slept, he made love and he cared for others. He is my historically very distant cousin but he is my temporal sibling. Between the basic method of science as something which can overcome many of its own biases given enough time, and the equally basic subject matter of science which it treats as if it were an object-class alone and not a singular ‘thing’, we can suggest that this second doubt regarding the validity of science across time is overblown. Most importantly, each demographic needs a slightly different knowledge base to fulfill its generational duties, and the same can be said for each wider historical epoch. It is a mere device of the comic book artist to wonder ‘what if’ the ancients had had modern technology and so on. What if myth and reality were combined? What if becoming a hero as a human meant that one also had to become a God?
Far more so than even doubt, much of the simple disinterest in science falls along these lines. It is patently not only not mythic, its very essence stands against all myth. Its subject matter is not heroic, but rather basic. It seeks what is normative and what is regular, and not what is individuating and extraordinary, No, that is the realm of art, not science. And today, mostly, the realm of popular art at that.
3. Scientists themselves appear to regularly disagree about not only the validity of this or that finding, but also their general value. Once again, this is mostly a function of how science ‘works’ in its overarching method, in contrast to the more singular methods devoted to specific forms of science, biology or chemistry, or physics and so on. It is not surprising that the chemist would value her discoveries, or the history of their own discipline, ahead of those or that of the biologist. This kind of valuation has in fact little to do with science and places the scientist back into the day to day humanity of personal sensibilities. It is the case that a personal bias can perform a deviant function within scientific investigation, but this ‘personality’ of the scientist is at once a great boon to the making of novel discoveries. The disagreement we hear of in the public everyday realm is a necessary function of science at its best. One, experiments must be corroborated, duplicated, interrogated again and again. We know that singular data might be misleading. We know that scientists are as human as are we ourselves. Disagreement, even outright conflict in the scientific community is something that must be encouraged by those of us who are outsiders. The more such questioning, the more such back and forth, the more assured the rest of us can be that science is indeed living up to its reputation as a self-correcting dealer of insights and not merely a numbly reproductive facilitation of the same old bigotries.
That, I think, addresses the question of interpersonal validity. To be scientifically valid is to be ‘factual’ in the broadest sense possible given the conditions of experiment. That what this result or outcome states can be relied upon to hold not only in differing contexts, but as well for different persons. None of this, however, attains the pitch of being able to satisfy our questions related to value. And this is a good thing, for at the very point value enters the discussion science itself must leave the floor. It is up to society at large to decide upon the value of facts. The person who harbors doubt number three along the lines of value is actually being irresponsible in shoving this work back onto the shoulders of scientists alone. No, they have done their part of the knowledge generating bargain, and it is time for the rest of us to step in and step up.
But the question of value, once taken on by the wider community, of course presents itself as a complex problem. At once it must borrow from what is seen as customarily valuable, while understanding that these new data coming from the sciences may force a reckoning upon custom. Over time, this potential conflict has overtaken all that was once valued at the cultural level, and thus the suspicion that underlays doubt number three may be traced to a much deeper sentiment: how can it be that all I know is wrong?
This immediately takes us to the center of our next listed doubt:
4. And speaking of value, how do I translate the often acutely picayune and abstruse knowledge of science into a language and experience I can understand? There are actually two responses here. The first is simple: the language of science, applied mathematics, is by itself untranslatable into any other context and this is actually how it must be. We can overcome any angst we may feel about this necessary distance by working backwards, from my experience in daily life to its scientific description. There is an element of the ‘need to know’ here, just as Sagan reminded us that if we had to consciously adjudicate the techniques and biochemistry of our digestion we would surely starve to death. A black hole at a distance is a fascinating cosmic phenomenon. It only becomes a threat at a certain proximity and that only over a certain period of time, usually equally cosmic in scope. The language of science thus must at once maintain its aloofness to everyday description and experience, but it must also bridge the gap between that experience and structure. What do I mean by this second task?
One’s experience may seem to be intensely personal, and though it is that to us, if we live long enough and meet enough other people, we begin to realize that not only can others supply their own intensity to life but that what I held as precious and beyond the sacred is actually quite commonplace and well shared after all. Thus it is to the structural or ’secular’ quality of human experience that science appeals. By this I am not referring to the casual distinction made my ideologues between ‘sacred’ and ‘secular’. Science is not a religion nor is it a politics. With these others, along with art and philosophy, science takes its distinct place among the widest human categories of endeavor without being blended into any other. Instead, ‘secular’ experience is simply that which is shared and also known to be shared. As William James reminded us, the most acute quandary for the visionary is how to communicate her experience to others. No matter its original intensity, if I don’t know what you know, there’s an end to it.
This is one of the beauties, if you will, of science. It is the only ‘vision’ humanity has generated that in fact can be shared by all, though the ‘intensity’ of such a sharing may differ and indeed must differ, according to our valuation and technical knowledge, and this even within the sciences themselves. A mathematician will see the elegance of the proof, a high energy physicist will see the enactment of a slice of basic reality, the biologist will see the molecular architecture of the gene, the sociologist the impassioned expression of a ‘type’ of person, the philosopher perhaps a form of consciousness written into the worlding of the world. Science is shareable precisely because it does not present a traditional vision at all. It is rather a series of interrelated and mutually imbricated perspectives, each with its own authentic value and from each emanating a way in which to understand our already shared human consciousness in its more cosmic guise. This is how daily experience is itself already part of science and not at all distanced from it.
5. My cultural upbringing does not admit to human truth as the ultimate arbiter of the cosmos. Though this may seem to be the most troubling of listed doubts, at both the level of bedeviled detail and that of divine abstraction, it is less fatal than it so appears. For modernity, the non-teleological character of both cosmic and organismic evolution has been overstated as the leverage by which God could be murdered. In fact, science makes no claims regarding the existence of transcendental beings. This is rather a question for religion, myth, and art. Evolution does not define its own ‘original’ creation, no matter how many cycles the ‘big-bang’ oriented universe has progressed through. The fact that science cannot define a starting point makes the entire question a non-starter. In a word, evolution does not obviate creation, it just sets it back a few jots.
On top of this, science is the one human creation that does not admit to purely human truth. In that, it ‘reveals’ itself, excuse the term, as a child of religion. If science had an ‘upbringing’ in the individuated sense, it too would tell us that there is a truth to the cosmos that lies far beyond those of human consciousness, though not necessarily beyond the future ken of that same consciousness or developments thereof and therein. Anyone who drives a car or a golf ball assumes upon the same science as reveals evolution to be an ongoing fact. The fact that one can be a creationist and a golfer is also not fatal, either to one’s character or to one’s epistemology. Though the best outlook of a scientist is the same as that of the philosopher, an agnostic, there are many perfectly objective scientists who imagine that they are simply exposing the truth of creation, a truth already present before human experience but also discoverable through human acumen. And there is nothing in science per se that proves them incorrect. In short, each of us, as human beings, is at once partial to the truth of things in that we can know only what our own historical period can know, and impartial, in that we as individuals stand aloof to any kind of truth and must needs do so because, as Krishnamurti stated, such a wider ‘truth is a pathless land’, and it cannot be found along any known way or track, nor by any creed nor crucis. Science reveals truths about the cosmos, and these are, by definition, not human. In that, it differs in no important sense from any ‘upbringing’ that casts up the value of truth upon an equally non-human source.
6. Science is itself beholden to political and corporate interests in the questions it asks in the first place. How can I trust its claims to objectivity? This doubt is actually much more serious than the one preceding. Because basic scientific research is so unutterably expensive, it can come as no surprise that the only institutions capable of funding it are corporations and governments. And in almost every case, such institutions or their denizens have a vested interest in not only the questions that are to be investigated, but in the results that may, or may not, come from such investigations. It is often the case that the rest of us must simply be willing to take the ad hoc outcomes of an agenda-rich applied science as we can, whether in medicine, engineering, cybernetics, psychology or even demographics or economics. This in itself is not a total loss, because both private and public sector giants are out to please most of the people most of the time; in other words, this means that much of the time you and I will fall into that rubric of who is ‘the most’, and thus see some partial benefit from agenda research.
Alongside this, it is not only always possible, but even likely, that over the course of investigating a specific issue or phenomenon that other data will be revealed which in turn point to another vital discovery. In creating an anti-viral we may discover the genetic structure of an entire class of organisms. In creating a new material we may note that the way we currently build things out of older materials can be improved. A new source of energy might require a new kind of collector or turbine which in turn has other uses. So agenda science is not perfectly blind to the more general scientific process sometimes referred to as ‘pure’. Many subsequent grants come out of an originally quite narrowly assigned task. And this is the case in every facet of the sciences, including those which study humans themselves. Between the sense that agenda-driven research must generally adhere to available market, whether that be consumer or political or both, and the fact of the scientific process itself, we should not despair that most science that ‘gets done’ is funded by vested interests. For better or worse, we the people mostly share those self-same interests.
And this wider fact brings the issue of objectivity to the fore. Max Weber arguably remains the greatest mind on this job, and in spite of being also arguably the greatest expert on human relations, he was unequivocal in his own argument that we cannot leave the big decisions to those same experts. In this, at once he was stating that science has its place and it is one of utility alone, but more profoundly, that we need not get too hung up on the much-vaunted ‘objectivity’ outside of the realm of science precisely due to the objective fact that our diverse but nonetheless shared humanity experiences the world subjectively and not in some manner transcendental to life. And in that life, the expert, including the scientist, is a human like ourselves, with values, subjectivities, objections, and who may be subjected, objected to, and even devalued. But what we cannot be is invalidated, for we are not objects in the purely scientific sense, just as we are not logical constructs in that philosophical. So the doubt that questions my ‘trust’ in scientific objectivity is actually a self-doubt; it is not about science at all. To place this doubt back into science is the same kind of irresponsible action that we saw shoved the work of valuation, and specifically the kind which opens up onto self-understanding, back onto the scientist, calling upon her to become an ‘expert’ beyond her means.
7. Finally, it seems you have to be either a genius or at least well-heeled even to become a scientist. If I am neither, as the vast majority of people are not, how can I simply hand over my life to those who don’t know what it’s like to be me? This doubt follows necessarily upon the lack of responsibility we take when we engage in declaiming valuation and self-understanding and pass it back to the scientist or the specific science as a discourse of expertise and authority. Yes, very few of us can become quantum mathematicians, but we as a world society do not need a bevy of such people given the subject matter at hand. There needs rather to be, over a sequence of generations, merely a quorum of chefs in this or that particular scientific kitchen to make the cosmic menu available to us. But it is we who must choose what to consume and indeed, make it digestible to our diverse druthers. And genius is itself too often very narrowly defined. Just as we cannot proclaim a Stephen Hawking to be the ‘smartest human in the world’, we cannot declaim our own personal wit as part of what imagines and thence constructs genius in others. No God survives the loss of His believers. Just so, no genius works in an asocial vacuum. It does not help, at all, that popular media both celebrates and mocks the so-gifted person as some kind of autistic freak, narrowly brilliant and thus both unthreatening to morality while at the same time being great fun at the burlesque big-top of resentful reckoning.
That said, it is an ongoing problem that science is mostly a realm of educated elites. I say this not in any sense that one cannot but be highly literate in specific aspects of mathematics and science in order to attain these lofty heights of discovery and even application, but rather that we live in a highly stratified society that does not always bring all of its actual talent to the table. There is, in a word, a gulf between the actual and the available, when it comes to gift and future ability. We cannot know where the next ‘genius’ is to be found, just as we cannot predict where the next discovery of such genius will be had. But doubt number seven orients itself too quickly to an issue which can be solved quite simply by continuing to open up educational opportunity for more marginal persons, especially those who are young. And the only way we ‘hand over’ our lives to science is if we ourselves refuse to take responsibility for them in the light of science. We are free to evaluate both its specific fruits and its general methods, though as once again Sagan more famously cautioned, we should not eagerly accept the former while at once so easily dismissing the latter.
More than any of this, we can respond to this final doubt by reminding ourselves that in fact scientists are enough ‘like us’ to not escape the basic human and social challenges that come with living on in the world. This aspect of such a response can have its ‘hallmark’ tones – scientists are parents, are workers, are children, are golfers even – but it is more salient to call to mind its aspect which is Whitmanesque; the scientist sleeps, the scientist loves, the scientist lives, the scientist dies.
The pattern of popular doubts regarding the place of the sciences in both social and personal life is based upon our unwillingness to practice, strictly speaking, a very much non-scientific form of self-questioning. It is not within the ambit of science but rather within that of philosophy to which we should bring these existential questions. A lack of understanding of what we are as human beings will inevitably bring to any human endeavor a similar incompetency. It is therefore to the ‘illiteracy of the self’ that I, as a philosopher would commend immediate attention. Where did my values come from? Why do I value this or that and perhaps deny this or that other value? How can this other seem so different from me that I cannot even speak of them, let alone to them? In asking such questions and many like others, I think you will find that your doubts about science are both a function of your self-doubt and the manner in which our culture, both popular and literate, portrays both science and those who practice it. In non-scientifically excavating the assumptions we each of us are too comfortable holding to ourselves, often at the expense of the other, we become at the personal level as the scientist already is at that cosmic. This is why the study of the cosmos is at once a ‘personal journey’ and one that takes our very person completely out of the equation, for it is a journey that compels beings to contemplate Being. That we can do this, within our abbreviated consciousness and inside the brevity of human history, is the truer meaning of both genius and humanity alike.
G.V. Loewen is the author of over fifty books in ethics, education, social theory, health and aesthetics, as well as fiction. He was professor of the interdisciplinary human sciences for over two decades.