“Is Science Just Another Dogma” Revised
“In the conditions of modern life, the rule is absolute: the [nation] that does not value trained intelligence is doomed.”
Alfred North Whitehead
“That’s just my opinion, but I’m sticking with it!” “Well, it’s true (or good) for me!” “Who’s to say?”
These are the sort of student pronouncements that drive Philosophy professors into early retirement. More often then not, they are “thought-stoppers,” indicating a firmly closed student mind.
But not always. That question, “who’s to say?,” might also be a plea deserving an answer. If so, it is the sort of student question that philosophy professors cherish, for it is an opening door to philosophy and to science. As Socrates reportedly said:, “philosophy begins in wonder.” Also science.
So why should we give more credence to the conclusion of 97% of thousands of climate scientists, than we give to Sen. Inhof’s snowball or the Heartland Institute’s sophistries? And why should we believe evolution rather than Genesis? Isn’t evolution “just a theory”? Why shouldn’t we regard science a “just another dogma? That is the guiding question of this essay.
These days, snarky thought-stoppers that attempt to reduce facts to personal beliefs are not unique to college students. Just listen to the media, to corporate public relations, to televangelists, or worst of all, to the policy pronouncements of the Trump administration and congressional republicans.. Consider the spectacle of the tobacco company CEOs telling the Congressional committee, under oath, “I do not believe that nicotine is addictive” – this, despite overwhelming scientific evidence that nicotine is, in fact, addictive.
And as noted above, the virus of irrationalism is epidemic in the colleges and universities of the realm, in the guise of “post-modernism” whose most extreme adherents regard competing theories of reality, such as astronomy and astrology as “social constructs” and “stories,” each with an “equal right to be heard and appreciated.”
How has it come to this? Throughout the just-completed century, the United States has been the world leader in technological innovation and scientific advancement. And yet, the American public, by and large, is dismally ignorant of basic scientific information. Thus the Los Angeles Times reports (May 10, 1992), that a third of Americans believe that astrology “has some scientific merit,” and reportedly half do not accept evolution. And in May, 1996, the Associate Press reported that “fewer than half of the American adults understand that the Earth orbits the sun yearly… Only about nine percent knew what a molecule was, and only 21 percent could define DNA.”
A library of books have been written about the methodology of science, many of them quite controversial. Among philosophers of science one will find a myriad of hotly contested theories about “how science works.” Even so, there are a few fundamental features of scientific activity that most observers of science will accept, and which the ordinary non-scientific citizen might readily understand. These are also features that set science distinctively apart from non-scientific truth claims. I will discuss just nine of these features.
First, scientific activity is public and replicable.
The community of scientists is elite and restricted, and yet, paradoxically, it is also open. Few individuals are qualified to conduct an experiment with a particle accelerator, or to carry out a DNA test. But anyone with requisite intelligence and diligence who is willing and able to undergo the required training may, in principle, be able to perform these activities. Moreover, any and all such qualified individuals must be able to repeat the experiments and produce the evidence claimed by other scientists. Remember “cold fusion,” that “revolutionary scientific breakthrough” that was going to supply us with an endless supply of cheap energy? It failed the “replicability test.” Repeated failures by other scientists to duplicate the results claimed by Fleischman and Pons led to the well-deserved demise of this “breakthrough.” “One-time-only” episodes of “Divine revelation” and “anecdotal evidence” from singular events do not cut it scientifically. (However, as we will see below, some accounts of singular events can launch fruitful scientific investigations).
Science is Cumulative.
“If I have seen further,” said Isaac Newton, “it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.” And thus, of course, Newton was another of those “giants.” Mathematics necessarily developed sequentially, from arithmetic to algebra (the Arabs) to analytic geometry (Descartes) to calculus (Newton and Leibnitz). Without Galileo and Kepler, there would have been no Newton. Without Linnaeus, no Darwin. Because science is ever open to new discoveries (see “falliblism” below), science allows nature to “speak to us” through experiment and observation. But only if we ask nature the right questions (i.e., if we know what we are looking for and describe it with an adequate (often mathematical) vocabulary. The science of the preceding “giants” gives us those questions. Thus science, as an accumulating body of knowledge and theory, is vastly greater than any particular scientist.
Science is Systemic, Coherent and Comprehensive.
Scientific theories are marvelous structures built out of scientific concepts (“vocabularies”), laws, empirical facts, and logical entailments. They are not, as “creationists” say of evolution, mere unconfirmed “facts.” The word “theory” has a vastly different meaning to the scientist than it does in everyday discourse, (as I explain in my “Creationism and the Devolution of the Intellect”). To the scientist, “facts” are ingredients of theories. And as theories encompass more observed and confirmed facts and formulate new “laws,” this theoretical growth reverberates throughout the entire theoretical system. Thus, for example, post-Darwinian discoveries in genetics, bio-chemistry and paleontology have not “refuted” evolution, they have enriched and expanded it.
Robust scientific theories are characterized by their scope of application (comprehensiveness) – another manifestation of their structure and coherence. Thus, for example, “natural selection” explains such diverse phenomena as dated sequence of fossils, comparative anatomy and physiology, comparative species, DNA, declining potency of insecticides and antibiotics. Similarly, Einstein’s theory of relativity explains observations at the working end of particle accelerators, nuclear and thermonuclear reactions, the behavior of clocks on spaceships, astronomical observations, and the apparent bending of light near massive objects (e.g., during a solar eclipse).
Science is Empirical.
A scientific investigation “begins” and “ends” in experience. A scientist might find, in the field or his laboratory, an interesting phenomenon worthy of investigation. For example, Darwin found varieties of finches on the Galapagos Islands and the South American mainland. Why both the variety and the similarities? And Wilhelm Roentgen accidentally made a momentous discovery while experimenting with X-Rays in his laboratory. In a desk drawer below his apparatus, a key was placed atop an unexposed photographic plate. He later discovered an image of the key on the plate. How come? His search for an answer led to X-Ray photography.
Darwin and Roentgen developed hypotheses (“hunches”) to explain these experienced phenomena. Some failed to “pan out” in experience, so new hypotheses were formed. Eventually, they came up with hypotheses which, in conjunction with settled scientific concepts and data, predicted events which were empirically confirmed by experiments and observations.
Scientific theory and laws are not made up of “hunches.” And yet creative imagination (“hunches”) can play an important role in scientific investigation. Legend has it that Archimedes came upon the concept of specific gravity while taking a bath. (Did he really? Who knows? Who cares? The story is illustrative, not scientific). James Watson tells us that the idea of the double helix came to him as he recalled his boyhood exploration of the spiral staircase at a lighthouse. And Einstein thought of relativity as he was riding a Zurich trolley and contemplated the “relative motion” of a passenger walking in the trolley.
But when the scientific community demanded confirmation of the theory of DNA, Crick and Watson did not look to lighthouses. Nor did Einstein demonstrate Special Relativity with a trolley car. These insights were the beginning, not the end, of scientific inquiry. The inquiry “ended” with empirical confirmation in the laboratory or the field.
Scientific assertions are Falsifiable.
For any statement whatever in the body of science, we know what it would be like for that statement to be false. (I exclude “formal” statements: e.g., definitions, logical rules and tautologies, which lack external empirical reference – a technical point which I won’t elaborate here). It is thus possible, in principle, to describe a refutation of a scientific claim. In other words, scientific statements, hypotheses and theories are falsifiable – not “false,” but falsifiable. The distinction is crucial.
To put it another way, for an hypothesis, prediction or confirmation to have scientific meaning, one must be prepared to say, “expect to find such-and-such empirical conditions in the world, to the exclusion of other describable conditions.” If you find these conditions, your statement has been proven true of this particular “real nature,” and not some “fanciful nature.” For example, Galileo determined that a free-falling object falls at a distance of d = ½ gt2 (with “d” for distance, “t” for time, and “g” for a gravitational constant at the Earth’s surface). Not 1/4g or 1/3g, but 1/2g. And not time cubed, or time to the 2.5 power, but time squared. In other words, that simple equation describes one sort of nature to the exclusion of an infinitude of other “natures” described by different formulas. But experimentation and observation has proven that Galileo’s formula applies to the “nature” we live in. In short, the free-fall formula is falsifiable. We can easily describe how it might be false but have determined experimentally that it is true.
Similarly, in Eddington’s famous 1919 eclipse experiment, Einstein’s theory of relativity predicted that star near the eclipse would appear in a precisely defined location, and not in any other location in the night sky (a falsification). And sure enough, it appeared where predicted by the relativity theory. Confirmation!
In contrast, dogmas give us unfalsifiable assertions. Once in a debate with an evangelical minister, I asked: “Why should I believe that the Bible is the inerrant truth, and that I must believe in Jesus Christ to be saved?” He replied, “just you wait – when you die and face your maker, then you will find out.” Of course, that challenge was utterly unfalsifiable to anyone alive, which is to say, to anyone at all. Similarly, economic dogmas, which are “theory rich,” have an “explanation” (after the fact) for every and any developments in the national economy. And if one theory in the economist’s kit of tools won’t work, he has another that will. What such an economist cannot do is describe a turn in the economy that would disprove his dogma. In short, unfalsifiable assertions, because they describe every possible world, describe nothing unique about the world we live in, which is to say that they “describe” nothing at all.
(The Falsifiability rule has been challenged by many reputable philosophers of science. My blunt reply: they are correct, but so what? Falsifiability remains as a robust and essential, albeit imperfect, criterion, as I explain in this supplementary note).
Scientific assertions are fallible.
An important implication of the falsifiability rule, is what Charles Peirce called “Falliblism.” Because every scientific statement is falsifiable, we must be forever open to the possibility (however remote) that some new observation or experiment will prove it wrong. The “falliblist” says, in effect, that “while I have strong beliefs, I am forever prepared to change these beliefs if confronted with compelling evidence to the contrary.”
We have often heard that “science has been proven to be wrong in the past.” True enough! But what has discovered and corrected scientific error? Science of course. Again, as a human institution, science is imperfect – which is to say, “fallible.” But science is far and away the best remedy for the imperfections of science.
The Order of Scientific Inquiry proceeds from evidence to conclusion.
In science, as in jury trials, the outcome remains in doubt until all the evidence has been examined and evaluated. Evidence is assembled, hypotheses and theories are tentatively formed, and from all this, events and conditions (all “falsifiable”) are predicted. Only if the predictions “pan out,” are the hypothesis and theory confirmed, whereupon science progresses once again.
In contrast, dogmatists take the position of the Red Queen in Alice in Wonderland – “verdict first, trial afterwards.” The caption of a New Yorker cartoon that I have used for years in my classes summarizes that “method” perfectly: “That is the gist of my position, now go out and get some evidence to base it on.” This is the strategy of the preacher, the advertiser, and the political propagandist. The doctrine, or the client’s product, or the party policy are all sacrosanct – not to be questioned. Beneath this exalted and unalterable truth, a scaffold of concocted “evidence” and argumentation must be assembled. This is the methodology of “creationism,” of the Tobacco Institute, of the Global Climate Coalition (funded by the fossil fuel industry), and of the Supreme Court decision of December 12, 2000, Bush v. Gore.
And, of course, it is a “methodology” that is unfalsifiable – no amount of evidence to the contrary will budge these advocates from their pre-ordained conclusions. Witness the behavior and utterances of “climate change deniers.”
In Science, as with Jury trials, the Burden of Proof is on the Affirmative.
We’ve all heard it in political and religious debates: “Prove me wrong.” It a cry of despair. A belief, innocent of supporting evidence, is proclaimed to be true, absent a compelling argument in the negative. (Logicians call this “the ad ignorantumfallacy.”)
This tactic of placing the burden of proof on the negative is inadmissible in courts of law, where the burden must fall on the prosecution (to prove affirmative guilt) rather than on the defense (to negatively prove “not guilty”).
Common sense shows us the wisdom of placing the burden of proof upon the affirmative. For example, no one has found any evidence of Noah’s ark on Mt. Ararat. “So prove to me that it isn’t there and never was!” Of course we can’t. Is this sufficient reason to believe the Bible story, and that this mountain is the place in question? Similarly for stories about Atlantis, the Bermuda Triangle, and UFO abductions. “Prove me wrong!” Well I can’t, but so what?
The rule of “burden of proof on the affirmative” is a splendid device for de-cluttering the mind of intellectual rubbish. One might approach the world with the attitude of believing everything not disproved or, on the other hand, believing nothing unless proved. The latter, the approach of the scientist, is a far more reliable guide to truth, not to mention the management of one’s practical affairs.
George Santayana had it just right: “Skepticism is the chastity of the intellect.”
Science is Universal.
The foregoing list of distinguishing qualities of science indicates, I trust, that science is “not just another dogma.” This fact is demonstrated by the universal appeal and application of science. Scientists from around the world readily communicate with each other, as scientists, regardless of their political, religious and cultural differences.. Science is an institution and tradition which, while not without subjective elements (e.g. creative “hunches” and imaginative theories), attains an objectivity through its constant commerce with nature, and through the discipline of its methodology which ruthlessly culls out theories and hypotheses that fail the test of confirmation. Science is not perfect – no human institution is. Nor does science encompass all human knowledge, for there is much more to be learned from the arts, from literature, from moral reflection and practice, and from living in the company of fellow human beings in a well-ordered society. But science is supremely good at what it does – discovering the nature of physical, biological, and social reality, and articulating that reality in abstract and general laws and theories.
All Americans affirm science every time they boot up a computer, start a car or make a phone call. These everyday activities take place only through the successful application of thousands of scientific laws and theories. When the evangelical preacher stands before a TV camera to denounce evolution, or Donald Trump to debunk global warming as “unsound science,” they both know that the device that is pointing at them will send their image and words to millions “out there.” Thus they implicitly affirm the validity of physics, chemistry, advanced mathematics and computer science, even as they deny biology and atmospheric science.
You are presumably reading this essay on the internet. Therefore, numerous scientifically proven natural laws regarding the electro-magnetic spectrum, the properties of semi-conductors, theories of circuitry, and much more, are all true. The scientists and engineers (applied scientists) have all successfully done their jobs.
I defy you to supply a non-scientific explanation as to how your are able to pick this piece off the internet and read it on your computer screen.
Faith? A miracle? The Grace of God? Good luck with that!
The downgrading of science is quite agreeable to the religious right, of course. But also to the corporations that own Trump and the “Tea Party” Republicans in the White House. And as the pesticide and tobacco cases vividly demonstrated in the past, and the global warming issue reminds us today, scientific research and discovery can be very threatening to the corporate bottom line. A scientifically educated and sophisticated public would appreciate the significance of that research and discovery, and would see through the sophistry of corporate public relations. That same public, under a democratic system, would select leaders that act in behalf of all citizens, act to preserve the natural environment that is our ultimate source and sustenance, and act to the benefit of future generations. Accordingly, those corporate elites whose concerns are confined to their own self interest have no stake in a public that thinks critically and is scientifically informed. Sadly, the American public today gives those elites little cause for concern.
Nonetheless, the science deniers should be gravely concerned.
If the Trump administration and its successors continue to defund scientific research and education, and if a ruling American political party continues to deny and disparage science, preferring dogma and “false facts,” then science will not “go away.” More likely, the United States will cease to be a significant world power.
The once-outstanding American research universities will no longer attract talented young students from the United States and abroad, and these institution will no longer produce leading-edge research and innovations. However, science will continue to flourish elsewhere, where it will be cherished and generously supported: in China, in the Pacific Rim, in western Europe, and yes, in Russia.
Continuing the Whitehead quotation that began this piece:
Not all your heroism, not all your social charm, not all your wit, not all your victories on land or at sea can move back the finger of fate. Today we maintain ourselves. Tomorrow science will have moved forwards yet one more step, and there will be no appeal from the judgment which will then be pronounced on the uneducated. (“The Aims of Education”)