I’ve been thinking a lot about what science means in our general political climate. One interesting question is:
Are we retreating from science?
To address this issue, I think of three distinct components, in increasing order of difficulty, controversy, and might I say, intractability.
- Day-to-day science
- Philosophy of science
- Ideology and policy formulation
1. Day-to-day science
This is what I did to get the degree that denoted me as a scientist. It was 80% mundane, mechanical, and diligence, and 20% creative, intuitive, and imaginative. This means reading thousands of pages of background material or chasing down a subscripts/superscripts, factors of 2, or minus signs in dozens of pages. I did theory, but an experimentalist would deal with analogues such as chasing down a bug in the processing of empirical data or ensuring their apparatus was wipe of all contaminating defects. I can say I’m qualified to speak here, with the further statement that I hit very quickly the boundaries of my domain of expertise: quantum information with a focus on the physical phenomenon of coherence, entanglement, and non-locality (spooky action at a distance).
Any controversy in the day-to-day science is purely technical. And although these can get pretty heated, there are clear metrics to judge and move forward.
So far, so good.
2. Philosophy of science
Almost all actual scientists don’t really do this since it’s effectively irrelevant to their academic or corporate positions. More junior people are too busy learning established methods and trying to level up for the next grade, degree, or grant. The senior researchers and professors are too busy on activities towards publication or grant writing. “Publish or perish” is a very real issue.
Here, controversy can be much more expansive and intractable since we’re going into the philosophical realm, which is unconstrained by empirical data or scientific methods.
For example, there’s established mathematics that works in quantum mechanics, but there’s much philosophical rumination over the nature of the core issues in those calculations. To give a sense of the precision, the celebrated Richard Feynman likened it to measuring the distance from New York to LA to within a single hair’s width.
Despite the precision of calculations involving probabilities that can be used for engineering and technology, there are still huge rifts in the philosophical interpretation of those seemingly cut-and-dried probabilities. In particular, what constitutes the difference between ontological probabilities (there are mutually independent properties of system that are fundamentally unknowable once you know the other, to within a certain level of precision) and epistemic probabilities (fundamentally a statement of your knowledge — the 6-sided dice your friend threw in the other room has a definite value facing up, you just don’t know it)? The math describing them can be exactly the same! There have been many papers and books written just to distinguish between the nature of these probabilities in quantum systems.
These philosophical issues are problematic and difficult, compared to the purely technical issues of day-to-day science. However, no one’s being subjected to ideological heat.
3. Ideology and policy formulation
This is the problem.
This is what Neil deGrasse Tyson implicitly means when talking about the public needing to understand science, but there are significant and probably intractable roadblocks to moving ahead. It’s more than a matter pithy statements, that unfortunately and ultimately turn out to be meaningless platitudes, especially with respect to acceptance in the general population and driver of policy that everyone agrees on. For example:
“We should believe in the scientific method because it’s our candle in the demon-haunted world.”
Easier said than done, what if it leads to socially unpalatable truths about the world?
“Religion is an impediment to science”
I’m saying this as an Atheist/Agnostic and it may be true, but we’re not getting rid of religion in the world anytime soon.
Usually there’s a significant interpretational component to any empirical facts in even the most hardest of sciences like physics and chemistry, forget about biology, and forget even further in a domain like psychology
The Religious Right may be against evolution and push for creationism to be taught at the same level as evolution. This is obviously ludicrous. However, we’re also seeing very pernicious effects of the Left being anti-science, but in a much more nuanced way.
For example, the Left mocks, denigrates, and attacks the (religious) Right for being against evolution in general and human evolution in particular. So far so good. I’m in complete 100% agreement with the Left here since evolution is a stone cold fact and not just a “theory” to be treated at the same level as creationism.
Here’s the problem.
There’s a fundamentally ideological rejection of evolution working on the human brain when it comes to race-based differences. Heck, there was even ideologically-driven push back for the very existence of race! In particular, Lewontin’s Fallacy. Cliff notes: Lewontin looked at the frequency distribution of alleles at only a “single locus” and concluded human races do not exist. However, he failed to account for the allele frequency at “multiple loci”, which cluster very differently for different populations, all the way up to human races.
Anyone who dare violate the ideological line of egalitarian orthodoxy (simply put, all humans are exactly the same and all differences are environmental) wouldn’t stand a chance at tenure, and may even be subjected to public shame, threats, and legal action due to their “racism” for even the consideration of questions in a purely scientific context. Forget about a broader context that has very controversial social and policy implications
For example, I was called a “moron” from someone on the far Left for even posing the question of whether IQ is necessarily equivalent to a human being’s worth. The former can be an objective quantifiable metric, whereas the latter is an entirely distinct philosophical one that does not necessarily affect nor is affected by an empirical fact like IQ, or anything like hair color or weight. Now if that someone who’s at the level of university faculty cannot bear to consider the very “formulation” of these questions, or even answering them and with respect to policy formulation, what does it say to the rest of society?
So until ideology can be lessened, which requires much more open discussion, acceptance, and less ideology-based shaming, we can talk in circles about how science is great, and everyone can acknowledge science is great, but get absolutely nowhere.
I’m extremely pessimistic that science can overcome ideology.
Should positive benefits be a guiding principle?
To finish off, this question of positive benefits of science as a guiding principle may seem clear cut, but has some nuances:
1. Is the “process” of getting to a scientific truth harmful to some people?
Experiments on prisoners during WW2 by the Germans and Japanese yielded useful research on cold weather and high altitude survival, but is the knowledge worth that process?
2. Are the “scientific” conclusions harmful?
Assuming the process of attaining scientific knowledge is my harmful, are the immediate conclusions harmful? This is more difficult to answer, especially with respect to the context, leading to the next point.
3. Is policy formulation based on the conclusions harmful?
Ignoring race-based differences on the risks of various diseases can be harmful. Acknowledging racial differences can be helpful. For example: Cystic fibrosis is prevalent to Whites, sickle cell disease is more prevalent in Blacks.