scientism: 3) the syndrome

In a previous post I tried to delineate the nature of a particular syndrome, one which is rarely aired outside of Science Studies, STS (Science, Technology, and Society) and other academic departments. In beginning to write about this I’m reminded of a quotation I just came across from Bill McKibben, in an interview publicizing the Burlington Book Festival:

Books remain the single most important way for societies to think seriously about themselves. There are arguments that can only be made at length, and with grace, which is to say only with books.

This certainly holds true with regard to the subject at hand. It’s exceptionally hard, in a short statement, to say anything about it that is perhaps worth saying. Nevertheless, I would like to throw out a provisional set of arguments over a series of posts. As we find ourselves moving further and further down a path whose deeper premises remain effectively unquestioned, I believe this topic can only acquire ever more importance.

I will be suggesting ten or so reasons why such questioning needs to be taken more seriously. Most of these points are not particularly controversial. Nevertheless, their direct implications rarely are addressed in the media, in policy decisions, in the broader cultural discourse more generally.

Before moving on to these, however, one larger point, touched on in a previous post. There is a straw man constantly resorted to here which has to do with the crisis of polarization we’ve reached, whereby virtually any criticism directed towards Science is assumed to have “religious” motivation and a fundamentally “irrational” basis. In fact, this assumption in itself is part of the syndrome – despite the truth that indeed, religious fundamentalism’s antagonism towards rational critical thought remains one of the greatest of dangers in the world.

In any event, this is most definitely not my own point of departure, quite the contrary. What I will be focusing on most here has to do with fields relatively newly “scientized,” which in all kinds of ways touch upon important and vastly complex human questions. And because human, also especially emotive and self-interested. Prior to the past 150 years or so, “science” used to point to a fairly small and circumscribed set of disciplines. Today, as linguist Roy Harris well puts it (in The Semantics of Science):

For many years now linguistics has not been the only subject scrambling to climb aboard the bandwagon of science. Students of virtually every form of human behaviour – including psychologists, sociologists, anthropologists and educationists – have tried to do likewise, and in some cases have simply appropriated the title science as an official designation for their own discipline or subdiscipline. If people were shocked in 1914 when Clive Bell spoke of a ‘science of aesthetics,’ they have nowadays become accustomed to universities whose football coaches are “sports scientists” and whose army instructors introduce their trainees to the study of ‘military science.’ (pp. 104-105)

To which one can add, of course, the notion of “political science.”

In my most recent post on this subject I quoted the following from Jerry Coyne (my emphasis):

I prefer to think of science as an attitude rather than a method: a respect for the truth about nature and a determination to wrest that truth from obscurity by using methods that, according to most rational people, reveal what’s out there.

I find the formulation I’ve highlighted both honest and largely accurate as a description of how science operates. The trouble, to my mind, comes in with what follows the colon, with phrases such as “the truth about nature,” “most rational people,” and “what’s out there.” These beg a number of questions that need to be explored in greater depth, which I hope to be able to do in future posts.

Toby MacNutt (and Vienna Teng)

I walked past a poster of upcoming events at Flynn Space the other day, stopped, scratched my head, turned back, and then read a familiar name: Toby MacNutt, my old group partner from syntax class a few years ago (super-smart and a lot of fun to work with). Toby was also the most recent recipient of the Vermont Artists’ Space Grant and has been putting together a piece of dance which premiered in work-in-progress form a couple of days ago.

It’s in five parts and explores the idea and experience of being in a sense multiple-bodied: Toby dances both with and without crutches, inhabiting them as an extension of the physical self, as creating a kind of second body with regard to other people and the (both internal and external) world. Throughout the piece different qualities of relationship and connectedness are played with – engagement and touch, disengagement.

The sections contrast inventively, each of the three duets emphasizing different aspects of movement and relationship amongst the dancers. Sometimes the pair are synchronized, at other moments they are responding to each other, still other times they go off in different directions, creating their own individual dialogues with the surrounding space. There is also a solo movement (performed with crutches and, unlike the others, in silence, ie without accompanying music), which brings in certain qualities of gymnastic grace rare to see in dance. The piece concludes with a joyously choreographed section for all of the dancers together.

The Vermont Artists’ Space Grants award 10 weeks of creation time, with the expectation being that the end result will still be a work-in-progress. Toby is looking for further funding in order to bring the project to final completion.

The first section was performed to this song, “Recessional,” by Vienna Teng, whom I’d never heard. I must admit I almost lost it (!) when her utterly gorgeous voice entered as the lights went down and the dancers stepped into the open, bare space. The song has been haunting me since the performance and I’ve listened to it quite a few times. Looking it up I read somewhere that it was written as a love song in reverse – if so it makes perfect and devastatingly beautiful sense.

scientism: 2) definitions

So first, some preliminary definitions. What do we talk about when we use the word “scientism”?

Very broadly, “scientism” here refers to the view and understanding of “science” effectively as a religion, though without an acknowledgment of this being so. In other words, it is a totalizing approach in which “science” is assumed capable of answering any and all ultimate/ultimately valuable questions. Most crucially for my purposes here: looked to implicitly as the default mode of inquiry regarding human psychology and potential.

More fully:

1) a: “Reason” is viewed as a unitary entity. That is to say, when something called “reason” is deemed to be operating, we are referring to the same thing, practically speaking, no matter what the context.

b: Likewise, “science” is viewed as a unitary entity. It is supposedly the case that what, say, physicists, chemists, and cell biologists do, and how they do it, is basically the same thing that, say, geologists and meteorologists do, which is basically the same thing that researchers into the effects of food and drugs on the body do, and basically the same thing that sociologists, psychologists, and evolutionary theorists do.

c: Finally, these two entities collapse into one. As Jerry Coyne, professor in the Department of Ecology and Evolution at the University of Chicago, puts it in the article I quote from in the earlier post:

…some spheres of the humanities, namely the social sciences, do give us a way to find knowledge. They do it by using the same techniques as do “real” scientists: observation, experimentation, testing of hypothesis and predictions, rational inquiry, and doubt. In fact, I have long called things like social science, history, Biblical scholarship (as opposed to theology), and archaeology “science broadly conceived.” In fact, I have said that even things like car mechanics and plumbing could be considered forms of science, for when fixing electrical problems or finding leaks, mechanics and plumbers use scientific inquiry.

…I see science as essentially continuous with things like history and archaeology. I see science not as an area of inquiry that depends on a prescribed “scientific method”: as Philip [Kitcher] and others note, there is no one “scientific method.” Science can proceed via induction or deduction, experiment or observation, or any manner of rational inquiry that produces reliable (i.e. generally verifiable and reproducible) knowledge. I prefer to think of science as an attitude rather than a method: a respect for the truth about nature and a determination to wrest that truth from obscurity by using methods that, according to most rational people, reveal what’s out there.

2) Going a small step further to make this point quite clear, a scientistic attitude believes that the same heuristic expectations – the same principles, basic approaches, forms of verification, outcomes – apply equally to the study of sentience as to non-sentient matter and phenomena. That is to say, that there is nothing ultimately distinct between the study of immaterial thoughts, intentions, emotions, let alone the movement of these within the vast mesh of interconnectedness and interdependence that comprises the human mind, and the study of a subatomic particle, an organic molecule, a rock, a mountain, the atmosphere.

3) Scientism assumes without question that only “scientific” explanations can count as “ultimate,” and ultimately satisfying. No other means or form of expressing the truth of some phenomenon or other can ever have the prestige of a “scientific” formulation.

4) Therefore, as follows on from this, Science likewise and perforce must contain the ultimate source of all values – including those informing its own assumptions and projects. Since it is viewed as providing the only ultimately trustable methods and the only ultimate explanations, it has succeeded in taking the place of religion in more-or-less all of the latter’s traditional functions, and has supplanted the humanities more generally in perceived value.

5) Finally, as a result of the specialization inherent in scientific research and language, we have had no choice but to accept what amounts to a priesthood with whom, in the last analysis, the rest of us are not allowed to disagree at the level of basic view or experimental design, interpretation of results, and so on. Just as the theological pronouncements of the medieval Western Church, delivered in Latin, were indecipherable to all but its hierarchy, today’s scientists speak a language which non-specialists do not understand and generally do not have the time and means to understand. And this has become ever more the case with ever-proliferating specializations and sub-specializations of science: even those with a solid background in each of the major sciences cannot hope to keep up with all the new vocabulary, techniques, and technology that increase year to year.

Therefore, whereas in the past a more general public conversation was possible about wisdom, knowledge, the nature of truth, and so on, today, more and more, the average person finds herself silenced with regard to ultimate questions. Instead, we quote the latest headline in the New York Times Science section – about which media reports I have written below – and shrug our shoulders.

Very rapidly we have reached a point of virtual powerlessness and to a certain extent vapidity in our public discourse, in which ordinary sound, considered, deep reason carries little prestige when placed next to the latest splashy headline conveying a presumed increase in knowledge. (Presumed because, as noted in the linked post above: in Seth Mnookin’s report newspapers paid pretty much exactly four times as much attention to original studies as to related (supporting or unsupporting) ones, with 80% of the former being subsequently refuted or unconfirmable as stated. And with one out of 57 articles on the related studies even bothering to mention that the original finding cannot be confirmed as stated!)

This is one of quite a number of effects of scientism upon our culture that will be the focus of subsequent posts.

scientism: 1) preliminary

As promised in an earlier post, some thoughts on scientism and how it functions.

There’s a somewhat understandable reason why this term is unfamiliar to most people, which is to say why our media doesn’t cover it seriously, or practically speaking at all. Though there are certainly many thinkers who don’t fall into this category (see for example the folks involved with SAND, the Science and Non-Duality Conference), our culture seems now to be rather stuck within a state of Manichean opposition between two big terms – “religion” (and more generally the humanities) and “science” (this latter usually simply and unfortunately equated with the notion of “reason,” about which more later). In truth each of these terms covers a multitude of paradigms and practices.

For believers in scientism, “religion” has simply become a code word for the root of all evil – the source of ignorance itself, regression, hatred, violence. “Science” on the other hand has become positively the guarantor of all that is good. If only we would grant it supreme ultimate power in all decision-making we would eventually find ourselves in paradise on earth – or as close to that as is possible to achieve. We would be well on our way to understanding literally everything about everything, and having no causes remaining for hatred or violence at all.

For a number of reasons which I plan to explore in future posts, this view is enabled by a few largely unquestioned assumptions, and by certain filters within the media which are mostly unconsciously placed upon the flow of information and expression. But one reason will be mentioned right away, since it is a very understandable and sensible one: namely, there is indeed an awful lot of fundamentalist insanity about, and while very far from expressing the whole truth about “religion,” let alone humanistic understanding more generally, its prominence today cannot be denied.

All the same it is important to see how something we are calling “Science” has now become short hand for “Ultimate Truth.” For true believers in Science it operates, in fact, almost precisely like a religion, though this can be hard to see. Thus, the notion of “scientism” is crucially necessary in order to point out how this can be so. Necessary as much as anything in order to keep open our capacity to detect blind spots of vision.

As I will argue, blind spots there are, and some dangerous ones too.

O Magnum Mysterium – Morten Lauridsen

It seems to be a New Year, and as I suppose music is among other things my form of prayer, I’d like to send this one out into the world today also.

A word of introduction:

So there I was one cold January night, around 3 or 4 am, wondering why the Percocet that had been prescribed, while dulling the fairly astounding quantity of pain my body had decided to start producing several days before, all the same made me feel even worse. As in a good four or five of the apparently not uncommon side effects – nausea, abdominal cramps, headache and more… On top of which – consciousness had entered some murky, sludgy, really undesirable zone… With all of that going on I tossed and turned for a week with very little sleep until the condition passed.

All through the night I would listen to Vermont Public Radio – sort of. The pain and the drug combined to produce a weird kind of hovering, opiate-dream-state of awareness, with little sense of time. I remember that every third or fourth piece seemed to be by Telemann (but isn’t that usually the case?)… And there was a Schumann symphony, no. 4 I think, and other things which failed to engage but served at least to hold out a kind of life-line to the world.

And then, as I say around 3 or 4 in the morning, something began radiating out of the speakers which I actually heard. More to the point, it went through the ears and straight down into the center of my chest – warm, healing spaciousness. And though only about 6 minutes long, that night the piece just went on and on and on. I had no sense of it moving through time, but felt suspended and protected within what I can only call its loving embrace.

And here it is, in a recording I just heard tonight, having previously known only the one by the Los Angeles Master Chorale. All the more spine-chillingly magical for being live and sung in the Chapel of King’s College, Cambridge.

May wisdom continuously arise. May kindness and compassion prevail.