Science and its discontents

My memories of science at school are not particularly fond ones. I was very much a product of what CP Snow has called the two cultures, the sciences and the humanities. Now though I have a very different attitude. I didn’t have an epiphany; it was more a gradual realization that understanding science was essential to understanding the modern world. I don’t think I am the only person who feels this attraction to science, as we can see from the boom in the publication of popular science books over the last two decades.

I love the methodology of science. Its three fundamental assumptions are:

  1. There is a reality that exists independently of our own minds.
  2. Things happen according to natural laws, not at the whim of a conscious agency.
  3. Nature’s laws can be known with an ever greater degree of confidence.


What I like about the scientific method is the way it is open to change. If you can provide evidence, then you will be able overturn the established truth. There may be opposition but in the end truth will out. If only this could be applied to other areas of life.

Science faces many challenges from both left and right. There is the campaign against the teaching of evolution, which is not a phenomenon confined to the USA – Islamic scholars also oppose Darwin’s theory. Evolution may be a theory but it is scientific fact. Here there is a misunderstanding of what scientists mean by theory. When I say “I have a theory” I am generally engaging in some speculation. Scientists use this for a systematic explanation and prediction of empirical phenomena. A theory must be testable and falsifiable.

The opponents of evolution are not interested in searching for the truth. No amount of evidence would convince them because they see it as incompatible with their religion. The Onion satirised the absurdity of the arguments:

“As the debate over the teaching of evolution in public schools continues, a new controversy over the science curriculum arose Monday in this embattled Midwestern state. Scientists from the Evangelical Center For Faith-Based Reasoning are now asserting that the long-held “theory of gravity” is flawed, and they have responded to it with a new theory of Intelligent Falling. Things fall not because they are acted upon by some gravitational force, but because a higher intelligence, ‘God’ if you will, is pushing them down,” said Gabriel Burdett, who holds degrees in education, applied Scripture, and physics from Oral Roberts University”

Science is also being attacked from a very different perspective – the postmodernists. Suspicion of universal knowledge is surely the defining characteristic of this thought system.  And modern science, the embodiment of the idea of universal knowledge, has become a favourite target of postmodernist critics. Their hostility to science is based not on any perceived abuses but on its underlying logic.

For postmodernist thinkers science is not about searching for truths. These truths are socially constructed. I do find it very hard to be objective about these postmodernists. I am a pomophobe; I think that postmodernism is a gigantic intellectual fraud. They use complicated words to say nothing. I don’t want to be racist but French thinkers do seem to specialise in this kind of verbal virtuosity. In this sense science is anti- intellectual. It distrusts pure reason, demanding instead the production of objective fact. The fundamental question we have to ask about postmodernism is: what does it add to the sum of human knowledge? 

In previous posts I have mentioned how physicist Alan Sokal was able to get a hoax article, Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity, published by Social Text, a journal published by Duke University Press. Sokal himself summed it up beautifully:

“Anyone who believes that the laws of physics are mere social conventions is invited to try transgressing those conventions from the windows of my apartment. (I live on the twenty-first floor.)”

The problem is that a lot of postmodernist writing is beyond parody. That’s why the Sokal piece was so believable. Looking on the internet it’s not too hard to find the real thing. Here is one typical piece I found “Deconstructing the evidence-based discourse in health sciences: truth, power and fascism.” Here is a sample of the writing:

It is becoming increasingly evident that an unvarying, uniform language – an ossifying discourse – is being mandated in a number of faculties of health sciences where the dominant paradigm of EBHS has achieved hegemony. This makes it difficult for scholars to express new and different ideas in an intellectual circle where normalisation and standardisation are privileged in the development of knowledge. The critical individual must then resort to resistance strategies in front of such hegemonic discourses within which there is little freedom for expressing unconventional thoughts. Rather than risk being alienated from their colleagues, many scientists find themselves interpellated by hegemonic discourses and come to disregard all others. Unfortunately, privileging a single discourse (evidence-based medicine (EBM)) situated within a single scientific paradigm (postpositivism) confines the researcher to a yoke of exactly reproducing the established order.

 We believe that a postmodernist critique of this prevailing mode of thinking is indispensable. Those who are wedded to the idea of ‘evidence’ in the health sciences maintain what is essentially a Newtonian, mechanistic world view: they tend to believe that reality is objective, which is to say that it exists, ‘out there’, absolutely independent of the human observer, and of the observer’s intentions and observations. They fondly point to ‘facts’, while they are forced to dismiss ‘values’ as somehow unscientific. For them, this reality (an ensemble of facts) corresponds to an objectively real and mechanical world. But this form of empiricism, we would argue, fetishises the object at the expense of the human subject, for whom this world has a vital significance and meaning in the first place. An evidence-based, empirical world view is dangerously reductive insofar as it negates the personal and interpersonal significance and meaning of a world that is first and foremost a relational world, and not a fixed set of objects.

Science, like any human enterprise, is imperfect. However it is the best way we know of understanding reality. Maybe the problem is that it’s very real. When it does good, it is a wonderful tool for the advancement of mankind. But when it issued for malevolent purposes, the consequences can also be terrible But science is one of humanity’s greatest achievements. Carl Sagan put it best: science is a candle in the dark, shining a light on our world allowing us to see beyond the superstitions, ignorance, fear, and magical thinking that have accompanied us throughout our brief stay on this mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.

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