Science doesn’t hold many ‘values’. Unlike a religion, there are no facts that science is fundamentally attached to, or wobbly evidence that it throws faith behind – in the words of the founder of Skeptic magazine, Michael Shermer:
ʺScience is not the affirmation of a set of beliefs but a process of inquiry aimed at building a testable body of knowledge constantly open to rejection or confirmation. In science, knowledge is fluid and certainty fleeting. That is at the heart of its limitations. It is also its greatest strength.ʺ
As discussed in previous posts, then, science can only be said to hold one certain ‘assumption’, whereby it claims that when doing science, rationality is something we must follow. However, this could not be construed as a value. After all, science is the ultimate method of fact finding: if one can show evidence as to why a consensually agreed upon theory is incorrect, then science by it’s definition would accept it. If it’s not doing this, it isn’t science. Thus even the ‘value’ of rationality is up for discussion, if one can provide good reasons or evidence to start the discussion as to why.
I discussed in my last article why [permalink_to post=”Assumptions”]it doesn’t make a great deal of sense to challenge this ‘value’ at current, and why rationality is significantly different to any other assumptions that a ‘system of thought’ might hold[/permalink_to]. Rationality is both a necessary and a sufficient assumption for truth finding to maintain, and for facts to maintain. Thus the extent to which any criticism of science maintains an idea that science somehow has values, or an agenda, or is a tool for reinforcing traditional norms, is extremely worrying.
I’ll briefly discuss three examples of these criticisms to demonstrate the point.
Science has an agenda
You can find this criticism of science in a variety of places, but primarily from certain perspectives which tend to disagree with the mainstream. Feminism, Marxism, Anarchism, etc. The criticism goes that science is a tool for upholding harmful values as it helps to transmit or justify the norms of society.
Well, in a sense it is correct. Science is a method for finding truth, so if mainstream ideas are focused around a certain interest, then you would expect most current scientific method to be used in a way that somehow reflects that -although certainly not in a way which is in any way bias. For example, in a society where everyone, including even the most sceptical of people think that the world is flat, there are likely to be few scientific endeavours which are researching ideas relating to spherical objects orbiting the sun. This is a given – science won’t accept BS, but it’s still conducted by human beings with all of our vastly explored limits, and so science can’t know everything.
But how is this the fault of science? The criticism, whomever it is coming from, is really one of society. Science is still the best method of finding truth and when in the right hands, with the right raw data, it can do so. Science has no agenda; it’s people who have agendas. And to that end, science can be used for the ‘forces of evil’ just like talking, counting or walking can. You don’t hear people saying those activities have an agenda, though. The problem is with society, not with science. Hell, if you let science into more areas, (like I have argued we should, by making morality a pursuit of rational academia like other science) you may notice science is better able to identify when its perspective is incorrect. Known ‘science’ was pretty ignorant on the theories it had regarding a flat earth until scientific thinking was extended to disprove the idea that the earth was flat, so if you think the agenda of science is wrong, you should be justifying it by extending scientific thinking to show why. Blaming scientific method when the real problem is human agenda or limitation, is a mistake. It’s the input, not the method you disagree with.
Vivisection is another common criticism of science. My position on vivisection is clear cut as a matter of rationality. The social and biologically defined group that we belong to (sentient human beings) does not justify us to exploit or torture members of other biological or socially defined groups (sentient non-human beings) for the benefit of a fellow member of our preferred group. Sure we can argue self defence, or defence of our families and loved ones, and come up with interesting justifications for getting around this simple piece of reasoning. But vivisection goes beyond this. Vivisection asks us to calculate as positive the idea that we should be able to kill or torture, physically or mentally different sentient others, for the extremely slim chance of helping physically or mentally more similar others. This can’t really be justified, and until the day when vivisection is straight swapping a life for a life, (or somewhere near that equation) with no better alternatives for saving that life possible, then there isn’t much of a debate to be had as far as rationality is concerned.
Many people grasp this, or moreover perhaps don’t grasp this but ‘love animals’ and somehow get to the same belief on the immorality of vivisection…anyhow, those who do get this (for whatever reason) can often be found with a hatred of science for it’s perceived participation in the exploitation of animals. Note that, again, speaking, counting and walking also ‘participate in the exploitation of animals’ yet are deemed useful methods of acting. To repeat the previous criticism’s conclusion: it’s the input, not the method you disagree with.
And to conclude this criticism, in much the same way as the previous point once again, if you want science to be able to apply it’s own ‘value’ of rationality in such a way that it can not be usefully used to contribute to an agenda, then you need to allow science to be active in those areas where agendas are spoken about. In other words, if you believe science shouldn’t allow for vivisection, find a way to show how exactly morality should be objective in the same way science is.*
*This essay wasn’t intended to be a marketing exercise to sell my own theory of Rational Morality, but I see how it might look…
Climate change is a weird one. I’ve heard many a person say that science is pretty flawed as it can’t even agree on climate change. I’ve heard this been taken to the extent that a person claims science often opposes the truth about climate change. So let’s set one thing straight: scientific consensus backs the evidence on climate change. There are no half measures here, and even wikipedia agrees (and when wikipedia agrees with science on a controversial issue, you can be pretty sure that something obvious is going on!).
So, then, why the attack on science? Primarily because business, governments and various other interest groups have wheeled out the minority and presented them as ‘the other side of the argument’ in the same way that Christian groups wheel out the creationist “scientists” as the ‘other side of the argument’ about evolution. But make no mistake, the evidence on climate change is agreed upon as strongly as is evolution, if not more so.
So what’s the solution? Like with the past two examples, more science! Change our governments, businesses and the like to be bound by honest scientific method, and our media to respect it rather than staying bias toward this idea that truth is relative, which in turn amounts to nothing more than popularising and justifying attribution bias. The problem here is not with science, it is once again with people not being scientific enough.
So, to finish the article like a letter (the title is in letter format, so let’s keep up the pre-tense):
Fellow advocate of science, and critic of society