More power to science!–be careful what you ask for

From time to time, you’ll hear people declaiming on the differences between “science” and “religion”.  Science, we are told, is reasonable, open-minded, and self-correcting.  Religion, on the other hand, is supposedly irrational and dogmatic.  People’s religious opinions may have psychological causes, but it’s not admitted that they might have reasons to believe those opinions true.  They are only able to maintain their silly beliefs by persecuting anyone who doubts them.  In fact, one might say that, for may people today, for a belief to be unreasonable and intolerant is the very definition of “religious”.  So, for example, we hear new atheists dismiss communism as a religious perversion of atheism–not true atheism at all.  The reason that communism is “religious” is that it enforces an orthodoxy and persecutes heretics, the opposite of the true “scientific” atheist mindset.  On the other hand, one often hears Republican commentators dismiss the movement to counteract global warming as “religious”–meaning unreasonable and viscious toward unbelievers.  Note well how our supposed friends use the word “religion” (as in “global warming religion”) as an insult.

Of course, it’s silly to say that there are no reasons to believe that some religion is true, or that some particular religion is true.  Certainly, at least some religious believers hold their beliefs for intellectually respectable reasons, and most are very good at being accomodating to unbelievers.  However, the basic claim, that the scientific community utilizes doubt (except regarding its basic methodological premises) while religious communities must discourage it, is true.  The difference, though, has nothing to do with how “reasonable” either way of knowing is.  The difference lies in the different social responsibilities of science and religion.

In Purity and Danger, anthropologist Mary Douglas asks the question “what is the fundamental difference between primitive and modern religions?”  She considers some standard answers, e.g. that primitive sects are ritualistic and superstitious while modern sects are ethical and skeptical, and finds them incompatible with the actual records of primitive peoples.  The real difference, she decides, is that primitive religions are responsible for maintaining a social order–keeping people in line–while modern religions aren’t.  This isn’t because we moderns are freer than our superstitious forebears.  Rather, it’s because we are enmeshed in a much more pervasive and invasive network of social controls, organized with thorough bureaucratic and technological efficiency.  Religion can afford to be tolerant and individualistic now, now that nothing important depends on it.

What does this have to do with science?  Well, the fondest wish of our loudest science advocates is that science should have a stronger social presence, that its disinterested logic and open-mindedness would be allowed to inform public policy to a far greater extent.  Far better, they say, that government should rely on science than on superstition.

Whether or not it would be better for society is one thing we could debate.  I wonder, however, if anyone has thought about whether it would be good or bad for science itself.  If scientists ever should assume the mantle of social responsibility, our famed open-mindedness, our happiness to be proven wrong, would be the first thing we’d inevitably sacrifice.  As soon as some scientific theory becomes the main motive for a people’s collective action, skepticism towards that theory becomes a menace to society.  Today, I feel perfectly free to publicly doubt the existence of dark matter or the Higgs boson, because whether or not those things exist doesn’t affect the legitimacy of the government or any of its policies.   Consider instead the case of anthropogenic global warming.  As one often hears it complained, doubts on this subject are not welcomed; in fact, they are regarded as immoral.  Is this because, as alleged, this one part of science is becoming “religious”?  Not at all; what’s happened is that this one part of science has become socially and politically important.  There is strong evidence that the Earth is heating due to human release of greenhouse gases.  Curbing this effect before its results become catastrophic requires joint action by much of the industrialized world.  Well-publicized doubt threatens this joint action.  Therefore, it must be countered, by character attacks if necessary.  The reasoning here is perfectly valid.  It is the reasoning of a statesman, not a scientist, but that’s nothing to be ashamed of.  In this case, scientists have been thrust into a position of importance.  They must (and, I believe, they are) discharge these unwanted responsibilities as well as they can.  Still, if science continues to become more “relevant” in the coming years, expect centuries hence a future Dr. Douglas to someday write that this was the time that science switched from its “modern” open phase to its “primitive” dogmatic phase.

As a scientist, I hope, pray, and expect that my own field of astrophysics will remain gloriously irrelevant to the practical concerns of mankind.  I rather like it that I can feel free to propose a new explanation of short-duration gamma ray bursts without risking social anarchy.

10 Responses

  1. You wrote: “If scientists ever should assume the mantle of social responsibility, our famed open-mindedness, our happiness to be proven wrong, would be the first thing we’d inevitably sacrifice. As soon as some scientific theory becomes the main motive for a people’s collective action, skepticism towards that theory becomes a menace to society.”

    True.

    You wrote: “doubts on this subject are not welcomed; in fact, they are regarded as immoral. Is this because, as alleged, this one part of science is becoming ‘religious’? Not at all; what’s happened is that this one part of science has become socially and politically important. There is strong evidence that the Earth is heating due to human release of greenhouse gases.”

    Here’s where you and I may disagree. We may not and it could be a difference of definition, but I’d argue that you’re right that science is socially and politically important but that this means precisely that it’s becoming religious.

    First, I’d argue that “religion” as people often define it has become a non-faith. As you said, it stands for nothing important or serious. At best it’s an odd form of entertainment, certainly not suited for anything important. Believers are forced to the sidelines; their faith only matters in private – i.e. where it is hidden, or worse, where it stands at the same level as private interest. Religion once stood for something important, a genuine conflict between good and bad.

    Second, science is about that conflict now. As you say, publicly doubting science is viewed as immoral. Modern science, divorced from other pursuits like philosophy and faith (so-called “normative” fields), has built its own sense of right and wrong. Right is Fact, wrong is Superstition. Fact is wrapped up in imagery of the light of reason banishing the darkness of superstition, and ultimately strives for finding a real foundation for knowledge. Some scientists will claim that science never claims a definitive answer, but it does claim a definitive method. Physical senses are the only thing that counts for modern science and arguments outside of that can’t be weighed. The quest for absolutes, the hero worship that ensues over certain scientific figures (Copernicus dispelling the primitive views about the revolutions of the stars), and the imagery of light vs. dark suggests religious overtones to me.

    Third, it is all a faith. You say that there is strong evidence to suggest global warming. I personally don’t care – if it’s happening, it’s far too late to stop it. One study suggested that the effects can’t be reversed until the year 3000. If it’s not happening, the governments will come up with other crappy policies to pass. What I’m interested in are the assumptions… We say “strong evidence.” I say, how do we know? I’ve never met these scientists, I’ve never read their reports or run their tests. We just believe them because they have degrees. For most people (I doubt you fit into this category), the statistics simply serve to justify a faith already there.

  2. Hello Mr. Tully,

    Thank you for your thoughtful comment. Of the two possible definitions of religion
    1) beliefs pertaining to the sacred
    2) beliefs that bind a community together
    I would say that science is becoming religious in the second but not the first sense, while Christianity is remaining religious in the first sense and ceasing to be religious in the second. I think your claim is that science is becoming religious in both senses, the first because it now aspires to reveal ultimate realities, so that all knowledge outside of science is considered reprehensible superstition. I would say that this campaign against nonscientific knowledge has less to do with scientific hubris than with science’s new role as an agent of social control–the second rather than the first aspect again.

  3. You’re right to suggest that scientists, when speaking to the public, generally have an agenda, one that you and I would most likely disapprove. On the other hand, they’re generally reliable when it comes to narrowly scientific issues in their own fields.

    Actually, I’m one of the only reactionaries who does have the training to evaluate the current climatology paradigm. I’ve attended several talks on climate modeling at American Physical Society meetings, and it all seemed legit–although definitely a work in progress. The basic claims–that carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas, and that we release it into the atmosphere when we burn fossil fuels–are surely right. Still, I haven’t gone into the details where problems might be hiding. I should do that sometime, as a service to the reactionary-sphere.

  4. For what it’s worth, I disagree with you about the scientific nature of catastrophic anthropogenic global warming orthodoxy. As an economist, I am confident of my qualifications to follow one part of the relevant science, the “hockey stick” controversy. In brief, it is quite clear that this literature is cargo cult nonsense and that its key movers and shakers are charlatans. This was obvious long before the “climategate” disclosures, which were really a kind of comic relief. Steve McIntyre has done very careful, technically excellent work demonstrating this on his weblog and in his published work.

    It’s entirely possible that the CAGW guys are right, but in the same way that it is entirely possible that Cultural Anthropologists accidentally say true things once in a while. Science gets its special epistemologic status from the processes it employs and from the truth-orientation it embodies—when these are broken or missing, there is no reason to pay it special attention.

    More generally, I think your use of the future tense in the discussion above is naive. Medicine has become hopelessly corrupt, for example, partially as a result of the FDA’s reliance on science in doing its work. Furthermore, the (very recent) introduction of the institution of peer review in determining what gets published and what gets funded has been a disaster, as has been the (again, very recent) practice of making tenure decisions based on counting publications on a cv. Bruce Charlton has said many true things about this on his blog.

    As to your larger point, it is surely right. Scientists are the modern West’s priesthood, not in the sense that they are a separate caste of people singled out to perform religious ceremonies but in the sense that they are a separate caste of people singled out to perform public ritual and to rule on the truth of controversial claims. People get confused because priestly classes have so often combined the two roles in the past.

  5. Bonald wrote: “I think your claim is that science is becoming religious in both senses [sacred and unifying], the first because it now aspires to reveal ultimate realities, so that all knowledge outside of science is considered reprehensible superstition. I would say that this campaign against nonscientific knowledge has less to do with scientific hubris than with science’s new role as an agent of social control–the second rather than the first aspect again.”

    My argument is that beliefs that bind a community together almost always pertain to the sacred. As Platonic philosophy demonstrated, you only refuse to kill your neighbor for one of two reasons: force or myth. If your argument is that science is turning into a force and not a narrative about human existence, then I’m still going to disagree. I will grant that many scientists aren’t imposing any kind of religion on people, but I think that individuals will always crave a myth. Should God cease to be sacred, something else will assume that role and whichever body of knowledge can offer an absolute account of human existence is a perfect candidate.

    As I’ll argue on my own site in a few weeks, I’m of the belief that all political systems are also theological systems – the former are built on assumptions about the latter.

    Do apologize if that’s unclear. I think that, to my credit, it’s a step up from my typical, one-line response of “Idolatry” to pollsters asking me what the largest social issue in America is. 🙂

  6. Hello Bonald,

    Since English is not my native language, I have to admit that I’m very confused about this:

    “So, for example, we hear new atheists dismiss communism as a religious perversion of atheism–not true atheism at all. The reason that communism is “religious” is that it enforces an orthodoxy and persecutes heretics, the opposite of the true “scientific” atheist mindset.”

    For me sounds like confusing a premise (“atheism”) with a doctrine (“communism”). And I don’t imply that you are the one making that confusion. But as one who’s first 34 years of his life lived in communism, I can tell that atheism was something granted, (officially, at least). We don’t know ALL about surrounding world ? Be patient, the science will find out, eventually. But in terms of political “science”, the Communism had all the answers! And till the last second was a “live science”, ready to adapt to all the challenges. All I can say is that I stopped blaming “my folks” that mourned Communism when I saw so much Westerners side by side with former Communist leaders saying “Communism was a great idea but was ill applied”. Sorry, I can’t go on this and be civilized.

  7. Hi Mao,

    This has to do with a certain argument that’s been going on between atheists and believers in the English-speaking world for some time. Atheists say that religion is bad because it has in the past caused people to be tyrannical, intolerant, etc. Believers reply “Oh yeah? What about Jacobinism and communism? They were both brutal and explicitly atheistic.” For quite a long time, the atheists just ignored this point, but lately they’ve come up with a reply–that communism wasn’t really atheistic precisely because of these negative features. In fact, these features made it functionally religious! (I’m pretty sure Christopher Hitchens makes this argument.)

    Of course, what’s going on here is that “religious” is being redefined to mean “cruel and closed-minded”, while atheism is redefined to mean the opposite of this. By these new definitions, the atheist’s claim “religion leads to intolerance and oppression; atheism to freedom” is tautologically true. It’s also irrelevant, because the “religion” they’re attacking no longer has any necessary connection with what most people mean by that word.

    In fact, a certain amount of “closed-mindedness” is necessary to maintain a robust social order. It wasn’t “religion” that corrupted communism. The basic responsibilities of maintaining order would have inevitably made communism less libertarian than Marx had imagined. That it went far beyond this necessary intolerance, and in fact established the most savage despotism in the history of humanity, comes from the wickedness of communist doctrine. And while atheism isn’t necessarily communistic, communism most certainly is an atheist doctrine.

  8. Hello Bonald,

    Thank you for the time you’ve spent to make me understand what the finest, most moral & tolerant people of this world (a.k.a. atheists) tell me – that Communism failed because the leaders were wearing copes under the Komissar suits, that should be a relief for the millions of people killed in the name of this “humanistic” social engineering theory.

    Now, back to your interesting post, I’m sure you saw this video:

    http://tinyurl.com/3ad2b82

    I know, it’s my lack of humor that reminds me of the old Communist saying: “It’s better to be wrong with the Party than to be right against it”.
    And I liked your fine irony:

    “As a scientist, I hope, pray, and expect that my own field of astrophysics will remain gloriously irrelevant to the practical concerns of mankind. I rather like it that I can feel free to propose a new explanation of short-duration gamma ray bursts without risking social anarchy.”

    It’s wrong for me to say that atheists want astrophysics to bring the proof that Big Bang has nothing to do with Creationism? Of course I may be wrong, but I think you’re already “hot”!

  9. ‘ Consider instead the case of anthropogenic global warming. As one often hears it complained, doubts on this subject are not welcomed; in fact, they are regarded as immoral. Is this because, as alleged, this one part of science is becoming “religious”? Not at all; what’s happened is that this one part of science has become socially and politically important. There is strong evidence that the Earth is heating due to human release of greenhouse gases. Curbing this effect before its results become catastrophic requires joint action by much of the industrialized world. Well-publicized doubt threatens this joint action. Therefore, it must be countered, by character attacks if necessary. The reasoning here is perfectly valid. It is the reasoning of a statesman, not a scientist, but that’s nothing to be ashamed of. In this case, scientists have been thrust into a position of importance. They must (and, I believe, they are) discharge these unwanted responsibilities as well as they can. ‘

    Sorry to comment on an old post, but current events with the Japanese reactor meltdown make this very relevant.

    The Japanese made a statesmanlike decision – they decided on nuclear power.

    And then they slacked off with their safety practices.

    I don’t know about ethics or religions or any of that, but I know a bit of physics. The Japanese statesmen made a decision in favor of nuclear power and now they are dealing with a contingency that should have been foreseen.

  10. Hello nphardcase,

    I’m not convinced that it’s impossible to decide for nuclear power and then not slack off on safety practices.

    Regardless, there are indeed some ineradicable risks in going nuclear. We must consider the alternatives, though. An occasional meltdown might still be better than large-scale global warming.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: