Those Sad Believers in the Religion of Science, Jamming, 04/03/2014

For most people, science is a big truth-producing black
box that has as much content as this T-shirt.
Yesterday, my girlfriend and I were discussing a meme that she finds frustrating and I find sad. No, not that one. I’m talking about Science: It Just Works. One of her friends posted it on Facebook, and they got into a conversation about why he posted it. He said he would always defend science against those who would push pseudo-sciences like crystal energies, homeopathy, and climate change denial. And that’s good.

But that kind of rhetoric obscures an important truth about the practice of science that isn’t really known to people outside the scientific industries and that people have to understand if they want to make sense of our world. Science is actually a very messy, difficult process, and conclusions only come with the accumulation of massive amounts of data. Even then, the conclusions are often inconclusive. What’s more, those data can be very difficult to acquire if the investments of large amounts of money are involved in the necessary experimentation. Sometimes, there simply isn’t enough cash to prove a hypothesis.

Bruno Latour’s early work was part of the wave of publications that opened these operations to the public eye. Anyone can pick up a copy of Laboratory Life or Science in Action, or any subsequent ethnography of scientific practices and communities to learn about the messy reality of scientific research. A lot of the theoretical groundwork had already been done in the historical studies of Thomas Kuhn and the philosophical work of David Bloor and the Edinburgh School of sociological philosophy of science. But for the past ten years, he has regretted doing this, first expressing his frustrations in his 2004 article, “Why Has Critique Run Out of Steam?” His basic point is that the tradition of science studies that he helped start has, far from helping people understand the practice of science, has only enabled skepticism and the loss of faith in it.

The irony of Boyle is that he created an image of an
apolitical science as a political act to defend the scientific
community from partisan conflict. Oh, damn, the picture is
the wrong Robert this time.
The problem Latour identified was that his critical movement had been too successful. But I think it had actually not been successful in the right way. The answer lies in the historical research Latour himself laid out in We Have Never Been Modern. The modern experimental paradigm of scientific research was developed by Robert Boyle and the Royal Society in Britain in the mid-1600s, just as England was getting out a civil war that shattered the island’s society. The Royal Society was a community of scholars and researchers, all broadly devoted to developing human knowledge, and Boyle was one of their most prominent figures. In the social instability after the civil war, he was most concerned with protecting himself and his compatriots from the political turmoil of the country. After all, a century later, Antoine Lavoisier, France’s greatest chemist at the time, would be beheaded in that country’s Revolutionary Terror. Scientists constitute a threat to the rule of established authority: a scientific conclusion can correct a king. And kings are very hostile to being corrected.

So Boyle developed his most successful invention, more successful than the machines he built for his experiments: the image of science as an apolitical practice. Scientists were a new kind of monks, whose devotions were experiments to discover the previously mysterious workings of the world. They were a spiritual practice who aimed to enlighten humanity with knowledge of the world they lived in. The method of a scientist was to be trusted. Science was above religion and politics, because when a scientific truth was established, it could not be disputed.

Bill Nye has become our most famous proselytizer of belief
in science. But he pushes it as a faith, especially when he
debates Ken Ham in a high-profile event that helped the
founder of the Creationist Museum resurrect funding for
his amusement park based on Noah's Ark
We’re still taught this today. In grade school, we learn about the sanctity of The Scientific Method. But none of us could ever say what The Scientific Method is because there isn’t one, perhaps other than ‘Collect as much reliable data as possible and analyze it hoping to discover something you hadn’t noticed before.’* Yet huge amounts of philosophical ink has been spilled on articles trying to isolate precisely what The Scientific Method is. Unless you’re a scientific practitioner yourself, you probably believe that The Scientific Method is a thing. That’s what we learned on PBS from Bill Nye and on the private networks from Beakman’s World. If you stopped doing science classes in grade ten because the math was hard, you believe in The Scientific Method as if it was a matter of faith.

* This is a personal bugbear of mine. Part of the research for my Ecophilosophy manuscript involved analysis of traditional medicine among indigenous groups, bodies of immense knowledge about the properties of local plants and fungi. Discussing this research with a friend, he mocked such knowledge because they didn’t use The Scientific Method. But just the because the shamans don’t wear labcoats, their useful biological databanks have been ignored. But they’re at the tail end of thousands of years of data collection and analysis. Smart pharmaceutical companies send teams to consult with indigenous leaders about their medicines because they'll be able to mass produce the chemicals that the shamanic tribes use locally without as much processing.

You start to look defeated when you're old and tired.
So now, when you see books like Latour’s and those that have followed him, you’re like a man who has lost his faith. You’ve grown up believing that science had a perfect method, The Scientific Method, and that its use resulted in absolutely true knowledge. That’s why Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens could talk about the superiority of science over religion: scientific knowledge was above the petty political provincialism of religion. This is just Boyle’s defensive thesis, formulated as a desperate gamble to protect his community from violence at the hand of post-war partisans. But part of the success of that gamble was that they succeeded in covering up why they convinced us all of that. So today, shrill writers like Dawkins repeat it as dogma.

Read those books that describe scientific practice in all its messiness: the vulnerability of funding to corporate or political whims, the jockeying of scientists across universities and research institutes, the fact that you’ll always find some study with data contra-indicating the conclusions of 95% of all other studies in that area. If you believed in the perfection of scientific knowledge as a dogma, as too many of us still do, you won’t see a book that educates you about the practice of an important human institution.

You’ll have your faith broken.

Latour shouldn’t be upset because the sociology and ethnography (and related philosophy) of science were too successful. If anything, they failed to root out the true rot: the conception of science in too many people’s minds as a subject of dogma. 

1 comment:

  1. Bravo. Yes. Thank you. This is pretty much my entire critique of dogmatic capital-S "Science!" summed up in one concise blog post. This is the exact reason I abandoned the hard sciences for STS/SSK and why I rail against things like Golden Age Hard SF on Vaka Rangi put much, much better than I ever could.

    Incidentally, have you ever read Cori Hayden's When Nature Goes Public (an ethnography of bioprospecting in Mexico) or anything by Langdon Winner and David Hess (two thinkers consciously invested in the political side, both small scale and large scale, of the technoscience sector and, full disclosure, former colleagues and mentors of mine)? I have a feeling they might be up your alley.