Scorning Science, and the Fear of Doubt

I meant to post this a couple of months ago, but better late than never. The anti-science movement in America: yeah, it’s a problem.

Indeed, it is a very frustrating problem, and this is, I think, one of the reasons that the Regenesis television series I just finished watching was so engaging for me: time and again, the characters run into the social/cultural problem of people either being scientifically illiterate, or anti-science, or science-phobic. The utter frustration of a number of characters on the show–but especially David Sangström–was one of those things that made the show so relatable to so many people who, whether they are scientists or just interested in science and supporters of that great odyssey of learning, feel when looking at the world as it is.

A physicist I knew once told me that people, once they inquired as to his profession and heard what it was, we instantly distrustful of him. Mind, he was living in Texas, but the comment disturbed me. I can understand people being leery of certain areas of science: personally, I think we need to be very careful about what we mess about with, and how. But it seems to me most of the problems in that area are tied up with business, profits, and science-for-hire, and ironically the same people who would distrust a physicist or biochemist would be very respectful of, say, a businessperson or CEO.

The other day in class, we were discussing critical thinking, rigor and integrity, conscience and compromise. The issue of doubt came up, and I praised it to no end, noting how a thinking person must, to be rigorous, harbor at least a kernel of doubt for every idea presented to him or her–in theory, if not in everyday practice. This is not to say one must doubt all historical facts, of course: I’m not suggesting people should be doubting that the Holocaust happened, for example.

But I think people ought to reserve the right to doubt whatever received truth is presented to them, as a rule. Explanations of how and why it happened, explanations of human nature derived from it, explanations of who is at fault, are all things that often get taken for granted.

And, I said, “Anyone who tells you he has all the answers is someone you should recognize probably doesn’t know how to doubt critically; if you cannot doubt critically, you cannot think critically.”

And, I said, “The wonderful thing about science is how saturated it is with doubt. Tests, experiments, repeating tests, seeing if you get the same results; overturning theories and models of the universe when new information comes it. Scientists aren’t perfect, but science itself is a sort of system of constructive doubt. And it’s the one system we have where doubt is built-in, unavoidable, and part of the fundamental procedural training.” Well, I said it in other words, but you get the idea. (I’m compressing it here.)

And that, I think, is the obvious reason so many revile science: it uses doubt to good effect, thereby threatening those whose interests lie in the suppression and vilification of doubt.

11 thoughts on “Scorning Science, and the Fear of Doubt

  1. Science is awesome in my book. People living longer than ever and being a drain on society in their old age. New and improved weapons (especially those nuclear, biological, and chemical ones) that can kill billions pretty much instantly, and no more need for all that time consuming face-to-face communication with one’s fellow human beings thanks to today’s new scientific electronic breakthroughs.

  2. John,

    Sorry, but everything you talked about is technology, which is an extension of (and the child of) science. But science is much more than technology.

    If you want to talk about the evils of technology, that’s a distinct issue.

  3. I don’t know how physics (nuclear weapons), biology (biological weapons), and chemistry (chemical weapons) are technological exactly. Especially, as I don’t think that there were many computers in use at Los Alamos back when Fat Man and Little Boy were developing the first A-bombs with their little group of “scientists.”

    And you definitely don’t need technology to spread deadly diseases (anthrax). Something as simple as the wind (earth science) can do that.

    Like I said, for every great thing science can do, there is an equally awful thing it can do as well.

  4. Nuclear weapons, biological weapons, and chemical weapons are all technological implementations of scientific knowledge. Unless we start talking in postmodernist language, then physics, biology, and chemistry are not technologies, they are disciplines of knowledge and study. Human beings can use them for great and/or awful things.

    And yes, World War II is a wonderful example of how scientists can be pressed (by governments, by circumstances, etc.) at least sometimes to produce technologies based on their cutting edge knowledge.

    You don’t need technology to spread deadly diseases, but you do need it to culture the stuff in volumes large enough to use in a weaponized attack, just as you would likely want the technology necessary to further weaponize it… and you need technologies to do so without getting killed.

    But by the way, we didn’t create anthrax: Mother Nature did. But we saw people and animals get it and die (experience); we made up supernatural stories about it (religion) till we could study it and get a pretty good understanding of how it worked (science); then some assholes weaponized it (technology).

    They weaponized it using the knowledge produced by science, but it makes no sense to say that science produced weaponized anthrax. Indeed, it makes as much sense to say politics, or economics, or some other formative influence in the creation and distribution of technology is responsible for anthrax. Would you lay the blame of anthrax at the feet of capitalism and socialism, or of the contest between free democratic politics and authoritarianism?

    But I agree that science gives us knowledge and power, and those can be used for wonderful or horrible things. But step back: it gives us knowledge at all, and that is what the people who hate it enough to engage in the disinformation campaign the article discusses are really objecting to.

    (Because sensible people will agree that we can keep the science and fight to be rid of the shitty, stupid, horrible, horrific technologies as much as possible.)

  5. Religion is often incorrectly identified as being a hindrance to scientific progress, and science is often incorrectly identified as being a threat to religious (and hence moral) values. The real problem is: narrow-minded people.

    A religious figure could easily accept that science is simply a practical means of understanding the world around us which can co-exist peacefully with religious beliefs. Likewise, a scientist need not feel threatened by anyone who draws strength and inspiration from a spiritual figure.

    Sometimes I feel that religion and science are unfairly paired off against each other. Whether or not we should perform abortions or stem-cell research are legitimate philosophical debates, and although religious views obviously influence one’s position, I could easily see how a non-religious person would have their misgivings. I’m pro-choice, for the record, but I can’t say that with any great conviction.

    Those who wish to hinder even the very discussion of science (i.e. theory of evolution) on purely religious grounds are backwards, and deserve the scorn they get. However, I do get a little annoyed at staunch atheists like Richard Dawkins and his cohorts sometimes. I understand that they are trying to undermine the more extreme elements of the anti-science brigade, but I don’t think their often abrasive approach convinces anyone except the people who were already convinced.

    And I know it’s not always about religion, so I’ll just say this: it’s pathetic that global-warming has become all about left vs. right. I’m not a scientist and I can’t say for sure whether global warming is really happening or not, but when the VAST majority of scientists claim that it is, and when there are already extremely alarming symptoms occurring throughout the world, it seems ridiculous to deny its possibility and gamble the future of the world on it simply because it’s not compatible with your political views.

    1. Well, now this is an interesting comment because I have been thinking this very question over myself. I think it’s fair to say that to whatever degree religious leaders encourage people to harbor a calcified understanding of the world–one hostile to doubt, one incompatible with falsification–religion becomes the enemy not of science itself, but of the development of a kind of world where science could thrive. If one’s religious beliefs are constructed (or reconstructed) such that they by definition cannot get in the way of scientific knowledge, it’s another story. I think Dawkins does have a point with his “God of the gaps” argument, however. (If you keep on relegating God to the unexplained, it hurts your deity’s PR: as each new thing is explained or understood, God’s relevance ends up being perceived by many as having been diminished.)

      In any case, I primarily referred to religion because most of the people I’ve met who seem unable to live with or practice doubt were strongly religious people. (Ironically, since my own Catholic upbringing included frank and open discussion of doubt. We were encouraged to confront doubt, at least, if not to honor it as an instance of the “small still voice within us.”) While doubt in all claims is a difficult thing, and a frustrating way to exist sometimes, I find people are able… as long as their ability to doubt hasn’t been crippled. And religion sometimes seems to cripple that capacity in some people.

      I think the reason religion gets paired off to square off with science is because religion has been picking that fight for centuries. And in the past, as Giordano Bruno would have agreed, many religionists fought pretty dirty. Many scientists are understandably distrustful, given the way many religious institutions have treated scientists (and still regard science).

      As for the abrasiveness of Dawkins: I don’t find him all that abrasive, actually. Maybe it’s a lifetime of the abrasiveness of theists that has left me desensitized? I can say I find some of his arguments eye-opening. I know I understood my own experience of religion as a child better after reading his book on the subject; he put into words things I had never figured out how to express in all my years of thinking about them.

      And yeah, I agree: politics is also another case wherein the ability to doubt constructively and intelligently is sometimes utterly crippled. I despair of the fact that anyone is willing to believe climate change isn’t something we should be worried about… let alone someone in the wealthiest country on the planet, simply because it doesn’t fit their political beliefs.

      It makes me wonder what future generations will say, looking back at us. And of course, as an SF author, it makes me wonder what future generations will blind themselves to for no good reason. Hmmm.

  6. Yes, I certainly don’t deny that when science IS impeded, it is usually the hands of religion doing the impeding. When people say they want schools to teach creationism, they obviously don’t mean frank and open-minded discussions about the possibilities of intelligent design; they have a very specific agenda to push. My assertion that religion wasn’t the true cause of closed-mindedness was more of a ‘in a perfect world’ scenario; in reality, I accept that the faith required of religious belief tends to affect one’s ability to doubt.

    As for Richard Dawkins, I have to confess that I’m not really familiar enough with his work to comment on him; I mentioned his name because he is something of a poster-child for the new generation of aggressive atheists who see their life’s mission as eradicating all traces of religious thought from the world. Perhaps I’m being a bit harsh; I understand that their attitude is largely one of self-defence, and as you pointed out it was religion who cast the first stone (and most of the others afterward.) It’s probably because I’ve encountered a lot more of these kinds of people than the ‘religious nut’ type, and I find their arrogance and condescension something of a downer.

    I also think a lot of them fail to see the irony in scorning those who have absolute faith in their God, even though many of them have absolute faith in science. Not quite the same thing, but not as different as they think it is either.

  7. Baekgom,

    Yes, it most often is religionists, rather than others, who want to impede science. The other people who seek that sort of thing are the anti-civilization people, who mostly border on incoherent. Not all religionists are against science. I know a Buddhist physicist who tells me Buddhism mostly has not much to say that contradicts physics, though of course it would depend on which branch you’re following. I know Christians who’ve essentially accepted evolution and genetics and all that, even if they kind of secretly quietly believe everything is unfolding according to their god’s plan they don’t seem to want to impose their own ideas about what that plan would be onto the process of evolution or anything. So obviously not all religionists are against all science. (And even the anti-civ and enti-evolution/global-warming/etc. loonies tend to be all for other areas of science that suit them.)

    The Dawkins thing: see, that’s the problem, I find a lot of people attaching a stereotype to him, and then denigrating the stereotype. I don’t find him so aggressive, personally, and I suspect the main reason he is described as such as is because people are so unused to hearing someone criticize religious ideas or institutions. They’ve gotten special exemption from public criticism and Dawkins indeed argues this is part of the problem with religious institutions and ideas.

    So, as for aggressive atheists, again, I think it’s telling that I’ve never heard the phrase “aggressive religionists,” though I have met far more of them than I have of atheists, aggressive or otherwise. I think the shock and outrage is analogous to the way people complain of gays “showing off their sexuality in public” but having no problem with hetero couples holding hands, or pushing about a baby carriage and carrying toddlers. (Babies are a clear indicator of the couple’s heterosexuality too, in most cases, but we don’t construe that as “showing off” sexuality.)

    And by the way, most atheists I know are quite frustrated with the effect religion has on government, on their own lives, and on culture. They mostly aren’t out to wipe religion off the face of the earth: they just want people to keep it to themselves, as ought to occur in a secular society. Perhaps they seem condescending and angry because they are so often condescended to? I have to balk at the accusation of arrogance, though: the atheists I know almost invariably adhere to the naturalistic view of the universe that argues one’s intuitions cannot be trusted, that knowledge must be tested, and so on. In the face of that, I find that it is the people who claim to somehow have dug out the deepest, darkest secrets of the universe from old books, and from their own random, culturally-directed intuitions and imaginations (and occasionally, mental disturbances) who display arrogance: they’re the ones claiming something is true, and hoping that their own feelings and guesses and the narrative embedded in their minds by institutions ought to suffice for others to believe the same too.

    (And speaking of institutions, we’re talking about the same institutions that pioneered such lovely things as multinational corporate power, institutionalized torture, monetized spirituality, and authoritarian political hegemony… whatever good they did, they also introduced these things to the great civilizations, or at least to European civilization.)

    As for absolute faith: if they understand science, they have a different kind of faith, for scientific knowledge is always provisional. Even the scientific method as we know it is provisional, because if some important modification became necessary, it would be made. Not immediately — scientists are human, and imperfect — but for the good of science in general, it would be implemented. Faith in science is predicated on all kinds of evidence about how well the method works. Atheists tend to be baffled by how someone could prefer scriptural models of the world that badly predict most things, over a scientific approach that has been a good predictor of most things, and is being refined all the time. I think the thing atheists have absolute faith in is the simple belief that we can know about the world in a provisional way by relying on our senses (and technological extensions thereof) and we are obligated to test our knowledge using a method that has itself been extensively tested. They contrast this to taking someone’s word for a cosmological model, on the basis of the oldness of a book or the charisma of a preacher. I’d say it’s rather starkly different.

  8. Well perhaps you’re right, and I should really stop trying to articulate uncertain thoughts in the wee hours of the morning. I fear I may have misrepresented myself with my previous posts but more than anything, I feel frustrated at the way the two sides spend so much time taking petty pot-shots at one another, and how they have aligned so strongly with liberalism and conservatism respectively. If there is no way to reverse this cycle of partisanship then I fear for all of our futures.

  9. I agree. I also think that the identity politics angle is very problematic: I think most atheists and most moderate Christians have a ton of things in common, if only they could see it. (Indeed, I think most moderate Christians generally have more in common with most atheists than they do with the majority of evangelical Christians… though I’m thinking in terms of North American measures of religiosity, not Korean ones.)

    I agree that if we can’t stop bickering and squabbling over unimportant stuff, and turn out attention to more pressing concerns, we’re probably going to be in very deep trouble very soon.

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