When “science” Becomes “Science”

I want to say at the outset that I am very fond of the conveniences that technological progress has brought to us over the years. I am no Luddite; I have no interest in our returning to a pre-industrial society, nor will I be going “off the grid” anytime soon, at least not voluntarily. I believe technological progress has certainly had its drawbacks, some of which I’ll be discussing presently, but I don’t anticipate there is a tremendous audience for returning to, say, pre-1985 medical technology. Technological progress has, I also believe, come at a tremendous price; both in financial as well as strictly human terms. But overall, technological progress, enabled by the advance of science (broadly defined) has been an overall net positive for humanity, if perhaps not always for the planet. More on that later. 

Before we get too deeply involved it seems important to be clear on what I mean when I use the terms “science” and “Science”. Dictionary.com defines “science” as 

  1. A branch of knowledge or study dealing a body of facts or truths systematically arranged and showing the operation of general laws: such as, the mathematical sciences 
  2. Systematic knowledge of the physical or material world gained through observation and experimentation, etc. 

These may seem utterly non-controversial of not patently obvious, but I hope to show how even these basic, common, and widely understood definitions of a word most everyone believes they know demonstrate the roots of the problems I will outline in this letter. For example, I hope to demonstrate that precisely the reference to “truths” goes a great long way toward explaining the movement away from “science” and toward “Science”. For now, it is sufficient to recognize that when I refer to “science” I’m thinking about, for the most part, the definitions given above. 

But what then is “Science”? Basically, “Science” is the result of application of “science” without regard to its limitations, both technological and societal. It is, put a little differently, the deification of “science”; placing “science” on a platform where it can be used as a tool or weapon to shape society, behavior, public policy, and perhaps even religion, without regard to the core assumptions underlying what science (note the lack of scare-quotes) is, and what it is not. 

I will expand on this concept as this letter progresses, but to first better understand what I see as a central problem in the modern, Enlightenment-influenced view on the role of science  in society, we need to have a better understanding of what, from a core, philosophical perspective, science actually is. Note, it is not my intention to discuss in any great detail the ethics surrounding the use of any particular form of experimentation. A discussion of, say, informed consent for pharmaceutical trials from an ethical perspective is beyond the scope of what I hope to achieve herein.  

For many people, the concept of “science” is a somewhat modern phenomenon. Obviously, the Greeks and Romans were well versed in the liberal arts (such as grammar and rhetoric) and sciences (such as geometry and astronomy), and were able the apply the principles of scientific reasoning, deduction, observation, and synthesis long before “The Scientific Method” was developed during the Enlightenment era. Going further back, one cannot see the pyramids both in modern Egypt as well as modern Central and South America as anything short of technological marvels. Clearly these “ancient” structures did not happen by accident, nor is it entirely reasonable to assert they were merely the product of “trial-and-error” done over very long periods of time. These structures were designed, they were purposeful, and had efficacy all their own. Even their construction – entirely with hand-tools combined with human and (perhaps) animal labor – defy a logical explanation other than to assert that these “primitive” societies were technologically well ahead of what we perceive as “their time”. 

But we can go back even further. The mysterious and profoundly complex structures that dot the landscape in modern-day England, Scotland and Ireland show that, even perhaps before the time of the pyramids of Egypt, ancient, perhaps even “pre-historic” societies were capable of completing vast, technically complex building and construction projects, again without the benefit of any sort of mechanisms other than perhaps wheels, carts, and pulleys. Ancient structures are also common across many regions of Asia, though interestingly, only very primitive structures, common among nomadic peoples, are found in North America. 

If we accept that “science” is not new, then we can start to understand the actual role of science in the human experience. Looking back at the dictionary definition, we see phrases such as “knowledge of the physical or material world”, “observation and experimentation”, and “showing the operation of general laws”. So, it’s reasonable to assert that science is the systematic practice of observation and experimentation, with an eye toward better understanding the functioning of the natural world. Generally speaking, scientific progress – resulting in a better understanding of the natural world – leads to technological progress. The progression of technology typically results in better means to perform observations and experimentations, resulting in further scientific advancement, and the cycle continues. 

Let’s unpack my definition. We note that in my definition, science is “a practice”. Further, it is practiced in a “systematic” manner. Science doesn’t “just happen”, and it only very, very rarely happens “by accident”. There is a discipline and a logic required to practice science which has taken a variety of forms, using a variety of tools and techniques, over the centuries but in most modern applications can be reasonably equated to what is known as The Scientific Method

We next come to the terms “observation” and “experimentation”, which often go together. What may seem like passive observation of, say, the stars in the sky in effort to gain an understanding of celestial mechanics, is actually a modestly simple form of experimentation, only one typically without any sort of “control” or “baseline” case. Such is often the case in the fundamental physical sciences, whereby we are studying natural phenomena at the most fundamental level we’re able to reach. To push beyond the understanding of the fundamentals of the natural world, we typically design experiments to test a hypothesis, and through a series of trials judge the efficacy of the hypothesis. 

Finally, we come to the objective of this practice, which is to improve our “understanding of the functioning of the natural world”. We wish to understand something – the tides, for example. So we observe, design and conduct experiments, form hypotheses based on our observations, and then adjust our theses until we have better understanding of the phenomena we observed, usually codified in some sort of “general law” – another term used in the dictionary definition but that I’ve left out of what I’m calling science. 

What is not explicitly stated, but is certainly implied, is the ultimate goal of the process of science. We don’t necessarily conduct science for the sake of knowledge alone. By better understanding the processes and phenomena of the natural world, we have the possibility of being able to adapt to these phenomena, develop technologies that can improve the human experience with the aid of the knowledge gained from science, or any number of things that make life easier, better, safer, etc. As stated earlier, this in turn often improves the ways that science can be conducted, leading to better observations, improved understanding, more advanced technology, and so on. 

All I’ve described to this point is a process which typically advances monotonically in favor of ever-improving technology and more sophisticated understanding of the functioning of the natural world, and one could thusly be forgiven for wondering how what I’ve described differs in any way other than pure semantics from the dictionary definition. In truth, I have little problem with the dictionary definitions of science, so long as the “general laws” and “knowledge” gained from the practice are taken in light of some very strong caveats as to the limitations of the practice – limitations, it should be noted, that are often downplayed if not flat-out ignored. It is the ignorance of these limitations that leads to my usage of “science” rather than the non-scare-quoted version I’ve been using in my definitional narrative. 

It is absolutely vital at this point to recognize that when I am talking about caveats and limitations, I’m not implying merely the limitations of the technology to perform experiments or conduct observations. In fact, these are honestly unimportant to me as they can at any future time be overcome by still further advances in technology, should the need arise. The often-ignored caveats I’m talking about fall within the realm of societal, cultural, and philosophical limitations that are embedded into any and all practices of science. Societal, cultural, and philosophical limitations not only, I argue, regulate how science is practiced, but how results are interpreted, the framework of how “general laws” are structured, even what is considered to be “fact” and “truth”. In other words, these limitations strike at the very core of the dictionary definition of science, and have profound implications for how science should be framed in the public square. 

Further, this is by no means an original observation. Political philosophers for a century or longer have commented persuasively as to how the cultural biases of a society into which a society is born or in which he is practicing has a profound, if largely unmentioned, impact on the very basis of their practice. That Charles Darwin, to employ an example I’ll detail in subsequent letters, devised his theories when he did are as much a consequence of his cultural and religious background as of his powers of observation. That he chose to frame his eventual theory, and to arrange and catalogue the animal world, in a manner not at all unlike what Aristotle had introduced a couple of millennia prior, is also not accidental, but the product of culture and nurture. 

All of this however, is merely window dressing. That the culture of the day impacts the conduct of science and the eventual framework of how scientifically-derived knowledge is derived ought to be a reasonably agreeable point. Nor would it matter, really, to any discussion of any importance had not, at some point in the late 20th century, the practice of “science” entered the realm of political discourse. It was inevitable, and tragic, that scientific discussions would enter the political realm, and I am quite certain this entry marks the final chapter in the West’s experiment with liberal democracy, as it represents the final frontier the Age of Reason can venture toward before its eventual (and equally inevitable) collapse.  

The root of the problem has nothing at all to do with science, really. Nor even politics. It is the outgrowth of the weaknesses of democracy itself, and liberal democracy in particular, which posits that the reasonable man, well informed, is the best vehicle by which the broader population can and ought to be regulated. It is “the government of the many”, or “democracy as a way of life”, to attempt to condense the rich philosophy of John Dewey to a single bumper-sticker sized statement. In a society as technologically advanced as we’ve become, dependent as it is for becoming “well informed” by a very narrow variety of sources, the “reasonable man” is asked to perform the impossible – to condense the myriad of issues confronting mankind in the early 21st century, issues that in many ways involve technologies said “regular person” or “reasonable man” has no training or experience to properly resolve, is to necessarily rely on “experts”. These “experts” are the very same people who come from the culture of the day (and we already know that science is not immune to cultural effects on either the macro- or micro-levels), and are thus infused with the cultural and societal biases of that very culture. This, in turn, reinforces the narrative the dominant culture wants to forward by giving said narrative the “legitimacy” of “science” – “THE SCIENCE IS SETTLED!” the drivers of culture and politics declare. The reasonable man is expected to bow and cower in the face this assertion. 

This is not science. This is “Science” – the deification of science. Science as religion, in other words. Not to be questioned, not to be debated, enforced by the norms of the dominant political and social culture. Because, “Who are you to argue with Science?” and “What are your credentials?” These questions, common retorts to anyone who dares question the dominant poli-scientific consensus on any subject from climate change to when life begins, demonstrate an utter and complete ignorance of the role of science in our lives, or actually even what science is. 

The aim of science ought not ever have been thought to be the “discovery of essential truth” about ourselves or of the natural world, because such “essential truth” is, in any reasonable likelihood, impossible to achieve. And yet, one cannot deny that “science” has benefited humanity greatly, and I fully believe can continue to benefit humanity so long as it’s seen in its proper role and within its proper context. 

When you get right down to the heart of the matter, science doesn’t “discover” anything, much less “the essential truth” about anything. Like art and philosophy, science should be seen as “creation”, as “building”, not as “discovering”. This may seem like a trifling distinction, but it’s actually profound in its implications. Because, simply, “creation” is not the stuff that dogma is built from. Dogma gets its legitimacy when it is linked to “truth”, and even more so to “essential truth”, or “truth at its essence”.