Is Our Societal Understanding of Science Completely Backward?

People in lab coats aren't wizards, so why do we treat them as such? One writer argues that our botched understanding of science, and that we erroneously conflate it with truth, has led to myriad social problems.

People in lab coats aren't wizards, so why do we treat them as such? In a bold editorial at The Week, writer Pascal Emmanuel Gobry argues that a botched understanding of science, as well as conflating it with truth, has led to myriad social and civilizational problems:


"To most people, capital-S Science is the pursuit of capital-T Truth. It is a thing engaged in by people wearing lab coats and/or doing fancy math that nobody else understands. The reason capital-S Science gives us airplanes and flu vaccines is not because it is an incremental engineering process but because scientists are really smart people.

In other words — and this is the key thing — when people say 'science,' what they really mean is magic or truth."

And with that as his foundation, Gobry embarks on a thorough attack on those he accuses of ignorance and charlatanism. He argues that "science" has become a rhetorical buzzword designed to sell questionable products and even-more-questionable candidates. He explains that Aristotle's primitive version of science, which incorporated a philosophy of knowledge, was "a major setback for all of human civilization." He heralds Francis Bacon as the forebear of modern science, as it was he who tossed out Aristotle in favor of "the process through which we derive reliable predictive rules through controlled experimentation." To Gobry, the correct modern science "explicitly forsakes abstract reasoning" and "instead tests empirical theories through controlled investigation."

If you were to ask most people to define science, Gobry predicts they would give a more Aristotelian answer soaked in scientific ignorance:

"[To them,] Capital-S Science is the pursuit of capital-T Truth. And science is something that cannot possibly be understood by mere mortals. It delivers wonders. It has high priests. It has an ideology that must be obeyed."

Gobry points to this fundamental misunderstanding as the reason why so much of society is ignorant about so many subjects. Math does not equal science. Lab coats do not equal superhero capes. Economics is not, despite what some people would tell you, a science (nor really at all particularly scientific):

"Then people get angry at economists when they don't predict impending financial crises, as if having tenure at a university endowed you with magical powers."

Gobry goes on to deem psychology and similar subjects unscientific, as their experiments hardly determine anything. He attacks the fact that you can go find a study in any random journal to "prove" whatever you want. Gobry saves his most vicious attacks for "philistines" like Richard Dawkins and Neil deGrasse Tyson who he says misleadingly treat science as a pseudo-religion when the two cannot, and should not, be conflated.

Gobry tempers his rage with a few suggestions for how to better incorporate real science into everyday society, education and public policy being two fields that could benefit from rigorous experimentation. He's at his weakest when sluggishly attempting to quash arguments that the effects of climate change can be predicted over the long-term. Still, his bold and contrarian view may in fact hold some -- dare I say -- truth, even if some of the article is just tempestuousness.

As society moves further away from religion, it still seeks a medium through which it can hope to extricate truth from the universe. Gobry's argument is that they're barking up the wrong tree, and folks like Dawkins and Tyson are just encouraging the behavior:

"Modern science is one of the most important inventions of human civilization. But the reason it took us so long to invent it and the reason we still haven't quite understood what it is 500 years later is it is very hard to be scientific. Not because science is "expensive" but because it requires a fundamental epistemic humility, and humility is the hardest thing to wring out of the bombastic animals we are."

 Whether you agree or not, I'd say still give the article (linked again below) a thorough read.

If anything, it'll at least vindicate your assumption that "I F'ing Love Science" doesn't know what it's talking about.

Read more at The Week

Photo credit: Shots Studio / Shutterstock

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