Tuesday, April 17, 2007

A non-scientific rant

First let me say that I believe in science. At its best it is a boon, not a bane. Used correctly, it can help us understand the natural world. It can help us cure disease and feed the hungry. At its worst of course it could kill us all, but that's another topic. (I remember reading about a story of when physicist Neil Turok sat down for dinner with Edward Teller and told him he was working on magnetic monopoles, and to his horror, Teller started working out how much energy could be unleashed by a magnetic monopole bomb.)

What I dont like about science is when it starts behaving like a monolith, shutting down debate and dialog, shutting up dissidents and heretics to the party line. I dont like monoliths, whether in the guise of a corporate monopoly, a political dynasty (whether familial or ideological), a religious sect, or a scientific belief. That's why I find the theory of Darwinian evolution, the modern one called neo-Darwinism, so offensive and insulting. Not Darwin's theory itself, mind you. Darwin's original theory had an elegance in its simplicity that was simply beautiful. Darwin said that his book Origin of Species is one long argument, which means he welcomes debate and discussion--"This is my point of view, and now let's hear yours." But this modern version of Darwinism, the one that says we're nothing but a gene's idea to make more genes, is run by ideologues who want to shut down dissent, even to the point of trying to ruin someone's career if he or she had a contrary view. I remember hearing philosopher of science and defender of neo-Darwinism Michael Ruse say in an interview that some scientific discussions need to be closed, that is, no further discussion should be allowed since the issue is already settled, which was quite a strange thing to say for a philosopher.

Biologist and host of the popular blog Pharyngula, PZ Myers posted a definition of science:
1) Science is a changing and growing collection of knowledge, characterized by transparency (all methods are documented, and the lineage of ideas can be traced) and testability (prior work can be repeated or its results evaluated). It is an edifice of information that contains all of the details of its construction.

2) Science is what scientists do. We have institutions that train people and employ them in the business of generating new knowledge — contributing to that edifice in definition #1 — and we have procedures like the bestowal of degrees and ranks that certify one's membership in the hallowed ranks of science.

3) Science is a process. It is a method for exploring the natural world by making observations, drawing inferences, and testing those inferences with further experimentation and observation. It isn't so much the data generated as it is a way of thinking critically about the universe and our own interpretations of it.
It is definition number 2 that's troubling to me. Not only is it begging the question, but corollary to that is science is what scientists say it is. Science is consensus. It then becomes a subject to internal politics which I have to say is hardly surprising since the scientific community is after all a community, and when we find a community, we find politics. A very powerful party then can and often does stifle legitimate dissent. I have often heard and read that people who are skeptical of Darwinian theory have an ulterior intent, and that is to further their belief in God. Assuming--assuming--that this is true, so what? In science, intent is irrelevant. What is relevant are the facts. If intent is a problem, we can just as well accuse Dawkins, et al. of intending to further their own theological/philosophical agenda, but any true scientist would ignore the religious (or anti-religious) implications of a hypothesis and just say, "Give me your data and I'll test them."

As for consensus, here's something from a lecture given by Michael Crichton in 2003.
I want to pause here and talk about this notion of consensus, and the rise of what has been called consensus science. I regard consensus science as an extremely pernicious development that ought to be stopped cold in its tracks. Historically, the claim of consensus has been the first refuge of scoundrels; it is a way to avoid debate by claiming that the matter is already settled. Whenever you hear the consensus of scientists agrees on something or other, reach for your wallet, because you're being had.

Let's be clear: the work of science has nothing whatever to do with consensus. Consensus is the business of politics. Science, on the contrary, requires only one investigator who happens to be right, which means that he or she has results that are verifiable by reference to the real world. In science consensus is irrelevant. What is relevant is reproducible results. The greatest scientists in history are great precisely because they broke with the consensus.

There is no such thing as consensus science. If it's consensus, it isn't science. If it's science, it isn't consensus. Period.

I abhor any philosophy whether scientific or otherwise that would seek to debase us humans by denying the human spirit and claim that we're nothing but a collection of chemicals; that we are just driven by genes and not such things as excellence, or beauty, or goodness, or heroism, or love. That we're just bacteria, only more complex. There is nothing scientific about my abhorrence. It's just a non-rational quirk.

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