Science Under Siege, or Just Paranoid Declinism?

I wrote a somewhat meandering post about truth and politics over on my other blog. I’d be interested if any of my colleagues find these issues compelling at all.

As scientists, do you feel under threat from wide-spread ignorance? Does it bother you that so many people believe in creationism, or the Mayan apocalypse, or the gambler’s fallacy? Is it a threat only to our livelihood or do you worry for the fate of the species?

Or am I painting with too broad a brush? I’ve known many scientists who were theists, and some who are at least skeptical about global warming models. Does pursuit of the scientific method or critical thinking just create an orthodoxy of empiricism that is tantamount to religious faith?

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~ by nucamb on January 19, 2013.

2 Responses to “Science Under Siege, or Just Paranoid Declinism?”

  1. The most frightening thing I see happening is that science is becoming as dogmatic as religion. It’s especially frightening in the practice of medicine. We believe so completely that we fully understand disease processes that we have the audacity to implement protocols, deviation from which is increasingly likely to lead to punishment by means of limited reimbursement. How confident were bloodletters in their own protocols?
    If we accept that the truth is a single point, and that science, and religion for that matter, provide the means of learning about that point, we put ourselves in a position to continuously learn about reality. Isn’t that really what we want anyway? Alexander wept when there were no more lands to conquer. Will there be a final theorem that will bring all mathematicians to tears?
    As we approach science and religion as processes by which we explore reality rather than as sources of either truth or falsehood we can start to see ways in which they each can contribute to the advancement of civilization.

    • To me that specific example sounds more like insurance companies being dogmatic, rather than scientists. But I think I do appreciate your broader point. It sounds like you are saying that the codification of medicine that comes with evidence-based practice (at least in some institutions) is so constraining that it limits the ability of physicians to respond most appropriately to the individual patient’s needs. It seems like that goes back to the art/science tension in medicine. In any case there will never be ‘enough’ evidence for the hundreds of combinations of factors that interact in any important medical decision, so I think the best we can do is give doctors as much high quality information as possible, train them how to use it, encourage more interdisciplinary collaboration, give them time to think, and let them make the decisions.

      As to the broader point, I’m a bit on the partisan side of that scientific-vs.-religious-ways-of-knowing debate, since I do think the differences in approach matter. Fundamentally, the scientific process is designed use empiricism to combat dogma (though sometimes its hard to extract the ’empire’ from ’empiricism’). Of course, since any individual cannot reproduce all the experiments/axioms in science, there is ultimately an argument to authority that can seem dogmatic. For example, I’m not a climate scientist, so I have to rely on the arguments of people who actually do the research to convince me that global warming is a real anthropogenic phenomenon. Similarly, I’m not a paleontologist, geneticist, developmental biologist, geologist or astronomer (just to name a few), but I submit that because their claims are based on observable, falsifiable predictions, they have a fundamental hold on reality not shared, for example, by creationist arguments to biblical authority. You’ll forgive me for pulling out the most recalcitrant antiscientific examples, but I picked these because they have real-world policy implications. Yes, I understand that all religious people are not extremists nut jobs, but the poll numbers on belief in creationism in this country are a cause for concern.

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