The feature article of the March issue of National Geographic attempts to explain the results of a January 2015 Pew Research Center report that demonstrates how many Americans seem to be out of step with the triumphal march of modern science. Not only are decreasing percentages of the American public expressing positive stances toward science in general, but many are rejecting outright the scientific consensus on several key issues. When it comes to topics such as evolution, climate change, vaccination, population growth, and GMOs, large numbers of ordinary people in the US seem to think that they know better than the scientific community. How could so many people—a substantial number of them highly educated, no less—be so backward?
According to the article’s author, it’s because “the scientific method leads us to truths that are less than self-evident, often mind-blowing, and sometimes hard to swallow.” “The scientific method is a hard discipline,” requiring us to repress the “naïve beliefs” to which we tend to cling like a child does to a tattered and useless blanket. “Science tells us the truth rather than what we’d like the truth to be,” jolting us awake from our intuition-induced and religion-reinforced stupor. The conclusion to which the author is led is that “scientific thinking has to be taught.” Ordinary Americans must be dragged out of the cave of naïve pre-scientific thinking and brought into the light of day where they can see and understand what scientists have been trying to tell them.
The cave analogy is particularly apt here, for the argument represented in this article (and repeated in many other places) is not merely that science is valuable because it furthers our understanding of the world in which we live. The scientific method that characterizes the scientific profession is, in fact, the onlyway to really understand the world in which we live, and as such should be “our only star and compass” (to paraphrase Locke) when formulating public policy. Science education isn’t important the way taking a child to a local discovery museum is important; it’s important the way Plato’s philosopher-king is important.
The crux of the argument is far from new, and was put best by Plato millennia ago:
Until [scientists] rule as kings in their cities, or those who are nowadays called kings and leading men become genuine and adequate [scientists] so that political power and [science] become thoroughly blended together . . . cities will have no rest from evils . . . nor, I think, will the human race.
Of course, Plato speaks of “philosophers” rather than scientists, but in the self-presentation of modern science these amount to the same thing. “Science” simply means “knowledge,” and “wisdom”—the Greek “sophia,” from which we get “philosopher”—means knowledge of the highest things or of the whole. And so we are brought to the real exposed nerve of the modern scientific method and the myriad modern scientists it has spawned: namely, that this scientific method presents itself as the way of knowing absolutely everything there is to know. Of course, the ultimate goal of knowing everything may never be reached—the same way “philosopher” means “lover of wisdom,” not “possessor of wisdom”—but the scientific method is offered to us as the only avenue of approach to this goal.
As the modern guardians of all knowledge, scientists wield a tremendous amount of power. And like Plato’s philosopher-kings, some scientists have engaged in the dissemination of “noble lies” for the purpose of aligning public policy with their judgments of what is desirable for all of us. As the author of the National Geographic article admits, even scientists are susceptible to “confirmation bias,” or the tendency to tailor their interpretations of the evidence to the theories and predilections they unavoidably bring to their work. Scientists are human beings too, subject to precisely the same “will to power” Nietzsche ascribed to philosophers.
This danger has become evident in recent years in the cases of embryo science and climate change. In the case of embryo science, as is shown in a 2006 exchange Patrick Lee and Robert George had with Lee Silver, it is clear that at least some policy-minded scientists distorted key scientifically-established facts in order to further the political agenda of embryonic stem cell research. And in the case of climate change, the Climate Research Unit of East Anglia University has been twice embroiled in scandal over the release of numerous emails that clearly belie the usual story of an objective scientific consensus on the issue.
Power corrupts and knowledge is power, and so it should come as no surprise that some scientists succumb to the temptation to use their position as the gatekeepers of knowledge to further their political influence. Political influence, moreover, often translates into economic advantage, another universally potent motivator for human beings. Dishonest scientists exist and should be exposed; but what of the many honest, competent scientists? Should they be treated as scientist-kings?
Can Science Know Everything?
Science is often juxtaposed with religious belief in popular discourse as the two primary—and opposed—pathways to understanding the world. Religious believers argue that the scientific method runs up against a limit in its quest to know everything, and that this limit marks the starting point of faith. Scientists tend to bridle at this proposed limitation. Perhaps this is because the objects of religious belief—God, Heaven, Hell, the Devil, Angels, etc.—would, if they did exist, obviously be more important and compelling than the objects of scientific knowledge.
I would argue, though, that this sort of argument regarding the limitations of the modern scientific method already concedes far too much to scientific pretensions. One need not even go beyond the realm of mundane, ordinary, everyday human life to see clearly that the reach of modern scientific knowledge stops well short of what is most important to human beings. Modern science might have the teeth, and certainly the roar, of a T-Rex, but it also has its arms.
Take the recent movie Gravity. This film provided the most stunning widely-viewed visual depiction ever seen of outer space, perhaps the most widely intriguing object of modern science. The stars of the movie, though, were not the actual stars, but, rather, Sandra Bullock and George Clooney. Nor, moreover, were Bullock and Clooney of interest because of any of their scientifically-accessible features, such as the physical composition of their bodies, the chemical reactions going on inside them, or their medical health.
Bullock and Clooney were of interest because of their relationship with each other, their relationships with those they had left behind on Earth, and their relationships with themselves. They cared about each other. They experienced happiness, despair, hope, and love. When Clooney’s character was lost, much more had been lost than his physical-chemical existence; he even reappeared to save Bullock’s life after this scientifically-analyzable aspect of his existence was presumed to be long gone.
There is a reason why these elements of the movie were the most compelling ones to most viewers, and it’s not that most viewers are “naïve” and deficient in scientific education. Things like happiness and love are simply much more important to human life than astronomy and astrophysics, as “mind-blowing” as these undeniably are. People care much more about being happy, finding love, fighting for justice, and securing peace than they do about the chemical composition of the atmosphere—and they should. The scientific method can certainly tell us quite a bit about the physical, chemical, or otherwise material epiphenomena surrounding the things that are most important to our lives as human beings, but it can’t even begin to analyze or understand these things in themselves.
Upon seeing a loved one, for example, there are all sorts of scientifically measurable and analyzable chemical and physical changes in one’s body. These changes captured by the scientific method and understood by the scientist, though, aren’t themselves the love that is experienced. If one remains steadfast in claiming that such scientifically accessible properties are in fact constitutive of love, then one is merely claiming that what we mean to signify by the term “love” doesn’t exist—a claim that is ridiculous on its face. And such is the case even more clearly for more abstract concepts such as justice or peace. Because these things aren’t made of stuff that the scientific method can get its hands on, does that mean they don’t exist? Or that we can’t know anything about them?
Science and Public Policy
This brings us back to the puzzlement of the National Geographic article’s author, who cannot comprehend the failure of Americans to allow scientific facts and the various consensuses of scientists to dictate public policy on issues such as climate change, evolution education in schools, GMOs, population growth, or vaccination.
Perhaps it isn’t the ignorance or naiveté of ordinary, non-scientific Americans that prevents them from accepting what scientists tell them; perhaps it’s their knowledge of and experience with realities which they rightfully judge to be more important than the objects accessible to modern science. Perhaps it isn’t that “scientific thinking has to be taught” to non-scientists; perhaps it is scientists who should learn from the rest of us.
Adam Seagrave is an assistant professor of political science at Northern Illinois University and author of The Foundations of Natural Morality: On the Compatibility of Natural Rights and the Natural Law.