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Byron Jennings | TRIUMF | Canada

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In defense of scientism

In the olden days, when everything was in black and white (as my daughter once thought), I attended the Musquodoboit Rural High School. There, I had a number of very good teachers (plus a few horrible ones). One of the good teachers was in Grade 12 English. As good teachers sometimes do, he occasionally got off topic. One class was particularly airy-fairy (as we said in those days) and towards the end he said (complete with a diagram on the black board) that we, the students, were over there and when he was our age he was over there too but now he was over here and wanted us to be over here as well.  So I put up my hand and asked the obvious question: How do you know you are going in the right direction?

It is a question not just for English teachers, but also for everyone: politicians, religious leaders, alternate medicine advocates, car mechanics, and, last but not least, scientists. How do you know you are going in the right direction? The answer to that question is the basis of scientism and the faith in the power of science.

What criteria do we have to answer the question? Relatively few:

– Certainty of conviction? Many different religions have their martyrs. If conviction gave certainty, only the one true religion would have martyrs.

– Pure thought? Even Descartes failed. No one else has been any more successful. Make one mistake and the whole thing collapses.

– Devine revelations and spiritual insights? There are conflicting claims to divine revelation. How do you choose between them? Maybe in the attempt to avoid the Christian hell you will end up reincarnated as a worm, or vise versa.  I will leave further discussion of this point to the theologians.

– Innate knowledge? In humans, this does not seem to extend much beyond the fear of heights, spiders, and snakes.

– Observation? In the end, that is what it all comes down to. Even Deuteronomy says observation and falsification are the way to detect false prophets  (Deuteronomy 18:21-22).

Now science is built around observation. But even before science started to become mainstream (which I would date to 1610 and Galileo), observation was the bedrock of survival even if Greek philosophers failed to appreciate it. Folk wisdom relies on observation and experience. The scientific method has just systematized the knowledge extraction process: building models and refining them, making definite predictions, testing against observation, controlling errors, and then repeating the process [1].  Using observation as a filter is the first way scientists know they are going in the right direction.

The success of science is the second reason scientists know they are going in the right direction. Successful at what you might ask? Certainly not at answering the ultimate question about life, the universe, and everything (see the Limits of Science blog), but at increasing our understanding of how the universe works, at providing the foundation for technology, and of building and maintaining the consensuses that allow the previous two to proceed.

Our understanding of how the universe works has increased enormously: from a flat fixed earth to an expanding cosmos; from earth, air, fire and water to quarks and electrons; from mal air causing disease to germs and dietary deficiencies; from killing cats to prevent the plague, to good sanitation. The scientific insights have seeped into the very soul of our culture to the extent that we cannot even imagine what the prescientific world view was like: demons and witchcraft, sacrificing the king to ensure good crops, etc.

Now to technology: science turns money into knowledge and technology turns knowledge into money. That may be crass, but it is fundamentally correct. Science provides the information on how the universe works that technology uses to build useful widgets. Science is useful for technology since it allows one to make accurate predictions, predictions like press this button on the remote and the TV turns on (unless the spouse has unplugged it—nah… that would never happen).  Every technological device is a monument to the power of science. The common cell phone depends on the validity of the predictions of classical mechanics, quantum mechanics, special relativity, and even general relativity.

But the real success the scientific method has is in building and maintaining consensus in the scientific community. The core findings of science have wide spread support and change only when driven by new observations (experimental results). Essentially all physicists since the time of Newton agree that his model correctly describes planetary motion (except for a small correction for Mercury).

There is, of course, always a fringe of people that disagree about everything, and in the leading edge of science, there is no consensus, but for the most part, the scientific method is successful at driving consensus. Contrast that with religion where denominations multiply and split. There are an estimated 38,000 Christian denominations but there is only one physics and only one scientific method.

Yet, some philosophers of science have the cause and effect backward and see science as primarily a social endeavor where social consensus drives the field. Anyone, who has ever worked with scientists, knows that is not true. A more independent, competitive, and compulsive group of people has never existed (well, except maybe these guys). But observation and parsimony are hard taskmasters and can keep even scientists in line.

So, science has a clear method to determine that it is going in the right direction and the results to show that the method is working. But what about other fields? How do they know if they are going in the right direction? Maybe, just maybe, we can get a hint from my English teacher’s response to the question. His answer was, “You are what I am fighting against.” Then again, maybe not.


[1] The basic idea goes back at least to Roger Bacon (cf 1214 – 1292) but was largely ignored until Galileo, Kepler and Newton.