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Science is not a Monolith

April 23, 2017

This I think is the starting assumption of many regarding science, and it is a false assumption that entails a dangerous idealisation of science, it’s approach and it’s methods. The scientist in anthropology is doing something very different from the scientist in chemistry, just as the scientist in geology is doing something very different from the scientist in Physics. To conflate them is to misunderstand both subjects. To try to reduce one to another is similarly to misunderstand that subject, and to give undue metaphysical precedence to the subject you are reducing it too.

These are all very common human philosophical errors. And yet, because philosophy is supposedly superfluous now to science and to human understanding and education in general, the errors go unnoticed, and pile up and up over time. The end result is this over simplified, over idealised, monolithic portrayal of science proliferated to us all through the education system, that has come to take on an unquestionable authority of Mythic status for many. (Though of course they would hate the word myth, makes them seem all too human, and not quite as objective as they like to pretend to be in their utopian domain of self professed rationality.)

Some recent examples of this phenomenon are the claims that natural selection is a physical mechanism, when it provides no mechanism, merely a good reason for things after the fact. If scientists cannot distinguish sufficient reasons from necessary reasons, because philosophy is so unimportant to them, we have got big problems. Gravity is a mechanism wherein we can describe how it works independently of its application to actual things. Natural selection is fully dependent on how it is applied to actual things, and there is no independent mechanism, in fact there is a denial of even the possibility of such a mechanism by claiming pure randomness to genetic mutations.

Little subtle distinctions like this are important. We would do well to keep our natural selection explanations to biological standards, and not claim pure physical mechanistic status for them, when to do so is at best to engage in inaccurate metaphors, at worst is to mislead the student as to the real status and content of his subject matter. There is so much of interest in evolution, natural selection, adaptations of species. Somehow much of it for me is misunderstood by those trying to force it into line with their monolithic, idealised vision of science. If not by them themselves, certainly by most of the people who they propagate these ideas to.

Another example at the other end of the spectrum would be climate science. So much of this amazingly intricate and complicated study is for most reduced to the political and moral agenda of global warming. It makes a nice simple narrative to just only pay attention to facts in line with this one stories expectations. It saves people from much thinking. They can just consult google, that will soon filter out for them stories and articles that support this particular political agenda. The rest to them is just noise. But that noise is the real science. As the real science does not fit into simple narratives, it does not obey our need for moralising and catastrophising. Real science shows that carbon dioxide was often much higher in earths history and there was not mass extinctions. Real science shows there was often no ice at all on earth and there was not mass extinctions. Real science shows that other factors beyond human control have a big influence on climate, such as volcanic activity and solar activity and levels of cloud cover. Real science shows that even mass extinctions are regular occurences in the earths history. Where does all this reality go when we have a political agenda, a consensus around it, and a monolithic understanding of science and its method? Reality seems to go out the window!

Once again, the lesson is not to try and constrain all the varieties of subject matter out there in this world to one monolithic standard, you will not succeed in understanding them all, you will only succeed in misunderstanding them all, and sending people down a dangerous path of assumed knowledge and certainty of things they are actually largely ignorant of, and this is even among people who study the subjects!

This combines with something else I have noticed often in western science. Which is an almost autistic obsession with isolating a subject from the reality you are supposed to be applying it to. The expert often compartmentalises his expertise to his professional life. And yes there are many merits to this division of labor. But there are also drawbacks. For me, economics, for all its technical brilliance, is worse now at understanding society, morality and politics and culture than it was when it aspired to be political economy, and to say things about real people, and real values. Now it abstracts from all of this, for the sake of the concept of utility. We get great manipulative, technical and mathematical capabilities with this approach, but we lose any sense of connecting the subject with the reality of the current society of people trying to make their way in life.

I am pretty much uniformly disappointed by economists when they try to write popularisations of their science. Because they start not from the reality of society, the reality surrounding them in their lives, but from the reality of their own economic idealisations, and they measure reality relative to that. Its a nice game to set up models like this, but its not the same as grasping the real life of aware human beings with values and intentions. Its more like a distraction from this reality, or the pretence that maybe it doesn’t exist if we don’t think about it.

For all these reasons and many more I implore people to not treat science as a monolith. You are doing a disservice to science and human civilisation by indulging in such utopian idealisations. You are setting the youth on a path of assumed knowledge rather than acquired knowledge. You are promoting narratives formed around enforced consensus that assume we are incapable of forming our own independent opinions about world affairs. You are lowering the wonders of life to presumed random mechanisms and raising the earth and your opinions about its climate to the level of a moral god, dictating values to us all. Not because you accept it is a belief and a value you cherish and share with others, but because you feel you have scientific objective authority on your side. All this and much more dangerously lurks in the shadow of the monolith of science that has been set up. Come out to the light of day and stop chasing shadows.



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