Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Science-versus-X Syndrome

Something I recently read -- I forget exactly what, but it was somewhere in the blogosphere -- has set me to thinking about a serious flaw in the way we (as a public or society) tend to talk about science; namely, the tendency to try talk about it opposing various things: science versus astrology, science versus creationism, or whatever. My thoughts on this are still inchoate and patchy, but here's what I have so far.

The problem with this way of talking is not that it's wholly off-base, but that it's just never a fruitful way of thinking about the matter. The goal of scientific work is truth or (if you are more inclined to qualify it) useful theory; scientific work and practice, taken generally, isn't really set in opposition to anything -- it's just some things turn out not to have a place in the work; some of those cases (ethical reasoning of the standard sort, for instance) can have a serious rational foundation, others (e.g., astrology), it would appear, cannot; and that's the end of the story. The sense in which scientific work and practice is in opposition to something is always very indirect -- in the course of refining its approximations to truth or (if you are more inclined to qualify it) its useful theories, some things get eliminated as not tenable, others begin to have difficulty with new evidences that are brought to light, and so forth. There's nothing personal about it; there's nothing political about; 'science', however one thinks of it, is not 'out to get' anything. Not only is it not monolithic enough to do anything like this, there's nothing about scientific work and practice, as such, that puts it in opposition to anything. What's really happening is that people doing scientific work are uncovering more and more of the world or (if you are more inclined to qualify it) finding better and better models of the world, and some ideas -- sometimes even good ideas -- fall by the wayside in the process. Some things just don't fit with the world as better understood or (if you are more inclined to qualify it) modeled; that's the only opposition. Scientific work and practice, as such, is not in opposition to anything. Given experiments or theories might put things into question, and some things might be put into utter doubt, but it's rather misleading to treat this as an opposition -- it's just a failure of some things to make the cut.

If this sounds like a trivial point, a mere matter of rhetorical preference, I invite you to take a moment to consider how people on the supposed other side -- fundamentalists, defenders of astrology, etc. -- sometimes think in these terms and how much it enables them to obscure the discourse. Once you concede the Science-versus-X mode of talking, you have ipso facto conceded a way of talking that makes it sound like scientific processes and practices are biased from the beginning against whatever is put in the X place. But the serious scientific problems with claims of ESP (to give just one example) were largely found out by people doing work that originally had nothing to do with the question one way or another -- electricity and gravity and fundamental forces and the like.

If you accept the science-versus-X discourse, you are also conceding a way of talking that reifies science, and thus often has the effect of apparently minimizing the problems with various positions. The problem with a given claim is never 'science' but such-and-such discoveries, such-and-such theoretical work, such-and-such experiments, etc. -- in other words, a potential panoply of evidences and reasonings, all of which may cause problems for the claim. Contrast that to just saying that 'science' problematizes the claim -- it sounds to the ear like a much weaker claim. What's involved in it? A handful of evidences? General relativity? Everything we currently know about biology? It just gets piled together, so, for all it tells us, it could just be one bit of evidence or a hundred thousand independent bits of evidence. And this is a situation that inevitably favors the X.

This is actually a general point; it's true of every truth-seeking endeavor. 'Opposition' is really a figure of speech, and should be recognized as being no more than that. It is remarkable, though, how easily we tend to slip into this antagonistic, and very misleading, mode of discourse. We seem to find it easier to think in terms of a battle -- even when it's clear there's no battle going on -- than to think in terms of a complicated tangle of developments that, in its ordinary processes of growth, pushes some candidates out of the running and forces others to adjust.

ADDED LATER: It might not need to be said, but I'll say it anyway: I'm not criticizing the specific forms 'science-vs.-X' or 'Science opposes X', but the whole battery of similar claims. If you tell people that 'Biology shows that X is false', for instance, you are not telling them anything -- biology is not an evidence or reason, it is a discipline. What shows X wrong, if anything does, are facts, well-founded theories, etc., that biologists have found. And so it is with every scientific discipline, and every X, and every alleged antagonism between them.

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