Science: the Practice, the Ideology & the Religion

Recently, a scientist sat forlornly in his office. Outside, the mundane world of Key West, Florida busied itself with its day-to-day. The scientist spoke these words to a reporter:

“I want to say I understand and appreciate both the people’s desire to protect each other and the environment; that’s admirable. And in a democracy, their ability to voice their opinion about it, I fully defend those things,” says Doyle, sitting by the window in his office. “It’s just — what’s disheartening is, when solid facts and reasoning are presented, that’s not always successful in swaying people’s intellect.”

He could have been speaking about a number of issues at an intersection which is defining our moment: that of science, government and democracy. What he was actually talking about is described at painstaking length in an article titled “Mutant mosquitoes could fight Zika in Florida, but misinformation spreads” published in the Tampa Bay Times.

The story is roughly this: the Zika virus has recently reached the United States. The virus’s implication in a rare birth defect remains uncertain. A method of combating Zika-carrying mosquitos has been developed which requires the release of a genetically modified mosquito. Most of the population doesn’t seem to care, but a vocal minority is obstructing the process within their rights. The scientist is sad and doesn’t understand why the world can’t behave so perfectly logical as the neat rows of facts and figures in his head. Poor, sad scientist.

We see this pattern in a number of current issues:

  • The multi-generational fight over evolution
  • The denial of climate change
  • The accusation that vaccinations cause birth defects
  • The assertion that the earth is flat (made by a major rap artist and picked up by many)

In each of these cases, a small group of people (whom in this case we refer to as “scientists”) tells a much larger group of people over an extended period of time that something is true about the world which is not readily apparent in the experience of the larger group. At first, everything goes fine, but eventually other small groups (we can call these people “deniers”) begin to form within the larger group. They have a different story for those around them: those scientists, say the deniers, are liars. Scientists and deniers then engage in a battle over public opinion in which scientists become increasingly frustrated that some people just don’t accept facts. Meanwhile, deniers make it their perogative to engage only facts which support their cause. Too the general public, it all seems like just another controversy.

The Definition of Science

sci·ence
ˈsīəns/
noun

Science is a systematic enterprise that builds and organizes knowledge in the form of testable explanations and predictions about the universe.
Contemporary science is typically subdivided into the natural sciences, which study the material universe; the social sciences, which study people and societies; and the formal sciences, such as mathematics. The formal sciences are often excluded as they do not depend on empirical observations. Disciplines which use science like engineering and medicine may also be considered to be applied sciences.

The above is Wikipedia’s definition of science. For our purposes it is a good one and I can’t image we’ll have difficulty agreeing to it.

Importantly, the definition focuses on the centrality of the scientific method when distinguishing science from other enterprises. Science, unlike religion or philosophy or politics, proposes testable hypotheses and then tests them repeatedly to confirm or deny their validity. But when we say “science” in modern society, we mean much more than that simple definition.

Above, I describe a simplistic model for thinking about the status of science in modern society. But in the model, what of the scientists’ behavior is actually scientific by the proposed definition?

The definition seems to ommit the need to engage the public about any specific topic, nor engage deniers when they attempt to thwart science’s engagement of the public. Yes, I imagine some will say, but some of these topics are of dire importance to humanity. I agree. But that answer doesn’t defy the observation it addresses.

This addition to the definition describes the ideology of science.

Further, while more detail could elucidate the matter, there is no suggestion within this short definition that people are meant to believe widely in science. Restated: by any common definition of science, science does not require anyone to believe in its foundations or conclusions. They merely must practice its methods to be engaged in it, which few choose to do. Far more choose to “believe” what those who engage in science say.

This addition of the definition describes the religion of science.

Either we must allow these additions or me must admit that there are several interrelated cultural practices which are commonly refered to as science. I believe that most people would be sufficiently confused by these distinctions that we needn’t worry about choosing one.

Religions make claim to their legitimacy, in part, by demanding widespread belief. Is modern science any different? Of course, you’ll say, science is different. Science offers it’s facts based on a great deal of testing, unlike religion. Again, that doesn’t contradict the observation.

Science, at many points, was a secretive endeavour which explicity avoided widespread notice. It was considered a pursuit for the elites. The similarity between those two versions of science is what we can realistically refer to as the practice of science. The difference is the religion of science.

What are the implications of science as an ideology and as a religion? They are many and I intend to define my views on that topic, but lets discuss a bit on this first and make sure we can at least proceed on the assumption that my assertions are true.