The Scissors of Science

Three centuries ago the average life expectancy in Europe was between 33 and 40 years. Interestingly, 33 was also the average life expectancy in the Palaeolithic era, 2.6 million years ago. What is that we’ve got in the last three centuries that we hadn’t got in all the time before? Well, science!

Science did a lot of miracles. But like all things that do miracles, it quickly turned into a religion. A religion that most people in the Western world believe in today. And like all believers, when science fails, we just think it has not advanced yet in that area, but we don’t think that there is anything wrong with science itself. Or when the data doesn’t match, we think it’s because those scientists are not very good at statistics. Or, if not that, then simply the problem is with failed control over scientific publications, as it was concluded three years ago, when Begley and Ellis published a shocking study that they were able to reproduce only 11 per cent of the original cancer research findings.

Well, I believe that the problem with science is more fundamental than that.

The word science comes from skei, which means “to cut, to divide”. The same is the root of scissors, schizophrenia and shit. “Dividing” when applied to science, comes handy to explain some fundamental problems with it. It has at least the following six manifestations.

The first one is that the primary method of scientific study is based on “dividing”. Things are analysed, which means they are split into smaller parts. In some areas of science it is even believed that if everything is known about the smallest parts, that will help explain why the bigger ones do what they do. However, when taking things apart, what is not preserved is the relations that bind them together.

The second is the split between “true” and “false”. It is inherited from the Aristotelian logic, together with the principles of non-contradiction, and the excluded middle. Such a division might be useful for studying matter but is it useful for studying life, where the paradox is orthodox?

The third manifestation of dividing in science is the actual disciplines; as if they are something that exists independently out there: physics, biology, chemistry and so on. We can know something as long as certain framework allows us to. When someone steps into another discipline, he or she is not regarded well by their fellows as it is not a proper biology for example. They are not received well also by the gurus in the ventured discipline who should know much better by the virtue of being there longer. All that is additionally supported by the citations count and other crazy metrics.

The forth is splitting sharply science from non-science. That split can be experienced as specific distinction such as science/philosophy or science/art, or at a more general level. And this is not just about the area of concern or the method. This distinction is social and economical. Here’s the simplest example that you can check out for yourself. Almost all scientific papers can be downloaded from the internet at a price between 25 and 35 EUR. If you work for an academic institution, you have free access, if not — you have to pay. So, you can only give feedback to scientists, if you are a scientist yourself, member of some institution, some scientific fiefdom. If science is scientific, why it doesn’t use the fact that we are in a connected world and publishing costs nothing. Is it afraid of the feedback? Well, it should be. See what happened with all traditional media when Twitter appeared.

The fifth one is that the scientists do not regard themselves as part of what they do but as something with a privileged role. Somebody isolated, godlike, that can bring neutral evidence applying rigour and “objectivity”, confirmed by others who can reproduce the results. This is the principle on which science works. There is the idea of truth, which is based on evidence and the whole notion of discovering objective reality as something that is out there, independent from those who “discover” it.

The sixth one is closely related to the fifth: science is based on some dichotomies that are rarely questioned. Here’s the top list: subject/object, mind/body, information/matter, emotion/cognition, form/substance, nature/culture. It is not my intention here to trace how this came to be the situation, nor why it is problematic and when it is especially problematic. But if we take seriously the warning of Heisenberg,

what we observe is not nature herself, but nature exposed to our method of questioning,

let me just say that our method of questioning nowadays includes a denial to seriously question these dichotomies.

These six manifestations of dividing are not independent of each other. And they do not pretend to diagnose all the diseases of science. They are just a small attempt to once again ask the question: could it be that the limitations of science are due to the same qualities that brought its success?

What can be done about it?

First, admit there are serious problems not just with how science is done but with the science itself?

Second, pay more attention to attempts to solve these problems. Some good insights can be found in e.g. certain approaches in cognitive science that balance between 1st and 3rd person perspective when trying to understand life, mind, consciousness, emotions, language and interactions. Others — from the attempts of complexity sciences to promote trans-disciplinary studies. And then there is already quite some work on second-order science and endo-science trying to deal with reflexivity together with a few others of the manifestations of dividing that I tried to shortly state in this article.

Third, accept that the solution will probably not look very scientific within the contemporary definition. Alternatively, it might suffer from the same diseases it is trying to cure.

(First published in July 2017 on Strategic Structures)

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