Neil Postman and Modern Culture’s Blind Faith in Science
Neil Postman’s book Technopoly remains as relevant today as it was when he published it in 1992. I’ve been contemplating and reading for a while now about the impact of the public’s reception of technoogy on their perception of science. It appears, at least to me, that it’s often the case that when those who are not directly involved in hard sciences laud science as a great “objective” enterprise and achievement of humanity, they’re thinking of technology, which is not necessarily the same thing as science. In fact, based on my experience from interacting with scientists, and being one myself, this blind “belief” in science is a quality mostly observed in those who at most have a cursory understanding of the world that makes up the hard sciences. In Technopoly, Postman goes through the cultural background that makes way for Scientism. Furthermore, what he discusses also provides a much needed explanation to what’s been termed the “replication crisis” in psychology. In addition, although what is called today “New Atheism” wasn’t a phenomenon when the book was published, reading his chapter on Scientism also gives interesting account for why this particular group of individuals irrationally believe somewhat zealously in science as the answer to all human problems. What follows are excerpts from this chapter. The whole book is a short but profoundly insightful read. I couldn’t recommend it highly enough.
Among the best known early “social scientists” were Claude-Henri de Saint-Simon, Prosper Enfantin, and, of course, Auguste Comte. They held in common two beliefs to which Technopoly is deeply indebted: that the natural sciences provide a method to unlock the secrets of both the human heart and the direction of social life; that society can be rationally and humanely reorganized according to principles that social science will uncover. It is with these men that the idea of “social engineering” begins and the seeds of Scientism are planted.
Using definitions proposed by the British philosopher Michael Oakeshott, we may say that “processes” refers to those events that occur in nature, such as the orbiting of planets or the melting of ice or the production of chlorophyll in a leaf. Such processes have nothing to do with human intelligence, are governed by immutable laws, and are, so to say, determined by the structure of nature. If one were so inclined, one might even say that processes are the creation of God. By “practices,” on the other hand, Oakeshott means the creation of people — those events that result from human decisions and actions, such as writing or reading this book or forming a new government or conversing at dinner or falling in love. These events are a function of human intelligence interacting with environment, and although there is surely a measure of regularity in human affairs, such affairs are not determined by natural laws, immutable or otherwise. In other words, there is an irrevocable difference between a blink and a wink. A blink can be classified as a process; it has physiological causes which can be understood and explained within the context of established postulates and theories. But a win must be classified as a practice, filled with personal and to some extent unknowable meanings and, in any case, quite impossible to explain or predict in terms of causal relations.
What we may call science, then, is the quest to find the immutable and universal laws that govern processes, presuming that there are cause-and-effect relations among these processes. It follows that the quest to understand human behavior and feeling can in no sense except the most trivial be called science. One can, of course, point to the fact that students of both natural law and human behavior often quantify their observations, and on this common ground classify them together. A fair analogy would be to argue that, since a housepainter and an artist both use paint, they are engaged in the same enterprise and to the same end.
The scientist uses mathematics to assist in uncovering and describing the structure of nature. At best, sociologists (to take one example) use quantification merely to give some precision to their ideas. But there is nothing especially scientific in that. All sorts of people count things in order to achieve precision without claiming they are scientists. Bain bondsmen count the number of murders committed in their cities; judges count the number of divorce actions in their jurisdictions; business executives count the amount of money spent in their stores; and young children like to count their toes and fingers in order not to be vague about how many they have. Information produced by counting may sometimes be valuable in helping a person get an idea, or, even more so, in providing support for an idea. But the mere activity of counting does not make science.
Nor does observing things, though it is sometimes said that if one is empirical, one is scientific. To be empirical means to look at things before drawing conclusions. Everyone, therefore, is an empiricist, with the possible exception of paranoid schizophrenics. To be empirical also means to offer evidence that others can see as clearly as you… Such evidence be said to be empirical, and your conclusion empirically based. But you are not therefore acting as a scientist. You are acting as a rational person, to which condition many people who are not scientists may make a just claim.
Scientists do strive to be empirical and where possible precise, but it is also basic to their enterprise that they maintain a high degree of objectivity, which means that they study things independently of what people think or do about them.
I think it justifiable to say that, in the nineteenth century, novelists provided us with most of the powerful metaphors and images of our culture. In the twentieth century, such metaphors and images have come largely from the pens of social historians and researchers. Think of John Dewey, William James, Erik Erikson, Alfred Kinsey, Thorstein Veblen, Margaret Mead, Lewis Mumford, B. F. Skinner, Carl Rogers, Marshall McLuhan, Barbara Tuchman, Noam Chomsky, Robert Coles, even Stanley Milgram, and you must acknowledge that our ideas of what we are like and what kind of country we live in comes from their stories to a far greater extent than from the stories of our most renowned novelists.
Why do such social researchers tell their stories? Essentially for didactic and moralistic purposes. These men and women tell their stories for the same reason the Buddha, Confucius, Hillel, and Jesus told their stories (and for the same reason D. H. Lawrence told his). It is true, of course, that social researchers rarely base their claims to knowledge on the indisputability of sacred texts, and even less so on revelation. But we must not be dazzled or deluded by differences in method between preachers and scholars. Without meaning to be blasphemous, I would say that Jesus was as keen a sociologist as Veblen. Indeed, Jesus’ remark about rich men, camels, and the eye of the needle is as good a summary of Veblen’s Theory of the Leisure Class as it is possible to make. As social researchers, Jesus and Veblen differed in that Veblen was more garrulous.
Unlike science, social research never discovers anything. It only rediscovers what people once were told and need to be told again. If, indeed, the price of civilization is repressed sexuality, it was not Sigmund Freud who discovered it. If the consciousness of people is formed by their material circumstances, it was not Marx who discovered it. If the medium is the message, it was not McLuhan who discovered it. They have merely retold ancient stories in a modern style. And these stories will be told anew decades and centuries from now, with, I imagine less effect. For it would seem that Technopoly does not want these kinds of stories but facts — hard facts, scientific facts. We might even say that in Technopoly precise knowledge is preferred to truthful knowledge but that in any case Technopoly wishes to solve, once and for all, the dilemma of subjectivity. In a culture in which the machine, with it impersonal and endlessly repeatable operations, is a controlling metaphor and considered to be the instrument of progress, subjectivity becomes profoundly unacceptable. Diversity, complexity, and ambiguity of human judgment are enemies of technique. They mock statistics and polls and standardized tests and bureaucracies. In Technopoly, it is not enough for social research to rediscover ancient truths or to comment on and criticize the moral behavior of people. In Technopoly, it is an insult to call some a “moralizer.” Nor is it sufficient for social research to put forward metaphors, images, and ideas that can help people live with some measure of understanding and dignity. Such a program lacks the aura of certain knowledge that only science can provide. It becomes necessary, then, to transform psychology, sociology, and anthropology into “sciences,” in which humanity itself becomes an object, much like plants, planets, or ice cubes.
Social “scientists” have consistently sought to identify themselves, and in more than name” with physicists, chemists, biologists, and others who inquire into the lawful regularities of the natural world. Why students of the human condition should do this is not hard to explain. The great successes of modern times — indeed, perhaps the only successes — have come in medicine, pharmacology, biochemistry, astrophysics, and all the feats of mechanical, biological, and electronic engineering made possible by the consistent application of the aims, assumptions, and procedures of natural science. These successes have attached to the name of science an awesome measure of authority, and to those who claim the title “scientist” a similar measure of respect and prestige. Beyond that lies the nineteenth-century hope that the assumptions and procedures of natural science might be applied without modification to the social world, to the same end of increased predictability and control, and with the same kind of engineering success. This hope has proved both misguided and illusory. But the illusion is a powerful one, and, given the psychological, social, and material benefits that attach to the label “scientist,” it is not hard to see why social researchers should find it hard to give it up.
It is less easy to see why the rest of us have so willingly, even eagerly, cooperated in perpetuating the same illusion. In part, the explanation lies in a profound misunderstanding of the aims of natural and of social studies, and of the difference between the physical and social worlds. But there is more to it than that. When the new technologies and technique and spirit of men like Galileo, Newton, and Bacon laid the foundations of natural science, they also discredited the authority of earlier accounts of the physical world, as found, for example, in the great tale of Genesis. By calling into question the truth of such accounts of the physical world, as found, for example, in the great tale of Genesis. By calling into question the truth of such accounts in one realm, science undermined the whole edifice of belief in sacred stories and ultimately swept away with it the source to which humans had looked for moral authority. It is not too much to say, I think, that the desacralized world has been searching for an alternative source of moral authority ever since. So far as I know, no responsible natural scientist, either of the Renaissance or of recent times, has claimed that the procedures of natural science or its discoveries can tell us what we ought to do — whether some way of dealing with our fellow humans is good or evil, right or wrong. Indeed, the very principles of natural science, with its requirement of an objective stance toward what is studied, compel the natural scientist to abjure in his or her role as a scientist such moral judgments or claims. When natural scientists speak out on moral questions, on what is good or evil to do, they speak as the rest of us — as concerned citizens on a threatened planet, as rational women and men, as people of conscience who must struggle no less than you must, or I, to answer for themselves where the ultimate authority for their moral judgment lies. It is the world of desperate listeners, longing for a more powerful moral authority, that begs the natural scientist to say it is the science that speaks, not the woman or man. But the scientist cannot honor consent.
Our social “scientists” have from the very beginning been less tender of conscience, or less rigorous in their views of science, or perhaps just more confused about the questions their procedures can answer and those they cannot. In any case, they have not been squeamish about imputing to their “discoveries” and the rigor of their procedures the power to direct us in how we ought rightly to behave. That is why social “scientists” are so often to be found on our television screens, and on our best-seller lists, and in the “self-help” sections of airport bookstands: not because they can tell us how some humans sometimes behave but because they have purport to tell us how we should; not because they speak to us as fellow humans who have lived longer, or experience more of human suffering, or thought more deeply and reasoned more carefully about some set of problems, but because they consent to maintain the illusion that it is their data, their procedures, their science, and not themselves, that speak. We welcome them gladly, and the claim explicitly made or implied, because we need so desperately to find some source outside the frail and shaky judgments of mortals like ourselves to authorize our moral decisions and behavior. And outside of the authority of brute force, which can scarcely be called moral, we seem to have little left but the authority of procedures.
This, then, is what I mean by Scientism. It is not merely the misapplication of techniques such as quantification to questions where numbers have nothing to say; not merely the confusion of the material and social realms of human experience; not merely the claim of social researchers to be applying the aims and procedures of natural science to the human world. Scientism is all of these, but something profoundly more. It is the desperate hope, and wish, and ultimately the illusory belief that some standardized set of procedures called “science” can provide us with an unimpeachable source of moral authority, a suprahuman basis for answers to questions like “What is life, and when, and why?” “Why is death, and suffering?” “What is right and wrong to do?” “What are good and evil ends?” “How ought we to think and feel and behave?” It is Scientism on a personal level when one says, as President Reagan did, that he personally believes that abortion is wrong but we must leave it to science to tell us when a fetus enters life. It is Scientism on a cultural level when no scientist rises to demur, when no newspaper prints a rebuttal on its “science” pages, when everyone cooperates, willfully or through ignorance, in the perpetuation of such an illusion. Science can tell us when a heart begins to beat, or movement begins, or what are the statistics on the survival of neonates of different gestational ages outside the womb. But science has no more authority that you do or I do to establish such criteria as the “true” definition of “life” or of human state or of personhood. Social research can tell us how some people behave in the presence of what they believe to be legitimate authority. But it cannot tell us when authority is “legitimate” and when not, or how we must decide, or when it may be right or wrong to obey. To ask of science, or expect of science, or accept unchallenged from science the answers to such questions is Scientism. And it is Technopoly’s grand illusion.
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