The Myth Of Scientific Objectivity
This piece is part of our Science September series. All month long, we’re on the prowl for stories that examine the wild and wooly behaviors and structures of the natural and physical world. (And yes, maybe even some tales about aliens, fingers crossed.)
The world stands on a knife’s edge, a point of bifurcation that, once passed, will forever change how we live, for better or worse. If we are to survive as a species, we must fundamentally alter how we view our place in the world.
Modern, mainstream science finds itself deeply embedded in a supposedly objective, quantifiable worldview that at best is faulty, and at worst, is a form of scientism which denies new findings. The Nobel Prize physicist Brian Josephson calls it “pathological disbelief,” a rebuffing of facts when the facts don’t fit the prescribed program of the science community writ large.
In a lecture given at a Nobel Laureates’ meeting in 2004, Josephson rallied against “science by consensus . . . anything goes among the physics community — cosmic wormholes, time travel, just so long as it keeps its distance from anything mystical or New Age-ish.” He points to the theory of continental drift — proposed by Alfred Wegener in 1912 — which was long maligned and ridiculed; it has, of course, long since been accepted, but more than 20 years after his death.
Josephson points to this story as a stark reminder that the course of human history is not governed by objective truth of any kind, especially in the history of science; the truth is always shifting. Lynn Picknett and Clive Prince discuss this phenomenon vis a vis paranormal discoveries in their book The Forbidden Universe, which contends that “the view of the universe emerging from the latest scientific discoveries, particularly of quantum physics and cosmology, can be seen to vindicate the ancient Hermetic belief in an evolving, living, conscious universe.”
Instances of political and personal rivalry crushing insight is rampant in the history of science. Time and again when discoveries or new ideas are presented, the establishment has recoiled. In 1543, Copernicus was reluctant to publish his heliocentric theory not because of the church, but because of the potential furor of the academic world. In 1667, when Jean Denis transfused blood for the first time, the Paris Faculty of Medicine turned to violent opposition.
In 1850, when French naturalist Lamarck believed the environment gave rise to changes in animals, “father of paleontology” Georges Cuvier denounced him to the point that Lamarck was completely ostracized from the academic world. When Chandrasekhar theorized in 1935 that dying stars might be too massive to evolve into white dwarfs, Sir Eddington ridiculed him until Chandra was forced to bow out.
And so it still goes — except now, the stakes are too high to pander to such politics.
One of the most obvious examples of scientism today is the theory of evolution, which is still upheld as the dominant explanation of how life generates itself. The problem is that biologists still cannot answer the most basic of questions involved, including the origin of life itself, sexual reproduction, or how species originate.
Mainstream science — despite declaring again and again that this theory explains these functions — in truth merely describes biological phenomena involved in ecosystem diversity.
The political fight over curriculum between religious Fundamentalists and neo-Darwinists has pushed any meaningful discussion of this topic off the table, as mainstream science remains stubbornly fearful of giving up ground if they admit that there are serious controversies raging around the theory of evolution as the catch-all explanation for our current existence. I.e., it leaves no room for the possibility of Intelligent Design Theory, which posits “certain features of the universe and of living things are best explained by an intelligent cause.” IDT is often made synonymous with creationism — neo-Darwinists argue that it’s just Creationism in disguise — but there are many scientists and philosophers alike that believe IDT is just as compelling a theory as evolution for “the way things are.”
There are many exciting studies in earth sciences, published by pioneers like Hywel Williams and Timothy Lenton, which deepen our understanding of the planet as a microbial biosphere capable of generating enormously complex systems, however.
The field of science is ripe with compelling counternarratives to evolution that we’re choosing to ignore, from the symbiosis between microbes and minerals that together formed earth’s diversity as shown by Robert Hazen, to Tyler Volk’s understanding of bacteria using metapatterns to generate themselves into ever more complex life, to species diversity that stabilize living ecosystems. There’s also Lewis Thomas’ theory that humanity could be a complex form of microbial life the planet produced in order to seed itself into the solar system.
We stand at the frontier of a whole new field of science if we suspend our egos and become willing to alter our perspectives — and perhaps fallacious beliefs — in order to pursue a greater understanding of our species and our role on Earth.
Another example of scientism is the continued definition of the heart as nothing more than a mechanical pump, giving the brain all the credit for who and what we are — the home of our soul, as it were. Doing so means holding on to the linear, reductionist view of a mechanical universe which reduces life to mere quantifiable parts in spite of the latest heart research that is producing a perspective vital in finding a reconnection with something western society has lost.
As nature writer Stephen Buhner eloquently illustrates in his book The Secret Teachings of Plants, it’s now believed that when we stop thinking and start feeling with the heart, our physiological functioning becomes more balanced and calm; neuronal discharge in the brain comes into phase with the heart and lungs in a process called heart coherence. More than half our heart cells are neural, the heart’s nervous system wired to the brain’s amygdala, thalamus, hippocampus, and cortex. The heart has its own memory and is the primary organ of sense; the brain is secondary and responsive.
We feel the world first, but when we believe — and are told, again and again — that the brain is the center of our being, our perception of our humanity and the world becomes stymied. Understanding the heart’s neural connections within the brain and how these areas deal with emotional memories, sensory experience, spatial relationships and meaning, problem solving, reasoning, and learning, we’re better equipped to understand that feelings come through the heart and body, whereas emotions come from thoughts that play through our minds (often like a broken record).
One affects us, the other has an effect on us. It’s a slippery slope to follow, and mainstream science is leading the way by continuing to claim the brain is the end all and be all.
Perhaps the most egregious of all aspects of scientism is the denial of intelligence in the natural world — by everyone from evolutionary biologists to theoretical physicists — as fundamental to the universe. Many aspects of mainstream, modern science are heated battles over such an acknowledgement.
Shivers of despair course through mainstream science in its dogged quest to disprove design in the universe: Jeremy Narby’s argument that all life is sentient in Intelligence in Nature; Stephen Buhner’s Plant Intelligence and the Imaginal Realm; the concept of an innate intelligence behind the enigma of the carbon atom and the conditions for life Paul Davies explored in The Goldilocks Enigma; the argument that if the Big Bang had been precisely any more or less powerful, atoms could never have formed; Lynn Margulis and symbiogenesis; James Lovelock and the Gaia Hypothesis. It’s all met with pathological disbelief, perhaps at our own peril.
Lynn Picknett and Clive Prince argue that this attitude is best illustrated by the multiverse theory — tied together with string theory — a glorified attempt to prove a mathematical construct that is in fact unprovable, all to “prove” that life in the universe is an accident, that our existence is nothing more than chance amid chaos.
The dominant belief that science itself is predicated on a denial of intelligence in the universe and the superior power of quantifiable observation is fallacious; historians are being forced to admit this as evidence comes to light that the greatest minds science has known — from Copernicus to Newton — believed in and based their work on intelligent design.
As Leonard Susskind, the theoretical physicist, has remarked:
“this idea is anathema to physicists, who see the existence of themselves as an accidental property of a universe determined by mathematical principles to be discovered by disinterested analysis.”
Michael Polanyi, the bona fide “polymath” who contributed to our understanding of physical chemistry, economics, and philosophy, declared:
sIt is the height of intellectual perversion to renounce in the name of scientific objectivity, our position as the highest form of life on earth, and our own advent by the process of evolution as the most important problem of evolution.
What does all this mean? It means that the Earth’s functioning cannot be understood by actively limiting our points of view; a comprehensive approach to the world’s problems cannot be created from linear thinking. To do so is to apply an old way of thinking to address the very problems the old way of thinking created.
Einstein knew this. Science has to adjust itself. It has to see the bigger picture. Intelligence is not limited to brain structure. A mind is an aggregate of interacting components; it is embodied in whatever system sustains life. Every self-organized system on this planet — from microbes to plant life to animal life to ecosystems — has a sophisticated ability to create relationships we have never considered possible.
Everything from new findings about the bacterial basis for life, to the interplay of energy fields, to newfound complexities of the solar system, could take us to the next level of awareness as point by point science works away at its own reductionist foundation in spite of itself.
The Gaian Paradigm has much to teach us. All life on this planet is made of self-organized systems; Earth creates ecosystems which give rise to the plants and animals necessary to maintain the health of the system. The Earth is too vast to deal with itself in any other way.
Our outdated, outmoded, top-down approach to problem solving and managing business, materials/food production, education, health care, environmentalism, and government — all these systems across the board in the western world are no longer adequate (if they ever were) to the task before us.
We must create solutions where the problems lie, and such problems include science itself. When we allow institutions, now led by corporations, to govern what is acceptable as science, we negate the innovation we need to survive and thrive. The science writer, Philip Ball, points out that the history of science shows skeptics of dogma are those who discover insights that take us to the next level. It means finding the truth on your own, not waiting for others to tell you what is right or wrong, because there is no such thing as objectivity, especially in science.
Lead Image: Modified from flickr /Crafty Dogma