Monday, May 7, 2012

Metaphysics in science, Part VI: Separation of church and state

We've tried to summarize our view of the way that science in society affects our understanding of the world.  We're supposed to be objective, to find the world as it is, not to impose our wishful thinking or fancies onto the facts.  And the science news media, funders, bureaucrats, and the like are supposed to be investing in actual science.  Science should strive for the separation of truth and belief, at least, just as we strive for the separation of church and state in this country.

Every story must be a headline
But we've tried to show that this is not so clearly the case.  Instead, there is mainly interest in 'findings', dramatic, discoveries simple enough for a child (or a Congressional staffer or a reporter?) to understand.  The series was triggered by our being told to call a PR person back when we have an actual 'finding' (i.e., a 'gene for' splash result!), rather than research results that document the actual nature of Nature.  When every story must be a headline, that means we are forcing Nature to be a composition of Major Things, and that's very misleading.

We used the concept of metaphysics to suggest important issues, and to describe how science is going to a substantial extent these days.  Metaphysics is supposed to be OK for soft areas like esthetics or morals, but not for hard-nosed science, which is supposed to tell it like it really is.  But that is often not what happens.  Instead, metaphysical notions, beliefs (akin to religious beliefs) about how one wants the world to be, are imposed on data.

If the real world doesn't generate a dramatic headline, the data are now often assumed to be faulty by a wide swath of society including scientists themselves, the media, the funders, and so on.  This is not an accusation of sloppy work or dishonesty, but simply that the study was of too small a scale to find the assumed truth.  Complex probabilistic causation is to some extent wished away, as if it masked the underlying reality of true, major, enumerable causation.  That truth, in the terms we used, is a metaphysical one.

By not keeping a true separation between this kind of scientific 'religion'--control by belief in a preconceived view of how the world is--and state (actual science studying Nature), we push ourselves towards the same kind of cartoon, superficial understanding that other belief systems do.

There are many reasons why this is so, and it may be simply an anthropological fact: this is how humans and their society are and we need not to take our belief systems--such as that science is a purely objective search for truth--too seriously.  Again, there are reasons that the priesthood of science and its infrastructure (labs, staff, journals, buildings, supporting industries, etc.) are the way they are.  We have to make a living, and it's hard to live in chaos, so we seek order, and vested interests develop.

The difference between how we flatter ourselves that science works, and how it actually works is itself an area of anthropological study.  The upshot of this can be rather destructive, as if science isn't learning anything, and to the extent that that is the lesson, it is very mistaken and itself misleading.

Even so....
When every discovery has to be a headline, and much investment in science is really in vested scientific interests, and even when every story has to be managed as a lobbying tool for increased funding, there is a lot of wasted effort and resources (but also a lot of jobs for people to do).  But we do learn about Nature.

Perhaps metaphysics should not be so summarily discarded as it is these days, because it does help organize our thoughts.  We hope that incomplete understanding will only hold its grip temporarily, and indeed, after a while attempts to force metaphysical notions that are held to be realities will play out, and be replaced by better notions.

But should we be resigned to the fact that empires of waste, irreversible momentum, and the like in science and science investment, are fallible human endeavors and just let things be?  We think not.  We think that is acceptance of mediocrity or of the societal dangers that history shows that fervidly held beliefs can enable.  There must be some resistance and it should be vocal.

If objections to the way things are being done are simply misguided, then the nay-sayers will be left behind in the history of science.  There are always nay-sayers.  But if objections are on the mark, then repeating them and stressing them may eventually move science off its metaphysical commitments towards a more appropriate understanding of Nature.

People need organizing models in their heads, and this may mean that metaphysics cannot or perhaps should not be denigrated automatically.  But this should not mean that nothing in Nature counts as a 'finding' unless it can be explained in melodramatic terms.  Nature is subtler than that--and that is a short statement that really is a finding!

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