Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Is science that different from other forms of ideology?

We in science are convinced that, whatever our failings, greed, and ignorance, the systematic approach to understanding the actual cosmos we're in is the only one that will do that.  Religion and other mysticism won't.  That is our motto, and it's our cant.

We lambaste religion--those who are just plain wrong--as grasping at every evidential straw it can to support its unsupportable belief-system.  Defenders of the faith will point to every statement of uncertainty, every mistake, and every missing puzzle-piece with sneering dismissal.  They use any lever they can find, even culpably misrepresenting science.  And, what is probably worse, they invoke the patently false logic that if a particular science explanation is wrong that implies that their particular explanation is therefore right. That is, if evolutionists make a mistake, that implies not just that there is much that we don't know about evolution, but that biblical literalism must therefore be right instead.

This is ideology in action.  For the religious (that is, those with the major nominal religious faiths), their belief brings comfort against the fears of life--its injustices, cruelty and its end.  A rewarding life ever after drives much of such belief.  Scientists don't get that comfort, even if we sometimes wax forcedly poetic about the grandeur of life's panoply.  But we feel edified, if not arrogant, that at least we have a finger on the way to Truth.  But are we so different?

What about science?
Science is a form of ideology.  It is tribal, with its secret jargon, its oracles of wisdom, beatified by symbols like Nobel prizes.  We become the experts who know.

But we usually do that based on our own canonical beliefs.  We call it a theory rather than an ideology or faith, but it amounts to more of the same than we like to think.  For example, if our ideology is that natural selection is the cause of all things present today and genetics their immediate cause, then counter-facts are dismissed.  We say that we may not know the explanation for those facts, but that with more work (and, of course, more funding) we will find it.

This defensive ideological behavior has political and economic implications of many sorts.  We often write about the vested interests and the inertia they defend with invocations of their mantras, such as that of genetic determination of our traits like disease and behavior.

Climate change is an excellent example.  Politicians routinely invoke climate change in their rhetoric if it serves their arguments in favor of some policy.  Deniers do the same, invoking science's lack of definitive results as if that falsifies the whole theory. We now routinely hear statements about typhoons as manifestations of climate change and then, "See, I told you!  Now we need a law to xxxxx".   Not all climate scientists themselves do this, but climate-change science has its lobbying for funds and attention, like all sciences do.

Typhoon Usagi, Sept 19, 2013; Wikimedia
 The NYTimes last week had a very cogent editorial that relates to this issue in the context of climate change. The author points out that the data suggest that we in fact may face fewer super-storms with global warming.  He criticizes politicians who blindly invoke climate-change rationales, and notes that even advocates sometimes slip into arguing the big-storm rationale.  Scientists seem reluctant to point out that non-commonsense phenomena may exist and things may not be well-known, but that that does not undermine our ideology.  And the fact that, say, big storms may not be a result of climate change after all, does not suggest that climate change is being imagined.

If both sides of arguments rely on selective citation and selective amnesia, then we as a society are not having a debate about the facts, but instead are in a tribal conflict for material as well as symbolic territory of one kind or another.  That may be how culture works, with science far from being as neutral and objective as we scientists like to fancy. But if science really is about the material rather than cultural/tribal world, we should learn to recognize that, and act accordingly in a more responsible way.

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