Fallacies of Science

To the scientists in my circle: I’m more with you than you think. I don’t doubt for a minute the value of science. I find it absurd, e.g., that some people think religious texts can compete with science as a source of information about how the physical world works. But I like to amuse myself by playing watchdog for my scientific friends.

Even in my watchdog role, I can raise no objections to the scientific method, or to the analytical power that science has to unpack the facts and processes of the physical world. But as self-appointed guardian at the gates, I propose the following fallacies often committed by the scientifically-minded – all, again, fallacies of application or of scope, not intended to impeach the core value of the scientific method but to snap at the heels of scientists — and even our most admirable scientists like Neil DeGrasse Tyson and Stephen Hawking — when they make claims that go beyond the scope of their expertise.

The fallacy of metaphysical (external) scope

As I’ve argued elsewhere in this fine blog, science studies the “objective world” and has great analytical power within that scope. But science oversteps its scope when it claims that the “objective world” is the “real world period” and anything else is nonsense, thus implying that science is the one and only path to truth.

I propose that it’s misleading to call the “objective world” (which is the full scope of scientific inquiry) real or unreal; it is more accurately an abstraction from reality. There is no purely objective world just as there is no purely subjective world. Each is an abstraction from lived reality.

(Don’t the abstractions called “objects” in computer science suggest as much? A computer program at Tulane may, and probably does, have an “object” called Wayne xxx. This object is an abstraction that consists of a character string (name), numeric string (birthdate), etc. A different database—say that of the IRS—may also have an object called Wayne xxx but with different characteristics abstracted. The physical scientist, like the computer scientist, studies only those details relevant to his or her level of abstraction. But scientists sometimes forget this and make claims that go “beyond scope.”)

Just as the scientist elucidates valuable truths from her abstraction from reality (called the “objective world”), so might poets, philosophers, and Zen masters elucidate valuable truths from their abstractions from reality. It’s not at all clear to me that the subjective aspects of lived reality – art, justice, ethics, the felt joy of love and friendship, and the felt pain of loss and betrayal, are really reducible to (although they may be correlated to) scientific data about neurons. It’s not at all clear to me that the rich unconscious landscapes of Greek mythology or Blake’s visionary poetry, or the subjective-centered critique of empiricism in Kant’s philosophy, teach us less about lived reality than Darwin. To call the scientist’s abstraction of the world “the real world period” is to falsely assign it a metaphysical status, confusing one abstract way of looking at lived reality with the presumed metaphysical ground of lived reality itself.

The fallacy of substantive (internal) scope

Let’s look more narrowly at the role science plays within the scope of the objective world it studies. It mines and generates much knowledge about the physical world, and for that we are grateful. But how much of its substantive area does it really grasp? Even at its present power, it only nibbles the tip of the iceberg. Take the human body. Medical science knows much more about the body’s processes than it knew 350 years ago, when the Age of Science really started coming on line. We look back at the 17th century as a kind of dark ages of leeches and blood-letters. Isn’t it obvious that science will expand its knowledge base just as rapidly, if not more rapidly, in the centuries to come? Won’t they look back at us with the same amusement, as a people nobly gathering knowledge but remarkably primitive in what we had gathered?

This telescopic view from the future should give us pause before we leap. Just a few decades ago, “science” was telling us that it could produce a baby formula more nutritious than mother’s milk. For every “well-tested” drug on the market, there’s a class action lawsuit addressing unintended consequences of that drug. One doesn’t have to be religious to believe that there is a vast (evolved) intelligence at work in the human body and in nature, and that science has only mapped a few percentage points of what is really going on in these systems. Don’t get me wrong – a few percentage points is better than no percentage points, and I’m all for science expanding its knowledge base. But when it comes to applying that knowledge, I take a humbler approach than some more eager proponents of science. The pro-implementation argument I most hear is that the things to be deployed have been tested exhaustively in study after study. Although this may be true, it is limited by context. If scientific understanding of its subject area (in this case the human body and the natural world) has leaped from 1% to 5% in the past few hundred years, it has still mapped just the tip of the iceberg, and still leaves enormous territory unexplored. So when you test exhaustively for results and side-effects, you are only really testing within the zone you understand. There are so many collateral aspects of human and natural ecological systems that are undiscovered that it is sheer arrogance to say that we’ve tested by 2015 standards and thus pronounce such-and-such safer and more effective than Mother Nature.

How does this translate to policy? If you have a serious illness, by all means draw upon that scientific knowledge base and try a scientific cure. If you have a less serious illness, you may be better off trusting to the body’s natural healing mechanisms, insofar science has only scratched the surface on how these mechanisms work, and tampering with biochemical processes may do more harm than good. I and everyone will have to judge this case by case, but by no means am I willing to conclude that science understands every aspect of how the body works and has therefore tested and measured every collateral effect for a particular drug or procedure.

On a tricky subject such as GMO foods, I am not as rabidly anti- as some of my hippie-ish brethren, but not as naively optimistic as some of my scientist friends. I like the idea of scientists building a knowledge base on this topic. But when it comes to implementation, I tend to keep one foot on the brakes, especially since radical changes can now be implemented globally and with much greater speed than in centuries past. I’m not at all convinced that science in its current state understands all the collateral processes of nature well enough to make the “exhaustively tested” claim. Or, to go back to our telescope of time, isn’t it possible that scientists 200 years from now will look back and shake their heads in amusement at our “exhaustively tested” claims?

And I haven’t even gotten to the corruptive influence of money and big corporations when it comes to what substantive areas of scientific inquiry will be funded and how results will be implemented. There may be something like a “fallacy of scientific purity” embedded here.

The fallacy of epistemological scope

Here, I use epistemology broadly as the quest for knowledge – almost, one could say, the quest for self-actualization that drives human reality, if not every aspect of reality. British Romantic poets will be my outside reference point here. The Romantics saw the development of self-knowledge, or self-actualization, in three stages. In Blake, these correspond to an Age of Innocence, Age of Experience, and an Age of Redeemed Imagination. In the Age of Innocence, we access knowledge through the fantastic mechanism of imagination, which keeps us in a state of wonder but leaves us naïve about the world and easily exploited. In the Age of Experience, we begin to access knowledge through reason and science, gaining factual knowledge that makes us less naïve and more worldly, but with that worldliness comes a cynicism, a sense of world-weariness, a sense of loss, of fallenness. Indeed, the Romantic world view at times seems to equate the world of Experience, the world of objective facts, with the world in its deadened aspect. The trick in Blake is to find the turn into a third stage, wherein the power of imagination re-engages at a mature level, re-animates the dry world of abstract facts, and saves us from the cynicism of Experience. In a word, we can put the scientific-type knowledge of Experience into perspective. We can still see its value but without being constrained by it in our quest for self-actualization. In Wordsworth’s “Tintern Abbey,” this plays out as the innocence of “boyish days” (73), experience “‘mid the din / Of towns and cities” (25-26), and the “tranquil restoration” of the mature poet (30). In the third stage, the sensory raptures of youth and the worldly knowledge of experience have both lost their traction. Specifically, the poet has lost the pleasure of immediacy but has gained the power of inward reflection. The “sense sublime / Of something far more deeply interfused” (95-96) is reserved for the third stage, and indeed is specifically used as a counterpoint to the sensory appreciation and worldly knowledge of earlier phases.

These 3 stages can easily be projected beyond the individual onto the cultural or even the cosmic screen. Blake, with his Jungian vision of the archetypal sources of consciousness, readily applies it to the cosmic level. I’ll apply it to the level of cultural history by saying that the Age of Science fits the second stage very well. Science emerged as the dominant epistemology around the late 17th century, putting to bed some childish theories and introducing us to a more worldly-wise engagement with the physical world. Who knows when this Age of Science will end, but when it does, perhaps then we will enter the Age of Aquarius I’ve promoted only half tongue-in-cheek. And perhaps then we will look back at the Age of Science as Blake or Wordsworth look back at their middle stage – as an epistemological period that starts out liberating but eventually binds our imaginations, makes us a little cynical about the possibilities of self-actualization, chains us to what Plato calls “the prison-house” of materialism. So the fallacy of epistemological scope is the fallacy of myopically seeing only that force of knowledge that is present in the middle period, whereas true wisdom may be broader than that. It may be that the innocent child and the mature poet can grasp things about reality that are inaccessible to the purely scientific mind.

The watchdog sleeps

So those are my fallacy sketches for my scientific friends. Now pause and ponder.

rachael art - bad day

 And if in your pondering, you find yourself viewing me with the gaze of the character above (provided by the talented Rachael Gautier), remember: When my watchdog shift ends, I’m more on your side than you think. At least you can take comfort that in the next U.S. election I will be voting for the party that takes science seriously and not the party that seems perpetually at war with science. Meanwhile, I’m happy to revise, especially if a particular Ukrainian physicist I know will home-brew another batch of Russian Imperial Stout to facilitate the review process.

Science and Philosophy

For some reason, science and philosophy have recently been pitted against each other in the blogosphere and public discourse. Maybe something Neil deGrasse Tyson said in Cosmos, but I didn’t have a chance to watch it. The antagonism between those disciplines, though, seems unwarranted.

Science was a subset of philosophy (“natural philosophy”) until the late 17th century. The subset was defined as a basically empirical quest for knowledge about the sensory world, or the objective world. Science has now grown into a separate discipline, and I think all acknowledge that physicists are far more precise than philosophers at elucidating knowledge of the objective world. But the objective world is only one abstraction from lived reality. When it comes to the subjective aspect of lived reality and related values – art, ethics, love, justice – philosophy has the edge. If you’re grappling with “how to live a good life” (a favorite question of the ancient Greek philosophers), a perusal of Epicurus or Gandhi might serve at least as well as Newton’s Principia or Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity. And every physicist should be able to appreciate, at a minimum, Plato and Hume and Kant, who consider the logical presuppositions of empiricism as well as the conditions within which physics and the study of the objective world have a value for those of us living concrete human lives. “Why should we care about science?” is almost by definition the purview not of physics but of meta-physics, as it requires someone to step outside of science and view science as a whole against the larger screen of human values and what makes life worth living.

I think all will also acknowledge that science isn’t “the world” but is a secondary mechanism that observes and analyzes the world at an objective distance. There will always be a difference between the immediate experience of the world (e.g., the feeling of being in love) and the mediated analysis of the world (e.g., finding the chemical process that corresponds to the feeling of being in love). Science is de facto a mediated view of the world. It gains its power by limiting its scope to what can be gleaned at an objective distance from lived reality. Just as Plato’s myth of the cave and Boethius’s metaphor of the circle and Blake’s visionary poetry and Buddhist yoga practices and Shakespeare plays give us access points to lived reality that might fall outside the scope of science (i.e., vantage points that do not stand at the same objective distance as science).

So I am as fascinated as most with the yields of science, but I say let’s celebrate the scientist, artist, and philosopher all for advancing our range of fulfillment. And let’s keep some historical perspective. Pre-17th century periods, in which empiricism was not the dominant epistemology, didn’t value science quite as much because they considered the sensory world less important in the scheme of human values. Science and empiricism constitute the dominant epistemology of our age (a comparatively short 300 years so far). But who knows what priorities, what epistemologies, what new paradigms lay past the horizon line of the next age?