Seeing this headline in my email in-box, I immediately felt let down by one of the few popularizers of scientific insight that had not generally dropped below a kindergarten level. None of the listed questions have anything to do with ‘science’ since no empirical, observational, or experimental means exist with which to analyse the questions or test any potential answers, and none of the things mentioned has been revealed in a technological manner, which in terms of specifically modern science is a requisite for any thing to become an object for science in the first place.
Science for many has unfortunately turned into a religion, and as such its priests are no better than any other religions ever were, and in many cases they are becoming worse; specializing in the same absolutism and obscurantism as the most duplicitous examples of the self-professedly religious; and professing a belief system more rigid, more self-righteous and more convinced that it is the only way to truth than the worst fundamentalism.
It’s particularly sad to see the New Scientist stooping lower than Discover magazine in order to win readers that don’t understand what science is, where it is useful, and where it has become nothing more than a hypocritical group of two-bit magicians.
I initially had a twinge of sympathy when I started seeing researchers who excel at using scientific method losing funding in favour of ‘knowledge workers’ that have no interest in it, now that both private and public sources of funding have lost interest in paying the additional expense and waiting for results thatare slower to arrive incurred by adherence to scientific method, not because scientific method is the only way, the best way, or even a way at all to truth, but because as a shared praxis it grounds a feeling of community, something lost more and more throughout society as capitalism destroys any potential soure of opposition to its unfettered freedom to manipulate and control the majority of the populace. Science is not a way at all to truth, a scientific statement can only be considered correct or incorrect, as validated by experiments that themselves must be judged on their validity. Truth, on the other hand, has to involve meaning, something impossible for a praxis that of necessity strips away of a thing’s context and meaning in order to first transform it into an object for science. The questions listed in the New Scientist title are not meaningless, as logical positivists who completely failed to understand the only thinker associated with them with any aptitude, namely Wittgenstein. They are, however, questions that are inaccessible to science as such. Only insofar as science abandons the area of intellectual activity in which it has validity can those questions be posited as ‘scientific’ in any meaningful sense of the term.
I’ll admit that I have fully lost whatever sympathy I did have, given the hate-filled vitriol and egocentric ignorance of supposed scientists criticizing and at times calling for the forceful extermination of communities who happen to disagree with its ideas, and particularly those ideas that science itself has failed utterly to properly clarify. While in many cases those communities’ shared praxes may be based on inherited superstitions and so forth, the meaning and worth of them for members of those communities resides in the feeling of community they engender, the actual beliefs held are largely as irrelevant to most members of those communities as their neighbour’s choice of car.
Aside from the few whack-jobs who feel some bizarre need to be antagonistic and hurtful to anyone that happens to not believe what they do, the basis of the shared praxes of those communities are for the most part not significantly different than some of the unquestioned assumptions on which the shared praxis of scientific method is based. Looked at without an already developed belief in those methods, their basis is precisely a very similar, and similarly naïve theology that a competent theologian would refer to as nothing more than a children’s story. And the so-called history of modern science taught in western schools is as ridiculous and mythical as the children’s stories of any of the major religions.
Considering, as well, the behaviour of certain particularly loud and bigoted scientists who have promoted pseudo-sciences that only existed to help in maintaining the privilege of the wealthy, together with the fact that they are defended by other scientists who are fully aware of how indefensible their bigotry is so as to avoid losing their own prestige, I can’t at this point differentiate the behaviour of many in the scientific community from that of some of the most bigoted right-wing fundamentalist whack-jobs. Their behaviour, as well as the underlying intent, is eerily similar.
An apparently ‘human’ breed displaying a voracious appetite for fleecing those with the least to spare, based on the highly credible tradition of cretins such as P.T. Barnum, and displaying a fondness for evangelizing unverifiable and often directly bigoted beliefs, descending (in every sense) from the type of whom Pat Robertson is a particularly odious example, has unfortunately hijacked the place formerly occupied by men of science such as Darwin, Heisenberg, Bohr, Einstein, Wheeler and others. These ignorant,bigoted cretins whose only credibility rests on their entertainment value to a bored public, have become the archetype of the purveyor of supposedly current 21ist century science, notwithstanding that most have little to no understanding of actual science post 18th century.
When one compares the yearly debates of Heisenberg and Bohr versus Einstein, Bell and others, carried out with phenomenally intricate and difficult thought-experiments, through the 1920’s and ’30’s, with the level of the supposed debates between Dawkins and whichever of his straw-man ‘opponents’ needs extra cash this week is particularly telling in terms of the state of science’s current public persona, not to mention their view of the capability of the members of said public. The lack of a noticeable opposition to such charlatans from scientists themselves is telling as to how much stock the scientific community puts into its prestige versus how much stock it puts into promoting and enabling real research.
That the money donated to Dawkins’ misinformation group known as the “Foundation for Science” has gone to creating bigoted propaganda about religion and lobbying for the re-privatization of the British university system, with none used actual research on any topic whatsoever, says all that needs to be said about the real intent: diverting the public’s attention from the shady dealings their paymasters are engaged in. The mealy-mouthed excuse that the public ‘can’t understand hard science’, usually with an example who is a half-wit even by fundamentalist standards, is a particularly condescending claim, considering that the much more intricate and complex debates in the 1920’s and ’30’s were popular enough with the public, most of which had far less education than the average person today, that they were front page news for the days long duration of each debate.
Which brings me to finish with a note regarding a recent quote from Neil deGrasse Tyson. Although I believe Mr. Tyson is generally sincere, in his attempts to popularize something he personally finds fascinating, the sheer ignorance and the massive egocentrism that underlie a black American saying “Republicans are doomed to poverty because they’re ‘born into’ ignorance.” is sad, ludicrous and embarrassing all at once. That it was published in a pro-democrat publication, one that is continually criticizing republican bigotry, without so much as a blush, much less anyone pointing out that it’s as bigoted a statement as any of the statements they attribute to ‘right wing nuts’ demonstrates how shallow their populism is: like most liberals, the implicit motto is that everyone should be treated fairly as long as they agree with us.
Not that writing off an entire group of people ‘from birth’ due to your opinion of particular beliefs that some members of that group hold isn’t screwed up from the start no matter who it originates from. That a member of a group that has endured far more than most, at least as far as recent history goes, from exactly this kind of bigoted prejudgement, one that doesn’t even wait for a child to develop into a human being before writing them off as worthless and ‘doomed’, both shocks and amazes me. That anyone with a reasonable education continues to side precisely with the group he is criticizing in their equation of ‘moral goodness’ and ‘wealth’ with no apparent awareness of the depth of irony his flawed assumptions create is even more astounding. that a member who, from birth, has also been a member of a group prejudged as ignorant, worthless, and poor due to their moral failures rather than systemic bigotry, can without personal embarrassment or public ridicule assume the holier-than-thou, absolutist beliefs scientists hold about their ‘principles’ and ‘methods’ to the degree that it overcomes what ought to be a powerful suspicion of that kind of ignorance, demonstrates if demonstration were needed at this point that even for people who have done actual research, the boorish, bigoted, superior attitude of people like Dawkins is only an exaggeration, and not a fundamentally different view of the rest of humanity from that held by the community of scientists in general.
Tysons’s remake of Cosmos, originally done by Carl Sagan, suffers from the same intrinsic flaw. While Tyson, like Sagan, is sincerely fascinated by scientific insights, he is basically ignorant of the nature of scientific insight, which must include both its unique abilities, when contrasted with other human intellectual activities, and also its boundaries, its limits. Any ‘thing’ is defined by its boundary, its limits, and not understanding the limits of science, which is by definition an understanding that is itself outside scientific understanding, means that you don’t understand science itself, you only understand particular scientific statements. However exact Tyson’s knowledge of given scientific statements may be, his thought lacks the rigour necessary to delineate where science is relevant and where it is not; what lies within its purview, and what must remain outside it for it to remain scientific. That philosophy is by definition outside the purview of science is not a temporary limitation that will be overcome, in fact it isn’t a flaw in science at all, but the source of its strengths when used appropriately. That being a scientist has no positive correlation with having an acute understanding of social and political reality, if anything it tends to have a negative correlation, is not surprising in the least since the methods of each and the abilities required to become adept in each of those areas are as different as to often appear opposed. Polymaths do exist that can apply their intelligence to many areas of intellectual activity, but if you read a biography of any historically noted polymath (often referred to as ‘renaissance men’) the ground of their ability to ask intelligent questions in a large number of fields, in many cases questions that had not occurred to specialists who had spent a lifetime working in those fields, is a rigour of thought that is totally other to a simple penchant for exactness of measurement. This rigour of thought is found most often in the best philosophy, simply because philosophy is nothing other than thinking well, and thinking well implies a rigour that goes beyond the exactness of mathematical projections, so far beyond that the two lack any meaningful basis for comparison. Only by thinking well can embarrassing slides into bigotry such as that noted above be stopped before they start. Only by thinking well can the limits of science, and thereby the nature of science, be appropriately determined. Only by thinking well can can technology be understood in its being as a work and not simply a thing, in the same sense that we call something made by an artist a work, while we do not refer to a tree as a work. Only by thinking well can we avoid the temptation to treat human beings as things, or worse reduce them from things that at least have context, meaning and their own unique character, to interchangeable and therefore easily exchangeable, measurable resources. Only by thinking well can we understand the inherent limitations artificially imposed by a purely technical view of reality, and realize that a technical view of reality is necessarily a creationist, theistic view, no matter how ardently its holder believes he is an atheist. Finally, only by thinking well can we expose the invalid assumptions underlying the various sciences, inherited from the milieu in which those sciences arose and matured; and show how the apparent paradoxes that various specific sciences are currently foundering on are produced, as all paradoxes are produced, by holding invalid assumptions as obvious fact, failing to question beyond the particular results of a given experiment designed to test a specific theory, where every aspect of the process is working under the same invalid assumption, and as a result is invalid from initial perception to final interpretation of those experimental results.