Saturday, August 10, 2013

In Defense Of Modern Science

Advances in Science

In some ways we are fighting a battle today that such scientific revolutionaries as Galileo, Copernicus and Kepler fought hundreds of years ago; but instead of the Catholic Church as the adversary of scientific research and advancement, it is now the humanities wing of academia, which in many ways fears scientific progress and the faith in science, which the opponents have called scientism.

That science ought not be feared by the humanities academics is an argument that Steven Pinker puts forth in an article in The New Republic (“Science Is Not Your Enemy”; August 6, 2013).

Pinker writes:
One would think that writers in the humanities would be delighted and energized by the efflorescence of new ideas from the sciences. But one would be wrong. Though everyone endorses science when it can cure disease, monitor the environment, or bash political opponents, the intrusion of science into the territories of the humanities has been deeply resented. Just as reviled is the application of scientific reasoning to religion; many writers without a trace of a belief in God maintain that there is something unseemly about scientists weighing in on the biggest questions. In the major journals of opinion, scientific carpetbaggers are regularly accused of determinism, reductionism, essentialism, positivism, and worst of all, something called “scientism.” The past couple years have seen four denunciations of scientism in this magazine alone, together with attacks in Bookforum, The Claremont Review of Books, The Huffington Post, The Nation, National Review Online, The New Atlantis, The New York Times, and Standpoint.
The eclectic politics of these publications reflects the bipartisan nature of the resentment. This passage, from a 2011 review in The Nation of three books by Sam Harris by the historian Jackson Lears, makes the standard case for the prosecution by the left:
Positivist assumptions provided the epistemological foundations for Social Darwinism and pop-evolutionary notions of progress, as well as for scientific racism and imperialism. These tendencies coalesced in eugenics, the doctrine that human well-being could be improved and eventually perfected through the selective breeding of the "fit" and the sterilization or elimination of the "unfit." ... Every schoolkid knows about what happened next: the catastrophic twentieth century. Two world wars, the systematic slaughter of innocents on an unprecedented scale, the proliferation of unimaginable destructive weapons, brushfire wars on the periphery of empire—all these events involved, in various degrees, the application of sceintific research to advanced technology.
The case from the right, captured in this 2007 speech from Leon Kass, George W. Bush’s bioethics adviser, is just as measured:
Scientific ideas and discoveries about living nature and man, perfectly welcome and harmless in themselves, are being enlisted to do battle against our traditional religious and moral teachings, and even our self-understanding as creatures with freedom and dignity. A quasi-religious faith has sprung up among us—let me call it "soul-less scientism"—which believes that our new biology, eliminating all mystery, can give a complete account of human life, giving purely scientific explanations of human thought, love, creativity, moral judgment, and even why we believe in God. ... Make no mistake. The stakes in this contest are high: at issue are the moral and spiritual health of our nation, the continued vitality of science, and our own self-understanding as human beings and as children of the West.
These are zealous prosecutors indeed. But their cases are weak. The mindset of science cannot be blamed for genocide and war and does not threaten the moral and spiritual health of our nation. It is, rather, indispensable in all areas of human concern, including politics, the arts, and the search for meaning, purpose, and morality.
I agree with Pinker; and yes their cases are weak and ill-informed. Speaking to Kass’ concern about moral and spiritual health of a nation, has he made a close and critical reading of the Christian bible? It contains views endorsing genocides, slavery and child stoning, hardly a morality suitable for a modern age. As for the arguments of eugenics and determinism, this shows a poor understanding of modern evolutionary theory. Explaining the mechanism of human behaviour is not the same as advocating for a moral position. Moreover, since science is auto-correcting, which religion is not, new scientific theories and findings replace old, outdated ones. This has been taking place for centuries.

This might be be the case of what we do not understand, we fear.  I might be in a unique position to comment on the place of science and humanities in the public sphere, given my background and education in both the arts and sciences. I have read Pinker’s books and respect his views, not only because he comes from Montreal, my hometown, and attended the same college as I did, but chiefly because his arguments are rational and sound.

Science is a form of democracy, since its results are supposed to be both proven and repeatable, something that is outside of the humanities’ purview. But humanities has a definite and important place alongside science in democracy, providing high-level thoughts and ideas that help promote the betterment of humanity. Instead of fearing science, as some do, the academics of humanities ought to be working alongside of it—after all, both desire to promote knowledge and rational thinking, among other things. They both have a common enemy, one that is growing and adding many adherents: Ignorance.

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You can read the rest of the article at [New Republic]