16 April 2013

They keep using that word. I do not think it means what they think it means.

There was a science and skepticism conference in Manchester last weekend, where a lot of smart people got together to give their critical thinking skills and scientific skepticism some healthy flexing. Yet what was otherwise a commendable affair was marred by the frankly silly title (and topic) of one discussion panel: Is Science the New Religion?

How can fluent English speakers so egregiously misuse the word ‘religion’? Do they need to have its proper definition tattooed on the inside of their forearms for convenient reference?   

One person who won’t be facepalming with me in solidarity is the journalist Brendan O’Neill, who was on that ridiculous panel and uttered suitably ridiculous things about science and politics. O’Neill thinks that politics is in danger of being influenced by too much science. He warns us:

The worst thing is that politicians’ increasing reliance on science, and some scientists’ willingness to go along with this, shrinks the space for public, mass engagement in policymaking. The more politics becomes an experts’ pursuit, the less room there is for the public’s ideological or passionate or angry or prejudicial views.

And this is a bad thing? O’Neill gives voice to a sadly common anti-intellectualism displayed by those who think that, in the words of Isaac Asimov, their ignorance is just as good as an expert’s knowledge. O’Neill also confuses the (very real) problem of politicians cherry-picking scientific data that support their biases with the actual process of science; the former is a subjective vice on the part of dishonest politicians, while the latter is a provisionally objective pursuit of knowledge about reality that isn’t beholden to partisan views on government. Science is certainly affected by politics through government funding, laws and regulations, but no amount of political pressure can force physicists to change the laws of nature, or get biologists to concede that the theory of evolution is false.

The comedian and science populariser Robin Ince was on that panel with O’Neill, and he was “startle-eyed” by the copious amounts of inanity gushing from his fellow panelist. Ince comments on O’Neill’s anti-expert rhetoric in a sharply humorous blog post, which includes this observation:

There is a gaggle that seems to consider that expertise is an unfair advantage, that all opinions are equal; an idea that people who are experts in climate change, drugs or engineering are given unfair preference just because they spend much of their life studying these things. I do not think it is fascism that heart surgeons seem to have the monopoly of placing hands in a chest cavity and fiddling with an aorta. Though I have my own opinions on driving, I have decided to let others do it, as I have never taken a lesson. I do not consider myself oppressed by the driving majority. I own an umbrella and a thermometer, but I do not believe this is enough to place me on a climate change advisory body.

A charitable reading of O’Neill’s arguments might suggest that he is simply decrying ‘scientism’: the unjustified belief that science holds all the answers to all our problems, including ethical ones. I’m not convinced that O’Neill is actually criticising scientism. His comments clearly show that he is uncomfortable with scientific expertise itself, with the idea that politics is improved by the input of the best scientific knowledge we currently possess in various fields. O’Neill’s position is in stark contrast to that of the philosopher Massimo Pigliucci, who is a strong critic of scientism yet is a champion for science. In the aptly titled chapter ‘The Limits of Science’ in his book Answers for Aristotle, Pigliucci writes:

The idea underlying this chapter is that science is neither the new god nor something that should be cavalierly dismissed. As a society, we need a thoughtful appreciation not only of how science works but also of its power and its limits. This isn’t just an (interesting, I would submit) intellectual exercise: how we think about science has huge personal and societal consequences, affecting our decisions about everything from whether to vaccinate our children to whether to vote for a politician who wants to enact policies to curb climate change. We cannot all become experts, especially in the many highly technical fields of modern science, but it is crucial for our own well-being that we understand the elements of how science works (and occasionally fails to), that we become informed skeptics about the claims that are made on behalf of science, and that we also do our part to nudge society away from an increasingly dangerous epistemic relativism.

Pigliucci has an acute, even wise, understanding of both the limits of science and its power to affect change for the better, especially when politicians grant it the respect it deserves. O’Neill on the other hand just doesn’t like uppity nerds oppressing common folks like him with their ‘facts’ and ‘expertise’.