by Jay Johansen | Apr 5, 2015
There's been a lot of talk the last few years about how Americans "doubt science". In 2015 National Geographic magazine published an article titled "The War on Science", which gave as examples of this anti-science campaign doubt or opposition to: flouridation of water, vaccines, the moon landing, genetically engineered food, evolution, and global warming. Well, quite a grab bag. Surveys have been taken of how many Americans believe or doubt these and other controversial ideas. Etc.
These discussions generally center on the idea that it is baffling and tragic that so many Americans "doubt" or "attack" science. After all, they say, science has proven to be so powerful and successful, how could anyone question it? Science has proven itself over and over, from the invention of the wheel to the invention of computers and cell phones.
But there's a huge gap in logic here. Personally, I doubt evolution and global warming. But not because I "doubt science". It is because I doubt scientists. That is not the same thing at all.
To put it simply: Yes, it is absolutely true that there have been scientists throughout history who were geniuses and who made incredible discoveries or inventions. Isaac Newton discovered how gravity works and invented calculus. ALbert Einstein developed the theory of relativity. Mauchly and Eckert invented the electronic computer. Etc. I don't question the contributions of these men at all.
But the fact that some scientists discovered great truths hardly proves that everything said by anyone who calls himself a scientist is true. Suppose you said that [insert name of worst movie you've ever seen here] is a terrible, stupid movie. And suppose I reacted with shock and surprise and asked how you could possibly say this was a bad movie. After all, I say, didn't you just agree yesterday that Casablanca, It's a Wonderful Life, Psycho, and Star Wars were all great movies? Those movies were made by actors. So actors make great movies. Therefore, how can you say that actors made a bad movie? Actors have proven that they make great movies -- you admitted so yourself. Are you saying now that Casablanca was not a great movie?
Need I even point out the flaw in this absurd argument? Just because some actors make great movies does not in any way prove that all actors make great movies. Some actors are good and others are bad.
The same is true of scientists. Some scientists make great discoveries. Some scientists make small discoveries. Other scientists discover nothing of value at all. Some scientists discover truth. Other scientists make mistakes and spead mistaken ideas. Some scientists deliberately lie. (For example, to win prestige, to get a bigger grant next year, for ideological reasons, etc.) Scientists are human beings, and show the full range of human ability and ethics.
In another sense: What gives science it's power is the "scientific method". Science is based on experiment and observation. When science is done right, scientists don't just sit around discussing how they think the universe works. They perform experiments to actually test their ideas. Then the experiment either gives the expected results or it doesn't, and the theory is confirmed or refuted. (Of course in real life it's more complicated than that. The question is rarely closed by one experiment. But that's the general idea.)
If you questioned Newton's theory of gravity, we could easily perform experiments to prove it true. If your objection was on the most basic level, we could hold a rock at arm's length and release it and observe whether it falls to the ground or floats in the air. If your objection is more technical, if, say, you question the exact speed at which it falls, we would need a more sophisticated experiment, but the idea is the same.
Or suppose you said that you doubted that electricty was real. We could easily turn on a lightbulb and demonstrate that it is. Again, if your objections are more technical, we might need a more complex experiment. But if you doubted the modern theories behind electricity, I could demonstrate to you that large portions of the theory must be true by simple experiments that we could do ourselves.
Sometimes the experiment to test a theory requires complex or expensive equipment, or can only be done in the heart of a volanco or in outer space or whatever. It may not be practical to do the experiment in your garage with items you can find around the house. But the principle is the same.
So now consider, say, evolution. What experiment can you perform to show evolution happen? No one has ever seen a species evolve into a different species. Evolutionists explain that such an experiment is impossible: evolution takes millions of years. Okay, maybe so. But if you can't prove your theory by experiment and observation, then it is not "science" in the same sense that the theory of gravity or electricity is science.
Or consider global warming. The obvious experiment is to measure temperatures around the world over time and see if they go up or down. That experiment has been done, and the results for the last 15 years or so have been that the temperature is not measurably changing. Those who warn of global warming explain why this is a temporary anomaly and proves nothing. Maybe so. Maybe the experiment that contradicts the theory is invalid or inadequate. Nevertheless, we have not been shown an experiment that proves the theory true. It is not "science" in the sense that the theory of gravity or electricity is science.
Thus, the argument of the people who warn of a "war on science" could be stated like this: The scientific method of experimentation and observation has proven to be extremely powerful at finding truth. Therefore, people should accept without question statements made by scientists that are not backed up by experimentation and observation.
The power of science is that an experiment can settle a question in a way that logical argument and philosophical debate cannot. If you present a logical argument why, say, democracy is better than monarchy (or vice versa), I may present a counter-argument. I may challenge your assumptions. I may just say I'm not convinced. We could go around and around. But if you say that rocks fall when you drop them and I say they don't, we could perform a simple experiment to settle the question.
What these "war on science" people are saying is that a statement is "scientific" if the "consensus" of people who call themselves scientist say it's true. I'm sorry, but that's not what science is. A statement is "scientific" if it is backed up by experiment and observation. Scientists say lots of things that aren't scientific. I'm sure plenty of scientists have said, "That's a beautiful sunset" or "People should vote for Senator Jones" or "I love you" or lots of other things that are not scientific. And I'm sure plenty of non-scientists have said "I tried this and this is what happened", which is a fundamentally scientific statement.
I saw an article on one survey that concluded that people "believe in science" when they can see it directly for themselves, like when they see a computer or a cell phone work. But they don't "believe in science" when it is far away or abstract and they can't see it for themselves. The writer then went on to discuss how such people could be taught a more scientific attitude.
It seems to me that this attitude that the writer attacked is a very scientific attitude. Indeed, it is the definition of a scientific viewpoint. Show me the evidence, show me the experiment, and I will believe that your claim is true. If you can't or won't show me the evidence, then I am not convinced.
© 2015 by Jay Johansen