Caracotsios: Science denial difficult to overcome

Caracotsios: Science denial difficult to overcome

Julian Caracotsios, Columnist

Last week, Popular Science officially shut off comments on its online articles. The 141-year old magazine said, “Even a fractious minority wields enough power to skew a reader’s perception of a story … and because comments sections tend to be a grotesque reflection of the media culture surrounding them, the cynical work of undermining bedrock scientific doctrine is now being done beneath our own stories.” This is a development that is unfortunate at best and downright worrying at worst.

However, “science denial” is old news by now. But while we tend to see it as a function of education and open-mindedness, the problem, I believe, is rooted in the role that science plays in our society, which has changed vastly over time.

Before the scientific revolution, science — often called “natural philosophy” — was just one part of an integrated corpus of human knowledge, which included religion, philosophy and many other things which are considered decidedly “unscientific” today. Modern science has shed its murky, nebulous notions of the past and is now defined by clear-cut, logical rules of mathematics and empirical experimentation. As a result, it became all the more powerful and plays an ever-larger role in society.

And therein lies the issue. Much of what was once dictated by religion, tradition and philosophy is now the domain of science. It has taken the reins of power, being the ultimate tool of mankind to dictate its position in the natural world. We now look to science for our deliverance from evil, for it is ingrained into our minds that the future will be one of greater wealth, happiness and longevity due to the inevitable march of technology. Unless, of course, we are sinful, and we misuse what science has given us. In which case, we’re only a few hydrogen bombs away from Armageddon. Of course, this flowery analogy only goes so far, but it suffices to say that — relative to 500 years ago — science has usurped much of the authority — and awe — that was once vested in God, the Church, philosophy and cultural tradition.

Science is, of course, supposed to be hermetically sealed from arguments not rooted in evidence, but due to its newfound importance in society, it will remain a public affair, participated in not only by those in lab coats, but anyone whom it affects — which, effectively, is everyone. From this perspective, the key problem is not the denial by uneducated individuals who, blinded by whatever dogma they ascribe to, refuse to believe in evolution and other well-established theories. That’s only the most salient aspect of a problem that has plagued humanity since the dawn of time. Our brains are simply far worse at analyzing data from a dispassionate, logical perspective than they are at bending those facts and twisting that logic to make the evidence confirm what we already believe.

Regardless of what knowledge humanity has, the arrival of new knowledge will always be resisted by those who are uncomfortable with it. Even amongst those of us who are “educated,” the scientific facts of politics, economics, gender, sexuality and many more fields are debated and contested in a way much more akin to the older conception of science, a way not entirely differentiated from one’s normative beliefs. Being able to see what “is” uncolored by what one thinks “should be” is not a simple task, and not one learned from mere education, but from experience, maturity and a lifelong effort to see outside one’s prejudices.

The paradox is that while the strict rules of logic and empirical experimentation were supposed to free scientific reasoning from human pretensions, it created a field of knowledge so powerful that it is impossible not to attract them. What we face is not a problem of knowledge, but a problem of wisdom. Although it is tempting to see science as an all-encompassing arbitrator of truth akin to God, this is ultimately a misconception — and a harmful one, because once science can dictate truths absolutely, it’s easy to confuse scientific facts with one’s personal feelings and opinions. What to do about this is a question far beyond a 21-year-old opinion columnist at the school newspaper, but a place I like to start is thinking of science as a convenient set of explanations which enables humans to, for example, build refrigerators, rather than truths about the nature of reality. With that in mind, it’s easier to remember that science is a tool, which — like a hammer — has nothing to say about the intentions and desires of its users.

Hammers can be used to create or destroy, so let’s make sure to use ours wisely.

Julian Caracotsios is a Weinberg senior. He can be reached at [email protected]. If you want to respond publicly to this column, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected].