Science Isn’t Everything

Artists often desire social recognition for their contribution to society, recognition that might come in the form of funding, recognition, validation, or visibility. Teachers do the same, perhaps striking to foster awareness of the constraints within which they conduct their work. Even politicians have to convince the population that their efforts are worthwhile; otherwise, they don’t get reelected.

Increasingly, scientists, too, seek legitimacy for their work. The March for Science on April 22, 2017 had this claim to legitimacy as one of its goals: politics should take scientific knowledge into account when making decisions.

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By Christopher Michel – E=MC^2, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=24810134

Here’s the rub: science changes its mind and sometimes scientists (including social scientists) can’t seem to agree on what constitutes scientific rigour and scholarly success, or even how to interpret results. This apparent conflict does nothing for the public perception of an endeavour truthfully plagued by practical and social problems, from funding to publishing pressures.

Most people don’t seem to understand the scientific method. In fact, most people don’t seem to understand that science is in fact a method, not an object. Yes, the word “science” can be used as shorthand for “knowledge garnered through scientific research,” but I suspect most serious scholars would claim that the power of science lies in its principles, not in the body of knowledge itself.

This is why social science is a science, even though many studies are neither replicable nor generalizable, two cornerstones of what we might think of as science. That’s not a flaw in the method; it’s a limitation in the object of study. People and culture and society are complex, shape-shifting objects.

Science philosopher Ian Hacking coined the term “looping effect” to denote the process whereby ideas about how society or identity works directly influence how society or identity actually works. New studies of these things modify the scientific or social consensus, which then further influences how people view or experience them. And so on ad infinitum.

In one example, certain trends become apparent through research about what it means to be a refugee. Identifying people as refugees only becomes possible once the notion of a refugee becomes socially widespread. People thus identified become aware of what it means to be a refugee through how that identity is constructed by institutions and their fellow refugees. They will have multiple social scripts available to them, but those scripts are shaped by the culturally accepted notion of “refugee-ness.”

Science is like this. It is messy and some things change. Other things don’t. For instance, some scientific disciplines have a condition humorously known as physics envy. Physics doesn’t really change and it can be measured with mathematical precision, no matter how social conditions and individual biases might shift. (I’m talking about the actual workings of physics, not the study and practice of physics, which of course change with societal variations.) In many other fields, including so-called “hard” sciences like biology or psychology, the actual facts might mutate along with external conditions. Life expectancy lengthens with improved hygiene, education, and access to healthcare. Menstruation starts at a younger age with a change in diet. Being LGBTQ+ is a risk factor for depression, due to antipathetic cultural norms.

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By Rcragun – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=34549866

These factual changes are uncomfortable. Something can be true only under specific conditions, but we imagine that it is always true, because it is currently true or it has been true in our experience. People might think science is just making an “educated guess” based on preexisting ideas. To a certain extent, that is true, because scientists are people and we are all biased and prone to errors in thinking. In fact, however, in science, an educated guess is called a hypothesis and it is the starting point, not the end point, of research. The hypothesis guesses at the outcome based on prior results, but the study’s purpose is to attempt to disprove the hypothesis. In other words, what we think is likely true needs to be tested and challenged and disputed in as many ways as possible and as many times as possible before we can accept it as true. Scientists call this process “falsification.” They are trying to prove their ideas wrong, not right.

Unlike many others, (good) scientists of all stripes welcome criticism. Scientists want to improve their craft. They want to know what they are collectively doing wrong, so that they can do it better.

Obviously, individual scientists with ego issues or tunnel vision might not welcome criticism, especially from another field, but overall, the scientific community aims to hone in on all the factors that go into knowing reality. These factors include subjectivity, interdisciplinary awareness, cross-cultural understanding, and myriad other intangible ingredients. Good scientists welcome the challenge.

The rest of the world looks at them and thinks, “Man, they keep changing their minds. They keep making mistakes. They aren’t paying attention to what’s going on over here.” And so on. Those are true statements. But instead of rejecting all science because of these issues, let’s try opening up a conversation. Let me say it again: good scientists will welcome the criticism and change tack accordingly.

Do scientists have all the answers? Of course not. Certainly not as individuals, and even collectively there is much yet unknown. And some things can’t be known through science.

Science is flawed and it is imperfect and it is sometimes wrong. But it is the best method we have for solving large-scale questions, like polio or religious war or climate change or the origins of humanity, and for figuring out how things work, like weather, socialization, affection, and bridge stability.

We absolutely need social science and philosophy and art and literature and personal experience to live meaningful lives, and even sometimes to give us personal answers. But cutting out science means ignoring an intimate, integral part of our humanity. We have an innate and cultivated desire to know and understand, an urge to observe and reason, and an impulse to test our ideas against those of others to determine what might be true.

Science is not everything. But it sure is something.

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Lived Realities and the Concept of Race

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From Wikimedia Commons, User: Xil

Some people perceive women to be inferior to men and sexually available to whoever wants to have a go at them. They then behave as if this were true. Women’s inferiority is a “lived reality” to those people. Yet nobody says, “We need to acknowledge women’s inferiority and sexual availability because we need to talk about rape.” To get at the root of the problem, we need to understand that some people believe that women are inferior and/or sexually available, not that this is factually true. It might even be useful to question the meaning of a category like “women” (which many people have done more or less successfully).

On a related note, the divine right of kings used to be a “lived reality,” meaning that people (including the kings) experienced it as real and lived their lives accordingly. Yet nobody today would argue that we have to acknowledge the divine right of kings in order to understand historical political systems or even how people experienced them. No, we would simply agree that people believed in the divine right of kings and behaved as if it were real, thereby contributing to their own oppression and that of others.

Thus far, we can agree.

Many people perceive arbitrarily divided groups of people to be different based on physical characteristics. Somehow, our logic changes in this case and we come to the conclusion that, “We have to acknowledge race.” We don’t. We have to acknowledge racism.

By acknowledging race as a useful ontological category, we are telling the racists they are right, that there are concrete, observable differences that indelibly separate groups of humans from one another in insurmountable ways. We are saying that lines can be drawn to distinguish these groups in clear-cut ways. We are saying there is an objective reality to the perception of race. We are saying “Race is real, but we shouldn’t treat people differently because of it.” With good intentions, we are trying to make racist views less damaging, instead of rejecting them altogether. In short, we are accepting racism as a valid worldview, just one that needs to be tweaked.

If we acknowledge that some people believe in race and that it creates problems without accepting the premise of race, then we are refusing to give any credence to the underlying assumption of racists. We already have useful concepts that work much better than “race.” As a starting point, I suggest “genetic ancestry,” “historical community,” or “shared cultural experience.”

Can we really assert that a right-leaning politician in India has much in common with a retired performance artist in the United States just because they have the same skin tone? Does a social worker in Ireland readily relate to a Zimbabwean farmer who fled to Zambia during the civil war? My guess is no. “Race” has become shorthand for too many conflicting ideas. If we want to talk about oppression and lived realities, we need a better, more precise vocabulary to say what we really mean.