A few weeks ago I discussed a surprising essay by Daniel Sarewitz in the online version of Nature. His piece, “Sometimes science must give way to religion,” not only claimed that science was identical to religion by ultimately resting on faith, but also argued that there was an “unknowable and the inexplicable beyond the world of our experience” and that science fails to give “insight about the mystery of existence.” In other words, he was dissing science while stepping into the muck of faith.
Although I’ve seen Nature go soft on religion before, this was a remarkably fuzzy and wooish piece from one of the world’s premier scientific journals, and, predictably, elicited a bunch of negative comments from scientists.
Now, however, Ananyo Bhattacharya, chief online editor for Nature (and presumably the editor of Sarewitz’s piece), has taken to the pages of Discover magazine to defend that piece. That is triply surprising, for Bhattacharya not only echoes Sarwitz’s sentiments and even distorts what he said, but published his own piece in a different but still reputable science magazine.
The echoing is evident from the title of Bhattacharya’s piece, “The limits of science—and scientists.” After first reprising Sarweitz’s woo-ishness, and admitting that he “has his own problems with the piece” (if so, why did he publish such a remarkably vacuous essay?), Bhattacharya defends Sarewitz’s view that accepting science depends on faith (quotes are from the Discover piece):
The critics disagreed. Unlike religion, science does not require blind faith, they said—only trust in scientists, who had, after all, produced verifiable results and made successful predictions in the past. But that is to conflate well-established science—a body of knowledge supported by so much experiment and observation that it is very likely true—and the new findings of science at any particular moment, which are quite likely to be false. Scientists are of course human, many as fallible as any whisky priest. So you could argue that the much vaunted “trust” in science—proclaimed by Sarewitz’s critics as being purely rational—looks a bit more shaky than it did at first sight. Sarewitz was right that accepting new research requires not blind faith but “belief,” and most dictionary definitions of the word are perfectly consistent with his argument.
(Check out the link to the “quite likely to be false” assertion.) This is logic-chopping, for Sarewitz never drew a distinction between “well-established science” and “new science (that is probably wrong).” So that’s Bhattacharya’s first misrepresentation. Another is the equating of not just some scientists, but many scientists, with “whisky priests.” Lordy!
The third misrepresentation is the contention that Sarewitz simply used people’s normal interpretation of the word “belief”, and in that sense belief in scientific authority is similar to belief in the tenets of religion. But Sarewitz didn’t say exactly that: he said that belief in scientific truth is just as irrational and faith-ridden as belief in religion. Here are two quotes from Sarewitz’s original paper (my emphasis):
The Higgs discovery, elucidating the constituents of existence itself, is even presented as a giant step towards the ultimate cure: a rational explanation for the Universe. That such scientific understanding provides a challenge to religion is an idea commonly heard from defenders of science, especially those in more militant atheist garb. Yet scientists who occupy that ground are often too slow to recognize the irrational bases of their own beliefs, and too quick to draw a line between the scientific and the irrational.
But people raised to believe that physicists are more reliable than Hindu priests will prefer molasses to milk. For those who cannot follow the mathematics, belief in the Higgs is an act of faith, not of rationality.
Here the issue is not “belief” (I prefer the word “acceptance” when it comes to scientific findings), but “faith.”
Finally, Bhattacharya defends the questionable “other ways of knowing” hypothesis—and in a particularly careless way (my emphasis):
But what was truly staggering was the support for the notion that science was, as one critic put it, “the best and only method we have for understanding reality”. It was here, in their rush to defend the walls of reason from the barbarians at the gate, the scientistas unwittingly took their cue from the logical positivists and came rather embarassingly unstuck. It is as if, given an excellent Philips screwdriver, someone had concluded that only cross-head screws are of any use. Or worse, that they are the only type of screw to exist.
Imagine if, the next time you go to see The Long Day’s Journey Into Night or The Dark Knight Rises, the activity of your brain is recorded by an MRI machine. Would a full scientific explanation of those recordings really constitute the “best or only” way to understand the experience? For anyone?
Yet in their eagerness to bash those that dare to suggest that one might experience wonder and awe, or be moved, outside a scientific context, the scientistas happily dismiss culture without a second thought.
When the philosopher A. J. Ayer was asked in the 1970s to identify the key weakness of logical positivism, Ayer, once one of its leading propononents [sic], replied that “nearly all of it was false.” By recycling the discredited notions of a dead philosophy, those that [sic, should be "who"] rashly criticised Sarewitz have demonstrated that they would benefit from a good, hard reading of poetry.
Do note the dismissive term “scientistas” That’s rather unseemly for a Nature editor. And let me add that I’ve had plenty of good, hard readings of poetry, and I still found Saarweitz’s piece deplorable. But so be it.
I’m perfectly comfortable with the notion that science is not yet able to understand or explain subjective experience, such as that produced by reading poetry. But that doesn’t mean that such understanding is forever beyond the ken of science. In the meantime, yes, poetry, art and literature are wonderful things, and may produce some kind of subjective realizations on the part of the reader and viewer. But I question whether poetry, art, and literature convey “understanding” of the world in the same way as science: one produces a subjective description of experience, which can vary from person to person, the other an objective description of reality that holds for all rational observers.
Bhattacharya’s accusation that scientists as a whole dismiss culture is, of course, totally ridiculous. Maybe there are a few scientists who don’t appreciate any of the humanities, but I haven’t met any. And there are surely far more laypeople or humanities scholars who don’t appreciate or pay any attention to science.
I’m not sure why journalist/academics like Bhattacharya and Sarewitz are falling all over themselves to denigrate science as just one of many ways to “understand” the universe, but it’s distressing. I halfway suspect that they’re pandering to religion, something that seems obvious in Sarewitz’s piece. We scientists—at least in America—must practice our art in a culture that’s largely religious, and we’re constantly subject to the criticism of scientism, and of being cold, bespectacled creatures who lack an appreciation for anything outside science. If we want to keep our image burnished for the public, we have to pay lip service to those “other ways of knowing,” even if their value lies not in helping us “know”, but in enhancing the way we feel.
I’ll let two commenters on Bhattacharya’s piece have the last word. The first is Callum Hackett:
This article is a dire straw-man. You move from the claim that science is “the best and only method we have for understanding reality” to ridiculously equate this with a dismissal of non-scientific awe and culture. I mean, really? Really?! You clearly are not familiar AT ALL with the cohesive, complete world-views of such scientists. It is naive beyond measure to think that because they believe EMPIRICAL truths are best arrived at by the scientific method that they therefore think human EXPERIENCE is best reduced to formulae.
And the second comes from reader Geack:
“…there other ways, apart from science, through which people understand the world…” is simply not true. There seems to be a confusion here between “understand” and “appreciate” or “experience”. Ananyo’s choice of Long Day’s Journey and Dark Knight are illustrative of the point: they provoke emotions, and they provide exposure to the experiences and thought processes of other people. These are useful exposures and enjoyable experiences, but they provide no reliable picture of actual behavior.
Think of any complex phenomenon – take, for instance, a volcano. Poetry might be the best way to share with others the emotional experience of seeing a volcano, but only careful observation and data collection (science) can allow us to understand it – how hot is was, how fast the lava flowed, how far the ash traveled, why it happened at all, when it might happen again.
There are myriad ways other than science by which people organize their expereince of the world around them. But only the methodical recording and analysis of data that we now call science has provided actual understanding.