Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Good science, bad science, pseudoscience, sad science: junk science and the inadvertent corporate shills

Part I:  Historical background

In a provocative essay Harvard historian Steven Shapin noted that science has long been touted as having changed the way the world works, since Alfred North Whitehead pronounced it so in 1925.  But Shapin provides a provocative challenge to this common perception.  Citing evidence from historical polling, he notes that, for example,

“84% [of the US population in 2003] believe in the survival of an immaterial soul after death; and 51% in the reality of ghosts.”
Steven Shapin
Steven Shapin, Harvard Historian
He goes on to note that,

“The triumph of science over religion trumpeted in the late 19th century crucially centered on the question of whether or not supernatural spiritual agencies could intervene in the course of nature, that is to say, whether such things as miracles existed.  By that criterion, 84% of American adults are unmarked by the triumph of science over religion which supposedly happened over a century ago. ”
We add that Europeans do not fare much better, and that such ideas span the physical through the natural sciences. 

However, Shapin also notes that science has been accorded a place of inordinate importance in the modern world, by several measures.  In part through a failure to understand the difference between science and technology, science is regarded as the key to the success of our serious endeavors to control the world around us, whether in the form of producing a drug to cure the latest emergent disease or creating the chip that ushers in the new generation of consumables.  Social support of the scientific endeavor, virtually unknown in the 19th century, has become an accepted norm, especially notable in the US university system where the natural sciences are accorded a comparatively overwhelming proportion of available resources.  Although Whitehead’s anticipated revolution in thought was not to be, there was, nevertheless, a concrete revolution in acceptance of science as a somewhat mysterious activity producing results that were evident, regardless of its seemingly hostile rejection of traditional, and apparently satisfying, ways of knowing – an acceptance of the results of science, but not science as a way of knowing.
Shapin also notes that the methodology commonly assumed to underlay the success of the endeavor, is largely as mythological as the dragons seen in the sky by ancient Chinese scientists.  Methods in science are as diverse as in most other intellectual activities and philosophers have long debated about what the “scientific method” is.  The textbook version of “observation, theory, prediction, experiment,” is really nothing more than a recipe for careful thought, and most scientists in their day-to-day operations do not follow such a recipe anyway.  Despite the enormous amount of text devoted to the so-called scientific method, probably the most trenchant and still best summary is Huxley’s view that the method of science is “nothing but trained and organized common sense.”  Yet “ . . . 84% of American adults are unmarked by the triumph of science over religion.”

Despite this overwhelming rejectionism, there is a feeling that something happened over the past few centuries that did change the way we look at the world, and certainly the way we come to understand and modify that world.  Attempts to fly in the past took Icarus too close to the sun.  Attempts to fly today make a trip from Amsterdam to Mumbai routine, and no one worries about getting too close to the sun and melting our wax wings.  No matter how much a resident from Kansas may reject evolution, he or she willingly makes reservations to fly in airplanes, not on magic carpets. And claims to “understand” something are routinely met with demands for evidence.  In this way Whitehead’s social revolution has been realized. Yet the confusion implied by the disconnect between science as method and science as a way of knowing, pinpoint what may be a faulty interpretation of that scientific revolution to start with.
vaccines science for the people
Smallpox Vaccine

Probably the most evident example is in the rejection of climate science (anti-evolutionism and the autism/vaccine relationship are perhaps equally evident, but their sociopolitical connections are somewhat more difficult to fully understand – and will be left to a later blog).  As Naomi Klein, among others, has popularized, the climate problem created by the industrial system is not likely to be resolved unless the underlying assumptions of that industrial system are challenged and the system itself either dramatically changed or completely overthrown. Of course such a conclusion is inconvenient for those whose lives are made comfortable by that system. Especially uncomfortable is the small percentage of the population who accumulate an enormous fraction of accumulated world wealth and assume as unassailable truth that they are commanded by God and nature to continue that accumulation. Consequently the world faces today a competition for hegemony between the friends of the Koch brothers, and the rest of us.

Occupy Wall Street Science for the People UMsftP
Occupy Wall Street Participants, 99% together

The fun of all this is that an enormous amount of buffoonery is generated. People who were elevated to power based on their willingness to support entrenched political power, rather than their willingness to engage that power positively, say profoundly foolish (and funny) things on CSPAN, and late night comedians have a ball.  Yet their rejection of science has consequences, as necessary for the maintenance of current power structures (no pun intended) as it is devastating for the rest of us. Most of the world actually realizes this at the present time, yet actions remain imprisoned by the immense political power of the “power elite” and their shills and stooges.  The big three they shill for are climate change, evolution, and vaccinations, misunderstanding of which have immediate (reduction in herd immunity in the case of vaccination denial), long term (climate change denial), and structural (evolution denial) consequences.

There is a fourth, that is completely misunderstood, both by the promoters and deniers. That misunderstanding is effectively the science-denial part of the problem.  We refer to the issue of genetically modified organisms (GMOs). In part II of this blog we detail the misunderstandings and elaborate why we feel opposition to GMOs, at least at the present time, is justified.

-Written Collaboratively By: Science For The People, UM Chapter