Dear E & V,
I like science. Western society venerates science.
Both of those sentences are loaded with meaning, and they don’t necessarily mean the same thing. Western society likes to put anything having to do with science and technology on a pedestal. We push kids into Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) careers because that’s where (we think) the money and the prestige is. If anyone shows any interest in the humanities — philosophy, art, music — we shame them for not having ambition and not contributing to the progress of society. And that’s where society’s religious faith in STEM comes in: it is the corner stone upon which we progress.
When has art cured polio? When has music solved world hunger? When has philosophy given us the iPhone X? When have the liberal arts contributed anything useful to society?
Science and technology have allowed us to accomplish some pretty amazing things. We’ve eradicated deadly diseases, placed humans on the moon, and can even bring people back to life with an Automated External Defibrillator! Pretty cool, right? With science we can understand plate tectonics, comprehend migration patterns of great white sharks, and make warehouses safer for employees. No one is going to argue that science and technology haven’t allowed us to accomplish amazing things.
But accomplishments always come with unintended consequences. The problem occurs when we start liking progress for progress’s sake. Science is a great tool for analyzing our world, probably one of the best we have. But science doesn’t operate within an ethical framework; it can’t tell us what is right and wrong. It can’t value the results it produces. Additionally, and probably more importantly, science and technology are developed by humans. Humans that are fallible and prone to warped incentives like money, fame, and pride.
But much like how we often whitewash over our brutal history, we also whitewash over the harm that science and technology have caused. The Nazis used science to develop technologies that were utilized to efficiently kill millions of people. Unnecessary C-sections have been performed for decades because some male doctors in the 50’s and 60’s wanted to “normalize” the birth process. Large agricultural chemical companies have given farm workers cancer by exposing them to scientifically advanced weed killers. The obesity crisis is largely driven by food created in a laboratory.
Science doesn’t have a moral compass, and it often doesn’t have the ability (or desire) to think through unintended consequences. Most philosophies and religions understand this and have helped to temper the extremes of science with a little bit of moral reflection, even if their arguments appear a bit illogical. For all their successes and failures, these groups of people have added the better parts of human decision making into the scientific process — the moral judgements and the valuation of the results.
There is one group of people, however, who seem to ignore morality within science. They forget about the fact that scientific experiments are often conducted in controlled environments and almost always have unintended consequences that were never considered. Many of them are scientists, but many of them are simply fervent science supporters. They are fully onboard the “progress for progress’s sake” train and are of the belief that because something can be done that it should be done. They are science fundamentalists.
I’m not going to delve into my beliefs at this moment (we’ll save that for another blog post), but I do think most religions and philosophies each offer a hint of truth about our reality. While I am theoretically open to the existence of a higher being if enough evidence presents itself, I live my day-to-day life as if there is none. I just haven’t yet been presented with enough evidence that satisfies my threshold for belief.
That’s why I like science — it’s all about evidence. Present me with enough facts in the right context, and I’ll take what you say as most likely “true”. However to me there is enough uncertainty in the universe that I don’t think we will know anything as 100% true. (I think you could classify most atheists, agnostics, and “spiritual but not religious” folks with me when it comes to our beliefs about the nature of god and reality.)
Science fundamentalists on the other hand are usually at least nominally atheists, but practically live as if science is their god. They’re like other fundamentalists from any philosophy or religion — there is a rigid belief that their way is right and everyone else’s way is wrong: “Genetically Modified Organisms are always helpful because science made them! Formula is better than breast milk because scientists made it!” There is an unquestioning belief in the greatness of these scientific breakthroughs simply because they were made using technology and the scientific method — because those elements of society represent “progress”. They’re not going to question or reflect on the consequences (both intended and unintended) of releasing a laboratory built organism into the wild (think of the Butterfly effect) or telling mothers that formula is just the same as breast milk for the short and long-term effects on a child’s health. They will play up the obvious positive benefits of a technology while downplaying or outright ignoring any possible negative side effects of it.
There are risk and reward trade-offs involved with introducing technologies into our lives — you will take on some unknown risks in return for an obvious benefit. When we invented the car we were imagining all the possibilities of travel that it would enable us to undertake. We didn’t imagine or even stop to think about the side effects of car accidents or automobile pollution. Maybe that’s just the nature of being human: our lives are short enough that we often don’t see the consequences of our actions until well after our deaths. Time and the universe have a way of exposing unintended side effects that we’ve never dreamed of. The reality is we humans are rather short-sighted.
But rather than accept this flaw and the modesty in our abilities to “progress” society that it entails, science fundamentalists ignore it. It’s not that they’re doing it on purpose, rather like most religious fundamentalists they think their beliefs are infallible. They’ve simply adopted this predominant thinking of western society and adapted it to their own scientific belief system. And like religious fundamentalists who go through life viewing everything through the lens of religion, science fundamentalists view everything through the lens of science: “when all you use is a hammer, everything starts looking like a nail.” This is what we call domain dependence and it drastically limits our ability to live a good life and experience reality as it actually is. So where does science fit into reality if it’s not the be-all-end-all of how we’re supposed to navigate reality?
Science is a tool.
Science is one tool among many to explore and live our reality. Other tools include language, emotions, art, meditation, etc. Like any tool, science is better at fixing some problems and worse at fixing others. I’d trust science more than art to get us to the moon, but I certainly wouldn’t trust it as much as emotions to have a difficult talk about death with you. The problem then with the science fundamentalists’ way of thinking is that it applies the science tool to every single problem out there and ignores other options. People are starving and nutrient deficient? Instead of fixing the food distribution system and reducing food waste many science fundamentalists would just make genetically engineered “golden rice” that contains all the vitamins people need. Weeds becoming resistant to weedkiller? Instead of utilizing sensible farming practices like growing a variety of crops and practicing crop rotation, many science fundamentalists would rather just develop a new chemical with unknown side effects to deal with those pesky weeds. Science and technology are tools, but they should NEVER be the only tools that we apply to a problem. It reminds me of a Simpsons episode where Homer gets a gun, and he uses it for things like opening up his beer can and turning off his lights. Just because it can be used to solve a problem doesn’t mean it should be used to solve that problem.
Now at this point you are either probably agreeing with me or getting pissed off because you think I’m anti-science and technology. Like other fundamentalists, science fundamentalists are prone to us vs. them labelling: if I’m not 100% on board with scientific discoveries and technological advancements then I am a luddite who prefers to live in the dark ages. Instead of taking the time and addressing the concerns of those who disagree with them, many science fundamentalists just jump to using ad hominem attacks and other logically fallacious arguments. I am very much pro-vaccine, but calling someone “pro-plaguer” and “murderer” is not going to get them to change their mind about vaccines. Immature and negative reinforcement like that is never an effective way to change someone’s mind no matter how right you are. And just because someone may be against a particular technology or scientific advancement does not make them anti-science or anti-technology. That’s the same kind of bullshit thinking that hardcore Democrats and Republicans get into (just because I don’t like Donald Trump or Elizabeth Warren doesn’t mean I’m automatically liberal or conservative).
One of my current favorite philosophers and one of the most intelligent people on this earth right now is the statistician Nassim Taleb. He is very much against Genetically Modified Organisms for very much logical, reasonable, and evidence-based reasons (which you can find here). Yet that has not stopped science fundamentalists from calling him anti-science and trying to discredit him. They’re using the same tactics as other types of fundamentalists: they let their blind faith in scientific progress prevent them from seeing flaws and contradictions in their thinking. You can be evidence based in the short term without realizing that unintended consequences can manifest in years or even decades later. Take DDT for example — the insecticide was developed in the 40’s and it’s dangerous effects weren’t discovered until the mid 1950’s. By that time it had already decimated many bird species. That’s why we have to be particularly cautious when we introduce new inventions or technologies into the wild and other uncontrolled environments — by the time we realize we’ve done something harmful it may have already done a significant amount of irreversible damage.
That kind of scientific caution is the opposite of “science for science’s sake” because it requires introspection and the ability to restrain our egos. We may love the glory that comes with “solving” world hunger for the next five years, but if we knew that it comes at the cost of decimating thousands of animal species over the next 50 years then we’d be more cognizant of the technologies that we’re developing even if it means we don’t become world famous. Remember: Just because you can doesn’t mean you should. Good science takes time and setting aside the ego. Unfortunately “Science for the slow betterment of the world” just doesn’t arouse as much passion as “science is the best thing EVER and no one should ever disagree with it”.
Despite what science fundamentalists believe, sometimes the answer to the world’s most pressing problems doesn’t involve science. Sometimes it involves making sacrifices to our comfort. Instead of making giant machines that pull carbon dioxide and other warming gases from our atmosphere, we just use less air conditioning? How about instead of making GMO rice to solve famine in Africa, we improve our current food distribution system so that all the food waste in one country is going to feed another? Science fundamentalists are conditioned to use only science to solve problems because that’s the only tool they’ve ever used (domain blindness). They don’t realize there are other tools out there that fit the problem better than science does because they introduce much less complexity and potential for unintended consequences into the system.
Science and technology have created many neat things. But the fact is they have also created many detrimental things not necessarily because they are inherently bad but because our ability to create has outpaced our ability to adapt. We can travel hundreds of miles an hour in a car, but our reflexes have not caught up to do that safely. We can read the news from across the world on social media, but our psychology has not caught up to allow us to read all those stories without suffering from anxiety and depression. We can make hundreds of different kinds of food out of corn, but our biology hasn’t yet adapted to process that food without developing diabetes, high blood pressure, cavities, and heart disease. It bears repeating: we’re good at determining short term effects of our creations, but we do an awful job of figuring out the long term consequences. Science is really good at the creating, but it does an awful job of judging how good or bad the creation ultimately is for our world.
The nice thing about science, and what makes it such a great tool, is that (in theory at least) science is self-correcting. Even if the most egotistical scientist refuses to back down from a conclusion and publishes dangerous advice based on his findings — like the whole “saturated fat is bad for you” fiasco — other scientists can come along and refute those findings by reproducing the experiments or implementing more rigorous scientific or statistical methodology. Yes it may be too late for billions of people or animals or plants, but we do have the ability to question the assumptions of a scientific theory at any point in time and that counts for something.
But science fundamentalists will fight this because, like all fundamentalists they need certainty. Their identity is tied up with their beliefs, and if their beliefs are uncertain then so is their sense of self. This is true whether you believe that science shows the ketogenic diet to be bullshit or if you believe that all Protestants go to hell. Fundamentalists of any sort have a psychological need to make order out of chaos and they’ll often bend logic and reason to make that happen. Certainty in an uncertain world provides a sense of comfort in a world that is anything but certain. If change makes you uncomfortable, then a belief in an unchanging scientific or religious theory will provide an anchor for you especially when your normal way of living life is threatened. They create rituals to provide regularity and certainty in their lives– writing an abstract for an experiment can have the same soothing effect as walking into church every Sunday morning and kneeling for your prayers.
Another way science fundamentalists perpetuate negative unintended consequences into the world is — again like other fundamentalists — through the use of the Appeal to Authority fallacy. Just like religious and philosophical fundamentalists will point to their texts or figureheads as “proof” that their way is the only way of thinking, science fundamentalists will point to published papers and academic figures as proof that they can’t be wrong — which absolutely NOT how science is supposed to work. Good, thoughtful, and conscientious scientists say: “This is my conclusion, but I may be wrong. We need to study this more because of the impact it will have on public policy and the environment. It may take years or decades to determine if this will have any negative impact on our society.” Science fundamentalists say: “I am an expert in this field and my scientific experiment is air-tight. There is NO WAY I can be wrong. I have studied this long enough to know it won’t impact the world in any negative way. We need to act on this information immediately.” Science fundamentalists will then point to other science fundamentalists and say: “Look, he is a scientist, he knows what he is talking about! He can never be wrong! We need to spread this information to the world and act upon it now!” Then corporations get wind of it and create DDT and PCBs or politicians create food pyramids and quantitative easing because of this information and everyone ends up the worse for it.
With this screed written, I do want to say that I believe most scientists do recognize their limitations and the limitations of science. The reason I’m focusing on the minority of them, however, is because they wield a significant amount of power which has a significant impact on our world. It’s one thing to be wrong about the age of the last homo erectus group to live in Indonesia or the speed of Neptune’s orbit. It’s another thing to be wrong about the long term effects of synthetic pesticide or the harmful effects of saturated fats. The latter have tangible negative effects on the lives of humans and other animals, all because someone thought that short-term results developed in a controlled environment were sufficient for releasing bad information and harmful organisms/substances into the public and environment at large.
So let’s sum up the longest letter I’ve written you so far: science is good when you use it as one tool out of many to explore the world. Technology that results from scientific discoveries will ALWAYS come with negative consequences that need to be analyzed before we release it into the world. To take a page from Nassim Taleb: It’s not the chance of negative impact that we need to keep in the front of our minds, but the size of it. If I set a bowl of 1 billion M&Ms in front of you and tell you one of them has a fatal dose of poison in it, I bet you won’t touch the M&Ms — not because of the probability (which is low), but because of the impact which is immeasurable (at least I’m sure your own death is to you!). The small chance of an awful upside outweighs the greater chance of a pleasant upside. We need to do the same with the technologies we release into the world. It may take you decades of eating all those M&Ms before you eat the one that kills you, and the unintended negative consequences of an impactful scientific consensus may be the same. We have to decide if the short term benefits are worth the long term side effects — which they rarely are.
Like anything in life, you need to take anything someone says to you with a critical eye. Academics and scientists have often gotten a free pass on this because of their venerated status in Western Society. While many of them have earned their expertise, that does not make them infallible and beyond questioning.
You need to question EVERYTHING that you’re told, even if it comes from me. While I love you and want the best for you, even I can be wrong sometimes.
I am a Father, Husband, Cowboy Philosopher, Volunteer Firefighter, and Professional Dilettante. I am nothing and I am everything. But when it comes to our relationship: I only wish you wonder and happiness.