Part 3: When the witches become the inquisitors

Following the previous two short essays of this trilogy about the phenomenon of antiscience, we will here briefly discuss why a constructive and informed critics on science is not only accepted, but even needed for our progress.

The relationship between science, epistemology (the philosophy of knowledge) and ontology (the philosophy of what really exists on a fundamental level) would need tens of books to be fully explained and even then it wouldn’t settle the everlasting debate among the experts.

A humble opinion on this topic will be brought in this article with the hope that from a better rational comprehension of science we will build better antibodies against both emotional antiscience and blind faith in scientists.

First of all, the first question that should be asked is: “Can science describe reality?”

The answer is a solid NO. Science doesn’t bring truths to our world, but accurate approximations of reality. Of course the level of accuracy is sometimes sufficiently high that some things in science are considered for the sake of simplicity as factually true. The physicist and philosopher Thomas Kuhn called these assumed truths “paradigms”.

If a scientist doesn’t find any anomaly in these paradigms, he won’t have to doubt that ice melts when absorbing enough heat, that trees produce oxygen via photosynthesis or that he will burn his hands if he touches a wildfire. This saves him an astronomically high amount of time that he can in turn use to do actual research.

The problem with this concept is that many among both the public and the scientific community confuse paradigms with dogmata, although the difference is quite simple. With a paradigm you are implying a “assuming this context to be true” condition, while a dogma implies that this piece of knowledge is absolutely true beyond any evidence and argument that anyone will ever bring. Treating a paradigm as a dogma is extremely dangerous because it can lead many to fall into the so- called scientism.

In a nutshell scientism is the contrary of scientific relativism, empiricism and most of the modern epistemology in general. The belief that only scientific claims are meaningful, the tendency to be mislead by sciencey technobabbles like “quantum psychology says that you are smart if you sleep on the side, live with an iguana and are always late because you pick your nose too often” and the total absence of skepticism towards even the most daring scientific assertions are some of the most common symptoms of an unhealthy and dogmatic view of science that closely resembles a religion.

Science is neither a faith nor astrology. If one treats it as such it means that he will consider any critique to the scientific method as a personal attack to his own beliefs and he will see scientists as the ultimate and unquestionable authority on the truths of the natural world. This is wrong on several levels. More specifically:

  • Scientific methods and their applications are ever-changing. Science as we know it isn’t born from Copernicus and Galileo, but evolved from their scientific revolution until it took the shape that we all know today. If we are taking it as a God-given instrument we are not different from the ones that burned Copernicus for heresy. Everything from a scientific perspective should be discussed and considered as potentially false.
  • Scientists are humans. They can fail. Even a large-scale failure of a noticeable number of scientists is plausible, although unlikely. Even the most innocent (and apparently stupid) questions can help us understanding our errors. Sometimes what you need is just a different perspective.
  • Bad intentions exist, even in science. It’s not a wide-spread phenomenon, of course, but scientists are not immune to corruption and dishonest personal ambitions. Usually the scientific community has enough antibodies to find and isolate these cancerous cells on its own, but avoiding any kind of religious appeal to authority guarantees a social double-check against any unethical misconduct.

Tax payers are investing tons of their money in research to improve human lives and their understanding of reality. They have the right to know that every cent they spend in research has been wisely used.

To conclude the last part of this trilogy, it is important that everyone reading these articles understand that antiscience and scientism are two faces of the same fanaticism. When one starts to see a tool as either an enemy or an idol to worship, rather than simply seeing it for its purpose and effectiveness, it means he has lost track of what a serious and mature discussion on science should be about: to either improve it for the benefit of humanity or to learn helpful lessons.

So, to sum up what has been discussed in these three articles, during a discussion about science, research and scientists one should always remember these engagement rules:

  1. Respect your interlocutor, because the best arguments and proofs in the world will not make him change his ideas if you treat him like garbage
  2. Acknowledge your biases first, then look for others’
  3. Don’t fall into the tricky and deep pit of simplism and cherrypicking
  4. Statistics and evidence are better friends than personal experiences and uneducated opinions
  5. Winning an argument doesn’t mean asserting dominance over your interlocutor orhumiliating him. You will only win if your ideas will eventually break into his shell withoutshattering it
  6. Learn to say “I don’t know”
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