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Through a glass darkly: When science becomes a mirror

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Nov 09, 2015

A friend who read my critique of ideological scientism (Our mental prison: The myth of “objective” knowledge) shot me an email with this comment: “You probably could strengthen your argument by pointing out how politicized modern science has become, e.g., the whole climate debate. In evolution too there is a ‘facts are irrelevant’ attitude.”

Evolution is somewhat of a special case because so many people use it as an excuse for not “worrying” about God and His commandments. Such a leap from science to morality is unjustified, of course, but the theory of evolution has always had this attraction to those who need an excuse to be “liberated” from God. Speaking not as a scientist but as an historian, I am quite safe in noticing that this impetus has been a significant factor in the attractiveness of the theory and the manner in which it has been held.

On the other hand, it may be worth noting that dire predictions of climate change are attractive to many people for a similar reason. Climate change is frequently seen as a moral game-changer. Like the anti-smoking crusade, climate change enables those who are largely in rebellion against Christian morality to seize the moral high ground. Fighting global warming becomes a holy cause which has a certain fashionable priority over the petty concerns of religion. It is extraordinarily difficult to sort out all of our motives.

In any case, scientific discussion of both climate change and evolution provide many examples of a lack of objectivity that too often predominates. To challenge the position of the predominant party in either matter, even by raising scientifically legitimate factors which the relevant theories do not satisfactorily explain, is to risk being thought a “crank”. Nor is it uncommon for dissenters with fine credentials to be shouted down at scientific gatherings devoted to these topics, or to be refused the right to speak in the first place.

Please note that such considerations do not make the regnant theories wrong. Scientifically, they may or may not be dead on target. Rather, what needs to be recognized is that human predilections and passions play a significant role in every field. Moreover, shouting down the opposition and stifling dissent ought to be giant red flags. Such instances give the uninitiated real cause to wonder whether the emperor even knows what clothes are.

Scientific Facts of Life

Perhaps I should have mentioned that my friend’s comments carry great weight with me because he is one of those rare persons, so needed in our time, who have devoted themselves to both science and philosophy. Too many of those educated in the sciences make the most fundamental philosophical errors when they extend what can only be called scientism beyond the fields and methods of investigation which are proper to science itself. In a similar way, too many engineers become so fixated on harnessing the “how” that they cease to wonder about the “why”.

But all of these pressures of conformity are quite normal. Michael Polanyi (whose importance I noted in the essay cited at the outset) explains that such pressures are rooted in what he calls “conviviality”. Polanyi points out that the scientific enterprise has grown so vast that no one scientist is expert in more than a tiny fragment of the whole. In consequence, scientists depend on a vast network of those with similar methodological commitments in a wide variety of fields. Scientific associations and university faculties, composed of scientists who scarcely understand each other’s research projects and papers, are united in a common effort, and hold themselves to be part of the same distinguished guild.

Again, this is normal. But there exists in all such guilds an even stronger social pressure than in our larger society itself, a pressure of professional conformity. When we add to this the extensive politicization of contemporary life (all questions today seem inescapably to become political questions); and when we measure the magnificent scope and power of the State; and, finally, when we notice that so much of science is fed at the State’s trough: Well, then, we begin to recognize what a pressure-cooker scientific association has become.

Danger: Passions at Work

None of this is unique to the world of science, but the world of science is, in a technological age, a very prestigious and powerful world indeed. One may justly worry about the influence that church or club has on the mental independence of their respective members. One may wonder about the pressures toward orthodoxy in the Roman Curia, or the pressures toward heterodoxy in the Catholic Theological Society of America. But these are lollipop guilds compared with the pressures of conformity, so necessary to the maintenance of one’s credibility, in the awe-inspiring Guild of Science.

It has always been very difficult to question the paradigms which govern “authentic and approved” scientific work. In fact, in every field of thought most men and women seek a certain comfort within the prevailing views. They would risk ostracism by pressing their vision of reality beyond the bounds heretofore established. This has always been as true in science as in any field of study, and the ever-growing alliance between science, politics and funding does not make it easier for either criticism or new insights to gain traction.

What is certain, at least, is that this very “conviviality”—this cohesive instinct among vast numbers of people who generally subscribe to the same ideals—carries within it a powerful sense of “belonging”, and therefore of conformity. The mistake of science (or scientism) is not that it is subject to the same worldly pressures as everything else. No, the mistake is that the scientific guild subscribes to a myth, the myth that by its very method science and only science is exempt from such pressures. This is the myth that all scientific knowledge is impersonal, objective and therefore true—quite unlike any other knowledge we can possibly have.

In the course of these two essays, I have tried to show why this is false. But here I wish to emphasize just one critical point.The belief that any human approach to knowledge is by nature impersonal and objective is ultimately self-defeating. It leads to failure in direct proportion to the fervor with which it is held. This myth removes every incentive for its adherents to cultivate the intellectual, emotional, moral and spiritual maturity which alone protects the truth-seeker from finding only himself. In consequence, what many call ultimate reality looks suspiciously like a mirror.

Previous in series: Our mental prison: The myth of “objective” knowledge
Next in series: Modern “objective” knowledge is just another circular system: Why?

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and See full bio.

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  • Posted by: Randal Mandock - Feb. 21, 2016 6:18 AM ET USA

    "But to avoid disaster in the modern is absolutely necessary to figure out what comes from God and what does not." This is the problem that many see in the apparently rash answers that emanate from interviews with Pope Francis. Context and qualification are virtually everything when it comes to analyzing his responses to some questions. His unqualified "who am I to judge," his out of context "I leave this question to theologians, to those who understand," come across as non sequiturs.

  • Posted by: bnewman - Nov. 12, 2015 11:08 PM ET USA

    Yes indeed, passions at work! The point raised by Jeff cannot be made often enough. The objectivity of science is in the observation of data, repeatable to a third party: not necessarily in any resulting theories. The objectivity of scientists is prey to all the passions of man. Examples of this are found in the history of evolutionary theory, and particularly so in the terrible injustice of eugenics both in America and Germany all with a scientific consensus

  • Posted by: mary_conces3421 - Nov. 10, 2015 10:35 PM ET USA

    You are so right!

  • Posted by: kcc - Nov. 10, 2015 10:07 PM ET USA

    Conviviality is too mild a term to describe what has happened to medical research in areas relating to Catholic moral teaching. When pregnancy is redefined by an entire industry as implantation, when the abortifacient actions of contraceptives like IUDs are minimized in order to receive government funding, something is gravely wrong. And sadly, the Church can only base her teachings in these areas on these blatantly absurd medical "studies."