Science is not what it Seems

     I have been a true believer in science, and found the science courses I took as an undergraduate very exciting and inspiring, especially genetics and evolution. I was kind of in love with the idea of Pure Science, which, as I understood it , was the seeking of knowledge about the world and the Universe for its own sake. This was at a time (the 60s) when many of the Big Ideas we now take for granted were just coming into their own: things like the Big Bang, DNA and the double helix, and plate tectonics.  It seemed that knowledge was the aim, and science the method to gain it. Hugely important to me, too, was how the new science was showing the world is dynamic, ever–changing, ever-becoming—this in contrast to the world as I had all my young life been told it was: fixed, static, just the way God made it. So science, it seemed to me then, was a very positive, good thing with no real downside, except for maybe the atom bomb—a product of scientific inquiry—which was poised to deliver assured mutual destruction. Global annihilation.

     What I have discovered since is that pure science is a mythical creature with just about as many sightings as there are of unicorns. This is not to denigrate the work of individual scientists, who often are seeking knowledge just for its own sake. It is what happens to the knowledge after the scientists uncover it that I find objectionable. What others call applied science I would characterize as science indentured to capitalism. To understand how Western science works, you have to follow the money trail. First of all, what doesn’t get funded doesn’t get studied. So right away you have self-serving capitalist incentives determining what will, and will not, be looked at. Here is one example: mere anecdotal evidence tells us that various chemicals (including pharmaceuticals, industrial chemicals, and a vast array of toxins) interact with one another—sometimes synergistically—and can produce debilitating or even deadly effects. It is, of course, in the public interest to know something about these interactions and their effects, but there is no public money for meaningful long-term studies, and industry has no incentive to prove that its products are causing harm. Science, as it is practiced in America today, is neither independent nor objective—and seldom has been anywhere.

     When scientific research turns up evidence of corporate industrial harm, you can count on it that that evidence will be suppressed. Look how the industry and its professional hacks went after Rachel Carson when she exposed what DDT was doing to songbirds, and even (shudder) to our national bird, the bald eagle. This sort of thing happens all the time, and especially within public institutions like the Environmental Protection Agency, the Food and Drug Administration, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and the  U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Thanks to the revolving door, our regulatory agencies are staffed by executives from the industries they are supposed to be regulating, and these people are placed precisely where they are so they can suppress any findings not friendly to the favored corporations. Ever notice how the Endangered Species Act is implemented, or stalled, based not on science but politics? There are all sorts of threatened and endangered species whose listings should have been implemented long ago, but somehow never quite make it to that stage. There are, I know, scientists within these organizations who are doing good science, but whose science is quashed by management. In theory, science is independent and objective; in practice it is suppressed, controlled, and manipulated by those in power.

     The scientific method is one thing; the Scientific Establishment is something else. Institutional Science, looked at as a social institution, resembles both an exclusive social club, to which you must know all the passwords (or shibboleths) to gain admittance, and a religious order to whose doctrines you must subscribe. As an ideology, science has a number of different sects. Prominent among these is scientific materialism, which is based in classical Newtonian physics; it has several tenants of belief, including that matter itself is inert, and possesses none of the properties found in humans–such as intelligence, sentience, interiority, and volition—and that inert (“dead”) matter is acted upon by external material forces in predictable ways. This school of thought also believes that the world can be understood by examining its individual constituent parts, and the essence of the whole grasped thereby. This doctrine is known as reductionism. Based in an historical antagonism with Institutional Religion, Institutional Science of this school sees Life on Earth as something that happened by pure chance, in a Universe that is indifferent or hostile to us, and to Life itself. This particular piece of dogma has not been demonstrated by the scientific method, but is simply a tenet of faith, and is promulgated by such high priests of science as Laurence Kraus.

     Another prominent figure in the priesthood of science is Richard Dawkins, who applies these principles of classical physics to the study of biology and evolution. A neo-Darwinian, Dawkins sees life on Earth as a struggle for survival, characterized by violent competition, and driven by a fiercely self-centered genetic determinism. This version of neo-Darwinism is embraced and encouraged by the Capitalist Establishment because it makes their predatory and parasitic enterprise seem based in our biology, and therefore inevitable. 

     About a hundred years ago, quantum mechanics came on the scene, and changed the way a few in-the-know scientists saw the world. So much of what is known about quantum mechanics is so counter-intuitive that even those who study its phenomena find its truths to be baffling. Quantum physics is now generally accepted as scientifically sound, even though many of its findings seem irreconcilable with classical physics.

     In the 1960s the historian of science, Thomas Kuhn, introduced the concept of paradigm and paradigm shift. Since that time several new scientific disciplines have come on the scene. Chaos theory, complexity theory, and systems theory have each introduced new perspectives on the world. In the biological sciences, epigenetics is changing our understanding of genetic inheritance and how evolution takes place. A few interdisciplinary thinkers, like Fikret Berkes, author of Sacred Ecology, recognize the traditional ecological knowledge (TEK) of Native peoples as science—and, unlike Western science, it is based on the intimate knowledge of a particular place, as experienced by a rooted people, over generations. TEK is close observations taken in the laboratory of life and subject to the peer review of the elders and ancestors, and of Mother Nature herself. He and other systems thinkers have sought ways to incorporate TEK into Western science, and have found it most compatible with holistic systems thinking.    

     Western science is overdue for a paradigm shift, but so far inertia has favored science of the status quo.  Mechanistic, reductionist, and deterministic thinking continues to hold sway in many scientific circles, including in academia. One of the hallmarks of approved academic science is peer review, with the purported (and actual) purpose of cross-checking and verifying findings. This is partly as it should be, but peer review also tends to have the effect of inhibiting creativity, and thinking (even in small ways) outside the dominant paradigm. The need for peer acceptance, and employment within hidebound institutions, acts as a censor and suppressor of “unacceptable” conclusions, hypotheses, or experimental design. Go along and get along manifests in the Scientific Establishment just like it does everywhere else.   

      My critique of science does not end here. It goes all the way back to the beginnings of civilization and the Big Lie that the human being is separate from Nature. So many of our institutions, and ways of thinking about the world, are based upon this manifest untruth, and that includes Western science. Our cultural memes—human centered from beginning to end– tell us that we are the subjects, and everything else in the world, including all other life forms, are nothing but objects. It makes it so much easier to abuse, enslave, and exploit our relatives within the Community of Life if we can just pretend that they are nobodies. The chimpanzees, dogs, and mice we study, the frogs we pith in the name of science, don’t share our human qualities of sentience, intelligence, selfhood, or volition, and so it is okay to violate them. Descartes has assured us that they are nothing but unfeeling machines, automatons, and so it must be true, and we can build a world around ourselves that is all, and only, about humans. The science of ecology is leaking information to us that might suggest otherwise, that really we live in a world based upon webs of interdependence, and that the Community of Life that we see as Other is really the larger manifestation of ourselves. We are part of a much larger whole, not the whole itself. And until science catches up with this fact of our existence, and starts seeing what indigenous peoples have known all along, science is just another word for hubris.

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One thought on “Science is not what it Seems

  1. David McFarland says:

    I, too, have been a great fan, for as long as I can remember, of what I thought science was. Along with near-term extinction, and the U. S. always having been an imperialist state, the shallow and corrupt nature of science has been one of the most difficult ideas I’ve ever had to integrate. Thank you for spelling it out…

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