Tuesday, January 18, 2011

The State of Science in America

One of the more striking features of the modern American experience is the skepticism and ignorance of science and the scientific method throughout much of American society. This is especially startling when one considers the number of both scientific and technological innovators that are American in origin, American-based or both.

While it is a fallacy to equate technological advancement directly with science, the two are intrinsically linked, and we find ourselves in a position in which we are collectively worshipful of technology yet fundamentally non-scientific in much of our thinking. That most American adults lack even a cursory understanding of basic sciences and instead rely on a series of delusory tautologies is chilling. Further it belies the problems that we face in garnering support data-driven public policy.

When one in five Americans hold that the Sun revolves around the Earth, a belief abandoned by science in the 17th century, or that over half of the American population continues to believe in the almost fascicle misinformation that is ‘intelligent design’, what hope is there to enable people to grasp a science as multifaceted as anthropogenic climate change? The epistemological and metaphysical contortions necessary for those living in the science dependent modern world to hold these beliefs must be staggering, as are the misinformation campaigns spread by proponents of one non-scientific position or another for people to be able to persist in a science-driven society without understanding or caring to understand the implications.

Additionally, this tendency to believe in non-scientific is not limited merely to the political right and the fundamentalist religious. Those typically on the left and claiming a basic understanding of the scientific frequently reject basic sciences in order to advocate for non-empirically justifiable outcomes that belie a fundamental lack of understanding of basic sciences. A clear example of this is the popularity of ‘colon cleansing’ through juice fasting and other measures which proponents argue is about removing surplus ‘toxins’ that accumulate in the body. While this is a relatively benign misapprehension, it still represents something deeply problematic.

A basic understanding of biology and human anatomy makes clear just how fallacious this belief is. Internal organs have evolved to flush themselves naturally of anything noxious that may accumulate in them at, basically the same rate no matter what your diet, assuming you are not afflicted with some ailment preventing them from functioning. The belief that organs need to be cleansed is grounded in marketing hype, a uniquely American obsession with purity of essence and other assorted new-age mumbo-jumbo rather than in anything that resembles science. However, the belief is held and advanced even by people who are involved in scientifically relevant things for a living.

These sorts of erroneous beliefs call into question the abilities of those engaged in science or technology driven fields, including agricultural sciences and others. A further example that I was recently made aware of is bio-dynamic agriculture, which has been described as “an occult form of alternative agriculture” by researchers and involves the combination of sensible organic agricultural features with astrology. Again, while this tendency seems harmless and biodynamic is, at base, simply organic farming and yields nearly identical results, the belief in the demonstrably bogus advanced by, in the case of biodynamic farming, the largely discredited creationist Rudolf Steiner, does damage to the credibility of those advancing said positions. These types of distortions seek to undermine the primacy of the scientific method in both how we see the natural world, and in discourse about public policy. It effectively is the same impetus that feeds climate deniers or those that do not believe in evolution.

This is not to say that the Western conception and ideal of medicine or science has a moratorium on the truth. While many seem to lack a basic understanding of biology, the tendency is to dodge the issue by citing the wisdom of Eastern medicines detached from Western practice or understanding. Indeed, many so-called Naturopathic and Eastern cures have been studied and shown to be efficacious and present solutions that may indeed not be intuitive to Western medicine. However, this does make all of them useful, and the onus must be upon the individual to understand the basics of biology and anatomy to determine that these solutions genuinely do make scientific sense rather than appealing to some more primal or ephemeral belief system. Or worse, if these belief systems inadvertently point towards a puritanical ethic focused on the natural that rejects the modern, while still hypocritically reveling in the modern, the result is to perpetually re-enforce worship of naked technology while dismissing the science that underpins that technology. To wit, there is ignorance that is innocent because it can be addressed and remedied, and then there is ignorance that is pernicious because it is willful.

Perhaps the rejection of the scientific stems from an over saturation in science by previous generations. The tendency, in many parts of society in the 18th, 19th and early 20th century was to develop pseudo-sciences such as phrenology and to develop scientific sounding rationales to support them. This process gave way to what James Burke has argued is the most destructive ideology that humanity has thus far developed in the form of Social Darwinism. While Darwin had long held that evolution worked on such as a slow-scale it could never be applied to societal and human tendencies, the misapplication of Darwin’s ideas led to popular eugenics and other fallacious beliefs that provided justifications for incredible human death and suffering – indeed for the intellectual dismantling of the very shared humanity that evolutionary science demonstrates.

Despite this, increased scientific rigor, a shared scientific process, peer review and Popperian Falsification have all gone far to strengthen scientific methodologies and control the claims that can be made. This has only strengthened scientific efforts and further strengthened the claims of the scientific method to be our preeminent vehicle for understanding natural phenomena. While sciences have advanced in such a way that, as Thomas Kuhn noted in his Structure of Scientific Revolutions, in order to fully grasp or even carry meaningful dialogue on the minutiae of certain sciences, extensive training is required, basic scientific education remains highly accessible. The wonders of the natural world, as we continue to discover them, as so much more beautiful, compelling and moving than any alternative justification developed prior to our developing the means to measure these things. Yet, in many fields, we continue to just scrape the surface and as we continue to learn more the wonders of the natural world can only gain further focus.

As a society, we must strive to develop basic understandings of sciences across the board. The importance of this lies not only in developing better, more data-driven public policy, but also in aiding us in understanding natural phenomena, most pressingly global climate change which are likely to yield violent social upheavals or even make the planet uninhabitable for ourselves. Indeed, it is our exploitation of technology without fully grasping the science and thus outcomes of its use that is driving climate change. That the United States, as a result of the American lifestyle re-enforced by the anti-science slant of many Americans is responsible for such a large percentage of greenhouse gas emissions is telling. Addressing the state of scientific understanding in America may well prove to be the most important of features for humanity. The willingness to actively reject the vulgar, counter-scientific drivel advanced at every strata of American society remains pressing, for it is the first step towards furthering crucial scientific educations.

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