This blog marks my move from the Huffington Post to ScienceBlogs. I will always be grateful to HuffPost for introducing me to blogging, but numerous people have advised me that I can reach a larger and more appropriate audience through an outlet such as ScienceBlogs. Thanks to Eric Michael Johnson (“The Primate Diaries“) for the final shove and Erin Johnson, community manager of ScienceBlogs, for making the transition easy.
One thing’s for sure: The kind of discourse reported by HuffPost is a far cry from scientific discourse. If I want to say that someone’s health care plan is going to kill your granny, I’m free to do so on the public stage, despite screams of protest that it’s a bald-faced lie, and the whole messy affair will be dutifully reported on the virtual pages of HuffPost. If I try to do something comparable as a scientist, I’m outta there. I’ll be accused of incompetence, my papers won’t be published, and I won’t get a job. If I willfully falsify information, I’ll be excluded in the same way that the most grievous sinners are excluded from their churches.
Why is scientific discourse so different from public discourse? Because scientific culture values and enforces accountability for what people say more than popular culture. People who become scientists are strongly encouraged to adopt accountability as their personal norm and it doesn’t end there. They are also locked into a system of cultural practices that makes it difficult to violate the norms. Every paper published in a peer reviewed journal is a cut gem of accountability, thanks to the peer review process that scientists take for granted.
Science requires altruism in addition to social control. The editorial and peer review process is done mostly on a volunteer basis. It’s true that slackers have slightly tarnished reputations, but most of the hardworking editors and reviewers that I know give much more than they receive and are motivated primarily by their commitment to their scientific community.
In short, the truth is regarded as sacred within science, more than within public life, with all the obedience commanded by the word sacred in religious life. Science can even be regarded as a religion that worships truth as its god. It might seem provocative to put it this way, but I find the comparison compelling and challenge my readers to show what’s wrong with it.
Here are some insights that emerge from viewing science as a religion that worships truth as its god. First, being a scientist is not natural. We evolved to adopt beliefs when they are useful, not when then they are true, so being a scientist requires resisting temptation, just as religious believers must resist temptation to achieve the ideals of their faiths. Second, the ideals of science can only be achieved by an entire cultural system. Simply exhorting people to respect the truth is not good enough, just as exhorting people to do unto others isn’t good enough. Third, science as practiced often falls short of the goals of science as idealized, just as religions as practiced fall short of the goals of religions as idealized.
The third point is especially important because it means that scientists must be vigilant about keeping their own house in order before preaching to others. Anyone familiar with science knows that it is a messy process, like making laws and sausages. If only it was as simple as hypothesis formation and testing leading straight to the truth! Often science is like a bloodhound having difficulty finding the scent or running off baying loudly in the wrong direction.
A special problem occurs when all scientists are biased in the same direction. Then there is no diversity of opinion that might cause them to disagree. Everyone knows that Darwin and his contemporaries were biased by the assumptions of Victorian culture, which they didn’t know how to question but we can easily recognize with the passage of time. Everyone is prepared to admit that we are also biased by the assumptions of our own culture, but we seldom make a serious effort to examine and correct for them as part of the scientific process. We should.
The fallibility of science makes arrogance one of its sins and humility one of its virtues, just as for other religious faiths. Beware of scientific emperors. They might have no clothes and that’s not a pretty sight.
Thinking of science as a religion that worships truth as it god enables me to praise its virtues and criticize its shortcomings at the same time. In my previous blogs, I have played the role of scientific reformer for two major issues. The first is the “new atheism” movement spearheaded by the so-called four horsemen: Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Samuel Harris, and Christopher Hitchens. Isn’t it wonderful how scientists and rationalists reflexively adopt religious imagery? I am an atheist in the sense that I regard religion as 100% a human construction, but I’m here to testify that the “new atheists” depart from factual reality in their own way. So did Ayn Rand, the “new atheist” of her day, as we are learning to our sorrow from the collapse of the free market belief system that she helped to create. If we worry about religions for their departures from factual reality, then we should really worry about “stealth religions” that do the same thing without invoking the gods, because they do a better job of masquerading as reality. As someone who is seriously committed to studying religion from a scientific and evolutionary perspective, I’m here to say that the new atheists can’t bring themselves to accept the facts about religion as a human construction. Read my six-part series on “Atheism as a Stealth Religion”, now archived on my ScienceBlog site, for more. Even better, start acquainting yourself with the emerging field of evolutionary religious studies, whose members are more serious about holding each other accountable for what they say about religion.
The second major issue that requires scientific reform is group selection, a theory that explains how groups can become well adapted to their environments in the same sense that individuals do. The theory of group selection began with Darwin and involves a simple set of issues that anyone can understand. Yet, it remains endlessly controversial. Next year marks the 35th anniversary of my first publication on group selection and I’m confident that the controversy will continue for decades more unless something is done. That “something” is a truth and reconciliation process, similar to the resolution of political conflicts that otherwise might continue forever. The idea that a scientific controversy might require a truth and reconciliation process similar to a political controversy speaks volumes about science as a fallible and culturally influenced process.
My “Truth and Reconciliation for Group Selection” blogs are now in their 15th installment, with five more to go. Even though they are already available on my HuffPost site, I will begin by replaying them on my ScienceBlog site so that new readers can read and comment upon them in a leisurely fashion. I look forward to the comments and will reply as best I can, as my time allows. Someone once told me that the best way to get rid of the Mormons and 7th Day Adventists who show up at your door is to politely say that you are already active in your own church. That is certainly true in my case.