I’ve been out of town since Saturday, with no internet access. Thank goodness for tiny islands on the gulf coast of Florida. Unfortunately, I’m still sick, and I’m exhausted, so I’m going to have to hold off on posts that actually require work. Just to give you some previews, I’m working on some posts related to the negation stuff I talked about a while back, a post on conspiracy theories, some stuff on implicit and benevolent sexism, and, if I ever get around to actually putting the argument together, a fairly technical one in which I claim that metaphors don’t exist (well, not quite, just that metaphors are not a natural kind, and that treating them as such, at least implicitly, is the cause of much confusion). In lieu of this interesting stuff (interesting to me, at least), I’m just going to write a book review and some thoughts on atheism. Yawn, I know.
The book review is of Natalie Angier’s The Canon: A Whirligig Tour of the Beautiful Basics of Science. Now, I’ve read a lot of science books, some of them good, some of them bad. And some of those in the bad category have been very poorly written (I’m thinking of you, Steven Weinberg), but Angier’s is by far the worst.
Recently, as blogs have become more legitimate and mainstream, a few of my favorite blog authors, whose writing I’ve enjoyed on their blogs, have made the jump to magazine articles and even books, where their writing suddenly looked forced and stale. All of the things that made them good blog writers became annoying very quickly in extended articles and multiple chapters. I wonder if the same thing has happened with The Canon. While I haven’t read any of Angier’s newspaper articles, I’ve been assured by people who have that she’s a good writer. But in The Canon, she puts a joke, pun, silly metaphor, or witty pop culture reference into pretty much every other sentence, and the alliteration is constant and forced. I mean constant… and forced. I know she’s trying to make science interesting and fun, and in newspaper articles, constant punning may work, but after about 100 pages of it, I almost threw the book away. No, really, I almost threw it into the trash can next to my desk. I just couldn’t handle it anymore. And even if I could have stomached it, the style was detracting from the content of the book that I was having trouble following along.
To see what I’m talking about, take a look at her chapter titles and, ugh, subtitles:
- Thinking Scientifically: An Out-of-Body Experience
- Probabilities: For Whom the Bell Curves
- Calibration: Playing with Scales
- Physics: And Nothing’s Plenty for Me
- Chemistry: Fire, Ice, Spies, and Life
- Evolutionary Biology: The Theory of Every Body
- Molecular Biology: Cells and Whistles
- Geology: Imagining World Pieces
- Astronomy: Heavenly Creatures
“Imagining World Pieces?” Are you kidding me?
Imagine things like that in virtually every paragraph. I wish I was being hyperbolic. It’s a shame, too, because the premise of the book is really interesting. Disturbed by not only the level of scientific illiteracy in our country, but also by the fact that science is seen as boring and difficult, Angier interviewed a couple hundred scientists, who generally think science is anything but boring, even if it’s difficult. She asked them to describe the ideas in their fields that they felt it was most important for people to understand, and proceeds to explain them in a way, she hopes, that will make them seem fun and exciting. But her apparently deep-seeded need to be overly clever and funny ruins it, almost completely. I say almost because she does report the ideas scientists gave her, and if you skim the book just to compile a list of these, you can get something out of it. After that, if you really want to know a bit about those ideas, you can google them.
There’s something else that bugs me about the book. As she notes in the first couple chapters, science has a public image problem. It is often presented to the public, by scientists and their spokespeople (like science journalists) as the final word on just about everything. Do this, because science says so. That can’t be true, because science says so. X and Y are definitely different, because science says so. Science is often presented as giving the final answers on things, and scientists, all to often, talk as though they have the final answers. But of course, that’s not the way science works. And this is made painfully apparent when science suddenly discovers that you shouldn’t do that, or that this can’t be true, or that X and Y aren’t in fact different. People are left with contradictory impressions: science is the ultimate source of truth about the world, and science is not just inherently fallible, but based on the notion that it never has the ultimate truth about the world.
Ironically, both of these positions are based on the same myth about how science works, a myth that Angier spends her first two chapters perpetuating. That is, the myth of a science that is purely objective, or as objective as any human institution can be, and that is wholly committed to what one of my favorite authors once termed “stubborn facts.”
This misguided view is born in part of a myth that seems to be equally common among scientists and non-scientists, the myth of an almost purely objective, boldly skeptical science; a science so committed to data that no idea is sacred. My favorite expression of this view of science comes from one of my favorite scientists, William James, who, as he was pretty much inventing experimental psychology and writing the incredible Principles of Psychology, wrote to his brother, “I have to forge every sentence in the teeth of irreducible and stubborn facts”*. Because science is forged “in the teeth of irreducible and stubborn facts,” it is treated at the same time as both our best and most accurate window on the world and as our most tenuous window: a window that might, at any moment, reveal itself to be facing in the wrong direction, at which point we have to turn the whole damn house around.
The problem is, science isn’t either of these things. At least, not entirely. It is the best window we have onto certain aspects of the world — those aspects that easily admit cause-effect anylses, and at its most basic levels, system-level analyses. And it’s also skeptical, but only on the whole and over extended periods of time, and even then only sorta kinda. It’s disinclined to turn the whole damn house around, even when caught “in the teeth of irreducible and stubborn facts.” It will if it absolutely has to, but it’d rather not, and it will kick those teeth as many times as it can in the process. The more Angier presents scientists, often in their own words, as rabidly agnostic and asking for the facts, just the facts, the more I think of the way science actually works in the real world.
For example, it never ceases to amaze me that individual scientists with pet theories always manage to publish data that fits with those theories. This is particularly impressive when several researchers with competing theories do so at the same time (often in the same journal issue). They can’t all be right, and you’d think that, if the virtually deified science that Angier describes worked in her idealized fashion, at some point one of these theorists would find evidence consistent with one of the competing theories. But it almost never happens. Why? Well, in part, because people do a bunch of experiments and only publish the ones that produce data consistent with their hypotheses. That’s just the way science works, folks, and there’s no way to idealize it. It’s also because when you have a theory in your hand, you recognize certain problems and certain phenomena, and you look at those, because they’re related to your theory. If you had another theory, you’d notice other problems and phenomena, and you’d get different results. Again, that’s the dirty reality of science.
None of this is to say that science doesn’t work. It does work, and it works extremely well. Our domination of nature has reached levels that the early scientists of the 17th century could not have imagined in their wildest of wild dreams. We run this place, and when nature shows us that it still have some power, in the form of an acute natural disaster or a more drawn out one (e.g., global warming), say, it does little more than confirm the progress we’ve made: look at all the things that nature can no longer do to us — from diseases we’ve eradicated to hurricane and earthquake-proof buildings — provided we live in a fairly wealthy industrialized nation (and the right neighborhoods in that nation) in which we can reap the full benefits of what science has given us. Is that the best you’ve got, nature? Well, I raise you transcontinental flight, vaccines, nuclear energy, the internet, plastic surgery, and stronger levies.
With all its practical success, it’s not surprising that science has given rise to a new breed of pragmatist: the metaphysical pragmatist. If you read ScienceBlogs, or the books and authors that tend to get a lot of publicity on ScienceBlogs, chances are you’ve encountered one of these metaphysical pragmatists. These people look out upon the wealthy, industrialized world around them (strangely, there aren’t many of these people in sub-Saharan Africa, or if there are, they aren’t talking), and see the great bounty that science has given us, and thereby reach the conclusion that science is the window on the world, whichever direction that window is facing. They’re philosophical materialists of the strongest sort, and they became philosophical materialists because methodological materialism, the driving force of science, is so successful. With that level of success, there’s no reason to stop at methodological, they reason.
Which brings me to the post at Prosthesis. which you should go check out now. As Macht points out there, the folks I’m calling metaphysical pragmatists reason from the success of science not only that it is the only valid window on the world, but that it is the most natural one for us to look out (just to tie this back in, this is a view that Angier herself adopts). That is, humans are by nature rational creatures, and not just rational creatures (that’s where Macht stops), but scientific ones. We are homo scientificus. Science, at least in a primitive form, is our default state. Anything incompatible with it is mere cultural baggage heaped upon us by millennia of indoctrination, perhaps in the service of (at least in later cultures) cultural domination.
The metaphysical pragmatists reasoning is racked with hidden assumptions and a great deal of faith, as philosophers of science in the 20th century, at least outside of the positivist tradition, spent a great deal of time and ink trying to tell us. But on the face of it, the reasoning is quite simple and compelling: science works, and it works better (at what it does, but this qualification is always elided) than any other institution we’ve ever come up with. Therefore, it must be the right and natural one. This view can, and as Macht points out, is treated as a neutral one: it implies nothing more than that reason, by which we mean scientific reason, is our natural state. Specifically, it is not cultural baggage, but the position one arrives at by looking at the facts (or at least one fact: science’s success). But, again as Macth points out, the simple argument is not in fact a neutral one. It is in fact a positive argument for a particular view of human nature, and one that not only competes with those culturally indoctrinated ones, but with other views of human nature that science itself gives us. In fact, in science itself, there’s no evidence whatsoever for the metaphysical pragmatist’s view of human nature. We’re born with all sorts of assumptions, ontological, epistemological, and perhaps even ethical, that lead pretty directly to a variety of world-views that are the very ones that are treated as incompatible with science by the metaphysical pragmatists.
The metaphysical pragmatist, who is in fact the new atheist, is then the holder of a doubly contradictory position: its position is a positive one that is the product of culture — its science-dominated, wealthy culture — which is exactly the sort of position it holds itself up against, and it is in fact a position that is incompatible with science, at least with what science tells us. Why does this matter? It wouldn’t, if the new atheists weren’t so damn loud, but they are, and in their dogmatic (and I believe that based on the second contradiction above, I can call them dogmatic — belief in the face of recalcitrant data, right?) insistence that science leads to their world-view, they’ve managed to associate science in the minds of many with that world view. If people were afraid that science, at least in some forms (e.g., evolution), threatens their moral and cultural world-views, then the new atheists have done all they can to confirm their fears, all the while calling them stupid, irrational, and manipulated in the process.
1Quoted in Whitehead’s Science and the Modern World, p. 2.