Is Science Just Another Opinion?

To Thinkers Doubting the Doubters of Science:

One of the most troubling things that we see in our modern world, particularly in the United States, is efforts to diminish the power of scientific discovery in our culture. Why is this the case and why is it more of an issue in the US where less than half of the people claim to ‘believe’ in evolution and the Big Bang Theory, these ideas coming from the ‘pits of hell’ as a few of our elected officials claim?

For our thinkers meeting in December I would like discuss why we have landed here in a place where so many are so openly questioning stuff coming from science and that information coming from these sources may not be as true as stuff from other sources. I would like to take this on by considering some of the bases that scientific skeptics use to discount opinions based on science.

We have pop cultural arguments against science all over the place where if you introduce a moment of quack science you can counter things that science in general implies. Like the ‘four out of five doctors’ problem where you get the one doctor who disagrees with arguments against cholesterol medications and the good versus bad cholesterols, where the fifth doctor says palm oil is good for you. Some of these situations are then used to throw cold water on all scientific discoveries. The most obvious of these in our ugly news cycles of today are the battles over climate change where the three percent of climatologists disagreeing over this stuff are used to crash the opinions of the 97 percent.

But look at that little cartoon which is so telling because it presents in concrete form the two different paradigms clashing with each other. When science counters preferred conclusions, efforts are made to dispute scientific conclusions and push towards the preferred beliefs.

So here are some of the points of concern that science skeptics use to argue against something that has been discovered through scientific inquiry.

We live in a world where everything is relative to something else and there are assumed equivalencies between any opinion and something that comes from science. To counter a proposed truth from science one just has to counter it and then demand verification that the counterpoint is not true as well.

The trend for this is getting much more common. More things generally accepted in the recent past are less so because counterpoints are far more common and nearly trivial to find.

The most obvious place where relativism resides most strongly is on the Internet because as it gets larger and larger, it is becoming more trivial to find counterpoints. In this world the entire concept of considering the veracity of the source is losing its meaning.

This is happening despite the general fact that scientists get higher rankings when looking at all professions though that level of respect has been falling particularly since the 1970s. There a three general sources for this minimization:

First, while the stature of scientists has been falling, the stature of the religious class has been rising. Part of this may come from the far stronger participation by religious interests in the popular discourse of our day, providing simpler answers to the things science makes more complex. Included in this is the trend away from traditional religious sects to non-denominational evangelical sects who provide even simpler answers to the complex.

Second, many of the conclusions offered by independent scientific inquiries are problematic for very well healed corporate interests who obfuscate points from science with talking point gobbledygook. Just look at the constant flow of TV ads that drill baby drill through fracking creates so many jobs and the oil companies really want great teachers while trying so hard to pay no taxes at all.

Third is the fact that the notion of reasoned debate has been replaced by loud arguments mostly disconnected from actual points that might be part of a legitimate debate.

And all of these conjectures are far more common in America and far less so in the rest of the civilized world. Why that is the case is certainly worth discussing as well.

The only real arguments against science from those who want to reduce its power in our body politic are that it cannot explain everything and sometimes its explanations are complex and confusing. But is that just because we are living in a time and place where we can’t explain everything at the moment within degrees of certainty? Consider how much more we know about everything at the moment mostly because of science compared with any time in our past. The fantastical is getting somewhat smaller every day and the number of new things we are learning each day is getting larger. The limit of these sequences is that somewhere in the future, not so many generations from now, many more of the big questions we have that are among those things that are fantastical will have explanations understandable to most of us.

And is the negative reaction to science in some circles just fear that magical unknowns holding people’s lives together in faith might disappear and that this is very fearful.

Oh, we are back to that topic of fear, but doesn’t it have a place in this discussion?

So many things to consider at our December Thinkers get together. Please consider coming.



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  • Brent

    I was actually pleasantly surprised at the outcome of this meetup; I had feared one of those "Yeah, you're right, we all agree" meetings where there is little to discuss. I should have known better! I think Synthia's point is well taken: Most humans seem to trust anecdotal evidence, which they should recognize as unreliable and not accept when used as an argument by exception. They trust their (friend, relative, hairdresser/barber, mechanic, etc.) better than the experts because they know them. Doctors are too impersonal/clinical, scientists discussing global climate change are too technical, etc.

    I'm reminded of a professor of lit , many years back, who gave me a less than perfect grade on a paper because I had "too many pop culture references in it." I pointed out to him that I was an English Ed major, planned on teaching in high schools, and needed to use references my students would comprehend - and that audience awareness is key.

    I got the upgrade.

    December 18, 2012

  • A former member
    A former member

    This was a great meeting. I was intrigued by the choice of relatively unstructured dialogue as the meeting format versus the posing of a scientific question, hypothesis, and objective research methodology. This delightful choice (i.e., member sharing) led me to wonder if Science has trouble gaining traction in the U.S. because we each enjoy believing that our individual thoughts and experiences (e.g., about such matters as our encounters with the healthcare system) are generalizable and largely representative of some greater reality or "Truth" (with a capital "T"). Some religions offer the notion of a loving god who takes immense personal interest in us (down to the individual hairs on our heads) and who has the power and, purportedly, the will to effect good things in our lives, especially if we exercise a particular brand of faith. Science (or, rather, the scientific community) has not yet compellingly argued in effective communication channels that it has comparable efficacy.

    1 · December 18, 2012

  • Rodney E.

    Good meeting and discussion - on a complex subject. Science and various forms of scientific rationality are so much a part of our lives that its presence is scarcely any longer visible to us.

    1 · December 17, 2012

  • Bob M.

    A very good, thought-provoking discussion. I was impressed by the variety and depth of insights and general courtesy of the participants.

    1 · December 17, 2012

  • Evelyn

    Good discussion tonight! Moved in unexpected directions and covered a range of experiences and opinions.

    1 · December 17, 2012

  • Brent

    Reality is that which exists regardless of one's belief in it. (Not original, but forget the source.) Faith is ignorance masquerading as knowledge, it may be dressed in its Sunday best, but it's still ignorance.

    1 · December 7, 2012

  • Bharat P.

    www.nytimes.com/.../alvin-plantingas-new-book-on-god-and-...

    December 7, 2012

  • Bharat P.

    The Great Partnership: Science, Religion, and the Search for Meaning [Hardcover]
    Jonathan Sacks
    Jonathan Sacks (Author)
    › Visit Amazon's Jonathan Sacks Page
    Find all the books, read about the author, and more.
    See search results for this author
    Am reading -
    (Author)

    December 7, 2012

    • Brent

      A partnership where one of the partners is blind and insane? Religion offers us much - but what it offers is worthless, distorted by its goal of control.

      1 · December 7, 2012

  • Bob M.

    Rodney, I agree and I believe you put it very well. I am especially interested in your last question--the question that Husserl was pursuing--whether there is or could be a science of our subjective experience. I believe we are limited in arriving rationally at a science of man both by our inability to directly observe other minds and by the indeterminancy of language. On the other hand, I believe that there is a great deal of science that is irrational, but productive of useful knowledge.
    A. Colin Flood: I also agree with the comments you quoted, with one exception: "These things are completely independent of any world-view the scientist might have." That, I believe, is wrong. It is true of course, that what we can observe of primary qualities of physical phenomena is independent of our world-views. However, the meaning that those observations have for us is utterly dependent on our world view.

    December 7, 2012

  • Rodney E.

    I think the answer is surely No, science is far from just another opinion. But neither do I think that science is the be-all and end-all as it is often regarded. There are many dimensions of human life that fall outside the realm of science, where science has nothing at all to say to us, is in fact totally impotent. This has been noticed by many philosophers most recently perhaps by Edmund Husserl. The more interesting conversation is not the one between science vs religion -- that is pretty much a no-brainer except for the extremists on the extreme right; the more interesting question is on what does science (and scientific and technical viewpoints) already depend, on what do they already rely; what do they already take for granted? Can there be a “thinking” that is equally rational, equally rigorous and equally important but not “scientific” in the way that we typically understand science?
    Just wondering??

    December 4, 2012

  • A. Colin F.

    " one could easily say science as defined above probably knows very little of reality. There are equally good, if not better, methods to human wisdom. People who have not seen God swear by Him; a scientist has not seen an electron but swears by it. Both are irrational in one sense but, the latter gets all the recognition.

    (The writer is a former professor of cardiology, Middlesex Medical School, London, and former Vice-Chancellor of Manipal University. [masked])"

    December 4, 2012

  • A. Colin F.

    " New Scientist magazine warned in an editorial that science is now under unprecedented intellectual attack in America. “When candidates for the highest office in the land appear to spurn reason, embrace anecdote over scientific evidence, and even portray scientists as the perpetrators of a massive hoax, there is reason to worry,” it thundered."

    December 4, 2012

  • A. Colin F.

    " it isn't science that constrains us and takes away our choice in what to believe about the way the world works. It's the world itself. It doesn't matter what any scientist thinks about gravity, or the boiling point of water. These things are completely independent of any world-view the scientist might have. The choice in what we believe is still there, but whether it corresponds to reality or not is not our choice. Nature doesn't care what we think"

    December 4, 2012

    • A. Colin F.

      Science (from Latin scientia, meaning "knowledge") is a systematic enterprise that builds and organizes knowledge in the form of testable explanations and predictions about the universe.[1] In an older and closely related meaning (found, for example, in Aristotle), "science" refers to the body of reliable knowledge itself, of the type that can be logically and rationally explained (see History and philosophy below).[2] Since classical antiquity science as a type of knowledge was closely linked to philosophy.

      November 26, 2012

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