Scientific fundamentalism

I’ve just read a rather awful book about science and must comment on it.

Ostensibly a guide to distinguishing “real” science from “fake” science, Quantum Leaps in the Wrong Direction: Where Real Science Ends…and Pseudoscience Begins (2001) is effectively a strident defense of the Western scientific worldview.

Written by college teachers Charles M. Wynn (Ph.D., chemistry) and Arthur W. Wiggins (M.S., physics), and published by the now-defunct Joseph Henry Press (an imprint created by the National Academies Press to make books on science “more widely available to professionals and the public” – see below, and my next post, for more on Joseph Henry).

This book (still available from Amazon) “needs to be read by those vulnerable to the nonsense,” according to one Amazon reviewer.

Here’s where I have to step in. The dismissive, debunking, we’re-scientists-and-you-aren’t attitude that flavors the book is a major turn-off for “those vulnerable to the nonsense.”

As I worked my way through “Quantum Leaps,” I felt as though the authors had assumed that their typical reader might have made it through the third grade and no further. While I’m sure that the authors’ hearts were in the right place, their intellects were not, in my view. They are clearly hard-core Skeptics (with a capital S), dedicated to keeping the boundaries of Real Science tightly drawn. (Their “further reading” list is peppered with titles published by Prometheus Books, an arm of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, publisher of the Skeptical Inquirer and formerly known as the Committee for Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal.)

“Scientific ideas develop not on the basis of authority, but through a rigorous refining process that compares reality to predictions,” they claim, revealing a fundamentalist conception of science that ignores its social context. Yes, scientific ideas develop through a process that compares “reality” to “predictions.” However, the process is defined, sanctioned, and policed by scientific authorities. “Reality” is defined, again, by scientific authorities. “Predictions” must be made according to methods approved by these same authorities.

In comparing Aristotle’s conception of physical reality (“there is no ultimate underlying structure”) with the atomistic view of ultimate structure advocated by Democritus, the authors note that the Aristotelian view was dominant for 2,000 years “in part because Aristotle’s authority was preeminent.” As Aristotle held authority in natural philosophy, today a small community of scientists and scientific institutions construct, maintain, and defend their own authority by constructing, maintaining, and defending the cultural (or “epistemic”) authority of “science.” The afore-mentioned American scientist Joseph Henry – who was the first secretary of the Smithsonian Institution as well as a founding member of the National Institute for the Promotion of Science (a precursor to the Smithsonian) – was one of a half-dozen politically connected men who in the 19th century methodically constructed “American science” – that is, an authoritative American scientific establishment, including the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the National Academy of Sciences, and Ph.D.-granting universities. (See Robert V. Bruce’s 1988 Pulitzer Prize-winning book, The Launching of Modern American Science, 1846-1876.)

Here are some more quotes from Wynn and Wiggins that are representative of the attitude that permeates the book – an attitude that could fairly be characterized thus: “We’re right, you’re wrong, here’s why”:

1)   “Science continues to have a claim on objective reality.”

2)   “Natural science hypotheses are usually more exact [than human sciences hypotheses], have a smaller range of possible error, and are more easily freed of bias or prejudicial assessment by the observer.”

  1. Blogger’s note: The history and sociology of science have revealed a myriad of ways in which bias and prejudice can affect the development of hypotheses, the conduct and outcome of experiments, and the definition of “relevant” research.

3)   “’Special effects’ [in science fiction film and TV] can now be produced so convincingly that it becomes difficult to know where reality ends and illusion begins.”

  1. Blogger’s note: It’s difficult for me to believe that most people, even schoolchildren, cannot distinguish fantasy from reality. What about you?

4)   “Increased belief in pseudoscience…responds to the search for personal powers we long for but can’t seem to find.”

  1. Blogger’s note: The authors offer no citations to sources of this sweeping assessment. Speaking of which – this book contains no footnotes to indicate the authors’ sources of information – not very scientific, eh?

5)   A pseudoscientific hypothesis “adheres dogmatically to preexisting belief systems.”

  1. Blogger’s note: The same applies to scientific hypotheses.

6)   “Out of body experiences and entities are observed by people whose imaginations have gotten the best of them, by people in an altered state of consciousness, by people who report phenomena for ulterior motives, and by people who have been deliberately deceived by con artists.”

  1. Blogger’s note: Wow. Again, no footnote here to indicate the source of these claims, which are rather damning. Psychologists and psychiatrists have generated many theories and hypotheses in attempting to debunk these reported phenomena. As far as I know, though, none have been confirmed. In addition to the works of professional skeptics such as Daniel Dennett, Martin Gardner, and Michael Shermer – all recommended by Wynn and Wiggins – see, for example, Volume 7, Number 2 of the journal Psychological Inquiry, 1996.

Let me state for the record that I don’t “believe” alien abductions, astrology, homeopathy, out-of-body experiences, UFO visitations, and other phenomena dismissed in Quantum Leaps are all nothing but nonsense. I also don’t believe that any scientist has been able to disprove them, scientifically. If scientists are sincerely interested in helping the rest of us better understand “reality,” they might do well to consider that the rest of us may employ different ways of thinking about the world (and the universe) around us.

The scientific worldview is a valid and useful way of exploring and understanding reality. It’s not, however, the only way.

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One Response to “Scientific fundamentalism”

  1. Biju Joseph Says:

    I do agree with the blogger on most counts especially on the socio-historical contexts of what is deemed ‘knowledge’, ‘science’, ‘truth’ etc. After all, the authors speak from within the same ‘scientific’ tradition which had a geocentric conception of the cosmos before Kepler.
    I chanced on this blog when I looked up Wynn & Wiggins for a course I teach. Popular science does have its biases and limitations just like all the other fields of enquiry. In essence, a problem of epistemology!

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