No One Scientist Should Have All That Power

Science says so, so it must be true. (Source)

Whether or not we have been aware of it, we put a lot of faith into people who study science. It doesn’t matter if I’m writing for my university newspaper or meeting other students at a party. Whenever I tell people about my scientific interests, many people are impressed (as they should be). But the praise should stop there. The value of studying science is that you become knowledgable about science (along with other values similar to empathy, language, and rational thought), but it doesn’t make anyone qualified to speak about other fields. Despite this, we’ve taken too much about science for granted. Too much of the public has come to authoritatively trust science as a objectively true source of knowledge to the point where scientists are deemed more moral, trustworthy, valuable, and overall better people on these faulty assumptions.

We’ve been seeking more objectively true ways of learning in several disciplines. From the computer scientists studying history through algorithms and theory to the statisticians studying intelligence differences among different socioeconomic classes, science has infected areas of study beyond what we could have imagined long ago. Even in literature, much of the discussion of the value of a novel has been reduced down to what the story says about society and the human condition rather than the nature of ideas themselves. (As though anyone needed to read Mark Twain to understand why slavery is immoral!) While these utilitarian methods of scientific inquiry may have value in discovering information we wouldn’t otherwise know, we mustn’t let science replace our senses of objectivity and the value of non-science fields. Unfortunately, many of us equate “science” with “objectively true,” and, as a result, we end up fooled by the dazzling allure of science. (Besides, “objective” shouldn’t mean anything other than “lacking personal influences.”) And that’s where the power of science lies. The dominance of STEM fields as sources of undisputed, eternal truths means we let scientists get away with fooling us with non-scientific information.

Take, for instance, physicist Lawrence Krauss’s “A Universe from Nothing,” which supposedly explains how the something could have come out of nothing. While atheists beat their chests in boast of the book as a “victory for science,” Krauss claims no real physicist has voiced objections to his book. Maybe he’s never heard of a few examples…

 “Cosmologists sometimes claim that the universe can arise ‘from nothing’. But they should watch their language, especially when addressing philosophers. We’ve realised ever since Einstein that empty space can have a structure such that it can be warped and distorted. Even if shrunk down to a ‘point’, it is latent with particles and forces – still a far richer construct than the philosopher’s ‘nothing’. Theorists may, some day, be able to write down fundamental equations governing physical reality. But physics can never explain what ‘breathes fire’ into the equations, and actualised them into a real cosmos. The fundamental question of ‘Why is there something rather than nothing?’ remains the province of philosophers.” – Martin Rees

 “The concept of a universe materializing out of nothing boggles the mind … yet the state of “nothing” cannot be identified with absolute nothingness. The tunneling is described by the laws of quantum mechanics, and thus “nothing” should be subjected to these laws. The laws must have existed, even though there was no universe. … we now know that the “vacuum” is very different from “nothing”. Vacuum, or empty space, has energy and tension, it can bend a warp, so it is unquestionably something. As Alan Guth wrote, “In this context, a proposal that the universe was created from empty space is no more fundamental than a proposal that the universe was spawned by a piece of rubber. It might be true, but one would still want to ask where the piece of rubber came from.”” -Alexander Vilenkin

“The fundamental physical laws that Krauss is talking about in “A Universe From Nothing” — the laws of relativistic quantum field theories — are no exception to this. The particular, eternally persisting, elementary physical stuff of the world, according to the standard presentations of relativistic quantum field theories, consists (unsurprisingly) of relativistic quantum fields. And the fundamental laws of this theory take the form of rules concerning which arrangements of those fields are physically possible and which aren’t, and rules connecting the arrangements of those fields at later times to their arrangements at earlier times, and so on — and they have nothing whatsoever to say on the subject of where those fields came from, or of why the world should have consisted of the particular kinds of fields it does, or of why it should have consisted of fields at all, or of why there should have been a world in the first place. Period. Case closed. End of story.” – David Albert

But, despite these philosophical objections from other scientists, Krauss masquerades science as a reliable answer to philosophy and charades the public into thinking he has the expertise to write such a work. And, in other areas, we see scientists invoking “scientist privileges” on policy, ethics, theology, and even social justice while dumbing down the public in the process.

In the worst scenarios, scientists sell-out and become celebrities. Parroting “empirical objectivity,” Dawkins, Harris, Tyson, Nye, Sagan and even Krauss have insidiously driven ignorance in quests to push personal agendas thinly veiled as “science.” Much like any other cult of personality (from Stalin to Mussolini to Martin Luther King Jr.), the public puts a dangerously large amount of trust in their opinions by nature of them being well-respect scholars in their own field. As a result, we end up with physicists talking philosophy, biologists writing theology and neuroscientists dictating ethics without the appropriate training to speak about those fields outside their areas of expertise. As much as we like to think physics can tell us whether or not God exists, those questions will remain philosophical in nature. Regardless of what neuroscience can explain about our emotions and behavior, the human element of who we are will always be answered by the humanities. Under the STEM pseudo-prestige, the celebrities write books, host T.V. shows and control the thoughts of the general public while the real scientists laboriously tire in labs.

Though I don’t mean to compare the lives of scientists such as Carl Sagan to all decisions of political leaders like Benito Mussolini, the scientist’s cult of personality recognizes the proper tactics to dogmatically influence masses of people. Muslim minister Malcolm X once said, “I’m sorry to say that the subject I most disliked was mathematics. I have thought about it. I think the reason was that mathematics leaves no room for argument. If you made a mistake, that is all there is to it.” How ironic that, despite the revolutionary’s distaste for mathematics, scientists would use their own “room for no argument” card to persuade others much the same way any politician would. Even if Malcolm X became a scientist, he could have easily made a difference in American history with his own power. During the 1957 Johnson Hinton incident, the activist demanded hospital treatment of Johnson Hinton, an imprisoned black man beaten by officers. Soon enough, Malcolm X found himself surrounded by hundreds of activists.

Malcolm X addresses a rally in Harlem in 1963. An almost-speechless officer stated, “No one man should have that much power.”

While figures like Malcolm X exert such a powerful influence through rhetoric of political rallies and historic events, scientists often seize on their own sources power to sway the thoughts of the public. But how did things end up like this?

It’s easy to look at our education system as a cause of this scientism, and there might be truth in it. If we’re teaching students the wrong way, the effects will be self-evident. Throughout the education, students are generally placed in standardized, structured roles meant upon which they build their identity. We specialize ourselves into isolated fields, whether it is Math, Chemistry, Business, English, Pre-Professional fields, or whatever else we choose. Apart from the general understanding and liberal arts “love of learning” that comes from engaging with a multitude of disciplines, it becomes difficult to instill a respect and willingness to defer to expertise in other fields. When the physicist realizes a philosopher studies fundamental questions of nature, it’s difficult for the physicist to realize how a philosopher’s approach might differ from his or her own. Similarly, it’s much easier for the general public to trust a charlatan physicist (who talks about whatever the public wants to hear, rather than the truth) who writes a popular science book rather than a respected academic scholar. Since this issue spreads across different disparate fields, we should take a look at our fundamental ways of understanding one another before we rally the streets screaming “fight the power.”

Imagine a situation in which a speaker is trying to persuade a listener. Whenever the speaker makes a persuasive claim, the speaker provides references, cite examples, and used other techniques in explaining an argument (even if we’re not trying to espouse viewpoints on one another). In this environment, there’s a pressure in which the listener doesn’t completely understand what the speaker is saying, whether the listener doesn’t know what the speaker means, doesn’t understanding his/her logic, or anything else that causes the listener to not know something. This pressure permeates throughout our debates and discussions, and, as a result, we resort to social and psychological behavior. Confirmation may lead the listener to believe whatever he/she wants. Ad hominem halo effects run wild. In the fear of appearing ignorant, as long as it’s good enough to get along with the speaker, the listener is moved and both parties understand. We end up with a social benefit to appearing as though you value knowledge, but no incentive to actually value it.

A burden and a blessing, scientists have been thrust into a position of power. All the while, it sends mixed messages encouraging skepticism and free thought, but also accordance with deference to authority and scholasticism. While the public does need a better understanding of science, we need to understand which questions scientists might not be qualified to answer. Give questions about God and the origins of the universe back to the philosophers. Give politics back to the political scientists. Give social justice issues back to whoever (I don’t actually know). And, when we meet unknown or obscure areas of study, we must reject necessary preconditions to accepting expertise in those subjects we know very little of. Let scientists speak, but only after they’ve familiarized themselves with whatever they want to speak about. While we must avoid scientism through a more humanistic look at scientists, perhaps it’s best for us to see science as a helpful guide, but not a supreme deity. 

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