Science: Revolutionary, Heir, or Rebellious Child? (Part 3)

Punk with a Strongbow
Science, like Punk, was once about challenging the status quo.

Science was originally just a method for seeking knowledge. However, it has taken on an important role of authority in Western culture. Science hasn’t only driven innovation and increased our knowledge of the universe — all while improving countless lives on the way; it’s also changed the way the West sees both itself and the world. Science has become a place where many of us look for Truth.

Science’s role has been shaped not only by its own assumptions and discoveries, but also by the West’s much older relationship with knowledge, education, and public service. But sometimes there is a gap between the scientific community’s self-perception and the reality of the part it plays in Western culture.

The last two posts have addressed both the revolutionary aspects of science as it has affected the worldview of the West and the role of knowledge in shaping scientists’ elevated position in Western culture. But the gap between how science presents itself and its actual cultural role can create a certain amount of cognitive dissonance.

First, we need to distinguish between “science” as a method of research and “Science” as a symbol of cultural authority. In the laboratory (or any other research venue), a person uses science as a method for understanding the world. But once the knowledge leaves the scientific community, it becomes Science (with a capital “S”) — a tool of authority and rhetoric.

In the beginning, science was a challenge to old ways of knowing. It was the Punk movement of its day — a conscious revolutionary challenge to old ways of thinking and knowing. The attitude of “out with the old and in with the new” that sometimes seems to come with science — a preference for new ways of doing things in the face of tradition — is downright Punk. It’s a challenge to authority.

The authority of Science can be a very, very good thing. For example, knowing that we should wash our hands before we eat keeps us all healthier, and we don’t need to understand the details. We don’t need to understand germ theory, we just need to know that unwashed hands are “dangerous.” But doing things because Science says so isn’t “science.”

Science, the Rebellious Child?

The scientific community is a subculture of ideas and ideals. The members argue that to build a greater truth, they (and we) must create theories, test them, and share the results with one another. Knowledge that can be neither tested nor replicated is tossed in the wastebin of history.

However, as part of Western culture, the scientific community has gotten itself into an older game: the idea that there is one greater Truth — and that we can understand it. Science has long argued that in order to discover the Truth, we need to throw away the truths of the past. Under this schema, only objective, scientific truth becomes recognized as unchallengeable Truth.

Science’s response to other forms of cultural knowledge (based on non-scientific sources of authority) can sometimes come down to “I know what I’m doing” and “you can’t tell me what to do!” These aren’t scientific arguments, they’re rhetorical “appeal to authority” responses — albeit sometimes warranted ones.

How, then, does scientific truth interact with other sources of cultural truth? Oddly. But it does so through the same means as any other belief system: ideas are debated, or argued. Victory rests on the persuasiveness of an idea’s proponents.

The everyday understanding of the world that has developed from scientific research is encapsulated in every statement that starts “Science tells us…“. Under closer examination, such statements call on the cultural authority of “Science” rather than the weight of specific scientific research.

Science is great stuff. People, using the scientific method for research, have made fabulous gains in understanding the world and improving the lives of people. We might think of the iPod, but penicillin was much, much better.

Science seeks a more objective Truth. Their quest is stymied by two factors: science’s role as a cultural authority gets them involved in politics, and its dependence on funding controlled by vested interests makes people worry that their authority has been co-opted.

An examination of the way Science fulfills its role as an authority — as a purveyor of “the Truth” — is not a challenge to the scientific method. Science’s dependence on pleasing the people who hold the purse strings is. Anyone who tells you different is selling something.

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