Belief, Knowledge, and Culture

Carl Spitzweg's The Alchemist
Why are those who seek knowledge such romantic figures?

I’d like to return briefly to the topic of science, and explore further the difference between “science” as in “what researchers do” and Science (with a capital “S”) as in “what researchers have told us.” The first is a way that we learn, gather data, and test it. The second is the collective wisdom of a certain part of our culture.

What I’m saying is that science is two different things in culture. There’s “science is what scientists do” and “science is what scientists say.” The first category helps build a trove of knowledge that is like nothing the world has seen before. The second category is built from the first, but it has a level of cultural interpretation built into it.

An Example

Science, unlike some other forms of knowledge, isn’t designed to tell us how to guide our lives. For example, one might argue from a genetic perspective that the whole purpose of life is based around perpetuating one’s own genes effectively. That makes sense, right? It’s a useful tool of analysis.

However, living with genetics as the sole guiding principle of one’s life misses two things:

  1. everyone kinda knows this already — it’s why there’s so much sex on TV, and
  2. people are not rational, culture-less beings who live their lives according to decisions they make.

Remember, we’re primates, right? Anyone who truly and wholly tried to live by these genetic assumptions, while holding onto Western notions of culture, ethnicity, and the individual, would be setting themselves up to emulate racist, sex-obsessed sociopaths.

While science might analyze our actions based on genetic closeness between individuals, that doesn’t mean we should use such data proscriptively, to guide our decisions.

But Scientists Say…

Most people in Western culture are not scientists. According to InsideHigherEd, only 17% of college graduates earned their bachelor’s in STEM topics. And that’s only the percentage of the total group who attended college. For graduate degrees, the number drops to 13%.

And even if we look at the whole group of graduates as “scientists” (and, admittedly, if we only regard STEM topics as “science” — a debatable question right there), it’s hardly a majority of Americans. Most people are just getting by, not engaging in cosmological investigations at any level.

Even more, since scientists are usually specialists in one field or another, a whole lot of scientific knowledge is being propounded by people who have not done the research for themselves. Their belief rests on their acceptance of science’s authority. We don’t test gravity, we take their word for it.

Science: Rhetoric and Dialectic

In other words, most science is taught, used, and discussed outside of research circles; it’s not being shared by field research specialists. That transforms it from science — a way of learning new things and exploring the world — to Science — a way of viewing the world.

Is this a problem? Does that make the proponents of Science somehow wrong? The short answer to that question is “no.”

The longer answer isn’t “yes.” It’s closer to, “oh, now I can see the influence of Western culture on Science.”

Why? Because as soon as scientific knowledge moves from the realm of dialectic (discussion between scientists) to the realm of rhetoric (discussion between scientists and non-scientists), it lacks the surety that comes from the receiver being able to test the assumptions for themselves.

The rhetorical discussion of scientists with non-scientists is unlike the dialectical one between scientists. The point of rhetorical discussion is winning and strengthening social status, rather than synthesizing a more complete truth. Or to put it more simply:

Participants in a dialectical argument are, on a deeper level, working together. Whereas those engaged in rhetorical debate are much more likely to be working at cross purposes.

But to come back to the key point, the scientific method, and associated research activities — science with a small “s” — is (or should be) distinct from Science with a capital “S.”

The corpus of all the knowledge that humanity has learned, mixed in with a number of cultural beliefs that are accepted on Scientific authority, is what we call Science.When we add the big “S,” Science reflects our cultural values.

It is Science, not science, that argues there is no God, or that research will solve all the world’s ills, or that drinking eight glasses of water a day will protect you from harm.


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