Tag Archives: Science

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.


Science: Revolutionary, Heir, or Rebellious Child? (Part 2)

Dergoumidas before the Grand Vizier - by Giovanni Antonio Guardi
“Dergoumidas before the Grand Vizier” — Knowledge is one of the currencies of power.

It’s very easy for us to think of Science as a discrete part of Western culture, yet somehow transcendent at the same time. Perhaps that’s true as far as it goes, but understanding Science means looking at more than just how it’s different from the previous times in Western history.

Seeing science clearly requires understanding that it is not only a new way of learning about the world, but also heir of a tradition that goes all the way back at least to Ancient Greek philosophers, and more likely to Ancient Egypt.

Science is more than a method of collecting and analyzing data; It’s also a part of Western culture. Science is not just a way of thinking that replaced Alchemy, but also is alchemy’s cultural heir. More, in some ways science is heir to the whole tradition of the Western educational system.

Science, the Heir

We’re very used to thinking of Science with its triumphal plot arc: led by men who broke from the past and created a new world of rationality and order. But to understand the cultural role of science, rather than just the method, we need to comprehend the part that knowledge has played in the West going all the way back to the beginning of Western civilization.

As described in my last post, Science (writ large) rose to cultural power in the times following the Black Plague in Europe. It was a time when the Church’s cultural and political power was, after a thousand years, sustaining serious questions to its credibility. But Science didn’t spring out of nowhere. More accurately, it was an outgrowth of the work of the scholars of the West.

The growth of Western knowledge of the world had long been limited in certain ways by the political and religious realities of the power of the Church. The rise of science came at a time when the hierarchy of power was being shaken.

Yet the institutions of Science did not develop in a vacuum. Instead Science built on preexisting infrastructure, such as the institutions of learning that had been associated with the Church. Such growth made them bedfellows with politicians and kings.

Like other teachers (Latin: Doctor) of knowledge, there was a responsibility to advise political leaders when called upon. We sometimes focus on research and the scientific method when we try to understand science, but it is just as important to understand its relationship to the rest of society.

Science, the Grand Vizier

Fiction is the new mythology, and it gives us a window into otherwise hidden aspects of culture. Have you ever noticed the way science is treated in Western fiction? For the most part, it’s not very science-y. Most treatments of science have little to do with the research role of the scientist, and everything to do with their social role.

Though books are more likely to take the time explaining it (and there are whole sub-genres of science fiction that treat scientific research and discoveries with some consideration), in most movies and television, Science is treated as a discipline of almost magical wonder.

In fiction, Science is the source of MacGuffins of wondrous power, the way characters turn “can’t” into “can,” and an almost miraculous heal-all. Even where fictional science is used to solve problems, it is presented in mythological terms. The way science is shown inverts the actual pattern of scientific research.

In the real world, science is used to explore the unknown. In fiction, by contrast, science serves to drive the plot forward. The “Scientist” archetype has less to do with Einstein, and more to do with Merlin. The fictional Scientist takes the role of the wise advisor who understands the nature of the world.

Science not only devotes itself to furthering human knowledge, but also serves society. It serves by advising leaders, using its superior knowledge of the world. This pattern places it firmly in the same tradition as a thousand stories of King’s Counselors and Grand Viziers. In the US, the National Academies fill this role.

By acting as learned advisors of kings (and presidents), the scientists have taken over the role that alchemists, astrologers, and other old scholars once held. This isn’t the scientist in the laboratory, but the scientist who stands behind the throne.

Yet the learned have often counseled the leaders of the world. In some ways, science ushered in a new era of knowledge, but in other ways, they have provided a new face to an old role: the wise advisors of beneficent leaders, helping them to make decisions that benefit all people.

Social Organization in the Postmodern World

Orangutan using a tool
Tool use at the San Diego Zoo

Near-instant communication, inexpensive travel, manufacturing, and trade have all changed the shape of the social world. Or have they? We’re still who we always were: a bunch of primates with language, tools, and a penchant for social organization.

Pundits talk with ease about a globalized culture, but many people in the world (including Americans!) wonder where their own cultures have gone. There’s no doubt we’re in a period of rapid change, with shifting meanings and mores. Some of the changes are for the better, some for the worse. It doesn’t seem like we get to pick and choose.

But there are other changes going on as well. With the development of social media, we’ve suddenly been able to divide our social links from our geography for the first time. We can build social networks farther and faster, creating connections that once would have been impossible.

True, almost everyone now lives in nation-states. But while the nation-state is a political reality, in many ways it is not an everyday social reality. While we might live in nations of laws, our relationships are–as always–with people. Though our cities have populations in the millions, we mostly live isolated in our own social networks.

Don’t Blame Darwin for “Evolution”

Early social organization theories in anthropology were evolutionary. The proponents declared that all human societies work their way up an evolutionary ladder, from less complex to more complex. They took a useful classification system (bands, tribes, chiefdoms, and states–more on that below) and mixed it with the ideas of evolution and progress, to come up with a way to make sense of the world that left the Europeans on top.

These “evolutionary” theories came out of the popular debates surrounding Charles Darwin and On the Origin of Species, but that doesn’t address the question of where these ideas came from in the first place. First of all, On the Origin of Species doesn’t argue that evolution is linear and inevitable. It argues, rather, that all populations adapt to their environments. But somehow this idea of linear evolution got tied in.

These theories–which elide complexity, inevitability, and morality–didn’t come out of nowhere. These notions are deeply rooted in Western culture, and (as I have mentioned before) can be traced back at least as far as the Neoplatonists and the the Great Chain of Being.

E. B. Tylor
E. B. Tylor (1832-1917)

Perhaps that is why the theories of social evolution that we see, even (or especially) from such luminaries as E. B.  Tylor, didn’t change the world so much as justify its shape at the time. These ideas weren’t new. They were simply very old ideas dressed up in scientific clothing and given the weight of truth in an age when the meaning of “truth” was rapidly changing.

The older way of justifying colonial hierarchy had been religious and philosophical. With the rise of science as a belief system that could justify social action, the status quo needed to be dressed up in the clothes of science, or the whole system would fall apart. In other words, Colonialism needed science to prop it up. Evolutionary social theory provided that prop.

Levels of Social Organization

As far as anthropology can tell, humans are evolved to work in groups called bands. These groups of people are generally limited by cognitive boundaries and capabilities to about 150, though the “magic” number may be as high as 230. This number, known as “Dunbar’s number,” is the proposed number of social bonds that an individual can recognize.

General cultural anthropology theory defines four levels of social organization. As you look at these types of social organization, see if you can pick out how they relate to ways we still organize ourselves.

1. Bands
Bands are small groups, generally under 150 members, all of whom are usually bound by kinship. This kinship may be through blood or marriage, and may even in some cases be what is called “fictive kinship.” Relationships are managed through cultural rules. In other words, the relationships of the whole band come down to familial relationships, though they extend much further than the Western-normative nuclear family.

These same rules that governed “family” back then still do today. The authority, and responsibilities, of parents rests on their kin relationships. And yes, you do have to respect your uncle, simply based on the fact that he’s your uncle and your elder.

Crow Tribe
Crow tribal members

2. Tribes
Tribes, then, are groups of bands working together. Though there may be precedence both within and between groups, there is no inherited status; a child doesn’t get to be leader because his or her parent was a leader. Leadership statuses need to be achieved. This is known as “Big Man” and “Big Woman” leadership.

This level of organization is similar is some respects to sports leagues. If we think of individual teams as “lineages” within the larger tribe, then our fanatical, unthinking support of “our” group suddenly makes much more sense–even if it is the White Sox.

3. Chiefdoms
Chiefdoms are the next level of social organization. Not surprisingly, chiefdoms are led by chiefs. In a chiefdom, status is at least partly ascribed (or given, as opposed to achieved) based on kinship. A person’s ability to trace kinship relations with the chief, or leader, defines their place in the social hierarchy. The sibling of the chief, therefore, is more highly placed than the cousin of the chief, and an outsider has no way to trace their way into power, short of fictive kinship.

This level of social organization mirrors how many companies are run. Leaders are clearly labeled, and closeness to that leadership often defines both privileges and duties. The kinship ties have been replaced, but the overall structure is similar. All we need to do is stop thinking in terms of lineages, and replace them with departments. And, yes, Susan got promoted because she’s been with the company longest.

4. States
States are considered the most complex level of social organization. States have social classes and formal systems of government. This is where “traditions” become “laws.” All states are theoretically autonomous, and have a number of social powers:  the ability to enforce borders and determine membership (citizenship), to determine laws, to keep people under arms to enforce the borders and the law, and to levy taxes to pay for it all.

The original evolutionary theories of social organization assumed that these forms were exclusive–each “people” had one form of social organization. But the truth is that they can all be in play at the same time. I can be a member of a family, root for my hometown team, work for a company led by a chief (executive officer), and live in a nation-state.

More Advice than We Can Handle

Human knowledge is growing by leaps and bounds. Since the advent of the scientific method, innovation has expanded, and there’s no reason to think it won’t keep going. This brings us to a new challenge in living in this changing world: what do we do with all this knowledge?

Advice to a Young Artist - by Honoré Daumier c1865-68In trying to take charge of our lives, we  use scientific knowledge. Maybe we don’t even realize that we’re making an intellectual jump.

Science tries to describe the world we live in, but we’re using that information to try to build a unitary model of the world, one that makes sense.

We’re assuming that there is “one true way” that can be found and understood. The underlying thought seems to be “if I act in accordance with science, then I am somehow more efficient, better able to compete, and thus a “success.” And as far as it goes, that is not only true, but a truism. Science is how we defined “efficient” and “compete” and “success.”

Proscriptive or Descriptive

Let’s grab an older example of the same leap. When Adam Smith, the founder of economics, analyzed and described human economic behavior (The Wealth of Nations, 1776), we (as humans) made a choice what to do with the new information. Smith, a moral philosopher, was being descriptive. He was explaining what humans do.

But as time went on, businessmen worked to cleave to Smith’s principles. We somehow stopped using the information to understand, and began adhering to its principles as the “right” way to act. We made the jump from accepting the work as descriptive to using it proscriptively.

Adam Smith wasn’t telling us to be cutthroat jerks in business. We’ve been doing that since the first people traded with strangers.

The West’s relationship with the work of Charles Darwin follows the same pattern. We took it too far. We went beyond the descriptive science of “oh, that’s how genetic selection works” to actions based on our understanding of that science. That is, we started using the knowledge proscriptively.

Theories of cultural evolution were used to bolster already existing colonial regimes; understandings of genetics were used to support eugenics programs. “Science” was used to bolster decisions that were thought of as hardheaded in a competitive world, but were sometimes more hardhearted than anything else.

We can (and do) look back on these decisions and say that it was “bad science.” It would be closer to the truth to say that this was a bad use of scientific knowledge.

Science, at its root, is an incredibly effective way of understanding some aspects of the world and generating certain types of knowledge. It promotes objectivity, rational thinking, and collaboration. Science is good stuff.

On the other hand, science is a human tool, and no tool is the right one to solve every problem. Science is not the philosopher’s stone, nor the universal solvent. Science is not alchemy. It won’t fix all our problems; that’s our job.

How Do We Decide?

Test Tubes
Where to look for answers?

Making such a leap – from using science as a method of understanding the world to using scientific knowledge for gaining a competitive advantage – is based on certain assumptions about what people are, and aren’t.

In order to effectively use scientific knowledge to guide our actions, we allow it to make certain decisions for us. Those assumptions depend on the field of study. Economists might see people as rational maximizers. Biologists might see us as competitive DNA delivery systems. Astrophysicists, as a group, see us as a small part of the universe. Anthropologists see humans as cultural creatures.

We are all these things, all at once, and more. Science, at its best, gives us systematically verified knowledge. But it doesn’t tell us what to do with all this knowledge. We  have to figure that out for ourselves.

We Are All Primates

Growing up in a golden age of post-Western Culture, it has seemed both odd and fitting to me that our current everyday ways of thinking about human behavior depend so much on earlier models. The models I’m talking about are not the ones that necessarily come from the hallowed halls of academia (though some do), but the ones that everyday people use, the ones that children learn at their parents’ knees.

In other words, I am not planning on looking at the world of cutting edge science; we do not, by and large, live in that one. Instead I am speaking of the cultural truths that shape our lives and our decision-making. When we want to get at understanding people, we need to look at both the rational person and that underlying biological stratum.

ChimpFor all that we believe in, or at least depend on, “science” and its answers, as I look around, I see that we are terribly dependent on pre-scientific ideas of the person in our everyday lives. Our ideas of people as “rational actors” or “inherently good” or “genetically predisposed” to various behaviors, are all things we have inherited from some part of Western Culture. Yet at the same time, we are not rational about these ideas at all.

It’s neither a good thing nor a bad thing. But it is a conceit to think of ourselves as somehow beyond all that.

Living in Tension

Our spoken models of human behavior, the ones that we subscribe to in our everyday speech, and the ones we enshrine in our laws, policies, and business decisions, speak of people as rational products of 16th century enlightenment, 18th century political liberalism, and 19th century notions of progress. We tie these all together with 20th century ideas of modernization and globalization to become “modern” people.

Western culture is not simply a product of these new ideas, but something that ties back thousands of years to Medieval Europe, the Roman Empire, Classical Greece, Ancient Egypt, and the first cities in Babylonia.

But there is another side to being human. We are not just these cultural constructions, however ancient, but also messy biological animals. Our “selves” are not one or the other, but exist in a tension between these two positions—the rational thinker driven by choice and the often territorial, instinct-driven primate.

Rationality Is a Duck


One of the traditions that we have inherited from the Enlightenment is a rejection of the “animal” side of ourselves. We speak as if, by rejecting that half of ourselves, we can become somehow more “pure.”  This is not as successful as we would like it to be. Instead, by forcing these parts of ourselves into hiding, we create a more complicated landscape where truths we have closed our eyes to shape our movements and inform our decisions.

As any advertiser knows, putting an attractive woman in the picture with a car makes it more appealing to a certain demographic. This is not rational, but it works.

When we try to analyze human behavior under the assumption that it is rational, and that we make choices for reasons, we trip ourselves up. Sure, I have reasons, and you have reasons, but in the end, when we look at aggregate patterns of human behavior they indicate that there are some things going on that have more to do with non-rational decision-making.