The Revolutionary Importance of Science: A Response to Alex Gorrion
From The Widernist
Editors note: This essay, written by one of our magazine editors, articulates why scientific thinking is an important tool for individuals and groups hoping to do something about the havoc industry has wrought. Several times it mentions a "revolutionary ecological analysis," a reference to the budding Wildist movement that is working for the end of industry and toward a wild earth. The Wildernist is part of The Wildist Network.
The Anvil recently published an article by Alex Gorrion that critiques “science.” While I am usually inclined to dismiss these critiques, most of all because the authors rarely ever display familiarity with the history and philosophy of science (Gorrion is no exception), I have been engaged in a number of month-long discussions with people who I respect and who say the article has synthesized many of their problems, even if naively. It is for this reason that I am responding to Gorrion’s article in particular.
The first issue at hand is what we mean by “science.” The word is sufficiently broad to be meaningless or close to meaningless as a topic of discussion. And the difficulty is compounded by the fact that the word “science” refers in different contexts to radically different things, which often means critiques will target more than one of the meanings and not make any clear distinction between them. Gorrion’s article suffers from a lack of a working definition of science and so predictably falls into this trap. One can, however, discern at least three targets in his piece. The first is scientific thought: the epistemology of science, the notion of objectivity, etc. The second target is the technocratic organization of modern communities of scientists. And the third is the notion of scientific progress.
Gorrion’s primary problem with scientific thought is its idea of “objectivity.” (As with “science,” Gorrion fails to distinguish between several different meanings of “objectivity.”) He has a special problem with the idea that scientific knowledge is an accurate representation of objective reality. Knowledge, he says, does not exist without a knower, which means the knower is intimately involved in constructing knowledge. He also points out the many problems in certain scientific practices that make any claims to “objectivity” laughable. Medical studies are a prime example of this. Later on, Gorrion singles out scientific materialism in particular, saying first that the dichotomy between the material and ideal is arbitrary (but unfortunately not explaining why) and then pointing out its failure to produce “ultimate explanations of consciousness, life, or creation.” Gorrion says that science pretends to be “an absolute system of knowledge,” and in this overextends itself; that science claims “that a zebra in a zoo is the same thing as a zebra in its herd in the Serengeti”; that science fears death; and that notions of progress and anthropocentrism are intrinsic parts of scientific thought.
Mixed in with all this, Gorrion simultaneously critiques the structures of academia and scientific communities. He says that even theories that are validated by the scientific method (which he rightly differentiates from scientific thought as a whole) are “marginalized, or obscured by the acting priests of Science,” citing as examples Gaia theory, Kropotkin’s ideas on evolution, and Recluse’s ideas on geography. Although earlier in the article Gorrion weakly argues against science based on the media’s use of the word, he later presents a stronger argument that modern scientific thought is so large and complex that flattened and distilled versions of it are necessary for the expert, skilled only in a small portion of of the whole scientific body of thought, to operate. In other words, these distilled, flattened, “pop” representations of science, including those presented by the media, are inherent aspects of scientific knowledge.
Lastly, Gorrion makes a strong critique of the notion of scientific “progress.” Viewing the acquisition of knowledge as inherently good, something that “should never be forsworn” is, he says, intimately tied up with the continued destruction of the wild world. He reminds us that modern scientific progress relies on industrial development that tears up forests for laboratories, abstract mathematics that are used mostly for bombs and warfare, and so on. Gorrion also points out that the unilinear development of scientific thought, even apart from value judgements, is a dubious idea. Many scientific discoveries were made centuries before their place in the conventional narrative.
I largely agree with the article’s critiques of technocratic structures and scientific progress, and I even recognize many of the limitations of the scientific worldview. But a misunderstanding of contemporary scientific thought coupled with a failure to differentiate between various meanings of the word “science,” compels Gorrion to throw the baby out with the bathwater.
Gorrion might be surprised to learn that a good deal of scientists and philosophers of science strongly agree with many of his critiques of scientific thought. In fact, all the limitations he writes about have been pointed out with much more convincing argumentation by widely recognized philosophers of science. Gorrion not only fails to say anything new, he presents weaker arguments for what has already been said, largely by the “believers in Science” who he targets in his critique.
For example, in 1748 philosopher David Hume published An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, in which he proposed two ideas relevant to this discussion. The first was the idea of radical skepticism. Hume believed that all human knowledge originated from sense-experience, a position known as “empiricism” and a cornerstone of the scientific method. However, he pointed out that even though our knowledge stems from sense-experience, there is no rational reason to trust our senses. In other words, while we can draw conclusions from the knowledge gained from our senses, all that knowledge would be invalid if it could somehow be proved that our sense-experience is a faulty basis for our reasoning (think The Matrix). Furthermore, there is “the problem of induction.” Reasoning from sense-experience relies on induction, which is reasoning that starts from small premises and moves to larger generalizations. For example:
- Some black balls from the urn have been observed.
- All observed black balls have tasted like licorice.
- Therefore, all black balls in the urn taste like licorice.
Hume argued that we use inductive reasoning every day. It is, for example, how we conclude that we won’t be able to jump up and stay in the air tomorrow any more than we could yesterday. It is also how scientists have derived laws of nature. However, induction relies on an unjustified assumption that the world tomorrow will be like the world yesterday, called the principle of the uniformity of nature; or it relies on a sort of “jump” to a conclusion, called an inductive inference. Still, Hume supported the use of induction. Although his skeptical argument cannot be refuted, even professed skeptics have to use induction and sense-experience in their day-to-day lives.
Karl Popper later challenged some of Hume’s ideas on the problem of induction. For Popper, there is no such thing as an inductive inference, and science does not rely on it—the idea that science does is an illusion. The actual process is one of trial and error where the basic units of analysis are not facts but theories. That is, we propose a conjecture to explain many different facts and then test the facts against the conjecture in order to falsify it. Since Popper agrees that inductive reasoning is faulty, he states that no number of failed attempts to falsify a theory will allow us to conclude that the theory is true; scientific knowledge can only be falsified, not confirmed. Popper believed that a theory was unscientific when it was unfalsifiable or when it required ad hoc additions in order to protect it from falsifying evidence.
However, other philosophers challenged the idea that science did not rely on ad hoc modifications of theories. In the philosophy of science, the Duhem-Quine thesis states that it is impossible to test a theory in isolation, because each test requires several background assumptions, sometimes known as “auxiliary hypotheses.” This means that evidence that falsifies a given theory won’t necessarily falsify it if one or more of the auxiliary hypotheses change. For example, if we suddenly observed a particle moving faster than the speed of light, we would not necessarily be justified in believing that relativity is then false. Rather, we would (in an ad hoc manner) check the conditions of the experiment, see if all the wires and machines were working correctly, and so on. In other words, we can never be sure that the exact theory we are testing is responsible for the empirical discrepancy or if the many auxiliary hypotheses are responsible. This means that no theory can be falsified. The unit of analysis is larger than that.
One proposed unit of analysis was suggested by Thomas Kuhn in his book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Kuhn described two periods of science: the normal period and the revolutionary period. In normal periods, scientific achievements are made against a background of basic assumptions, theories, laws, instrumentation, etc. The findings of scientists during this time are promoted because they provide solutions to various “puzzles” produced by the basic assumptions, and oftentimes challenges to the basic assumptions are ignored or dealt with through ad hoc modifications. As these anomalies accumulate and the paradigm is weakened, new paradigms might become dominant and provide the basis for a renewed period of normal science. This suggests, for example, that scientists might have been justified in initially rejecting Galileo’s theory of heliocentrism, since one empirical discrepancy (or even a handful) has never been enough to discredit a theory or whole group of theories.
There are many other issues in the philosophy of science that are relevant to this conversation. However, it would probably be fruitless to go over the history of the philosophy of science in this essay, and I am not interested in restating all the problems anyway. Still, the above examples illustrate some central points that refute or complexify Gorrion’s analysis. For example, even though each of the above-mentioned issues present profound problems to scientific reasoning, every one of the thinkers who articulated the problems continued to espouse the scientific worldview. Furthermore, the endeavor of science is nowadays recognized by a substantial number of scientists as much more complex than Gorrion suggests. For instance, he criticizes “Science” for not accepting “Gaia theory, the Kropotkian view of evolution, [and] the Reclusion theorizations in geography,” even though the ideas have been “validated by the empirical method.” Apart from the fact that at least two of those examples have very real issues in the matters of empirical evidence and theoretical ambiguity,1 the concepts of paradigms and underdetermination help explain why the theories have not been widely accepted in the scientific community. These concepts also directly refute Gorrion’s statement that “believers in Science will generally assert that Science itself is nothing more than empiricism.”
By now it should be clear that Gorrion fails to critique scientific thinking as a whole. Instead, he only critiques, at worst, various stereotypes about science and, at best, some ideas within science. Either way, his critique is insufficient for his wildly audacious conclusion that we should dispose of science wholesale.
But Gorrion was correct in saying that science is not only the empirical method. What more is there, then? One philosopher, Imre Lakatos, proposed a characterization of science that blended the ideas of Kuhn and Popper. Lakatos agreed with Kuhn that no single predictive discrepancy has ever justified disposing of a theory. Rather than theories being units of analysis, whole sets of theories which formed “research programs” (similar to Kuhn’s “paradigms”) are the basic unit of analysis in science. Research programs have a “hard core” of theoretical assumptions that, if changed, would require the dismissal of the entire program. Conceptually, we might imagine that around the hard core is a “protective belt” of less important theories—auxiliary hypotheses. These might be altered or disposed of, and they may even be ad hoc. The way to analyze two research programs is to compare their predictive power and their explanatory power. If a research program gains explanatory power from the addition of ad hoc hypotheses, it is what Lakatos calls “progressive.” However, if the protective belt grows without increasing the research program’s predictive and explanatory power, the program is “degenerative,” and susceptible to disposal for another program.
There is one other caveat: even if a research program is “degenerative,” we are not justified in disposing it without a better program (one with more explanatory power) to replace it. Otherwise, disposing of the degenerative research program leaves us with a weakened ability to demystify the world around us.
One example of a research program is Marvin Harris’ cultural materialism. In his book, Cultural Materialism: The Quest for a Science of Culture (which provides a very good overview of the main problems in the philosophy of science, much better than one I have given), Harris outlines some of the “first principles” of the cultural materialist research program, including positivism, materialism, and an epistemological distinction between the observer and observed. Under the cultural materialist program (Harris calls it a “research strategy”), all societies have three components: the infrastructure, which includes technological, geographic, demographic, and some economic factors; the structure, which includes the division of labor, organizations, and the state; and the superstructure, which includes religion, science, superstitions, and so on. There is also a notion of “infrastructural determinism,” which states that the infrastructure probabilistically shapes the structure, which shapes the superstructure. Under Lakatos’ and Harris’ logic, one is justified in looking at a society and assuming, before getting any empirical evidence, that the infrastructure is the primary reason the society is the way it is. And this sort of willful recognition of “theory-ladenness,” or the idea that theory affects evidence, has not hampered the predictive and explanatory power of cultural materialism at all. On the contrary, it is one of the anthropological theories that has done the best to explain, for example, the transition from hunter-gatherer life to agricultural life.
Such an approach includes far more than the empirical method, and there is no name for it other than “science.” I am not convinced that we can dispose of it.
For one thing, even if this approach has some real problems, the alternatives are even worse. Mysticism, religion, and various forms of obscurantism have been the primary tools of the powerful seeking to justify their power. Science—logic, reason, empirical evidence—has been the tool that has cut off the legs of those beasts. Science is what allows us to demystify power relations and the world around us so that we can properly respond. Otherwise, we are left making decisions that do not, for example, acknowledge evolutionary processes, economic trends, sociological tendencies, and human nature. This is as absurd as making decisions without acknowledging the laws of gravity. Worse, we are left not believing in the laws of gravity because a monarch or tradition or “divine revelation” has told us so.
Some have argued that science only justifies the prevailing order. Gorrion, for example, might cite the medical industry’s tendency to influence “scientific” studies in order to boost their profits. But the problem here is a lack of science, not too much of it. Furthermore, scientific findings on ecological devastation and climate change have presented a profound challenge to the prevailing industrial order. It is the religionists and their obscurantism who are promoting the greatness of industry and glossing over its negative consequences with climate change denial.
In the face of growing ecological devastation, I am not ready to dispose of science for some unclear or worse alternative. What is needed now is a group of people who are dedicated to cutting through bullshit with the strongest tools they have and responding appropriately. Falling into mysticism or relativism, as some “radicals” have proposed, might feel good, but it makes our analysis impotent—a dangerous thing when the situation we are facing is so dire.
Gorrion was right to be critical of technocratic structures and of scientific progress, but, as with most of his other points, his argument could have been much stronger, which I hope to illustrate.
First, though, a point of clarification. Previously I mentioned the tendency of critiques of science to mix up the multiple meanings of the word and, as a result, to end up disposing of one meaning in the name of arguments against another. Gorrion does this. He rightly criticizes the structures of academic and scientific communities but, in calling it “science,” counts his argument as strengthening his justification for rejecting scientific thinking. Probably a more careful writer could use the term “science” to refer to both things while retaining a nuanced differentiation. But given the complexity of the issue, the need to communicate it in simple terms to many people, and its vital importance for a revolutionary ecological analysis, I prefer the phrase “technocratic structures,” which calls attention to the real problem: the industrial-technological base and economics. For is it really scientific thought that necessitates the vastness of contemporary scientific practice—scientific thought that could be practiced equally well by any pre-industrial community? Probably not.
In fact, several thinkers believe that even hunter-gatherers practiced scientific thought. The best account of this hypothesis in English has been presented by Louis Liebenberg in his book The Origin of Science. Liebenberg began his exploration with the question, “How did the human mind evolve the ability to do scientific reasoning if scientific reasoning was not required for hunter-gather[er] survival?” He ultimately posited that the evolutionary origin of scientific thought could have stemmed from the hunter-gatherer practice of tracking animals. See "Tracking Science: The Origin of Scientific Thinking in Our Paleolithic Ancestors" by Louis Liebenberg and “El rastro de las huellas” by Rolf Degen.
In other words, a much more likely culprit for the problems Gorrion writes about—and many he didn’t—is the industrial-technological and economic infrastructure that expands everything, including scientific exploration, into a mass that our Stone Age world doesn’t quite jive with.
Some examples. Gorrion notes that the scientific body of knowledge is so vast that no one individual could understand a tenth of it. This, by consequence, necessitates both the need for experts and, in fields the experts do not specialize in, a flattened, “pop” form of science. All of this is not an inevitable consequence of thinking scientifically. Rather, if our society is larger and more complex, by necessity we will have to know more things in order to operate its various components; we will have to know more specific and technical things, since small errors have huge repercussions when magnified; and we will have to universalize the knowledge in some way so that there can be communication across different groups of people. In To Our Friends, The Invisible Committee explains this issue well:
…[Man] continues relating in the same disastrous manner to the disaster produced by his own disastrous relationship with the world. He calculates the rate at which the ice pack is disappearing. He measures the extermination of non-human forms of life. As to climate change, he doesn’t talk about it based on his sensible experience—a bird that doesn’t return in the same period of the year, an insect whose sounds aren’t heard anymore, a plant that no longer flowers at the same time as some other one. He talks about it scientifically, with numbers and averages. He thinks he’s saying something when he establishes that the temperature will rise so many degrees and the precipitation will decrease by so many inches or millimeters. He even speaks of “biodiversity.” He observes the rarification of life on earth from space. (To Our Friends, Invisible Committee, chapter 1.)
I have not read To Our Friends—this quote was given to me by a colleague—so I don’t know where the committee took their argument. But regardless, it stood out to me as a perfect example of what I am trying to communicate here. The “sensible experience” mentioned in the quote—such as “an insect whose sounds aren’t heard anymore”—are all perfectly valid as scientific evidence. Indeed, it was that kind of evidence that Darwin used to devise his elegant theory of evolution. But the problems of the modern world to which scientific thought must be applied require more precise and massive knowledge. For example, applying scientific reasoning to contemporary economic systems—for conventional or revolutionary purposes—requires the use of higher order mathematics and abstract numerical evidence. The sounds of grasshoppers aren’t going to be helpful for that at all.
Granted, a good deal of the “required” knowledge is required by industry, not individuals or small groups. The preciseness of the IPCC report on climate change was not only to accent the gravity of the situation; many of the precise calculations were intended for industrial organizations, economic structures, and governments to have tools to deal with this complex problem and the effects it might have on them and their interests. But again, what does this have to do with rejecting scientific thought? The culprit here is economics and technology.
Some scientists and left-wing critics have expressed support for this view. Specifically, they say that capitalist economics have structured research funding and grants in such a way that severely undermines the integrity of scientific findings.2 The medical industry is a particularly egregious example.3 Given that the leftist Gorrion is such a strong enemy of capitalism, it is rather unfortunate that he gave up a nuanced argument against the intrusion of capitalism on scientific exploration for the flat, hollow one that denounces science wholesale.
While I appreciate Gorrion’s argument about pop science being an intrinsic part of contemporary scientific knowledge, he overstates his point. It is true that no one person can know even a tenth of contemporary science. But, firstly, this is not a problem to a certain extent, or it is at least an unavoidable one. In most societies there exists a body of knowledge that no one person can properly understand in full. Secondly, technologies very often offset this weakness. Granted, the critiques of technocratic structures apply here. However, the presence of these technologies and structures do enable scientists to overcome the pitfalls of specialization. Computers, libraries, and so on store large amounts of knowledge and allow for coordination at a massive scale. And obviously one expert deficient in a field can always defer to another expert. The point here is not that this is a desirable state of things, but that Gorrion needs to at least tone down his claim that scientists are unjustified in being miffed about “pop science,” or that it is a problem that scientists only know a small part of what there is to know.
We would also do well here to examine how absurd Gorrion’s actual critique is. His exact words are:
Just as Cartesian dualism remains embedded in Enlightenment rationalism, the Cartesian geometry of flat planes and right angles remains integral to the scientific worldview, even though it has been invalidated by the principle of relativity (whereas the determinism of classical science up to and including general relativity has been contradicted by the uncertainty of quantum mechanics). If space itself is not a neutral, static phenomenon, something as stable and happy as a square or a triangle can be nothing but an illusion or a convenient lie. (This is a part of Science’s mythical simplification, elements of the worldview that it cannot actually defend, but that it nonetheless perpetuates, through mechanisms that will be dishonestly chalked up to “pop science” if ever called to account.)
This is absurd. No scientist would call Newtonian notions of space and time “pop science.” They might clarify in reference to certain problems or if the discussion called for it, but for the most part Newtonian conceptions are an extremely accurate approximation of how the world actually works. Calling them a “convenient lie” is like saying “the earth is a sphere” is a lie because it has mountains—although, judging from the above quote, Gorrion might commit himself to that claim as well.
I’ve up until now responded to Gorrion’s article by giving him the benefit of the doubt. I’ve glossed over some of his more absurd claims, I’ve mostly ignored asking for evidence where it was sorely lacking, and I’ve carefully avoided the charge of “postmodern relativism,” which even the postmodern relativists have learned to reject. However, there are good reasons to believe that Gorrion deserves no such treatment. Let’s investigate a few.
First, Gorrion espouses the Gaia hypothesis as being a valid scientific hypothesis that has been rejected by the conspiratorial “priests of Science” as heresy. In reality, Gaia hypothesis is really, really bad science. It proposes a complete redefinition of the concept of “life” and, at best, functions as a teleological metaphor for things the theory of evolution already explains well and better. As a result Gaia is generally only accepted by woo woo hippies—but it seems like Gorrion has no problem with this. Several things indicate he is firmly in the woo woo camp. For example, he states:
In our own lifetimes, acupuncture has gone from a treatment that was ignored or ridiculed in the West, to one that has been confirmed as effective by scientific studies. This reaction belies the hypocrisy and also the implicit racism of empiricist mythology, as acupuncture is based on thousands of years of observation and testing, only it wasn’t bearded white men who were in charge, so it clearly doesn’t count. And despite its proven effectiveness, acupuncture is still belittled or dismissed, providing more evidence of the cultural supremacy (an important component of any religion) implicit in Science.
Given we’re taking Gorrion seriously here, I must demand to see these “scientific studies” that support acupuncture as a valid form of treatment, especially since the vast majority of studies conclude that acupuncture is a placebo.4 But probably we shouldn’t take Gorrion seriously. For one thing, he says that there is “implicit racism” in the “empiricist mythology,” even though he stated earlier that he does not reject empiricism, only science. Furthermore, isn’t it incoherent to argue for acupuncture because it is scientifically valid when your larger argument is a polemic against science?
Perhaps the most egregious example of eyeroll inducing woo woo is Gorrion’s invocation of “quantum mechanics”—a favorite of New Agers everywhere.5 Honestly, they must find it irresistible. Somehow it proves every mystical assertion ever made and disproves the modern science that discovered it. Well—maybe science discovered it. According to Gorrion, Buddhists invented quantum mechanics “well over a thousand years” before modern science. I just wonder where they got the lasers for the double-slit experiment.
I haven’t responded to everything in Gorrion’s critique for practical reasons, but I will explain why I didn’t address three of them here.
First, I haven’t acknowledged Gorrion’s idea that modern scientific and academic structures stem from Christianity. This is because I don’t have enough historical knowledge to challenge or verify this claim and, more to the point, because he uses the comparison mostly rhetorically. Unless Gorrion is relying on the fallacy of origins (X is bad because it came from bad thing Y), his comparison only grants strength to his argument insofar as it reveals negative impacts of technocratic structure that would otherwise be unclear without a more vulgar manifestation.
Secondly, I didn’t address Gorrion’s problems with objectivity. This is partially because section II covers much of the territory, but also because Gorrion clearly does not have a coherent definition of the term, and it would take another full essay to complexify and respond to his analysis. Generally, he has two ideas of what objectivity means: a value that scientists strive for and a metaphysical assertion about reality (i.e., that there is an objective reality). The former is properly explored—and to an extent argued for—in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy’s section on “Scientific Objectivity.” The latter is investigated by Alan Sokal in his “Defense of a Modest Scientific Realism.” (I also recommend reading Sokal’s other writings, including the hoax paper he sent to a cultural studies journal in response to the rise of relativism in academia.)
Finally, I have not addressed Gorrion’s criticisms of the myth of progress. This is because I mostly agree with Gorrion and because the topic is important enough to deserve something more dignified than a few paragraphs within a response essay.
I have spent this whole essay defending scientific thought and pointing out the absurdity of many aspects of Gorrion’s critique. But Gorrion’s views are not particularly far off from the anti-science populism that is likely to become more common in the future. Scientists and engineers are going to become discernibly more influential on the world around us. Already there are hundreds of scientists on Wall Street and many working behind the scenes at Facebook and Google. Just as the twentieth century’s populism targeted politicians, so the twenty-first century’s populism will target scientists and technologies, and science along with them. Despite this, clearly the revolutionary should not dispose of scientific thought. After all, his role is to demystify a situation and find the proper target. What better tool for this than science?
Kropotkin’s general idea from his book Mutual Aid—that cooperation is a factor in evolution—has long been accepted by evolutionary biologists. The concept in evolution is even called “mutualism”! However, Kropotkin’s book is justifiably rejected. His anarchist ideology clearly biased his work, his evidence and examples were not very good, and his understanding of Darwin’s ideas was lacking.
On the other hand, Gaia theory has not been accepted by biologists and ecologists because even its general idea still has some real problems. It is teleological, tries to metaphorically explain many of the things evolutionary theory already explains, and better, and it argues for natural selection on a planetary level. See “Is Nature Really Motherly” by W. Ford Doolittle and “Kropotkin Was No Crackpot” by Stephen Jay Gould. ↩
See “The degradation of science under capitalism” by Adam Booth, and “Science in the Private Interest: Has the Lure of Profits Corrupted Biomedical Research?” by Sheldon Krimsky. Also note how the rise of relativistism in medical science jives nicely with industrial interests, as illustrated in the paper “The myth of objectivity: is medicine moving towards a social constructivist medical paradigm?” by Hamish J. Wilson. ↩
Dr. John Ioannidis has shown that “much of what medical researchers conclude in their studies is misleading, exaggerated, or flat-out wrong.” See “Lies, Damned Lies, and Medical Science” by David H. Freedman. ↩
See “A Review of the Evidence for the Existence of Acupuncture Points and Meridians” by David W. Ramey; “Does Acupuncture Work for Pain?” by Paul Ingraham; and “Do certain countries produce only positive results? A systematic review of controlled trials” by A. Vickers et al. ↩