Science isn’t a pizza, so stop slicing it up.

Science isn’t a pizza, so stop slicing it up.

 

Praj, author of the blog Do I Need Evolution, drives me nuts. Don’t get me wrong, he seems like a nice guy and a well-meaning one at that. Yet as one of the new wave of commentators on the science vs religion battles, he appears to hold a view that basic science is just an indulgence that we should be quiet about in favour of the real science that puts satellites in the air and cures diseases:

You see two images when scientists speak about “science” (something I think we should avoid, but that’s another story). One is science as a useful tool: it helps us cure diseases, win wars, grow the economy, feed the planet, and so on. The other is science as a world-view: it imparts a sense of wonder, conquers fear, and reveals beauty. These images are a spectrum rather than distinct categories. Most scientists have some of both, though applied researchers are usually closer to the science as a tool view and basic researchers tend to be on the other end.

The problem is that the overwhelming majority of non-scientists, and especially the religious, don’t care very much about science as a world-view. They live on the very far end of the spectrum where science has almost zero intrinsic value. To those people science only matters because it helps them do stuff they care about.

Science lobbies appreciate this fact, which is why they focus on the concrete, tangible benefits of research. They know it would be ridiculous to ask for billions of dollars because some people think particle physics is beautiful. Policy experts also appreciate this fact. The standard “explain your thesis to your grandmother” interview question for my DC fellowship is judged on how well you make your research relevant. I suspect many academic scientists don’t appreciate this fact. Or if they do, they don’t weigh it as much as they should. Academics are especially prone to hyperbole about the wonders of science.

Praj would like us to think of science as more or less practical; some science will give us economic benefits, and can be explained in that light, so that’s good. Other science is ‘world-view’ science that only exists to satisfy the whims of a subset of curious people. But I’m going to disagree here and say that Praj doesn’t understand science very well. Despite lip service to a ‘spectrum’, he would like to slice science up into boxes that can be addressed independently. That way, we can focus on ones that are practical, and ignore ones that aren’t 1. But we can’t do that with science. Science is a process and a body of knowledge that is interconnected and historically contingent.

As an example of interconnection, we can look to Darwin himself. Putting aside for the moment the historical antecedents to his work on evolution (including Lamarck and his own grandfather), Darwin had to integrate ideas from all corners of biology with the work of the economist Thomas Malthus to arrive at his insight regarding natural selection. In order for this theory to be sensible, it required a much older earth, ideas that came in part from the volumes of the geologist Charles Lyell that he read while on the Beagle. One of the first serious scientific challenges to evolution came from the physicist Lord Kelvin, who calculated both the age of the earth and the age of the sun before concluding that both were too young for evolution to be valid. This phenomenon has only gotten stronger over time. We carve fields like biology, physics, chemistry, psychology, etc. up into separate fields because we have to have a way to award degrees, and topics can indeed be thought of as clustering together naturally. Most ecologists don’t study quantum field theory, because with our current understanding of science, it’s hard to see how to use it effectively in their work. But that doesn’t mean that we can take those lines in a course catalog as representative of some real and sharp division. What we call biology and chemistry are deeply interrelated, as anyone who’s spent time in a molecular biology lab will tell you. Neuroscientists spend a lot of time on the biology and chemistry (and by extension, biophysics) of the brain and nervous system. One of my favourite evolutionary biologists is John Maynard Smith, who trained as an aeronautical engineer, and we all know that physicists are math fetishists (I kid, I kid). Just look at the new interdisciplinary fields that are cropping up with increasing frequency: biophysics, neurochemistry, behavioural and neuroeconomics, agrophysics, systems biology, computational sociology. And I could do this all day, because science is a heavily connected graph of fields that reflect an underlying continuum in our study of nature. Apparent divisions in scientific fields usually reflect more about our lack of understanding than they do of any real separation.

This brings me to my second point, the historical contingency. Praj and people like him would like to focus on ‘practical’ science that we can make relevant for the public. Things that bring economic benefits now. ‘Applied’ science, new technology, and so on. But people who champion this division between basic and applied research are making a simple mistake of perspective, one that even serious historians of science are prone to making. What is considered applied science now relies directly upon research that used to be considered basic and impractical2. Applied science is simply science for which the next step on path is to an economic benefit that is clear and predictable, but ‘practical’ or ‘applied’ science doesn’t get to walk away and ignore this chain of connections and history. Putting a satellite into orbit relies on centuries of work in physics and mathematics that was once considered deeply impractical. It is the result of thousands of individual steps, some practical, some not, that have given us the ability to put things into orbit. Medical doctors rely on work in anatomy, biochemistry, and biology that has often been considered very impractical (Galen himself wasn’t allowed to work on humans because work on cadavers wasn’t permitted; he inferred from animals because of their anatomical similarities). Astronomy and cosmology are the prototypical basic and useless sciences now, but if we ever become a truly space-facing people, then our descendants will be very happy that we wasted our time on it for the simple pursuit of knowledge. And who knows? Astronomy and cosmology could suddenly become very useful before that; we can’t easily predict what will be applicable, but the history of science tells us that we can expect to be surprised. I’m sure that the Einstein of 1945 would have had some words to say on the topic to the Einstein of 1905.

Praj would like us to believe these things about science, because he wants to believe that Bill Nye is wrong when he says that creationism threatens our ability to understand the world and innovate in science and technology:

I’ve often wondered how people like Bill Nye can maintain this apocalyptic vision. As Saletan notes in the very next paragraph, there are actual, real-life engineers and scientists who reject evolution.

Praj himself relates that his parents were successful doctors and his dad doesn’t understand evolution, so evolution must not be relevant to medicine. He make similar claims several times on his blog, so it’s worth finishing off this post by addressing it. Yes, there are successful doctors and engineers and even other scientists (though few if any biologists) who don’t understand evolution. That is, of course, not the same as saying that they actively reject it and believe in young-earth creationism. There’s a difference here. I don’t understand much about particle physics, but though I consider that a failing it’s one I can live with. There isn’t enough time in the day for me to learn everything I would like to. And yes, doctors who haven’t learned about evolution aren’t necessarily bad doctors. I can even forgive those who ‘reject’ it because they’ve never been exposed to it properly. But doctors who actively reject evolution when taught it, and believe that the earth is 6000 years old? This requires that they actively read and reject the evidence from not just biology but physics, chemistry, geology, and so on. This requires that their critical thinking skills are so deficient that they cannot understand and assimilate anything of such a large and coherent body of evidence upon which there is broad and solid scientific consensus. How can this be a good doctor or engineer? Would you like your satellite designer to be a flat-earther? Would you be worried if your bridge engineer was proficient but convinced that physics and material science works as it does because of the action of ambitious fairies?

When my doctor asked what I did for a living and then launched into a tirade because he was a young-earth creationist, I asked him how he dealt with giving advice to his patients on vaccination or antibiotics. He replied that he didn’t believe in vaccination and that he didn’t think that antibiotic resistance was a problem, because viruses and bacteria don’t evolve. I changed doctors that day. This is a man who may actually kill patients with advice like this, and it stems directly from his religious beliefs. Are all creationist doctors and engineers bad at their jobs? No, but I submit an empirical hypothesis that doctors, engineers, and scientists who are actively creationist (especially YEC) and reject scientific understanding to protect their beliefs are more likely, on average, to be bad at their job and to have crucial deficiencies in their thinking that could prove harmful to their work.

Science isn’t something that can be cleanly chopped up into convenient portions and picked over for economic benefit or religious palatability. It is a method, the best method we have, for discerning the truth about the universe and everything in it. It is a deeply interconnected and historically contingent search for that truth. What we chose to do with that truth afterwards is up to us, but when we ignore those connections and history and our inability to predict the future, we do so to our own detriment.

  1. Like evolution.
  2. Note that I’m not making the same claim about technology, which as McClellan and Dorn persuasively argue, has had a habit of coming before the science that explains it