Concept Of The Day: Scientism

Just came across this, from this engrossing story called “Zoo Animals And Their Discontents“:

The philosopher Thomas Nagel, who wrote the seminal essay “What Is It Like to Be a Bat?” used a term for the tendency to deny the existence of phenomena that cannot be proved empirically. “Scientism,” he wrote in 1986, “puts one type of human understanding in charge of the universe and what can be said about it. At its most myopic, it assumes that everything there is must be understandable by the employment of scientific theories like those we have developed to date — physics and evolutionary biology are the current paradigms — as if the present age were not just another in the series.”

It is presented in the article as an argument against the tendency among animal scientists and animal keepers to go to extremes to avoid anthropomorphism. But scientism–the idea that if science hasn’t proved it yet it must not be true; ignoring the possibility that science may YET prove it–is a phenomenon that I see across many spheres, from animal intelligence to the connections between diet and health (for example in the gluten debate).

We should be open to anecdotal evidence, and what our instincts and experience tell us, about the world around us (pet owners, for a long time, knew more about the emotional lives of animals than researchers did). We may not KNOW the truth, or have proof, of why something is the way it is. But sometimes we might have a pretty good idea, good enough to act on, even if the science isn’t definitive one way or the other yet.

Clone Wars

"I'm really sorry my species got in the way of burning fossil fuels, and really hope someone cares enough to clone me in the future."

So it’s come to this: an argument that instead of going to the trouble of preventing species’ extinction we are better off just preserving DNA for future cloning. Check it:

Our planet benefits from biodiversity, and there can be a large “option value” to helping an endangered species live another generation. We can change our minds at some later date and no longer try to prevent a species’ extinction. But it would seem impossible to change our minds in the other direction — once a species is gone, it would seem too late to decide that we wish we had protected it.

But technology may be changing the option-value calculation, because scientists are learning how to clone extinct animals. The time will come when scientists will produce living versions of previously extinct animals. With enough time, they would probably be able to do so cheaply.

To the extent that cloning will someday be possible, the option value of preserving an endangered species is a lot less. In some cases, it may be cheaper to save some DNA, and let a future, richer and perhaps more enthusiastic generation make its own copy of the species.

The arrogance, anthropocentricity, and shortsightedness combined in this argument is simply staggering.

Morality and Science

Since I touched on the topic of morality and climate change today, I wanted to share this powerful and articulate argument about morality and science. It comes from the always insightful Carl Safina, and I hope he won’t begrudge me the license to publish his entire essay–posted on his excellent blog–here (hey, if you’ve written something that can’t, or shouldn’t, be cut, then you have really accomplished something!).

Safina makes a critically important argument: that science is about the search for objective truth, and that humanity must always seek and acknowledge truth–no matter what the moral or political implications–because failure to do so can only bring darkness and crisis.

Take it away, Carl:

Science is essentially the systematic pursuit of what is real in nature.

Science is a method of inquiry. It asks, what is here?; then it seeks to answer questions of why and how.

Science aims to be objective. Two scientists who hold opposite hypotheses, give money to opposing political parties, and are of different faiths will—if they do their science honestly—get the same result.

This is what makes science the most powerful tool for truth-seeking ever devised by people. Science is in my opinion the finest achievement of the human mind.

Science is acknowledged as extremely important in much of the world. But it is also strenuously resisted, mistrusted, and ignored. It is not compatible with oppression and dishonesty, because it requires freedom of thought.

Only in a world where truth is feared can it be “inconvenient.”

A world that better valued and embraced science would be, by definition, more open to the truth, more realistic, more flexible and adaptable. A society more open to truth and more flexible could also be more humane, more compassionate, more pleasant—and more likely to survive.

Science can be flawed by human bias. It can be misused. But by its very design it resists those things; to the extent that science entails bias and is misused, it is bad science. Good science entails an abundance of curiosity, a lack of bias, a desire to better understand reality, and a commitment to embrace the truth. That makes science the most honest—and therefore the most moral—discipline ever devised by the human mind.

I am impressed over and over again with the fact that science must be the starting point for understanding what is really going on, for detecting changes in the world, and for identifying the likely consequences of human action or inaction. Science is a compass; it does not define the destination but it can guide us in getting there.

A populace acquainted with science, with its standards of openness, evidence, and repeatability, would be far less susceptible to the claims of politicians, salesmen, and extremists of various kinds. Science helps people cut through the nonsense. Science is a wise counselor. In short, science is a very good thing for the world.

Because the world is accelerating and problems proliferating, science is crucially important now. We need more science in our world and in our lives. So we need more of what science does, and we need it better understood and better valued.