Science. Scientists. Scientism. Pedestals. Religion, too. & cherry-picking

Many people these days seem to conceive of themselves … describe themselves, at any rate … as “pro-science.”

As though they are super-rational, super-smart & appropriately skeptical compared to other people who are … well … not pro-science.

(Whatever “pro-science” means. I haven’t a clue.)

I’ve met scientists wildly knowledgeable within their own field – yet their field, their particular area of specialty, is pretty microscopic & narrow … Even so, they seem to assume that because they are scientists (“I’m a scientist,” some pronounce loudly & proudly – as though they are a god or something; infallible, certainly!) they know everything about ALL matters scientific.

Of course, this does not necessarily follow!

I once encountered a scientist who was super-knowledgeable about, I think it was septic systems (I was being trained, along with others, to be a “Well Aware” advisor). I asked this woman if she knew about the phenomenon of endocrine-disrupting chemicals making their way into the amphibians downstream from municipal water treatment plants, & messing with their gender (as I recall, & I know my memory can be spotty, one thing that happens, just one example, is chemicals from, say, antidepressants or birth control pills, in the urine of a person taking them, winds up in our waterways – is not filtered out – & ultimately this spillover effect has impacts on the critters living downstream).

This woman was not only completely & wholly unaware of this phenomenon (surprising to me, given that the publication of the book by Dr. Theo Colborne, Dianne Dumanoski and John Peterson Myers, Our Stolen Future – Are We Threatening Our Fertility, Intelligence, And Survival? – A Scientific Detective Story had taken place at least 7 years earlier, & I myself had been aware of the issue for at least 9 years by that point) … she actually went so far as to vehemently deny it! She had not read about it, knew nothing about it… & thus was convinced it simply could not possibly be true! Whoa. This really blew me away. A science-denying scientist.

This was one of a series of useful encounters for me (formerly an almost unquestioning admirer of all those who possess PhDs) with people clearly very bright, but perhaps inhabiting a spot a little too far along the P.A.S. (Personal Arrogance Scale).

As it happens, I also know a scientist who absolutely “gets” this arrogance problem among fellow scientists – yet who himself is known to occasionally pronounce vehemently on a topic about which he actually knows nothing… &, as I later confirm, erroneously.

“Since the days of revelation, in fact, the same four corrupting errors have been made over and over again … worst of all, concealment of ignorance by a false show of unheld knowledge, for no better reason than pride.” – Roger Bacon

Ego, hmmm??

So I think it would be good for all of us to be rather careful when we think about how trusting to be – how much unflinching infallibility we can confer on “science” … & scientists.

Science is not value-neutral … & as I’ve learned in recent months & years, the results obtained in scientific endeavor can be very much about who is paying for the science; what that group or industry’s agenda actually is … never mind it being “pure science” with results that can be duplicated by anyone & which truly contribute something new & vital to humanity’s essential knowledge base.

Dr. David Suzuki pointed out in his Introduction to Inventing the Future – Reflections on Science, Technology and Nature  (published in 1989),

“The huge increase in material wealth and consumption since the end of the Second World War and the accumulation of powerful methods of extraction of natural resources have generated a sense that science and technology supply the knowledge required to control and manage the entire planet. It is a terrible delusion that is not supported by what science provides and the nature of its technological power.

Another uncomfortable fact is that the vast majority of scientists and engineers in the world carry out work for the military. Such work may be called “defense research” but ultimately it translates into weapons for killing. After all, the horribly imaginative weapons – neutron, particle beam, chemical, biological, ethnic – don’t come from the minds of politicians or military strategists but are the products of the fertile imagination of scientists and engineers.

The majority of the remainder of the scientific and engineering professions works for private industry – for profit...”

This is a sobering thing to realize as one thinks about science, & scientists … is it not?? Enough to give one quite significant pause. (It has certainly given me pause.)

He goes on to detail one of history’s outstanding abuses of science – what took place in Germany as the Nazis set out to “purify” the Aryan race. He suggests that the true history of science’s role in this horrific eugenics experiment is mostly not acknowledged, told, or understood – but rather, glossed over (an inconvenient truth, you might say) about the wholehearted participation of scientists & doctors in the Nazi schemes & horrific activities & experiments in the death camps.

Suzuki is determined to make clear that science is not “pure”; that it can be easily manipulated to serve a political (or corporate) agenda (& he gives other examples of supposed scientific “truths” from the past – nonsense heartily disproven and discredited as the years & centuries went on).

“…we must never forget that science itself is an activity carried out by human beings who have all the perceptual baggage of their society and personal experience.” & “Scientists are first and foremost human beings, as subject to the same limitations of cultural bias as anyone else.”

I am now sorry it took me so long, for this truth to truly sink in – this fact of who (or what) is actually doling out the paycheques of most scientists.

(“Sheesh!” I keep saying to myself, lately. “Geez! What took you so damn long??”)

Scientism

Tom Harpur (former Anglican priest & former Religion Editor at the Toronto Star) in his book Would You Believe? Finding God Without Losing Your Mind … says:

“In short, science is one way – and a very important one – of looking the world, but it is not the only way. It can tell us a very great deal about the natural order, but it cannot tell us all we need and want to know. If you believe it can, then you are subscribing to what is technically called “scientism” – the cult of science – and not to proper science itself. This is an extremely important point because in the eyes of many today, especially young people, science is a kind of god. Unless something can be “proved” scientifically, then it’s thought to be part of an unreal or imaginary world. This is emphatically not the view of true science. Its claims are much more modest. It can often (though not always) tell us how this or that came to be and how it operates, but it cannot tell us the final answer. When it comes to questions of ultimate meaning and purpose, it must give way to other voices.”

(Parenthetically, I personally did not “find God” as Harpur might have wished – but I did read another Harpur book that I recommend highly to all & sundry with any interest in the Christian faith: The Pagan Christ – Recovering the Lost Light

A profoundly insightful and mind-blowing book, in my view.)

Pedestals

I wrote some years back now about what I see as the problem with pedestals.

Short form: many of us have a tendency to put certain other people up on pedestals. This often turns out badly in the end – given that all human beings, every single darn one of us, is merely human! Which means, we are fallible, very likely neurotic in some aspect (or several), possessors of egos that can really get away on us … and we will eventually tumble from any pedestal upon which some other merely human, neurotic human being has placed us.

I do know all too well that, in my own life, not one single person (or family, or thing, or group of people, or school of thought, or religion) that I have elevated onto a pedestal, has failed to fall noisily & messily off it, eventually. Disappointing me – but not the other person or thing, since putting them/it there was my doing, my bad ... not theirs!

I’m not saying we should not admire others – be inspired by them (I think we absolutely need to have other human beings inspire us!) … just that elevating anyone or any thing to a pedestal is rather a waste of our energy. Energy we might do well to spend more productively, hmmm?

** interesting quotation about pedestals from Elizabeth Lesser, at the end of the post

Religion (& Science, too)

What I see in religion (& for that matter, in science) is this very precise problematic thing.

We elevate someone – a messianic figure like Jesus Christ, or Mohammed – or a school of thought, e.g. science – to god-like status, conferring infallibility upon it/them, along with almost sentimental yearnings about perfection the likes of which we know we cannot possibly attain ourselves.

Who or what can truly bear the weight of all that yearning … all those unrealistic expectations? (& possibly the self-loathing that may accompany it? Oh help. Self-loathing. A topic for another day…)

Might we not all be better off working at developing our own mental & critical faculties (along with helpful human tendencies like compassion, generosity, simple caring & kindness, for example – & doing useful, worthwhile things with our time)

… & chucking all the pedestal nonsense?

I’m sure inclined to think so.

Carl Jung said “The whole point of Jesus’s life was not that we should become exactly like him, but that we should become ourselves in the same way he became himself. Jesus was not the great exception but the great example.”

Joanna Macy has said

“But now comes the daunting revelation, that we are all called to be saints – not good necessarily, or pious or devout – but saints in the sense of just caring for each other.”

Finally … Cherry-Picking

I think we might just as well acknowledge that we are all, all-now-7-billion of us…

Cherry-pickers.

We choose to believe … whatever … about all kinds of things.

  • Human origins & destiny
  • The nature of good & evil
  • Whom to trust … who “the experts” are
  • What happens when we die
  • The meaning of life
  • Where humanity is headed
  • Whether the so-called “authorities” have a single shred of decency in them
  • What religion (or none) to follow

Do, or can, any 2 people really believe precisely the same things about these deeply mysterious matters??

Religion & science are similar in my view, in this one major aspect:

Both tend to elevate the human being … our species … to god-like status – inside our own minds, & in our culture / the human world.

Neglecting what is (I hope) clear to at least some branches of science/scientists (as well as to some simply sensible human beings)

Namely, that we human beings are merely one species on this amazing planet ... this planet that we choose to call Earth

… & for sure, we human critters have always had tremendous potential!

Yet… dang it all, off we went on a detour and became planet-and-species destroyers!

We are, at present, a species very busily destroying the abundant, beautiful, truly amazing home we were so generously provided (whatever your views may be of gods & religions & human/planetary origins) … along with so many of its millions (or billions) of species … ourselves, of course, included.

We can go to our graves (& the collective grave, as it were, of our species) with our minds full of cherry-picked odds & ends of stuff & nonsense

Or, we can try to brush aside some of the cobwebs ... see things a little more clearly. 

Many of us act as though our minds are made out of concrete, that we cannot change our beliefs & values.

Truth is, our minds our beliefs, attitudes, values CAN change.

We can evolve in our thinking, over time. We can always keep right on learning. Realize that we have all been subject to some pretty significant hoodwinking (& myth-telling) by both religion & science (not to leave out politicians & corporate liars of course…)

“For the great enemy of truth is very often not the lie – deliberate, contrived, and dishonest – but the myth – persistent, persuasive, and unrealistic. Too often we hold fast to the clichés of our forbears. We subject all facts to a prefabricated set of interpretations. We enjoy the comfort of opinion without the discomfort of thought.” – John F. Kennedy

& allow some fresh light to shine into those dark, shadowy, myth-ridden corners.

Sagan on truth.png

Truth or Lies?

Not gonna lie to you. There are times I wish I did not know, had not learned, so damn much about the way the human world – particularly the world of bankers & politicians & corporate rapers & pillagers (& yes, religious leaders) – really works.

For sure I don’t know it all; for sure too, I know enough to be properly sobered & appropriately horrified at human stupidity, selfishness, greed, self-absorption, carelessness, waste … and the sheer destructive power of our species.

Yet still I believe I prefer to see things plainly, rather than be hoodwinked by forces that have no interest in my well-being, or yours … or, apparently, in the fate of our beautiful planet.

These are mighty "rum" times, you might say, for the human species. There is a very great deal of serious bullshit, along with plenty of sheer wanton destruction, afoot … to put it very, very mildly indeed.

I still swear allegiance to the Earth – & to truth.

Janet

p.s. another example of something that took me aback (in terms of so-called “experts”): an engineer from a big nuclear corporation that did (still does, 365 days of the year) extremely yukky things to the beautiful, incomparable Ottawa River, saying to me in surprise, in reference to a news story we had both just seen on tv, that the oceans were now being seriously damaged by toxic pollution: “We thought the ocean could handle it,” he said with great perplexity (& apparent sincerity). Mercifully, I did not faint dead away from shock on the spot. In retrospect, though, I wish I’d said to him “Whoa. Really?? I sure never thought any such thing! & geez, I’m just a dumb bunny environmental activist with no fancy training or degrees!”

p.p.s. there’s a well-known scientist now who seems to think he is capable of saving the world! As if, eh? I bet you’ve heard of him. Such arrogance! Such hubris! If you think this guy is infallible, you might want to learn more about his connection to that lovely corporation (not!) Monsanto. You can also watch his simple-minded claim that, as regards vaccines, “The science is settled” thoroughly debunked here.

A few relevant quotations:

“For the great enemy of truth is very often not the lie – deliberate, contrived, and dishonest – but the myth – persistent, persuasive, and unrealistic. Too often we hold fast to the clichés of our forbears. We subject all facts to a prefabricated set of interpretations. We enjoy the comfort of opinion without the discomfort of thought.” – John F. Kennedy

“It is possible that the scientific character of mind is by its nature childish, capable through life of a child’s wonder and excitements, but lacking real discernment, lacking sadness, too easily delighted by its own intellect. There are exceptions, of course, the physicist Steven Weinberg, for example, whom I’ve read and who has the moral gravity you would want from a scientist.” – E.L. Doctorow in his novel City of God Random House, New York 2000, pg. 12.

“There is more religion in men’s science, than there is science in their religion.” – Henry David Thoreau (1817 – 1862)

Elizabeth Lesser, on pedestals:

“In my early years at Omega, [an organization she co-founded] when I was in my twenties, I found it disconcerting when teachers started falling off their pedestals. Like discovering over dinner that a renowned relationship expert was getting divorced, or hosting a retreat for peace activists and finding out they were very angry people. Or meeting the depressed happiness researcher. Or the monk with a big ego. At first this upset me. But as the years went on, it liberated me. It made me more tolerant of all people’s inconsistencies, and it made me more compassionate toward myself. It showed me that no one is living the exact life you think they are, so if you compare your life to another person’s, you’re usually comparing it to a fantasy of your own making. Seeing the imperfect humanness of my teachers side by side with their genius has helped me stop expecting perfection of myself. My close encounters with the wise ones have helped me relax and lighten up. I’ve let go of the goal of perfection and taken up the goal of authenticity.

The end of authenticity deficit disorder is not a glamorous new personality. It’s less exciting and more wonderful than that: You become more fully yourself. You become more present, more awake, more alive. You uncover a natural intelligence that knows what you need in order to fulfill your destiny. You look less and less outside yourself for validation and direction. Your life becomes who you are, not what you do.” Elizabeth Lesser in Marrow – A Love Story

“Example is not the main thing in influencing others, it’s the only thing.” – Albert Schweitzer

“Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes.” – Walt Whitman

“A clear conscience is more valuable than wealth.” – Filipino proverb

“In a time of universal deceit, telling the truth becomes a revolutionary act.” – George Orwell

** some more quotes about science, here