Tuesday, November 4, 2008

"All Scientists Agree.." (Part 2)

In the last post, I took issue with the claim "All scientists agree (about anthropogenic global warming or macroevolution, or whatever)." I argued that such a claim is generally false (as with evolution and global warming) and that such statements are red herrings, efforts to evade the real issue, which is whether the evidence and reason should lead us to believe that the larger claim (that man-caused global warming is occurring, e.g.) is true.

But there's another interesting thing to notice about such claims. And that is the fact that they are not themselves scientific claims but rather sociological claims. That is, a claim about what "all scientists believe" falls within the discipline known as sociology of science, not within any scientific discipline such as biology, evolutionary biology, or climatology. Therefore, whenever it is a scientist (biologist or climatologist) making such a claim, he is outside of his area of expertise (and generally doesn't realize it).

Rightly understanding this has important implications. Our culture is greatly affected by idealogies that are based upon a high regard for science and an uncritical acceptance of what scientists claim. But most of the time, the real issues (whether intelligent design theory should be taught in government schools, or whether science should seek only naturalistic answers to the questions it pursues) are not issues that a scientist has any training or qualification to address. Rather, these are issues rightly addressed by second-order disciplines.

The sciences--chemistry, physics, biology, and such--are first-order disciplines, fileds that study particular sets of phenomena. There are other disciplines that are second-order disciplines, which means that they involve the study of other disciplines. Those second-order disciplines that are important to understanding what science is (and should be) and how scientists work are at least four: sociology (of science), psychology (of science), history of science, and philosophy of science (with the latter two being the most important).

So, when a scientist makes the claim "All scientists believe..." he is likely talking through his hat, or at least wearing a hat disingenuously (speaking as an authority in an area in which he is not an authority). As important as this is with regard to questions of whether anthropogenic global warming or neo-Darwinism are accurate understandings of reality, it is even more important with regard to the question "What is science?" And here again, though we allow scientists all the time to tell us what science is and how it is done, most scientists have no training in these issues. Thus, the scientists allowed to testified in court cases regarding the teaching of intelligent design are completely unqualified to address the issue of what science is. Instead, it is philosophers of science and historians of science who should be allowed on the stand.

The problem is that any philosopher of science would tell you that intelligent design theory and even theories about the universe that begin with an understanding of the world that is based in Genesis are scientific theories. Whether they fare better (than naturalistic theories) is another story, and will be discerned based on evidence and explanatory power and such. But where we are at present is this: on the issue of what science is, we have uncritically accepted the uneducated opinion of scientists who are sadly unqualified to answer the question. And the result has been devastating not only to the teaching of science but to our entire educational and political systems.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Science should be the oursuit for the BEST answer not the pursuit for the naturalistic answer. Science should be about the truth not about sustaining dogma.