Wednesday, November 27, 2002

Scientific Fundamentalism?

Wednesday, 27 November 2002

After roughly a month of regular blogging, with the web-surfing it frequently entails, I've concluded that there is such a thing as scientific fundamentalism which is every bit as bad as the religious variety. The basic credo of this belief is that science deals with facts, not consensus or personal opinion, and that every scientific question must be determined exclusively by the facts (or at least the facts as the author asserts them to be).

The whole thing is based on a simplistic and slightly dodgy view of science and a romanticised scientific history which is presented in terms of great heroes of the intellect, such as Copernicus, Newton and then Einstein sweeping away the discredited misconceptions of the past and replacing them with something closer to the truth. And, so we are told or encouraged to assume, this is exactly the way scientists behave today. They are lofty, idealistic (and slightly eccentric) figures, whose main passion in life is to find the Truth about the real world - or at least some small part of it in their preferred research specialisation.

The trouble starts when science gets entangled - as it frequently does - in matters of politics and public policy. Then we start to see the ugly facets of scientific fundamentalism, such as:

  • The elusive slide from the premise "the facts don't support your case" to the conclusion "the facts show that you are wrong".

  • Arguments that conservationist or precautionary policy proposals are "anti-scientific" or "anti-progress", because the current known facts don't support the proposed policy. This argument has been used in the past to oppose a ban on the use of CFCs (nobody could know for sure that they damaged the ozone layer), controls on pesticide use (nobody could know for sure that they caused damage to predators higher up the food chain than the insects they were supposed to kill) and for all I know to support the use of antibiotics as a growth promoter in animal husbandry. The long-term results have been pretty crappy in each case.

  • Selective application of scientific principles. Just as the religious fundamentalist is careful in his reading of holy writ to select the passages which support his view, the scientific fundamentalist is quite happy to insist upon scientific propriety when it suits his case and abandon it completely when it does not. This behaviour does have a name, one that is generally avoided in polite society.

Finally, if you're expecting a punchline, this time there isn't one.

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