Cautious confidence in the scientific process is, I believe, the best perspective. Science is akin to continuing revelation and undermined by groupthink. However, modern science is fundamentally materialistic, and we do not live by bread alone.
The birth of modern science in 17th century Europe was precipitated by “natural philosophers” gathering to investigate what they could know about the world through observation, experimentation, analysis, and interpretation. Consciously rejecting religious dogma, they relied instead on our worldly five senses and focused on measurements, conditions, and results that are reliably repeatable.
One way of describing the scientific process is this: If you have this cool new idea, then if you really try to make yourself wrong and can’t, then there’s a reasonable chance you might be right. Then you recruit your colleagues to see if they can make you wrong. If they can’t, your chances of being right get even more reasonable.
Time has shown this to be a powerful method of inquiry, and the results have brought us many amazing and powerful tools and comforts. Back in the 1600s, however, the science that now seems settled and certain was confusing and mysterious. In reality, causes and effects do not present themselves as simple and separate events, but rather as intertwined phenomena. Centuries of persistent efforts were necessary to yield Newton’s equations of motion, the ideal gas law, the law of conservation of matter and energy, the periodic table, and other keystones in the foundation of modern physics and chemistry.
Over time, the techniques of the physical sciences have been applied to biology and psychology, where cause and effect are not so uniform and repeatable. In these aspects of life, materialistic science must coexist with the realm of metaphysical reality, of intuition and spirituality. As human beings, we are both physical and metaphysical. The metaphysical science of mathematics, particularly statistics, along with various physical instruments, have allowed scientists to extend human knowledge far beyond the ken of our five senses, to the point where science can seem like magic. So it’s not surprising when many people – even some climate deniers – “believe in” innovation as some kind of magic that will save us from the sorcerer’s-apprentice side effects of technological development to date.
Belief in science and its constant companion, applied math, often leads to a peculiar brand of innumeracy where numbers such as dollars are taken too seriously. We all saw in 2008 that dollars are not conserved in the same way that matter and energy are, yet many people take all three as equally fundamental. But no number can tell us what is important nor what to measure. Some of the most relevant phenomena that we might like to measure, such as the actual carbon sequestration of an organic farm or a reforestation project, are practically impossible to measure with the precision required by the government’s environmental regulations.
One reason for many of technology’s dubious side effects is the role of financial profit. Sadly, economists are not the only people who fail to understand that the love of money is the root only of evil. Why is money so dangerous? Because putting money first distracts us from our actual goals and usually leads to mission creep. As Upton Sinclair noted, “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.” Hence, the increasing number of retractions of scientific papers and irreproducible results, many of which were motivated by the desire for tenure and its economic security.
But given the power and convenience that the scientific process has allowed, why would anyone doubt science? Why would climate deniers and Covid-19 deniers be so fixed in their doubts and resistance? Skepticism may have valid roots. The college-educated experts who espouse the theory of evolution, the science of inoculation, the increasingly obvious data about climate chaos, etc., are in many cases the same sort of college-educated experts who promised that neoliberal capitalism, NAFTA, welfare reform, and GDP growth would be great for everyone.
Lately, some among us have begun to look to traditional ecological knowledge as a way to reground ourselves on a resilient foundation, but we have a long way to go. Unlike the “objective” scientific process, indigenous science is based on our relationships with Gaia and Her flora and fauna. John Stewart Collis’s wonderful book The Triumph of the Tree offers readers both types of science – a vivid journey through a deep relationship with the enchanting forest world and a robust scientific description of the biology of trees.
Each person must discern their own science, path, and truth. As a child, I was instilled with the foundational values of truth and of telling the truth. I was held responsible for being faithful to the truth and to my word and deed. Yet at the same time, I was encouraged to listen to my intuition, to “the little voice inside.” Now that I’m nearing the 70-year lifetime warranty prescribed in the Bible, I find that materialistic science and metaphysical spirituality address different realms of the same reality, even though they operate by different principles. Human beings inhabit both realms of one world, where not everything has been discovered yet. ~~~
Muriel Strand loves asking really good questions and listening to thoughtful answers. She is a member of Sacramento Friends Meeting (PacYM).