(Inspired by an article in the London Review of Books. The attack on the final absolute in the world.)
Trust the Science
In our post-postmodern period of extreme relativity in almost every social and cultural institution, we strive for that something that is not relative. A type of life-raft to hold onto in the raging whitewater of our constantly changing, relative world. Religion has performed this function of something absolute in the world, but many are leaving the church today as relativity has even infiltrated religious doctrine.
The last area people have looked to for something absolute and non-relative is that grand creation of mankind called science. During a world of relativity, we look to science for something solid, based on facts rather than speculation, fake news, politics, and fictions. Usually operating in the background of culture, technology and society, the word “science” has been given a new out-front use by media and government in the phrase “Trust the science.” It wouldn’t be surprising to learn the phrase was rated one of Google’s highest phrases in 2020 and 2021.
Of course, people want to trust the science during this crazy twilight zone world of the pandemic. And the phrase has been repeated ad nauseum during the pandemic, echoed each day by talking heads on TV and radio. By politicians and the president. Basically, it really means more than trusting the science. Rather it means trust us – the government and media – to follow rules we’ve established during the pandemic: wear masks, follow lockdowns and get your Covid vaccinations and booster shots. Yet the more the phrase is used – almost like a mantra – the more suspicious it becomes. Especially considering the directives from the scientific and medical communities. Not to mention the fading trust of many in anything the government says or orders these days.
The 2020 book Science Fictions by Stuart Richie assembles the most comprehensive recent argument for not trusting science. In the book Richie discusses major factors in science that lead to a view of not trusting it. The major factors involve fraud, bias, negligence, and hype that penetrates modern research science. As Library Journal notes, the book offers an “An uncompromising examination of the collision between the ideals of science and the realities of scientific publishing.” And, Publisher’s Weekly says it offers “A bracing indictment … a sobering and convincing treatise for anyone invested in the intellectual credibility of science.” Author Adam Rutherford observes, “A desperately important book, Science Fictions brilliantly exposes the fragility of the science on which lives, livelihoods and our whole society depend, and in an era of fake news and misinformation, Stuart Ritchie exposes how science itself is vulnerable to abuse, manipulation and outright fraud.”
Over much of this is what some have called a replication crisis or the inability of scientific studies to be replicated by other researchers. In Science Fictions, Ritchie explores the problems with this system. The book is an account of ten years debate, mostly in specialist circles, about reproducibility: the principle that one purpose of a scientific paper is to make it possible for others to carry out the same work, and that one test of its reliability is whether they get the same result. The subject of replication has personal interest to Richie. As he notes on his website, “In 2012, with my colleagues Richard Wiseman and Chris French, I attempted (and failed) to replicate a famous psychology paper that claimed the existence of psychic powers. The replication study was instantly rejected from the journal that published the initial paper – one of the triggers of what was later dubbed the Replication Crisis.”
In recent decades there have been large-scale efforts at replication in several fields, but if an experiment can’t be repeated, it doesn’t necessarily mean the original work was incompetent. John Whitfield in his review of Science Fictions in the 10/7/21 London Review of Books notes:
As Work at the frontier of a discipline is difficult, and skilled hands are an underacknowledged factor in scientific success. Some observations are noteworthy precisely because they are unusual, or depend on their context. Sometimes doing the same experiment and getting a different result reveals something useful. Even so, the findings of these large-scale replication studies have helped to fuel a widespread sense that science is failing on its own terms: in cancer biology, one effort managed to replicate just six out of 53 studies; in psychology about 50 per cent of studies cannot be replicated; in economics, about 40 per cent. In 2016 Nature surveyed researchers across the natural sciences and found that more than half the respondents had been unable to repeat their own work, though less than a third regarded the failure as a sure sign that a study was wrong.
Besides the problem of replication, there is also the huge amount of hype associated with science research. As Whitfield notes “The hiring of a researcher depends greatly on their publication record: how many papers they put their name to, which journals they are published in, how many times their papers are cited in other papers. This has created a system that favors speed of publication, volume of output and – because journals prefer new, eye-catching findings over negative results or replications of previous work – sensationalism.”
The system of promoting a tabloid-like sensationalism in science research is subject to negligence. As Whitfield notes:
The chief form of pre-publication quality control in science is peer review. Journal editors send submissions to experts, usually two of them. Their job is to judge whether a study’s methods, data and analyses are sound, and whether the evidence backs up the authors’ claims. Their (most often anonymous) reports assess the work’s validity and importance, suggest how it might be improved, and recommend rejection or acceptance, usually with required revisions.
But Richie notes that these peer reviewers are reviewers are increasingly difficult to find, since they are generally not paid or otherwise credited, and must fit the work around their own teaching, research and administrative responsibilities. Whitfield notes, “It is next to impossible, even in the several hours it takes to put together a typical review, to check all of a paper’s methods and analyses. The same goes for detecting simple errors, such as a wrong number typed into a spreadsheet or a mix-up in cell cultures, let alone fabricated, fraudulent data. As a result, reviewers and journals end up taking a lot on trust. Even diligent reviewing is inconsistent, since reviewers may disagree about a paper’s merits, and will have their own intellectual and social biases.”
There is a problem in the system of getting a diversity of viewpoints. Whitfield notes, “The pressure to churn out papers also drives a culture of overwork – and in some cases bullying – which bears down most heavily on postgraduate and postdoctoral researchers. These are the people who do most of the laboratory and fieldwork; they are usually on studentships or contracts lasting between three and five years, and their ability to build a publication record depends heavily on the patronage of the senior researchers in whose labs they work. None of this does anything to encourage a diversity of viewpoints in the scientific workforce.”
Bias in scientific studies is a difficult to avoid since there is a tendency to create research biased by major funders of the research. Researchers working for a large drug pharmaceutical corporation have much incentive to create research that is biased in favor of companies financing the research. This bias even translates over into the media. For example, the giant pharmaceutical Pfizer sponsors many news programs on television. What are the chances these programs will expose fraud, bias, negligence, and hype by their sponsors?
Overall, Science Fictions provides the best current inside expose of the current workings of the science industry. With his book, Richie attacks one of the last holdouts for truth and trust in the world: science knowledge. His study offers a type of nuts-and-bolts analysis of specific problems of science research. But while Richie’s book is important, it is not the first to question science. It joins others who have been questioning the absoluteness and truth pronunciations of the world of science.
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While Science Fictions questions trust in scientific research, the trustworthiness of other aspects of science have been also been questioned. For example, medical science was questioned in 2009 by Marcia Angell, editor of the prestigious New England Journal of Medicine, making the following comment:
It is simply no longer possible to believe much of the clinical research that is published, or to rely on the judgment of trusted physicians or authoritative medical guidelines. I take no pleasure in this conclusion, which I reached slowly and reluctantly over my two decades as editor of The New England Journal of Medicine.
Six years later, in 2015, Richard Horton, editor of renowned medical journal The Lancet, made an observation along the lines of Science Fictions noting:
The case against science is straightforward: much of the scientific literature, perhaps half, may simply be untrue. Afflicted by studies with small sample sizes, tiny effects, invalid exploratory analyses, and flagrant conflicts of interest, together with an obsession for pursuing fashionable trends of dubious importance, science has taken a turn towards darkness.”
And, the history of the pandemic has been the history of thousands of other medical professionals coming forward and questioning the “trust the science” messages being sent out by the media and government. There seems a type of civil war division in the ranks of scientists and doctors today. There is the group that proclaims “Trust the science” and there is the group that proclaims “Don’t trust the science.”
Whether one believes these messages or not, it is difficult not to see a large tear in the fabric of the scientific and medical communities. There is much dissention in the ranks of science and medicine today.
In all of this, that sacred cow of science is brought forward for examination. It has always lingered in the background of the world. The one system of mankind that could proclaim that it was about the absolute, non-relative, truth in the world. It was the last thing a person could trust when the layers of culture have collapsed beneath you and you look for some type of grounding, or home, in life. What could be more needed, and more perhaps an ideal built into society, that there is one area that is absolute in this relative world. That area is science.
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But now, the absoluteness of science is beginning to crumble in the American mind. Once, the nation was enamored with science. It seemed the great evolving, stable element of American history: something that continued as a type of medium in the background to America’s growth. Something absolute and not to be ever questioned or examined. Something too pure and good for any type of questioning.
Richie, Horton and Angell and now thousands of others speak up in these times to question the “truth” of modern scientific research. Scientific truth. Yet the question of the absoluteness or “truth” of science goes back far beyond their questions to ancient times and Greek philosophy of Plato. During the time of Plato, the term episteme was a term the Greeks used to refer to a principled system of understanding or scientific knowledge. The word comes from the ancient Greek verb epístamai (ἐπῐ́στᾰμαι) meaning “to know, understand, be acquainted with.” Plato contrasts episteme with doxa or common believe or opinion. The term episteme is also distinguished from techne, or a craft applied to a craft or practice.
The ancient school of epistome has a long entanglement with world history. Perhaps the grandest exploration of the term in the 20th century was by French philosopher Michel Foucault in his 1966 The Order of Things. In this book Foucault uses the term épistémè in a specialized sense to mean the historical, non-temporal, a priori knowledge that grounds truth and discourses, thus representing the condition of their possibility within a particular epoch. In the book, Foucault describes épistémè:
In any given culture and at any given moment, there is always only one episteme that defines the conditions of possibility of all knowledge, whether expressed in a theory or silently invested in a practice … I would define the episteme retrospectively as the strategic apparatus which permits of separating out from among all the statements which are possible those that will be acceptable within, I won’t say a scientific theory, but a field of scientificity, and which it is possible to say are true or false. The episteme is the ‘apparatus’ which makes possible the separation, not of the true from the false, but of what may from what may not be characterized as scientific.
That the acceptable ideas change and develop in the course of time, manifested as paradigm shifts of intellectualism, for instance between the periods of Classical antiquity (7th c. BC– AD 5th c.) and Modernity (AD 1500), is support for the thesis that every historical period has underlying epistemic assumptions, ways of thinking that determined what is truth and what is acceptable.
Foucault brought much of the episteme view of ancient science into modern discussions about science. But perhaps the greatest expansion of this ancient theory of knowledge has come from the branch of sociology called the sociology of science. The first and most powerful suggestion that science might have sociology attached to it came in 1935 in a book by Ludwig Fleck. In The Genesis and Development of a Scientific Fact Fleck developed the first system of a sociology of scientific knowledge.
His claim was that the exchange of ideas led to the establishment of a thought collective, which, when developed sufficiently, served to separate the field into esoteric (professional) and exoteric (laymen) circles. The concept of the “thought collective” defined by him is important in the philosophy of science and logology or the “science of science.” It made pioneering efforts in explaining how scientific ideas change over time.
Almost thirty years later, Fleck’s ideas on the sociology of science were reimagined by Thomas Kuhn in his important 1962 book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Kuhn was so influenced by the book that he wrote the foreword to the 1979 edition, noting he read it in 1950 and was reassured that someone “saw in the history of science what I myself was finding there.”
Kuhn argued that the development of science in normal periods is driven by adherence to what Kuhn called a ‘paradigm.’ The functions of a paradigm are to supply puzzles for scientists to solve and to provide the tools for their solution.
A crisis in science arises when confidence is lost in the ability of the paradigm to solve particularly worrying puzzles called ‘anomalies.’ A crisis in science arises when confidence is lost in the ability of the paradigm to solve particularly worrying puzzles called ‘anomalies.’ Crisis is followed by a scientific revolution if the existing paradigm is superseded by a rival. Kuhn claimed that science guided by one paradigm would be ‘incommensurable’ with science developed under a different paradigm, by which is meant that there is no common measure for assessing the different scientific theories. The book sparked a revolution in understanding science and was reported to be the twentieth-century book most frequently cited in the period 1976–1983 in the arts and the humanities.
A brilliant yet little known book in 1998 by Randall Collins expanded the ideas of the sociology of science back into history and suggested sociology was involved with intellectual change through history. The book The Sociology of Philosophies: A Global Theory of Intellectual Change in some respect followed along the traditions of Fleck and Kuhn. Yet it was a much larger and more encompassing book attempting to show intellectual change was global and historic in nature. Sociology of philosophy is a subdivision of sociology that seeks to understand the influence of philosophy within society, the social conditions in the intellectual activity and effects of philosophy, and the social configurations and processes of philosophical research. Sociology of philosophy, as an empirical sociological branch based on theory, was developed in the 1980s.
Collins traces the movement of philosophical thought in ancient Greece, China, Japan, India, the medieval Islamic and Jewish world, medieval Christendom, and modern Europe. What emerges from this history is a social theory of intellectual change, one that avoids both the reduction of ideas to the influences of society at large and the purely contingent local construction of meanings. Instead, Collins focuses on the social locations where sophisticated ideas are formed: the patterns of intellectual networks and their inner divisions and conflicts.
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In the end, there is the theory put forward in the above that science has never been absolute and therefore never really subject to our boundless trust. Perhaps more than anything else, it has become a necessary fiction for the modern mind. A particular archetype of our times we all need to live within. The holdout of that one final element of knowledge called science. All the other elements of knowledge taught in our schools have all died into a mire of relativity. Science is that final holdout of truth and the absolute in our incredibly relative world today. It is somewhat a lonely island of belief in a sea of failed beliefs.
It’s for this reason that none of us really want to give up our belief in science, the only thing we can really hold onto in the shifting sands of culture. We all want – and need – something solid in life to support a world that keeps collapsing under us like a descending elevator.
But the sacred cow of America in its belief in science, is brought forward in the government and media chant “Trust the science.” It is worse than advertisements for My Pillow. You hear it all hours of the day. It has become a type of mantra repeated over and over by media each day. Brought forward in the tradition of the area of knowledge called episteme or the study of knowledge.
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It will be difficult for many to give up that last absolute in their life: science. Yet it might just be something needed to take the next step in the evolution of our nation. Once science is questioned as a method of knowledge, certain questions are asked of science. It needs to sit in a type of chair in a type of courtroom and respond to these questions.
For the first time. Science never felt it was subject to questioning. It’s true essence more like the invisible medium surrounding our world, the fog of zeitgeist, than the visible things and people running around within it. One of the most interesting (yet difficult) things happening today is that people are questioning this last sacred cow of an absolute world with questioning the absolute truth of science. It is difficult to look at the workings of this powerful aspect of culture called science. Its inner workings have almost gained the status of sacred to many. No one needs to investigate how science is created today.
We need to stay away from examining science today. Just “Trust the science.” When you trust someone or something it is not subject to examination or further considerations of it. You leave it alone. Perhaps as we’ve left alone science all these years. Maybe more than we should have. “Trust the science.” A phrase used much by the president. Trust suggest acceptance without questioning. The Biden administration matches the most trustworthy aspect of our modern world – the word science – up with the word trust in the short three-word statement that is something of a Biden administration mantra of sorts. What more of an effective mantra could the Biden administration put into distribution.
The reason that the phrase “Trust the science” was thought to be so effective was that millions still trust for this one last absolute aspect of the world. That is, science. The one thing above the relativity of culture and society and everything in life.
The words “Trust the science” of course also means trust large pharmaceutical corporations like Pfizer. It also means trust the Biden administration. And trust the government. Trust the government more than your families and local communities in determining what is right today. The whole term science is not that pure form we have envisioned it for so long in America. In fact, a central belief of America in science.
But science has been identified as a person of interest in the last few years and more and more attention is being directed to looking at science and questioning its type of knowledge. How it gets this knowledge. The ideas of the sociology of science and the ancient workings of the Greek study of knowledge. Not the study of knowledge gained but rather how knowledge is obtained. It’s being applied to that last absolute of knowledge in our relative world: science. As Plato might do today if he was living.
Of course, it’s one of those fictions needed in the mass psychology of modern man. Something to hold onto in the swirling vortex of relativity. A final island of stability in our ever-shifting world. The island of science might be a real one. Perhaps science really is (or can become) that one area of absoluteness and trust in the world today. But it seems just as likely that this scientific island of truth and trust is one many perpetuate in their dreams and hopes. Despite all the challenges to it they hear today. The study of episteme or how knowledge is obtained is of course a study of that great invisible “elephant in the room” over many years of history. That island of science so many looked toward, believed in all these years. How much America believed in science from the very founding of the nation. It was a huge form enveloping the scene like the weather of an environment. This thing Americans called and conceived of as science.
Yet awareness of ancient areas of knowledge like episteme and the sociology of science are being pushed more towards the forefront today. In all of this, it is unwise to dismiss our postmodern culture of relativity and non-absoluteness in influencing much scientific thought today. Especially if, like leading theorists argue, science is related greatly to the world and events. To sociology. Before, it always existed away in the distance. Not reachable by human thought. But now, it is becoming the subject of much discussion and debate.
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The phrase “Trust the science” continues to play almost like a continuous musak in the background of our lives.
Postmodernism has great influence on humanities departments in universities during the 80s and 90s. There is little doubt that much of the postmodern relativity in the humanities departments in universities rubbed off on science departments at the same university. With the shift towards relativity in humanities during the 80s and 90s, the major out-front forms of knowledge in subjective aspects of the world were mixed with the quieter non-subjective science departments at the universities.
The inbreeding between science departments and post-modern humanities departments at universities in the 80s & 90s is a story that needs to be told. It offers another reason that we cannot trust the science today. It is a different science than the old science. The old science existed before the era of postmodernism. In many respects, this older science was more trustworthy and less influenced by postmodern ideas than our latest science. One of those rare instances where the old is more trustworthy than the new.
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In the end, it is somewhat ironic that the phrase “Trust the science” employed as a powerful meme and byline of the Biden administration has had the effect of focusing new attention on that invisible (elephant in the room) area of knowledge called science. This wasn’t the plan of the government and the Biden administration. One is supposed to follow without questioning that area of knowledge called “science.” What better word to attach government demands to.
Yet the effect of the words became more and more questionable as the pandemic moved forward. For one thing, science was conflicted about advice. There was much disagreement in the ranks. And of course, there were the thousands of doctors who came forward in 2020 and 2021 and spoke out against this area of knowledge called science the administration asked us to trust.
In essence, the flow against the government narrative, the narrative we are supposed to trust, becomes greater and greater each day. The administration stands behind the shield of “science” in issuing directives. But it is all crumbling around today.
Whether the psychology of need in all humans needs to keep some absolute – like science – alive today is a good question. How much might this enter the old picture when the grand gaslighting job of the government on all its citizens about science finally begins to reveal what it really is and has been for so many years of deceit.
Should Einstein and his relativity theory be included? And if so, where do we place it in confronting the absoluteness of science
Modern questions about the absoluteness of science have come from several directions. We would be remiss not to briefly mention Einstein’s Theory of Relativity. The theory of relativity usually encompasses two interrelated theories by Albert Einstein: special relativity and general relativity, proposed and published in 1905 and 1915, respectively. Special relativity applies to all physical phenomena in the absence of gravity. General relativity takes gravity into consideration.
In the Special Theory of Relativity, Einstein determined that time is relative—in other words, the rate at which time passes depends on your frame of reference. Just as observers in two different frames of reference don’t always agree on how to describe the motion of a bouncing ball, they also don’t always agree on when an event happened or how long it took. A second in one reference frame may be longer compared to a second in another reference frame. If you move fast enough through space, the observations that you make about space and time differ somewhat from the observations of other people, who are moving at different speeds.