Wednesday, February 10, 2010

On science & trust

Paul Kennedy over there on CBC Radio has a great program called Ideas that I highly recommend to all.

One of the featured series on the Ideas program is called "How to Think About Science." I listened to the first of these, Episode 1 - Steven Shapin and Simon Schaffer, the other day, and found it absolutely fascinating.

Steven Shapin and Simon Schaffer wrote the 1985 book Leviathan and the Air Pump: Hobbes, Boyle and the Experimental Life.

Shapin & Schaffer's book asserts that scientific knowledge is not the pure exercise of unmediated reason, but is inherently social: "There are social institutions at work to produce what we know."[1] Robert Boyle established the fundamentals of experimental science in the mid-17th century by 1) setting up experiments to create unique circumstances; 2) calling in witnesses to see the experiments in action and then agree in writing to what happened; 3) documenting the entire process thoroughly in writing both to transmit the experimental results and so that other people could repeat the experiment.

Shapin & Schaffer find that Boyle saw his new approach to science as a method of bringing people together to debate issues without resorting to violence. In the midst of a period of great political, religious, and social conflict in Britain and other areas of Western Europe, Boyle presented his model as a way to establish the trust necessary to pose and resolve not only scientific questions, but political, religious, and social questions as well.

Shaffer stresses that this fundamental question about where to place one's trust is still central to civil society:

The basic question which collective public knowledge always has to solve in every culture is, Who shall I believe, and why? Almost everything anyone knows about the world, they know on trust. Almost all our knowledge is testimony. Very little of what we believe and know about the world is based entirely and absolutely on our own experience. And the social order requires that kind of mutual trust.

These ideas have got me thinking about the theme I perceive in the sources that have motivated me to write a couple of my previous posts:

** What do the gods believe? Exactly what I do, of course!!

** The Big Questions

The theme I perceive is two-fold: First, the propensity of human beings to believe what they want to believe, regardless of whether or not they have any kind of objective, direct support for their belief; second, the necessity of establishing some kind of trust to facilitate one's belief in something for which one doesn't have objective, direct experience.

On this second point, if a person hews to Catholicism, for example, this means, by definition, that this person trusts the institution of the church embodied in its representatives, and thereby tends to close the door to critical thinking on these issues. Without having experienced directly the things written about in the Christian Bible, and more than likely without having read the Bible in its original Aramaic, Hebrew, and Greek, the average adherent of Catholicism trust the church fathers to interpret and state the church's stance on family planning, evolution, etc.

As Schaffer describes in the CBC program, he discerns a similar dynamic in the field of science, insofar as people absolutely have to invest trust in scientists and the scientific method to believe things they cannot possibly perceive without the proper instrumentation and/or mathematical understanding (quantum mechanics, interstellar space, string theory, etc.). Schaffer stresses that being aware of this dynamic does not undermine the many demonstrated benefits and uses of science, but it does show science to be, among other things, a cultural product.

It seems to follow, then, that understanding a given religion or spiritual practice to be a cultural product does not necessarily undermine the benefits that some people get from this practice (as Joseph Campbell showed). It seems to me that conflict between science & religion (conflict in my own head as well as in the world-at-large) often springs from two things: 1) the assertion that science cannot answer spiritual questions and spirituality cannot answer scientific questions, and 2) that trusting representatives of a spiritual practice is somehow different than trusting the findings of scientists -- and this difference is fundamental and important.

[1] Simon Schaffer, from the CBC Radio program.


1 comment:

  1. Here's a great recent Science Friday show on a related issue:

    "With newspapers and cable news shows slashing their science reporting budgets, how can the public get accurate science and technology news? In this hour, live from the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in San Diego, we'll talk about communicating science in all its forms. We'll try to help you figure out where to get your science news fix -- without the spin. We'll also look at the role of websites and podcasts -- are they helping to fill the science news void? And when anyone with a keyboard can post a story, who's vetting the reporting?"

    The comments from guest Stephen Schneider are exceptionally clear, direct, and spot-on.