Science is often compared with, unfavorably or favorably depending on who you ask, religion. While religion is closed, science is open. Religion is unempirical while science seeks to understand the natural world. Religion requires faith while science requires evidence. Science is, of course, immensely important to modern life. Unfortunately, the popularization of science is undermining some of the very values which make science so useful.
Science has become a buzzword. You can buy t-shirts with the phrase “because science.” By itself, this is not objectionable. It reflects wonder at our understanding of the laws of nature which govern our existence. However, it also reflects more disturbing trends. The idea that science reveals Truths, with a capital T. Science is no longer about the process of discovery, but rather the forced acceptance of certain facts. Rejection of those facts implies anti-thesis to science.
I don’t mean to science should never be used to inform the ignorant. Vaccines are a perfect example of established science being ignored with deadly consequences. GMOs are another example. However, too often the certainty of the hard sciences is applied where no such certainty exists.
Bill Nye embodies some of the less admirable qualities of the trend. As a popularizer of science, he displays a confidence in some of his beliefs far above the degree warranted. For example, he claims it is a myth that “we give money to Africa and nothing changes.” Then he summarizes data showing that infant mortality has improved. While not technically false, he shows a basic misunderstanding of the complexity of economics. The fact that infant mortality improved as aid was being given hardly proves that aid itself improves infant mortality. Further, economists have reached a consensus that foreign aid, while able to improve lives, cannot spark economic growth.
Another recent example was an academic paper finding that the U.S. is an oligarchy. Because it was academic and confirmed people’s priors, it drew a lot of attention. Yet the conclusion of the paper was fairly unsurprising; that wealthy people have more influence over policies than the poor or the middle class. But with the imprimatur of science, the U.S. officially became an oligarchy, despite the difficulty in even defining the term in a meaningful, testable, and uncontroversial manner.
We shouldn’t simply accept the latest scientific paper which confirms our biases. We should hold our beliefs to the strength of evidence which supports them. Part of this includes acknowledging ignorance. Society is complex. Social science is hard. Pretending it isn’t and branding non-believers as opposed to science only hurts the advancement of knowledge in society.