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But Is It Science? ed. by Michael Ruse and Science and the Retreat from Reason by Gillott & Kumar

Jerry Goodenough expounds on science and the millenium.

As the clock ticks ever closer towards the millennium, there seems to be no end to the tide of nonsense that threatens to engulf us. Astrology and ‘magic-water’ cures, secret coded messages in the Bible and alien ‘faces’ on Mars, conspiracies to conceal the truth or murder our beloved icons: it’s hard for a philosopher to open a newspaper or switch on the TV these days without being confronted by some strange irrationality. At the end of a century of unprecedented scientific and intellectual discovery, the popular mind seems to be rejecting sense in favour of nonsense. Why should this be so? In different ways, these two books seek to answer this question, and between them they raise some interesting questions about the status of knowledge and philosophy.

Gillott and Kumar seek to chart what they call “the fall of science from public grace”, outlining a number of threads which they see as interwoven. One is a social response to the role that science has played in the events of this century, and in particular its creation of ever more horrible and destructive weaponry; from the poison gas of the First World War to nuclear warheads. Another thread has been the loss of certainty within the philosophy of science. At the beginning of the century philosophers like Bertrand Russell were still sure that Hume’s sceptical critique of induction, with all that this entailed for the practice of science, could be satisfactorily blunted. The rot sets in for Gillot and Kumar with Karl Popper, who replaced the search for objective truths with an endless falsificatory process which can at best only yield us ‘knowledge’ that is of temporary use until it too is falsified. Next came Thomas Kuhn whose conclusions - “First, there can be no absolute basis to knowledge. Any single truth is only truthful relative to the paradigm from within which it is proclaimed. Second, there is no way of saying that some paradigms are better than others” – weakened even further any claims science might have to finding genuine objective truths about the world. It is a short hop from there to Feyerabend’s ‘anything-goes’ philosophy where physics is neither better nor worse than voodoo, just different, a view that remains depressingly common amongst sociologists and cultural theorists.

Also, of course, science has become more difficult, more difficult to practise and much more difficult for the non-scientist to comprehend. In two chapters Gillot and Kumar go over the development of quantum mechanics – “the most powerful and the most intriguing physical theory of the twentieth century” – and chaos theory, a similarly profound development in mathematics and logic. In each case, these developments have been seized upon and used to attack the whole notion of an objective science. The uncertainty covered by Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle, for instance, is rigidly circumscribed by a framework of certainty. I can be absolutely certain of the position of an electron, and I can be absolutely certain of its velocity, but I can never be certain of both together since any measurement of one interferes with measurement of the other. This has been taken by non-scientists to mean that we can never be certain of anything, a gross distortion that would have Heisenberg spinning in his grave faster than one of his electrons! Similar distortions have grown up around chaos theory; it deals with the exponential complexity of many mathematical and physical processes. However, that such processes may not be entirely predictable in practice does not entail that they are in some way mysterious or unpredictable in theory.

One strange result of this tempestuous relationship with science has been that some of the most arrant and unscientific writing around (check out the New Age section in your local bookshop!) has been littered with obeisances to science, with inaccurate or tendentious references to chaos theory or to quantum mechanics. At the end of their book, having charted the peeling away of scientific endeavour from social progress, Gillot and Kumar discuss what they see as replacing “Loss of Certainty” in science: the “Quest for Beauty” – the elevation of aesthetic criteria over more practical ones in formulating scientific theories. Increasingly, physicists look for a beautiful theory, for a neatness or a symmetry, most obviously in that Holy Grail of theoretical physics, the Theory of Everything. Platonism, dragged into the twentiethcentury via Gödel and mathematics, seems to occupy a larger role in contemporary physics, itself an ever more abstract mathematical endeavour. The authors wonder if science can’t be rescued as a way of charting and predicting an objective reality of some sort, and they remain optimistic that the retreat from reason can be reversed.

This is a thought-provoking book, yet perhaps it suffers from a restricted focus. In dealing with science almost entirely in terms of physics, they neglect one of the most interesting facets of the retreat from reason. The life sciences, biology and medicine, have produced in this century not only the most prodigious increase in knowledge and understanding but also the most tangible everyday benefits for society. Whole swathes of fatal or destructive diseases and conditions have been overcome, and seldom a week goes by without some further advance being signalled in the media. Yet this has been accompanied by a wholesale rush towards quack cures and witchdoctoring. That people’s lives are longer and healthier than they were a hundred years ago is a fact that ought to be plain to all. That so many people want to turn their backs on the knowledge and practices that have brought this about is a worrying sign that the retreat from reason is not slowing.

Michael Ruse’s collection, subtitled ‘The Philosophical Question in the Creation/ Evolution Controversy’, tackles another growing form of irrationality, though one thankfully more pervasive in the U.S. than in Britain. Ruse, a Canadian historian and philosopher of science, was summoned to testify as an expert witness in a 1981 law suit in Arkansas. A group of religiouslyoriented organisations had succeeded in getting an act passed by the Arkansas state legislature mandating the teaching of ‘creation science’ on an equal footing with evolution in Arkansan state schools. The constitutionality of this legislation was challenged in the courts by a coalition of interests, including the American Civil Liberties Union and a group of non-fundamentalist clergy. Ruse’s collection seeks to place this legal controversy and its outcome in an historical context, and in doing so raises some pertinent philosophical issues.

The first section of this book covers the nineteenth-century background to the evolution debate, with extracts from Genesis and William Paley on the religious side, Charles Darwin and Thomas Huxley for evolution, and two splendidly informative papers from Ruse himself on the controversy that The Origin of Species engendered. The second section covers modern debates within Darwinism. Karl Popper classifies Darwinism as a “metaphysical research programme” rather than pure science, and there is an exchange on the continuing controversies about mechanisms of selection, with contributions from contemporary evolutionists Richard Dawkins and Stephen Jay Gould.

The third section describes the challenge from creationism, outlining the history of religiously motivated opposition to Darwinism and particularly the more fundamentalist forms of this which have come to predominate in America. It includes a contribution from Duane T. Gish, one of America’s leading creationist writers, and culminates in the court’s opinion striking down the legislation in Arkansas.

All of this is of great interest to anyone concerned with the history of science and religion, or with the turbulent currents of American society today. But the philosophical core of the book comes in the final section, ‘The Philosophical Aftermath’, a series of exchanges on the court’s verdict and the role of the philosopher as expert witness between Ruse and two other philosophers of science, Larry Laudan and Philip L. Quinn.

Evolutionists may adopt one of two attitudes towards creationism. Either it is not science at all but rather some form of religious expression (and thus barred from the classroom by the U.S. Constitution), or else it is science but bad science, just plain wrong and so no more worthy of being taught to children than, say, the tenets of the Flat Earth Society. Ruse adopts a position heavily influenced by Popper’s views on the demarcation of science from pseudo-science, and concludes that creationism is not science at all. (And the full legal judgement seems to indicate that the court followed Ruse here.)

Laudan, however, concludes that demarcation cannot succeed, that Popper’s programme for rigidly distinguishing between science and non-science (or pseudo-science) is ultimately pointless. “What makes a belief well-founded (or heuristically fertile)? And what makes a belief scientific? The first set of questions is philosophically interesting and possibly even tractable; the second question is both uninteresting and, judging by its chequered past, intractable.”

Quinn also concludes that creationism is indeed (bad) science. In particular, he crosses swords with Ruse over the use in the trial of Popper’s falsifiability criterion for demarcation. For Quinn “the patently false claim that creation science is neither testable nor falsifiable seems well on its way to becoming, for some evolutionary biologists, a rhetorical stick with which to belabour their creationist opponents”. Indeed, where creationism has put forward testable propositions, it has been falsified. (Philip Kitcher’s Abusing Science – The Case Against Creationism, MIT Press 1982 remains one of the best surveys of the overwhelming falsity of creationism.)

For Ruse, however, creationism can never be genuine science. The true scientist is prepared to challenge or test any proposition, while the creationist starts with a set of propositions derived from the Bible which are given, propositions whose divine origin cannot allow them to be challenged. So any test which seems to refute a key tenet of Genesis must itself be rejected. It is this attitude, the belief that some fundamental propositions cannot be refuted, which Ruse sees as justifying his characterisation of creationism as pseudo-science. (But are the rest of us any different? Can we all go along with Quine’s insistence that every belief is subject to revision? Even the most fundamental features of our logic and arithmetic? Or do we too have some beliefs, some portions of our theoretical structure so basic that we could not imagine them being challenged or falsified?)

Creationism lost in Arkansas, but remains a potent force in American culture. Its claim that it is an alternative and equally valid form of science mirrors in some ways the claims of other ‘alternative’ forms of intellectual endeavour, alternative medicine, alternative sciences like ufology or the more irrational fringes of parapsychology. If the retreat from reason is ever to be reversed then we need some form of demarcation between science and mere silliness. Flat earthers clearly fall into the latter category. But parapsychology, while having more than its share of charlatans and crazies, also contains those who claim to be serious scientists. Is there, then, a way of clearly marking off scientific endeavour from mere belief-schemes of one form or another? Popper’s falsification criterion seems too crude and unreliable an instrument. But, as the philosophers in Ruse’s collection make clear, we need some way of marking out what is special about science if we are to justify teaching it to children in preference to, say, astrology. And this something special must relate not only to its advances and its tangible benefits but also to its intimate relationship to our natures as rational beings if we are to join Gillott & Kumar’s optimism that the retreat from reason can be reversed. These two books in their different and informative ways make worthwhile and challenging contributions to this debate.

© Dr J. Goodenough 1998

Jerry Goodenough teaches philosophy at the University of East Anglia.

Science and the Retreat From Reason by John Gillott & Manjit Kumar. Merlin Press 1995 £10.95
But Is it Science? edited by Michael Ruse. Prometheus Books 1996 £19.50

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