Knights of Reason

The New Torquemada, Keeping us Safe in our Beds

Time t0 talk more about the defenders of reason and rationality. Richard Dawkins sums it all up in that spendid title above, once there are enemies there's obviousy a war going on.

Dear dear.

It really is a struggle to prefer these cold, grey defenders of the faith in science over the infinitely more colourful charalatans and fundamentalist loons they want to shield us all from. Of course charlatans and fundamentalists need to be confronted and exposed, and you'd generally want arguments and ideas and behaviour to be reasoned and reasonable, although also let's leave a little room for harmless cranks and eccentrics, they add colour. The problem I have with Dawkins and the many like him is that it's just zealots fighting more zealots. This sort of thing isn't really about just asking people to be reasonable and have a bit of evidence to back up the stuff they go on about, it's a mission. A mission to wield science to flay the irrational among us.

The biggest problem here is that they paint science in a drab, caricatured, inquisitorial grey and blood red. I might quote Derren Brown from his Tricks of the Mind while I still have it out from that other post about him, Brown being a big Dawkins fan although not generally a zealot, and very colourful indeed. Brown describes the basic premise of what Dawkins and his ilk do very thoroughly (and approvingly, but I can forgive him because of the other stuf he does):

Whereas non-scientific (and potentially dangerous) thinking starts with a premise and then looks for things that support it, scientific thinking constantly tries to disprove itself. A scientist comes up with a premise: A causes B. Rather than look for all the cases where A causes B to support his premise, he starts trying to disprove that A causes B.

There's then more pages describing the wonders of the 'scientific method', and the importance of Truth (capital T) and objectivity. And loopy post-modernists and relativists:

In time, as we slipped into post-modernism, a fetish develped for all truth being relative. Our 'truths' and 'meanings' were seen as simply products of our own value systems...This relativism - both the extreme opposite of fundamentalism and yet an effective means of promoting dangerous and unfounded ideology by disregarding the value of evidence - was typically enshrouded in layers of purposefully obscure language, as if exhaustingly impenetrable wording was necessary proof of superior thought.

All the hoary old chestnuts are there. It's the two cultures all over again, noble and objective science, and everything else just beliefs and opinions. And it's the much-used rhetorical straw man flourish of painting your opponent in some emaciated extremum that has only the faintest resemblance to actual reality, and then ridiculing the straw man. Post-modernism has always been a conceit piled upon the existing conceit of modernism, and as an aside it amuses me that those happy to lampoon post-modernist loonery at the same time are usually card-carrying modernists. Modernism is just as stupid as post-modernism. But having known a few who signed up to it, I'd have to be fair and say the scarecrow in Wizard of Oz has less straw than this usual tripe dished out to the post-modern crowd.

Stripped to the basics, all of these debates about reason and rationality go something like this. On one side you have Truth (capital T), which is apparently some single thing that scientists try to access, with their theories and experiments. On the other side you have relativism, which thinks there is no such thing as Truth, so that whatever people think becomes the standard. If we look a bit harder this is the tired old fact-value distinction again - on the side of Truth there are just facts and no values, and on the side of the relativists there are lots of values, and no facts. It's so bloody obvious that both of these positions are lunatic extremes that you wonder how either ever got any traction, and when you think about it outside academic circles they generally don't.

There's really no need to spend any time on the extreme relativists i.e. the genuine post-modernists (if they exist) who believe reality is a pure fabrication. We've always had those by the way, solipsism/etreme idealism has been around for hundreds of years, showing again that most of the things that exercise our minds today are symptomatic of the poor education we've all had, particularly in the history of ideas. But the Truth camp are equally fundamentalist idealists. Look at their basic schema - we have the everyday reality we live, and somehow 'behind' appearances there's a Truth that explains it all. This is rank mysticism, and again it amazes me that it isn't seen. What is this other realm where Truth lives, spearate to the world we all share? It's Plato's eternal forms getting yet another work-out. Scientists and science popularisers wax endlessly lyrical about Truth, and are particularly breathless about how mathematics in particular somehow embodies this other realm, so that God is even said to be a mathematician. The hushed tone reverence this is all done in is no different to every fanaticism in human history.

The problem in understanding science is that, until reasonably recently, nobody had really studied it as a human activity. Everything else we do is human, but it's instructive to notice that when people started to try to understand what practically goes on in science, many feathers began to be ruffled. Becacuse no matter what happens in this debate, it all gets fed through the binary fundamentalist loonery of relativism vs objectivism, the moment you want to see how science is actually done in messy, practical, human detail, you will inevitably be accused of trying to 'debunk' it. As if something couldn't be true and human, at the same time. Having been a scientist and worked with many others, for example, it's immediately obvious that the tosh Brown describes about scientists trying to disprove their own theories is just that - tosh. I can tell you that just as in any other domain of human activity, scientists do their utmost to PROVE their own point of view, and will lose very little sleep on opposing ideas unless these are forced upon them. Other scientists will move Heaven and Earth to disprove other scientists' work, to be sure, but this isn't some noble disinterested seach for truth - most of the time it's a fight for the grant money.

Now if you retain the lunatic fundamentalist extreme machine of relativism vs objectivism, you will immediately at this point think this invalidates science as an activity, showing it to be flawed and entriely about human interests. Rubbish. Again there is no reason Reason can't be as warts and all human as anything else. The 'scientific method' people talk about is actually largely propaganda, it being something gullible, fawning philosophers of science invented while trying to understand how their scientific cousins in the academy worked such wonders. Prior to the work of the Poppers and Kuhns of the world, scientists themselves talked a lot less about there being some unified scientific method that was the basis of their work. They just got on with their specific work, much of which bore very little resemblance to what was going on in the lab next door. And today science is an even more diverse set of techniques, so it's even more untenable to try to cram it all into some simplistic 'method' being applied. This is what's most offensive about the Dawkins of this world, they speak in the name of science as some generalisable, inquisitorial method that acts as a judge in all human knowledge. It's a vicious abstraction, gutting science of its colour and messiness and actual effectiveness. Human beings have always reasoned, what sort of prat would say otherwise? Novelists and artists and everyday folk in the street reason things out, but make no mistake - Dawkins and people like him relegate all of that to the scrapheap of unsubstantiuated opinion. What utter, arrogant nonsense. It's completely unproductive and unjustifiable to make science synonymous with Reason itself, and if you think I'm over-stating the Dawkins approach, check out his Foundation for Reason and Science: A Clear Thinking Oasis (I kid you not, that's what it's called). Let's just quote from its mission:

The enlightenment is under threat. So is reason. So is truth. So is science, especially in the schools of America. I am one of those scientists who feels that it is no longer enough just to get on and do science. We have to devote a significant proportion of our time and resources to defending it from deliberate attack from organized ignorance. We even have to go out on the attack ourselves, for the sake of reason and sanity. But it must be a positive attack, for science and reason have so much to give. They are not just useful, they enrich our lives in the same kind of way as the arts do.

Read that very carefully. Art does seem to get a positive mention, doesn't it? But when you look harder he's not letting it be part of the great Science and Reason project. Art can 'enrich' our life, but it isn't true or Reason in the way science is. It's like some nice decoration to add to the wall of the lab. All of the wisdom and knowledge of a Shakespeare or Dickinson or Rembrandt doesn't count as Reason, no-sirrreee. And if there were such thing as an Inquisitor for Science, wouldn't he be a splendid choice? Such fanatical, determined, colourless passion.

Fortunately historians and philosophers have been plugging away in the past 30-odd years stripping the theology away from the scientific image and making it much more practical and human, without at the same time making nonsense claims about science being some hot bed of make believe. A brilliant example is Shapin and Schaffer's Leviathan and the Air-Pump, pictured below. They pinpointed a time in Western history when experimental science (represented by Boyle) started to make inroads into questions of wider, political importance, represented by Hobbes and his Leviathan. It's not a debunking book (debunking is for the loon fundamentalist binary opposition people), it traces in captivating detail the birth of experimental science as we know it today and how it came to have such impact in our affairs, via the debate Boyle and Hobbes had in the 16th century. Their final conclusions aren't entirely ones I agree with, but that's not important; it's the peeling apart of how this was all done that changes the way we think about what science is and does.

Then of course there's Bruno Latour, who I would say is THE most important person to read if you want to understand the modern, scientific and technological world we live in without at the same time painting it in fundamentalist colours of whatever persuasion. It's impossible to do justice to the breadth and brilliance and sheer entertainment of Latour's work over the past 30 years, but you could do worse than his Science in Action (below).

Latour has suffered together with others who have dared to try to reinject the human messiness into science, being thought of as a debunker, social constructivist and even post-modernist. He abhors all of those things. If you're the sort of grown up like Dawkins who prefers big black and white fairytale schemas to understand things, Latour's work will no doubt annoy you, as it did the prize prat Sokal. But if instead you want to understand why Science as Reason obscures the true genius and colour of science, and shits on its legacy from ancient times, then read Latour. You won't be bored even for a second.


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