Science enjoys the kind of unique authority in modern civilization that religion once enjoyed. It is the one source of wisdom that is all but immune to challenge. To be openly "anti-science" is to be discredited in modern eyes. The only viable resistance to the authority of science that remains is to attempt to construct protected enclaves. Yes, science can tell you about physical nature but it can't tell you about morality, or the soul, or your relationship with God. That is largely a strategic retreat, as the enclaves are mostly shrinking over time.
Science, however, is in a radically different position than the authority that it displaced. Religion spoke directly to every human heart. The idea of an omnipotent, omniscient, and omnibeneficent God may be in large part the work of brilliant theologians and bilingual church fathers, but any street worker can love it. Science, by contrast, speaks directly to the hearts and minds of a rather smaller group of persons, persons with certain aptitudes, inclinations and, I dare say, leisure. That difference underlies much of the modern situation.
It is conventional wisdom that the right is anti-science. Conservatives frequently reject the theory of evolution. They don't bow to the consensus on global warming. Those are trump cards of the chattering classes. The same is true, however, of persons on the left.
Steve Hayward, who has been posting fine pieces at Powerline, raises this provocative question:
Which ideology is it that throws a hissy fit over genetically modified organisms and childhood vaccinations? Or files lawsuits to stop de-listings of recovered species (like the gray wolf) even after the government's science advisory bodies say "the science" says they should be de-listed? Who's not respecting science now?
But rather than stopping with the simple observation that ideology or politics drives acceptance or rejection of certain domains of science, it is worth pressing on to ask why liberals dislike some kind of science, and conservatives other kinds. Liberals in the case of childhood vaccinations and GM organisms dislike certain forms of authority (especially private sector, for-profit authority—does anyone think the liberal outcry against GM foods would be as loud if it were a government lab rather than Monsanto that was leading these innovations?).
Conservatives have a symmetrical view, about which I have been trying to persuade liberal environmentalists (but I repeat myself) who will listen: even if catastrophic global warming were proved, we do not consent to being governed by Al Gore.
Steve is right, of course. I would add one item to the list. E. O. Wilson was viciously attacked for suggesting that human behavior could be interpreted by biologists. His persecutors (that is the right term) included many scientists. All of them were attacking from the left. That was in the 1970's. Today the discipline he gave birth to, sociobiology, flourishes on college campuses and research centers across the modern world. Add that also to the list of shrinking enclaves.
Science is born out of a curiosity about the world and how it works. It is always shaped by the suspicion that things aren't always what they seem and that what we are inclined and want to believe is often an obstacle to seeing things as they really are. It necessarily runs afoul of our conceits and for that reason is always susceptible to corruption. How would I feel if I encountered solid, scientific evidence that Asian immigrants are just smarter on average than Daughertys, Martins, and Blanchards?
I can offer no remedies to this modern conundrum. I can say that the view of science and philosophy much richer, more open ambiguity and awe, than those who fear it usually recognize. Timothy Williamson has an excellent piece on naturalism at the New York Times.
Many contemporary philosophers describe themselves as naturalists. They mean that they believe something like this: there is only the natural world, and the best way to find out about it is by the scientific method. I am sometimes described as a naturalist. Why do I resist the description?
Williamson, who confesses atheism, raises the obvious question.
Why can't there be things only discoverable by non-scientific means, or not discoverable at all?
That sounds a little like enclave entrenchment. Fortunately he goes on to argue that naturalism is not as restrictive as it seems.
What is meant by "the scientific method"? … For naturalists… it involves formulating theoretical hypotheses and testing their predictions against systematic observation and controlled experiment. This is called the hypothetico-deductive method.
One challenge to naturalism is to find a place for mathematics. Natural sciences rely on it, but should we count it a science in its own right? If we do, then the description of scientific method just given is wrong, for it does not fit the science of mathematics, which proves its results by pure reasoning, rather than the hypothetico-deductive method.
Yes. Mathematics is solidly in the camp of rationalism, whereas most scientists carry the card of empiricism. Empiricism means the exclusive focus on observable data. Yet the empirical sciences depend on a vast realm of mathematical knowledge that is itself not derived from observation. It is generated by pure reason. What does that mean?
Science opens up a domain that is rich and wonderful, but it opens up only to those who have the means and inclination to pursue it. These will always be few. Those few are no less immune to corruption than anyone else. Yet science remains the chief authority of modern civilization. That is our peculiar situation.