The phrases “I believe in science,” or “I trust the science,” have no scientific meaning. They are not signs of wisdom but statements of nescience. Believers, as opposed to understanders, end up building and walking on a foundation of eggshells—rather than a foundation of reason built on self-evident assumptions.
I am a staunch supporter of questioning any and all authority in order to help us understand and appreciate the world around us. As people in a free society, we should say, “I understand” before we say, “I agree,” “I disagree,” or “I suspend judgement” on any scientific issue. Only then will we live up to our specific epithet Homo sapiens, which means “wise man.”
I write this as someone who loves science and the ability of the scientific method to help us question, understand, and appreciate the world around us. Individual liberty and each individual’s freedom to question is the basis of Western civilization and of the scientific method itself. The acclaimed philosopher Karl Popper echoes this sentiment in The Open Society and its Enemies: “[T]he secret of intellectual excellence is the spirit of criticism; it is intellectual independence.”
After all, science developed as a method to attain true knowledge of the world by questioning. In a speech entitled, “What is Science?”, American physicist Richard Feynman argues the following:
“Science is the belief in the ignorance of experts. When someone says, ‘Science teaches such and such,’ he is using the word incorrectly. Science doesn’t teach anything; experience teaches it.”
Feynman suggests science is not the sole domain of experts. It is the humble process of attempting to discover truth via rigorous inquiry and experimentation. When science deteriorates into a belief of a given class, rather than a subject worth understanding and defending with reason, it can be described as the opium of that class. And when science is used as a drug to sooth intellectual laziness, it ceases to be science.
While one should defend a scientific conclusion by explaining the experiments, observations, assumptions, and analysis used to reach that conclusion, “indefensible” conclusions can only be defended by using official-sounding terms that are created by either an authority or by the mob to hide ignorance and to stifle further inquiry.
In Goethe’s Faust Part One, Mephistopheles says, “[f]or at the point where concepts fail, At the right time a word is thrust in there. With words we fitly can our foes assail.” Today, science has become a second fiddle to those who, taking Mephistopheles advice, use the word “science” as a dagger to stop rational thinking, give-and-take conversation, and freedom of thought.
This is wrong, precisely because science should be a field of human endeavor that promotes freedom by training people to think critically. The scientific attitude is defined by Popper as one that accepts the real possibility that “I may be wrong and you may be right, and by an effort, we may get nearer to the truth.” Popper goes on to emphasize the importance of humble truth-seeking:
“Its faith in reason is not only a faith in our own reason, but also…in that of others. … Rationalism is therefore bound up with the idea that the other fellow has a right to be heard, and to defend his arguments. It thus implies the recognition of the claim to tolerance, at least of all those who are not intolerant themselves.”
According to Popper, criticism is the basis of scientific thinking. If we teach science in a manner that discourages questioning, critical thinking, and argument based on a line of reasoning, we will be, as Erwin Chargaff described in Heraclitean Fire, “lost souls teaching the young to lose theirs.”
However, Popper’s views of the role of critical thinking in scientific truth-seeking are being overturned by the introduction of reflexive thinking into science. In his General Theory of Reflexivity, billionaire investor George Soros, who named his “philanthropic” Open Society Foundations after the title of Popper’s book, offers a dangerously illiberal alternative to Popper’s view of critical thinking.
In a lecture entitled “Open Society” given at the Central European University on October 28, 2009, Soros said the following:
“I discovered a flaw in the concept of open society. Popper was mainly concerned with the problems of understanding of reality. He argued that and I quote ‘only democracy provides an institutional framework that permits reform without violence, and so the use of reason in politics matters.’ But his approach was based on a hidden assumption, namely, that the main purpose of thinking is to gain a better understanding of reality. And that was not necessarily the case. The manipulative function could take precedence over the cognitive function. Indeed, in a democracy, the primary objective of politicians is to get elected and stay in power. This rather obvious insight raised some additional questions about the concept of open society. How could Popper take it for granted that free political discourse is aimed at understanding reality? And even more intriguingly, how could I, who gave the manipulative function pride of place in the concept of reflexivity, follow him so blindly?”
For Popper, understanding based on free discourse and critical thinking is as important for the advancement of a free society as it is for the advancement of science. For Soros, the achievement of power through manipulation is the key to progress.
Admittedly, Soros’ manipulative outlook gave him an advantage in the financial sector, and he chose to use it to great success in the political sector. However, his emphasis on the manipulative function of thinking is more like propaganda disseminated by an authority or by the mob than it is similar to scientific discourse between free and equal members of society. And it is antithetical to science.
Today, we see this manipulative function of thinking used in science when we are told that the vast majority of scientists conclude “such and such” without being told about the observations, experiments, assumptions, and analysis that led to these scientists’ conclusions, and without being given the opportunity to evaluate their reliability and validity.
“The father of public relations,” Edward Bernays recognized the powerful nature of such propagandist thinking: “The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society.” According to Bernays, “[t]hose who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country.”
It is reasonable to ask if manipulative thinking should be used by the scientific sector in a democratic society. That is, is it the function of science to promote critical thinking to give a better understanding of objective reality upon which citizens can make informed decisions? Or is it the function of science to promote manipulative thinking based on subjective reality, which bestows power to a specific elite in the name of progress? If the function of science is to embrace manipulative thinking, then without sufficient oversight, science will have become a prostitute playing second fiddle to anyone who will pay her price.
As a teacher, I fight for the first function of science, but I’m increasingly confronted by the prevalence of the second function.
I often wear a blue shirt to class. I pose a question to my students: “If I tell you my shirt is red and then give you a test with one question on it—asking what color my shirt is—what would you write?” 95% of my students answer “red” without hesitation, regardless of whether I am speaking one-on-one, in a small group, or in a large auditorium (just ask my students, advisees, and anyone else who would be around to watch).
I tell them that I am here to teach them how to observe nature and to develop the courage of their convictions to explain their observations and conclusions based on reason. Geometrically speaking, I differentiate between a line of reasoning and talking points.
Then I ask them how a drunk would respond to my question, and they all say, “blue.” This leads into a discussion on Bob Marley’s “Redemption Song,” which is based on the words of Jamaican activist Marcus Garvey: “We are going to emancipate ourselves from mental slavery because whilst others might free the body, none but ourselves can free the mind.”
If you ask me, in science and education, the General Theory of Reflexivity and manipulative thinking lead not to individual freedom, not to an open society as George Soros claims, not to decent respect for the scientific method, but to dystopic culture characterized by mental slavery and compliance to the wishes of the few elites who seemingly represent the consensus of the collective. My students immediately see the mental self-enslavement to which they are subjecting themselves—but they also realize that it will take courage to be a free-thinking individual in the current academic milieu.
*The views expressed in this article solely represent the views of the author, not the views of the Chicago Thinker.
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