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What Are the Dangers Posed by the Misuse of Science?

by John G. West

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Without question, modern science has bequeathed a myriad of benefits to humanity. It has produced wonderworking drugs and miraculous inventions. It has led to staggering increases in both personal freedoms and wealth. My 93-year-old father remains alive and healthy because of the advances in medical science that cured him of colon cancer. My family and I enjoy fresh fruits and vegetables all year round because of technological innovations in transportation and refrigeration. And people of all classes now have instantaneous access to vast online libraries that would make the fabled library of Alexandria seem provincial.

The benefits of science are so amazing that they can seem almost magical. There is more to the comparison than mere whimsy. In his classic book The Abolition of Man (1944), Oxford don C. S. Lewis claimed that "the serious magical endeavour and the serious scientific endeavour are twins."

At first glance, Lewis's observation might seem nonsensical. Science is supposed to be rational, skeptical, and objective. Magic, by contrast, is supposed to be the domain of the dogmatic, the credulous, and the superstitious. Yet as strange as Lewis's observation might first appear, I think he correctly ascertained three key similarities between science and magic—similarities that highlight the growing dangers that are posed by the misuse of science in today's society.

Science as Religion

First, just like magic, science can function as a religion for some people. In Lewis's lifetime, the promoter par excellence of this sort of "science as religion" was the popular writer H. G. Wells. Wells and others fashioned Darwin's theory of evolution into a cosmic religion that Lewis sometimes called "the myth of evolutionism."

One need not look far to see science being misused in the same way today. In 2012, thousands of atheists and agnostics converged on Washington, D.C., for what they called a "Reason Rally." The rally had all the trappings of an evangelistic crusade, but instead of being preached at by Billy Graham, attendees got to hear Darwinian evangelists such as Scientific American columnist Michael Shermer, who once wrote an article titled "Science Is My Savior," which explained how science helped free him from "the stultifying dogma of a 2,000-year-old religion."

In Science We Trust

According to Lewis, a second way that science and magic are similar is in their encouragement of credulity. This may seem radically counterintuitive, since science in the popular imagination is supposed to be based on logic and evidence, while magic is supposed to be based on a superstitious acceptance of claims that are made in the name of the supernatural. Yet, as Lewis well knew, citizens living in an age of science increasingly look to science for answers, letting so-called scientific experts do their thinking for them and neglecting their own responsibility to engage in critical thought. The popular embrace during the past century of science-inspired fads—ranging from eugenics to the phony sex statistics of Alfred Kinsey—bears powerful testimony to the truth of Lewis's concern.

Power Play

But the most serious connection between science and magic, according to Lewis, is the quest for power. Magic wasn't just about understanding the world; it was about controlling it. The great wizard or sorcerer sought power over nature. Similarly, science, from the beginning, was not only an effort to understand nature, but also an attempt to control it. Science offers the hope of earthly salvation through the limitless creativity of human ingenuity—or so the prophets of scientific utopianism have claimed over the past century, including evolutionary biologists J.B.S. Haldane and Julian Huxley during C. S. Lewis's own day.

Lewis was not persuaded. He stressed that he was not anti-science. But he warned about the dangers of what he called "Scientocracy"—government by scientific experts who are unaccountable to anybody else. Lewis's warnings could have come from the latest headlines. Whether the topic is embryonic stem-cell research, climate change, health-insurance mandates, the teaching of evolution, or the recent attempted ban on large sugary drinks in New York City, "science" is increasingly being used as a trump card in public debates to suppress dissent and curtail discussion. Regardless of the issue, experts assert that their public policy positions on it are dictated by "science," meaning that anyone who disagrees with them is "anti-science."

Ironically, this growing effort to use science to shut down dissent is itself far from scientific. As Lewis fully appreciated, science and other forms of rational inquiry require challenging assumptions, asking tough questions, and following the evidence wherever it leads. Insisting on these practices is the best method to ensure that science will be more than just magic's twin. 

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