Blinded by Science

Believe Science Has All the Answers? Evolutionary Biologist Austin Hughes Says, Open Your Eyes

Keep in mind now that Dr. Austin Hughes, Carolina Distinguished Professor of Biological Sciences at the University of South Carolina, is an evolutionary biologist, which pretty much means that he accepts evolution as an adequate mechanism for producing the diversity of life on earth. This also means that he is no friend to intelligent design, which he calls a "biologically naïve" theory. So perhaps it's his background in philosophy, which he studied at Georgetown University and then later at Harvard, that makes him so hostile to the idea that science alone can render truth about the world. Whatever the reason, you won't find a more learned, eloquent, or impassioned opponent of contemporary scientism.

When did you become aware that scientism was a problem in the scientific community?

I guess it was when I started my graduate program in philosophy at Harvard. That's when I first encountered logical positivism, and I must admit that I found it very attractive at first. It was interesting to talk about science and the philosophy of science. In fact, I was motivated to begin studying science because everyone at Harvard was always talking about it like it was the only thing that mattered. I wanted to work in a field that was worthwhile, so I decided to become a scientist myself.

What changed your attitude toward scientism?

Well, when I first went back to school and started taking all of the undergraduate science courses that I had never taken—I had been a philosophy major at Georgetown—I felt that the world of science was much more tolerant than other academic fields. For example, my professors did not seem to condemn people for their religious beliefs like they had at Harvard. However, I eventually realized that my scientific peers weren't any more tolerant than my philosophy professors had been; it was just that they assumed that no one in their field subscribed to religion. They found the idea so ridiculous that it was a complete non-issue. It was then that I started to find scientism very narrow and at times even intolerant.

Do you think the field of science has always been like this?

No. My professors, while mostly atheists, nevertheless believed that there were certain kinds of questions that science wasn't qualified to address. I remember reading a book in the mid-seventies by Peter Medawar, a British biologist who won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, which admitted that there were certain kinds of questions that science couldn't answer. Medawar even stated in the book that he himself did not have a metaphysical bone in his body, but that he respected those who did. This kind of view wasn't so uncommon among the scientists who were my teachers, but now things are different.

How so?

Well, now you have writers and speakers such as Richard Dawkins who have made a career out of popularizing scientism. They are publicly proclaiming in the name of science that there's no knowledge but science and that science has disproved the existence of God. Today there's this new niche for people who claim the authority of science and yet pontificate on things that have nothing to do with science and in which they have no training. When it comes to philosophy and theology, for instance, Dawkins makes errors all the time because he doesn't know what he's talking about.

What are some examples of current scientific theories or ideas that exhibit the traits of scientism?

If it's real science, then it's not scientism. Scientism is taking the mantle of science and claiming for it an authority that it doesn't have. Examples would include scientists who maintain that evolution disproves the existence of God or who say that we exist in a purposeless, random universe. And then there are those physicists who insist that the universe gave rise to itself, or the whole field of what is called evolutionary psychology. These are examples of speculative storytelling that have absolutely no evidence behind them. It's speculation that will never be testable. In my opinion, such claims are closely allied to pseudoscience. It's all very similar to early last century when pseudoscientific fields such as eugenics claimed authority in areas that were previously considered off limits for science, such as ethics and social policy.

How does scientism justify moving into areas traditionally explained by philosophy?

What they say is, "Philosophy has never solved anything. It's just nonsense or religion." They don't realize that they themselves are incapable of answering the really big questions. Take these multiverse theories. Basically, they're just a way to deny that the universe has the appearance of design. "The universe was not designed," these scientists say. "It's just that there are lots and lots of other universes, and we just happen to be in one that's favorable to life." But that doesn't solve the metaphysical problem, does it? Where did all of these universes come from? Who established the rules within each universe? Who established the rules by which new universes are generated?

What about in the area of epistemology?

I don't know whether you've seen the book Where the Conflict Really Lies by the philosopher Alvin Plantinga, but in it he makes the case that if you take the position of scientism literally, then there's no reason why we should believe that anything in science is true. In other words, if everything is just some sort of random product of random forces, then there's no reason to think that we can somehow figure anything out and get it right—to believe that our theories are true. That's really the Achilles heal of the whole scientism enterprise. When we make a decision to accept one scientific theory over another, we are essentially stepping outside of science in that we're using philosophical reasoning. We're making a judgment about whether we believe that the evidence is reasonable—whether it really conclusively decides between two alternative theories. It's almost impossible to imagine how science could exist if there was nothing but science.

What is the difference between the essentialist and institutional theories of science?

Essentialist theories say that something is science only if it exhibits the hallmarks or essential traits of science. In other words, they best support a clear distinction between science and philosophy, as well as a necessary role for each. Institutional theories, on the other hand, argue that science is whatever science says it is. It was an institutional theory that justified the racial science of Nazi Germany, which was basically just pseudoscience based on some misunderstood anthropology. The same is true of Lysenkoism in Russia. If science is whatever science says it is, then it's hard to say why these cases aren't science as well. A lot of times the philosophers of science will say that science is self-correcting; the stuff that is false will eventually be defeated. This is true to some extent, but the defeat of both Nazi and Soviet pseudoscience was due to political factors, not the self-correcting nature of science.

Why is falsifiability a good criterion for what science can and should study?

What I like about it is that, even though it isn't quite a perfect criterion, it does sort of correspond to what scientists actually do. Scientists don't try to verify things. Rather, they try to prove their hypotheses wrong. If they can't prove them wrong, then they tentatively accept them. The philosopher Karl Popper developed this concept partly in response to logical positivism, but I also think he was writing in response to Nazi pseudoscience. One of the characteristics of pseudoscience is that it will come up with hypotheses that sound like science but are in no way testable: "Humans evolved upright posture because . . . whatever." Fill in the blank. I think we need to hold biologists' feet to the fire and say, "Wait a second; give me a testable hypothesis," which I actually believe it is possible to do in evolutionary biology.

If the trend toward scientism continues, what will be the long-term result?

For one thing, it will hurt the credibility of science. Let's say that some scientist announces that science has disproved the existence of God. People in the general public are not going to understand that he is not really speaking for science—that he is expressing a metaphysical or religious opinion using his status as a scientist to prop it up. They will consequently develop a negative attitude toward science. Sure, some people will reject religion because of this claim, but many more will reject science. It's kind of ironic. Richard Dawkins used to have a chair at Oxford that was dedicated to the public understanding of science, but now he is making these sweeping statements about religion that are only hurting the public understanding and appreciation of science.

Is that the only possible negative effect?

No, scientism also undermines science itself. Unlike those in the liberal arts who claim that all discourse is some sort of manipulation of other people, scientists are almost refreshingly naïve in today's academic world in that they believe in truth—or at least many of them do. However, when you start undermining the basis of truth, which comes from philosophical reasoning, scientists themselves will start believing that there's no truth in science. I've actually seen this to some extent—a disturbing trend toward a careerist approach to science. A collaborator once said to me, "You know, it doesn't really matter if it's true if it makes a big splash in a journal such as Nature or Science." I told him, "No, no, no," and the reason I finally gave him, because I knew he wasn't the kind of person I could appeal to with ethical reasoning, was that it would hurt him in the long run.

So the integrity of science gets undermined. What then?

Science itself could disappear. I really believe that this is a possibility. There's this ingrained belief in our culture that science will always progress, but we have no way of being sure that this will in fact happen. Civilizations collapse and disappear. Science is a unique phenomenon that really only appeared once in the history of the world—in Christian Europe. If its philosophical foundations are undercut, then it's very possible that it will disappear. There's also the danger that the misuse of science will become a tool for political tyranny. The two most tyrannical regimes of all time, the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany, both claimed to be scientifically based. Marxism/Leninism was promoted as scientific Socialism, while Hitler claimed that National Socialism was actually applied biology. It's entirely possible that this sort of thing could happen again.

Can this trend toward scientism be reversed, and if so, how?

Yes, it can be reversed, but only if the fields of study that are dismissed by the advocates of scientism show some sort of revival or refuse to go away. I see some signs of this happening in philosophy. When I was in graduate school, all the top philosophy departments in the English-speaking world were totally dominated by the logical positivist school, and I don't think that's true anymore. There is more diversity today. Even people who are Thomists are appearing here and there in state university philosophy departments, and that just wasn't true forty years ago. I think this is a positive sign that the humanities are finally beginning to take their fields back from scientism proponents.

What else can be done?

Science education is also very important. Americans in general don't understand science, so they're easily misled by people making claims in the name of science about things that science really can't address. But improving science education is a difficult thing, especially when the educational establishment believes in scientism. Nonetheless, I think that an emphasis on critical thinking and learning about how science really works, as opposed to teaching science as just a body of knowledge, would go a long way toward weakening the claims of scientism. Think about some of the stuff you read in the Sunday supplement: "A new study has shown that women are more likely than men to do such and such." If the public understood the concept of falsifiability alone, then they'd be like, "Wait a second." That would be a great start toward exposing scientism for what it is. •

From the Salvo 26 Science & Faith Supplement (Fall 2013)
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This article originally appeared in Salvo, Issue #26, Fall 2013 Copyright © 2024 Salvo |


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