Thoughts on Nature’s essay: "We cannot live by scepticism alone"

In this week’s issue of Nature, Professor Harry Collins, Director of the of Centre for the Study of Knowledge Expertise Science at Cardiff University publishes an essay entitled: “We cannot live by scepticism alone”.

In a refreshing way, Prof Collins gives a background to the way that social sciences have perceived the scientific world: First by regarding Science as the ultimate form of knowledge, and secondly with skepticism. He then moves on to propose a new model of understanding the impact of Science on today’s societies – a model which he calls “elective modernism”, as opposed to the current trend of POST-modernism that influences much of Western thinking today.

He writes: We must choose, or ‘elect’, to put the values that underpin scientific thinking back in the centre of our world; we must replace post-modernism with ‘elective modernism’. To support this, social scientists must work out what is right about science, not just what is wrong — we cannot live by scepticism alone. Natural scientists, too, have a part to play: they must reflect on and recognize the limits of their practice and their understanding. Together, we must choose to live in a society that recognizes the value of experience and expertise.

The primary drive of this proposal seems to be a growing misunderstanding of the limitations of Science, especially by scientists who virtually deny that those limitations actually exist because of their a priori postulation that the natural world is all that there is.

Writing about the Big War between scientists and social constructivists in the 1990’s, Collins writes: The conclusions of most of us were moderate: science could not deliver the absolute certainties of religion or morality, and scientists were not priests but rather skilful artisans, reaching towards universal truths but inevitably falling short. Far from being anti-science, we were trying to safeguard science against the danger of claiming more than it could deliver. If science presents itself as revealed truth it will inevitably disappoint, inviting a dangerous reaction; even the most talented craftsmen have their off-days, whereas a god must never fail. (my emphasis).

Prof Collins’ point is to encourage scientists to take and promote the fact the science is, by definition, limited. He wants scientists to be realistic and “teach fallibility” to a society that increasingly bestows upon them the role of moral leadership because it is also increasingly discarding and relativising its own ethical and moral standards.

Another quote: “If we are to choose the values that underpin scientific thinking to underpin society, scientists must think of themselves as moral leaders. But they must teach fallibility, not absolute truth. Whenever a scientist, acting in the name of science, cheats, cynically manipulates, claims to speak with the voice of capitalism, the voice of a god, or even the voice of a doctrinaire atheist, it diminishes not only science but the whole of our society.”

But, sadly, that’s as far as Prof Collins will go: Science is uncertain, but it might be all we have. We can’t be skeptical about it every time it doesn’t flow with Popper’s falsifiability standard (e.g.Joseph Weber’s gravitational waves in the 1960’s) but in the same time, we can’t grant it powers of divine and absolute revelation. Still, we must encourage it to take the reins of modern society – but always under the shield of open debate.

Towards the end, Prof Collins praises scientific discovery over “religion’s revealed truths” and claims that it is better grounding for the structural basis of society – so long as Science does not propagate delusions of certainty.

Reading this essay, I think it’s obvious that Prof Collins is not religious in any way. I would also dare to disagree with his proposition of a purely scientific society on the grounds that a) given his admitted uncertainty of science, it would ultimately produce a narrow and jelly-like foundation that, in the possibility of overturn would leave only destructive anarchy behind it with nothing to fall back on; b) it would illogically and unnecessarily close off the exploration of non-scientific dimensions, and c) it would turn scientific expertise from a noble goal into an unprecedented and unchallenged global political power-play with far-reaching repercussions.

Having said that, I do applaud Prof Collins for bringing the issue of scientific uncertainty into such sharp relief. And those of us who are Christians should take note, especially in an increasingly secularised world that wants the Christian worldview out of the public forum ASAP on the grounds that it has no validity in light of contemporary scientific progress. Strange, considering that it was that Christian worldview in the first place that, at least in the West, gave birth and sustenance to the scientific process.

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