The danger of scientific stupidity

BY:Matteo Martini

Translation BY: Costantino Ceoldo

The danger of scientific stupidity

PEJOURNAL – Gomez-Davila, a Colombian philosopher and aphorist, wrote that scientific deceives in three ways:

“Transforming its propositions into norms, divulging its results more than its methods, keeping silent about its epistemological limitations”.

So let’s start from this point: science not only conveys contents and consequently contributes to building a vision of the world, it can also create deceptions, illusions or “perspective errors”. It seems difficult for the average man to get to digest such a statement: the result of a scientific theory is presented to the man on the street, and perceived as an established and consequently incontrovertible truth. A theory or a scientific statement is true as it is scientific.

In reality, this is already the first point of failure: error due to distortion. In fact, modern science, born in the seventeenth century, is above all method: what characterizes it is its method, not its contents. Indeed, by virtue of its method of control and falsification, science aims (or should aim) to continually surpass its contents – and in much of its history it has done so.

Nothing could be more unscientific to assume historically and contingently circumscribed contents, as definitive truth, a description of the “real” world (although the claim that a successful theory is true in bona fide, is legitimate). The average semi-cultured, on the other hand, is more interested in mass culture providing them with a general vision of the world in which to place their need for certainties, rather than in the process of experimental control, the essence of scientific practice that distinguishes them from other languages ​​and others forms of discourse (metaphysics, religion, philosophy, which however also have methodological criteria).

However, science has made the experimental procedure its trademark, in addition to assuming this characteristic as a guarantee of objectivity and “anti-dogmatism” – and at a stage in its history, particularly after the Counter-Reformation, it actually exercised an anti-dogmatic social role and revolutionary. On the contrary, today the semi-cultivated tends to assume the conventionally accepted results of science, rather in an ideological key: to satisfy the need to adhere to a truth that is at the same time a need for certainties.

Another cognitive distortion of the average man of scientolatric orientation is that of taking scientific results as “normative”: scientific discourse is in fact descriptive, not normative and it is not possible to logically deduce imperative conclusions from descriptive premises (“Hume’s law”). Only a highly arbitrary attitude can lead to a social and cultural ethos being based on an intellectual operation that is, on the contrary, descriptive.

Unfortunately, the almost total lack of a widespread epistemological culture has allowed a distorted, even “ideological” view of science: for example, the blaming of alternative theories, actually necessary for science itself, which in many phases is based on the competition of two alternative theories (e.g. the corpuscular theory against the wave theory of light, etc.), the accusation of denial towards those who raise questions of method on certain results, the confusion – in the medical field – between valid results and mere pharmaceutical marketing, the presentation of economic and monetary theories as the only seriously possible and so on.

We know that today in mass culture scientific contents have a high importance in defining what is the image of reality that man cultivates. The problem is that the very image that the average man has of science itself is distorted. It is often forgotten that a scientific description is a simple theory, that is, not reality but an attempt to describe reality.

The success of a theory is something that is hardly understandable for the common man, the more his experience is far from a laboratory or an academic institution. This temporary success is subjected not only to mere algorithms but to human logic, social interests, ostracisms and political, social and economic factors. Whether an anomaly becomes a decisive refutation of a theory or remains an anomaly awaiting explanation is not decided by an algorithm but by the practice and convention of the scientific body.

And often this passage is supported by psychological, personal dynamics etc. so much so that sometimes a paradigm shift requires at least a generational turn over of the academic class – as taught by the historian and philosopher of science T. Kuhn – and not a simple “experiment”.

Today the semiliterate adheres with ideological conviction, often with persistence, to the representative framework provided by the current state of the natural or social sciences, without even knowing that the historical moment in which we have lived for some decades has so much endangered the freedom and independence of scientific research to almost jeopardize its existential status. Think of the situation in which some current medical, biological, climatological, environmental theories, far from being firmly corroborated, appear to be limping on a concrete level but are instead strongly consolidated on the “official” level for decades, due to their functionality to some global agenda or interest groups.

At the same time, adhering to a scientific theory without understanding its methodological nature is a betrayal of science itself: it assumes the features of an ideological identification process, which in this case coincides with the uncritical “conventionalism” of the average man. The human type of the matter lends itself, even politically, to the processes of fanaticization against “dissident” scientists (as supporters of legitimately competing theories), the same processes with which it identifies, for example, political opponents.

The question of the politicization of theoretically more neutral themes, such as those of the natural sciences, is also part of this drift. This generates, in the so-called public opinion, a phenomenon of true scientific “irrationalism”, which at the same time takes on aspects of tribalism and neo-primitivism (the Nobel Prize winner for economics A. Sen coined the category of the “rational fool”, which partly overlaps with these processes).

At the same time, there is a fideism towards “experts”, a neo-mystical figure of pseudo-initiates, whose technicality excludes any possibility of discussion by the profane people, who must accept with respect and reverence the conclusions “shared” by the “scientific community”.

It matters little to deepen how much and to what extent these can really be said to be shared, and especially if the accreditation to such an Assembly of Known Superiors (indeed often real stars) is done on the basis of a screening carried out by the press, rather than on at least really academics. Just as today we see the freedom of the press and information at risk (conditioned by the monopoly of social media and the same conventional media), nevertheless this risk affects scientific communication.

We have already seen in the recent past attitudes of scientific irrationalism, for issues that a correct epistemology would have been able to resolve at least: think of the alleged “scientific” nature of Marxism (there were those who considered socialism a science) or of the scientific status of psychoanalysis. Such phenomena of partisanship, which go far beyond simple scientism (i.e. the claim that scientific discourse is the only correct and possible description of reality), instead invest an even more disastrous cultural aspect: contemporary man risks even of investing his scientific belief in scientific theories already potentially outdated, or widely contestable, but socially and politically approved, for reasons that do not concern processes of knowledge at all.

We are on the verge where horror slips into the grotesque. The dangers of scientific irrationalism are typical of our era, perhaps much more than in other eras of the past in which freedom of thought was less, yet honesty and intellectual rigor were greater.

We have understood that at this moment it is necessary to bring the general public closer to the themes of the philosophy of science, of the method, of the limits of scientific discourse and of the relationship between it and other knowledge, other structures of thought.

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