2014 : WHAT SCIENTIFIC IDEA IS READY FOR RETIREMENT?

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Ivan Allen College Distinguished Chair in Media Studies; Professor of Interactive Computing; Professor, Scheller School of Business, Georgia Institute of Technology; Contributing Editor, The Atlantic; Author, What its Like to Be a Thing
"Science"


“No topic is left unexplored,” reads the jacket blurb of The Science of Orgasm, a 2006 book by an endocrinologist, a neuroscientist, and a “sexologist.” A list of topics covered includes the genital-brain connection and how the brain produces orgasms. The result, promises the jacket blurb, “illuminates the hows, whats, and wherefores of orgasm.”

Its virtues or faults notwithstanding, The Science of Orgasm exemplifies a trend that has become nearly ubiquitous in popular discourse: that a topic can be best and most thoroughly understood from the vantage point of “science.” How common is this approach? Google Books produces nearly 150 million search results for the phrase “the science of”—including dozens of books with the quip in their titles. The science of smarter spending; the science of composting; the science of champagne; the science of fear; the science of acting; the list goes on.

“The science of X” is one example of the rhetoric of science—the idea that anything called “science” is science—but not the only one. There’s also “scientists have shown” or its commoner shorthand “studies show,” phrases that make appeals to the authority of science whether or not the conclusions they summarize bear any resemblance to the purported studies from which those conclusions were derived.

Both of these tendencies could rightly be accused of scientism, the view that empirical science entails the most complete, authoritative, and valid approach to answering questions about the world. Scientism isn’t a newly erroneous notion, but its an increasingly popular one. Recently, Stephen Hawking pronounced philosophy “dead” because it hasn’t kept up with advances in physics. Scientism assumes that the only productive way to understand the universe is through the pursuit of science, and that all other activities are lesser at best, pointless at worst.

And to be sure, the rhetoric of science has arisen partly as thanks to scientism.  “Science of X” books and research findings traceable to an origin in apparently scientific experimentation increasingly take the place of philosophical, interpretive, and reflective accounts of the meaning and importance of activities of all kinds. Instead of pondering the social practices of sparkling wine and its pleasures, we ponder what the size of its bubbles indicates about its quality, or why that effervescence lasts longer in a modern, fluted glass as opposed to a wider champagne coupe.

But the rhetoric of science doesn’t just risk the descent into scientism. It also gives science sole credit for something that it doesn’t deserve: an attention to the construction and operation of things. Most of the “science of X” books look at the material form of their subject, be it neurochemical, computational, or economic. But the practice of attending to the material realities of a subject has no necessary relationship to science at all. Literary scholars study the history of the book, including its material evolution from clay tablet to papyrus to codex. Artists rely on a deep understanding of the physical mediums of pigment, marble, or optics when they fashion creations. Chefs require a sophisticated grasp of the chemistry and biology of food in order to thrive in their craft. To think that science has a special relationship to observations about the material world isn’t just wrong, it’s insulting.

Beyond encouraging people to see science as the only direction for human knowledge and absconding with the subject of materiality, the rhetoric of science also does a disservice to science itself. It makes science look simple, easy, and fun, when science is mostly complex, difficult, and monotonous.

A case in point: the popular Facebook page “I f*cking love science” posts quick-take variations on the “science of x” theme, mostly images and short descriptions of unfamiliar creatures like the pink fairy armadillo, or illustrated birthday wishes to famous scientists like Stephen Hawking. But as the science fiction writer John Skylar rightly insisted in a fiery takedown of the practice last year, most people don’t f*cking love science, they f*cking love photography—pretty images of fairy armadillos and renowned physicists. The pleasure derived from these pictures obviates the public’s need to understand how science actually gets done—slowly and methodically, with little acknowledgement and modest pay in unseen laboratories and research facilities.

The rhetoric of science has consequences. Things that have no particular relation to scientific practice must increasingly frame their work in scientific terms to earn any attention or support. The sociology of Internet use suddenly transformed into “web science.” Long accepted practices of statistical analysis have become “data science.” Thanks to shifting educational and research funding priorities, anything that can’t claim that it is a member of a STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) field will be left out in the cold. Unfortunately, the rhetoric of science offers the most tactical response to such new challenges. Unless humanists reframe their work as “literary science,” they risk getting marginalized, defunded and forgotten.

When you’re selling ideas, you have to sell the ideas that will sell. But in a secular age in which the abstraction of “science” risks replacing all other abstractions, a watered-down, bland, homogeneous version of science is all that will remain if the rhetoric of science is allowed to prosper.

We need not choose between God and man, science and philosophy, interpretation and evidence. But ironically, in its quest to prove itself as the supreme form of secular knowledge, science has inadvertently elevated itself into a theology. Science is not a practice so much as it is an ideology. We don’t need to destroy science in order to bring it down to earth. But we do need to bring it down to earth again, and the first step in doing so is to abandon the rhetoric of science that has become its most popular devotional practice.