Miscellany: On the incoherence of “follow-the-science” as a political slogan and other topics

On the incoherence of “follow-the-science” as a political slogan:

The proposition that water = dihydrogen oxide may serve to illustrate the incoherence of the slogan above. We need only consider that an exhaustive physical analysis of water would yet remain totally silent about what water is. “What?” the objection will run, “isn’t that precisely what the scientific statement was meant to establish?” The objection is plausible only by resting on an equivocation between what something is and what that thing is made of (i.e. Aristotle’s formal and material causes, respectively). Someone who thinks they are the same thing should insist on being identified by his elementary chemical constituents.

The scientific statement must also remain silent about water being good. “Wait,” the objection will run, “whether something is ‘good’ is not a scientific question.” And indeed, the objection has merely confirmed the thesis of this investigation so it is only valid insofar as it is seen to corroborate rather than to disprove the assertion that the injunction to follow the science makes no sense. To assert, on the other hand, that the goodness of a thing is indeed a scientific question, depends on an inadequate grasp of the scientific method and hence it is fundamentally unsound.

It is incoherent to say “follow the science because it’s bad to follow the science” because, by definition, for something to be bad to do is a reason not to do it. It is also incoherent to say “follow the science because it is neither good nor bad but totally impartial and neutral to follow the science.” If this were true, it would provide no grounds to prefer to follow the science over preferring not to follow it or any other thing. The only valid injunction would be “follow the science because it’s good to do that, or better than any alternative at least.” But there’s the rub: it was already established that science has nothing to say about the goodness of anything and hence to affirm that a thing should be done for the sake of following the science is unsound. It would have to be wondered on what authority the injunction to “follow the science” is being issued, since it has already been established that whether something should or should not be done lies entirely beyond the pale of science.

But another person might object, without appeal to science, that water is not truly good and thereby attempt to disassemble the argument from its other end. To begin with, it may be advised that anyone who wonders about whether water is good take a journey in the Grand Canyon without water. The elegance of this experiment lies in the fact that it makes not the slightest difference whether water is made from hydrogen and oxygen, or whether the Grand Canyon was the result of erosion by an ancient river or a cleft from Jove’s thunderbolt. In other words, the proof can be a self-evident object of direct experience. A person might concede that water is good when one is thirsty and nevertheless maintain that sometimes water is very bad, as in a flood or tsunami. It is possible to meet this objection in many ways, but even if it were granted, it still does not contradict the goodness of water. All that it proves is that the perception of the different qualities of something depends on establishing the proper conditions for observation. All cows are grey at night and to see colour, observation has to be carried out in conditions that provide for it. Similarly, in order to perceive the goodness of water, certain conditions must be in place while others will not provide for this perception. Being thirsty, for instance, is liable to result in a direct perception of water’s goodness. That water is good is not a scientific fact, and yet it is true.

In principle, science and religion cannot be directly compared because one is seeking to measure, describe, and quantify the world while the other is teaching us how to live. In one of the scenes in the beginning of the Gospel of Matthew, the devil tells Jesus to prove that he is the Christ and “turn these stones into bread.” Jesus says “man does not live by bread alone, but by every word which proceedeth from the mouth of God.” The quote is from memory so it might not be verbatim, but I think it suffices to make the point: we cannot live by empirical facts alone. Anyone who thinks he can merely shows that the values by which he orders his life remain unconscious to him. Where (i.e. whence) we derive our values is another question that is separate from whether we may have them.

On the words “abstract” and “concrete”:

People tend to use the words abstract and concrete in a colloquial sense that is not incorrect, per se, but which is regrettable in that it replaces a usage of the terms which could shed light on one of the primary obstacles to humanity in our time. I understand that the statement may be hyperbolic but I believe I can justify it, at least impressionistically, in a couple paragraphs below. A more thorough treatment is in the works but, for now, will have to wait. Colloquially, “abstract” is conceived as a synonym for immaterial or non-quantitative. Basically, it is related to anything that a person cannot sink his teeth into, or grasp with one or more of the five senses. “Concrete,” by contrast, is conceived as a synonym for material, measurable, and perceptible to the physical senses. One suspects that the soul of this word, which stems from the Latin con– (“with,” “together”) + crescere (“to grow”), was drawn into the orbit of the material perception of the cement aggregate which has gone by that name ever since its invention and designation as such in the nineteenth century. In other words, it is likely that before this term, the word “concrete” was not so firmly bound to its present connotations. Again, the definitions of “abstract” and “concrete” offered above are not incorrect, just as it is not incorrect to equate psychological extraversion with sociability and introversion with shyness as is commonly done in colloquial usage. But, by the same token, these colloquial equations do not exhaust the significance of these words and, indeed, they threaten to mute their further semantic resonances.

Allow us, then, attempt to arrive at a more comprehensive grasp of these two terms. I will stipulate a general definition of each of them in turn, before proceeding with a brief commentary. Something is abstract insofar as it is considered apart from its context. Conversely, something considered concretely is that thing considered in its actual manifestation, which always already implies a (virtually infinite) but specific context. In this way, concrete thinking could be thought of as realistic or ecological thinking. Carl Sagan had a supremely evocative way of pointing out the essence of concreteness when he said that “in order to invent an apple pie from scratch, you would first have to invent the universe.” He is not speaking as a scientist per se when he says this because the scientific method consists precisely in the movement of abstraction. This passes under the rubric of “isolating variables.” A great deal can be discovered when objects and beings are considered in abstraction but a great deal will be overlooked insofar as we forget the fact that abstraction is an artificial condition and not a realistic one. 

As a final note, the rhetorical device known as “metonymy,” or more precisely, “synecdoche” presents perhaps the most accurate illustration of the process of abstraction. A synecdoche is characterized by a designation of something by a part or an aspect of that thing. Hence, when Antony says in Julius Caesar: “Friends, Romans, Countrymen, lend me your ears” he is referring to the whole person of body and soul as the locus of attention by a single anatomic feature. Day labourers are sometimes called “hired hands” and European royalty were sometimes designated by the colour of their blood, which was apparently tinged blue as the possible result of argyria, or excessive silver consumption as a result of repeated and prolonged exposure to silverware residue. In any case, abstraction also functions by identifying a single element of a phenomenon and treating it as a representative of the whole. The difference is that while synecdoche is generally intentional and generally serves to complement rather than to diminish our experience of the whole, the cognitive process of abstraction often proceeds instinctively and its products serve as placeholders and, all too often, replacements for the concrete phenomenon from which they were derived. Scientific investigation, for example, often proceeds by abstracting a specific phenomenon from its context and then further abstracting the quantifiable elements of the first abstraction from the phenomenon in question. Hence, the scientific method can be seen as abstraction² or abstraction to the second power.

On the corruption of peer-review and Wikipedia:

The standardisation of sources of information to officially sanctioned channels like Wikipedia and peer-review has been set forth as a solution to the apparent terrorist threat of misinformation, but the threat is not real and neither is the solution. It is clearly a cynical ploy to manufacture consent that has very little to do with truth, to say the least, and it is even antithetical to bona fide science. Peer-review, for instance, is susceptible to a number of perverse incentives with the result that it has often come to function more as a way to shore up consensus and to signal allegiance with one or another standpoint than to get to the truth of things. Wikipedia, similarly, precisely because of the good reputation that it garnered during the first decade or so of its operation, has attracted all manner of ulterior interests. If you are the CEO of a weapons manufacturing firm, for instance, it pays off to pay full time employees to keep vigil over the Wikipedia entries on geopolitics, or other things. The same goes, mutatis mutandis, for the CEO of a pharmaceutical company, or any other interest with sufficient resources to buy this kind of influence. It’s sad and somewhat ironic that it is precisely the reputable image that Wikipedia first secured that made it prey to the situation today. In other words, the kind of manipulation that I attempted to illustrate is parasitic on the trust that Wikipedia first had to establish. Unfortunately, there is probably no symbiosis here, unless you can count the possibility that money is changing hands, and the result, instead, is a weakening of the host. All of this being said, if it is possible to limit one’s queries to subjects that are likely to fall outside of vested interest—like a Benzene ring or the migratory pattern of Arctic Terns—then Wikipedia remains a fantastic resource.

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14 Comments Add yours

  1. I didn’t even have to read the post before I “liked” it. I know exactly what you mean.

    When Obama responded in an interview to a question about his endorsement of Monsanto-esque biotechnology as the answer to all our “feeding the world” ills, he said “we have to ‘go with the science’.” And I went: ???!!!!! Whose “science?” Monsanto’s? No, thank you.

    “The world provides enough for every man’s need, but not every man’s greed.” ~ Ghandi If we’re really concerned about “feeding the world,” we need to think in terms of distribution of existant wealth, not reengineering Nature in our image.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Max Leyf says:

      thanks, InfiniteWarrior. this refrain of “follow the science” seems to work like a sort of spell. i don’t know how to counter it except to expose it.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. You’re well-versed enough (more than enough, actually) to expose it in terms the “follow the science” crowd might actually understand. Provided, of course, they allow enough wiggle room to admit when and where their “mental” capacities come to a screeching halt.

        Liked by 3 people

    2. Max Leyf says:

      perhaps, but i think the primary obstacle to critical thinking is not intelligence but pride and i think my power to bring about a moral conversion is very tenuous, to say the least. and it’s more than a full time job to get my own house in order, which i suppose i should take care of before preaching to others. 😜

      still, as we both agree, this black magic has to be stopped before it does us all in.

      Liked by 3 people

      1. Indeed. “Pride goeth before a fall” and all that. Still, free-falling has been good for us in that the “ground” is rushing up to meet us. 😉

        Liked by 1 person

      2. BTB: I recommend David Loy’s ‘Suffering System’ every opportunity that presents itself, but…. In it, he writes:

        There are many aspects to institutionalized delusion. One of them is an extraordinary level of simple ignorance in the United States regarding basic history, geography, and science. Is there any other “advanced” nation where three times as many people believe in Satan and the virgin birth as in evolution?

        Obviously, Loy hasn’t seriously considered the original meanings of “Satan” and “the virgin birth” or the fact that scientific theories aren’t something to be “believed” in, but which have informed our understanding of the Cosmos and, very often, essentially just confirm our own intuitions (as in the case of climate breakdown) or he wouldn’t be so dismissive of them. Incidentally, Thich Nhat Hanh himself suffered from a smidge of “our way is the best and most correct way”-ism.

        Liked by 2 people

      3. Max Leyf says:

        very well said. thanks InfiniteWarrior!

        “Incidentally, Thich Nhat Hanh himself suffered from a smidge of “our way is the best and most correct way”-ism.”

        can you elaborate on this a little more?

        Liked by 1 person

      4. If you’ve read his books; listened to his dharma talks; etc.; he has — on the very rare occasion — implied that Buddhism has it exactly right and every other tradition is — well, a bit confused. It’s perfectly fine to take pride in one’s tradition; quite another to insist (or imply) that that tradition has the only “right” map. For example, he’s said things, e.g. “People usually consider walking on water or in thin air a miracle. But I think the real miracle is not to walk either on water or in thin air, but to walk on earth…. Everything is a miracle.” In that case, “walking on water” or “walking in thin air” is just as miraculous as “walking on the Earth.”

        It doesn’t seem to me he fully comprehended what the story of Jesus having “walked on water” and “calmed the sea” during the storm means. I don’t blame him for that. He was raised in Buddhism, not Christianity, but obviously respected the Christian tradition immensely and was absolutely committed to his mission of advocating peace in the world, else he wouldn’t have written a book titled, “Living Buddha, Living Christ” that bridges Eastern and Western traditions beautifully. Folk stories were probably just not his thing, but just so happen to be right up my alley.

        Some don’t like Hanh’s writings. They think them too “simple” or, worse, simple-minded, but they’re actually quite subtle and powerful. He wasn’t immune, though, to the occasional bout of overweening pride. Nearly immune, maybe. 🙂

        Liked by 2 people

      5. Max Leyf says:

        That makes sense re Thich Nhat Hanh. At the same time, I find it refreshing when someone is willing to stand firmly in his or her tradition and this is not really compatible with saying “every other tradition is just as good as my own.” It is a sort of loyalty that I respect. Of course, any virtue can turn into its opposite through excess as well as through deficiency.

        Regarding the article: I think “The Myth of Theuth” is Plato at his best. I have found it immensely stimulating to imagine the bards in ancient times being kindled by inspiration to serve as mouthpieces for the gods. It’s extraordinary to reflect on where those stories “existed” at that time. Today we imagine they lie somewhere in a library or on a database. But in that time, the stories where phenomena, like rainbows.

        Liked by 1 person

      6. I find it refreshing when someone is willing to stand firmly in his or her tradition and this is not really compatible with saying “every other tradition is just as good as my own.”

        How so? I’ve always thought every other branch of the world tree, spiritually-speaking, is as good as my own; that they’ve all arisen from the same source; and that the differences are primarily cultural. For example, while there is actually some Cherokee ancestry in my family tree and I do broadly understand Native American culture to an extent, I wasn’t born into or trained in the lifeway of the Cherokee. (Those ancestors are a few generations removed.) Ergo, no way would I ever be considered Cherokee, but that doesn’t make the lifeway of the Cherokee any better or worse than my own, if that makes sense. I honor and respect the Cherokee lifeway as much as I do my own or any other.

        Or are we misunderstanding each other? If you’re referring to the tendency among some of us to take some attractive ideas from over there and mix them up with some attractive ideas over here and make spiritual salad of them, we’re probably on the same page. As someone once put it, “we need certain handholds on our faith,” but the “spiritual salad” approach seems to me more like hopping around on monkey bars. There’s no consistency to it, if that makes sense.

        Liked by 2 people

      7. Max Leyf says:

        If every path is the same, then why should someone commit to one or the other? Why be loyal to one when they are all equal? But taking every path means taking no path.

        I hope this clarifies what I am trying to say. While it might be correct, in principle, to affirm a general equivalence in value, in practice it leads to a sort of lukewarm spirituality and a general feebleness of resolve.

        Liked by 2 people

      8. Speaking of “the incoherence of” (fill_in_the_blank) political slogan, I think we should step back and ponder what we think we think we mean by “equivalence” and “equality” in the West. But — oh wait. We were pondering that at one point. And stumbled right over its appropriate and shared meaning.

        I mention this here not because I want to mar the pages of your beautiful blog with talk about the decidedly not “integral politics” being practiced today (last thing I would ever want to do, actually), but because I think our confusion of oneness (or unity) with sameness is all but completely thorough in the West and has to do with our confusion of equality and totality.

        If nothing else, I fervently wish everyone had heard what Jordan Peterson was saying about the danger of confusing equality of opportunity with equality of outcome in the interview with Cathy Newman few actually heard. Instead, of course, most immediately pulled out the torches and pitchforks to skewer Peterson for his supposed “alt-rightness”. If we had heard what Jordan Peterson was actually saying, we might have understood that much of our clamoring for “equality” is actually a clamoring for sameness in a hegemonic system and hardly the diversity on “equal” footing we say we so desire and appreciate. If that’s what we really want, we need to allow the systemic transformation necessary to create the conditions for it to occur “naturally” rather than succumbing to the siren call for what is essentially “sameness of outcome.”

        Liked by 2 people

      9. Max Leyf says:

        i couldn’t agree more with your take on this. thanks.

        Liked by 1 person

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