Evolution Icon Evolution
Physics, Earth & Space Icon Physics, Earth & Space

Can Science Survive Long in a Post-Modern World?


It’s not clear. Metaphysical naturalism insists that there is no design in nature and that nature is all there is. But mark what follows: Design in nature explains nothing, irrespective of the evidence. Any other proposition, no matter how unlikely, has at least an infinitesimal chance of being greater than zero.

However unpromising string theory and cosmic inflation theory prove and even if the multiverse they support is science’s assisted suicide, these theories can be abandoned only by another naturalist theory, even if it does not work any better. Maintaining the system entails downgrading the value of and discounting the accurate perception of evidence.  With broad acceptance, the system might prevail apart from evidence. But a lingering demand for evidence has shown cracks that are beginning to widen: There are clear signals that nature is not all there is.

The intellectual costs of metaphysical naturalism are rising rapidly. Traditional “modern science” naturalists viewed supernaturalism as the chief danger to science. To permanently exclude the supernatural, post-modern naturalists have gone well beyond their forebears. They have thrown away reason, which is problematic because reason points to a truth outside nature. They have reinvented reason as an evolved illusion rather than a guide to truth. And, in a cruel but inevitable irony, they liberated superstition from modern science’s jail.

For those who believe in it, reason has always provided a check on superstition. But post-modernists, who dismiss reason as a form of oppression and evidence as unnecessary to high science, cannot simply dismiss such fields as astrology and witchcraft. If everyone’s truth is as true as everyone else’s truth, scientists must lobby for their truths as an interest group in a frenzied market.

The populations most affected by post-modernism tend to be more superstitious than those that resist post-modernism. They are also much more likely to dismiss academic freedom. Contemporary science conflicts are beginning to reflect these shifts.

Modern science,  beginning in Europe in the 18th century, has been dominated by educated European men. But their dominance was not a principle of science. The principles were the laws and theorems that apply an internationally recognized thought pattern to nature. “Hidden figures” who sought and gained equality applied the same principles to the same effect.

But for post-modernists, philosopher of science Paul Feyerabend (1924–1994) provided liberation:  “Anything goes.” One outcome is that social justice activists have shifted away from helping marginalized people qualify in science toward questioning its principles, supposedly on behalf of the oppressed.

We hear that objectivity is “cultural discrimination” (or sexist), Newtonian physics is exploitative, mathematics is a “dehumanizing tool” (if not white privilege), and algebra creates hurdles for disadvantaged groups. And mavericks in science are a problem because they tend to be wealthy, white, and male.

These post-modern talking points are launched from American education faculties. It may be relevant that the United States spends far more on public education but gets far less than many developed countries. Do public educators find it convenient to focus attention on the personal attributes of current scientists and away from their own policies, practices, and performance?

Many hope that these attacks on science’s core disciplines are a passing fad. Unfortunately, when biology professors Bret Weinstein and Heather Heying were targeted by social justice mobs at Evergreen State College, the message was clear: Attacks on core science values (like just teaching science) are inevitable, not random, outcomes of post-modernism.

Perhaps Big Science today cannot recognize that. Spurred by media interest in the March for Women (January 2017), scientists worried about the new  U.S. administration organized a March for Science (April 2017). The editors of Nature endorsed the March and advised scientists concerned about the possibility that activists would hijack the event to “shout louder” than the activists:

Yes, there is a risk, as critics claim, that the march and the wider protest it hopes to symbolize could be diluted or even sidetracked by any number of special interests. Yet there is a straightforward solution for scientists who are concerned about this: turn up and shout louder about what you think matters more.

Actually, hijacking wasn’t a mere risk; given the political climate, it was a certainty. In any event, the average academic scientist is hardly equipped to make a case by shouting louder than committed activists.

Thoughtful critics worried about the naivete the less politicized Marchers demonstrated, for example, at PNAS: “Let’s march to stress the value of science for the public good, not to engage in partisan politics.” One critic labeled this utopian approach “an unscientific conception of human action.” That’s because most major, long-standing political controversies are not Science at War with its Enemies; both sides have at least some science on their side.

It wasn’t long before March politics assumed a familiar political voice. Bill Nye the Science Guy was scheduled to lead the March but complaints arose that he was too white. Adding non-celebrity women scientists addressed that problem but Nye’s role in videos such as “My Sex Junk“* and “Ice Cream Sex” wasn’t a hot button. Nor was his sympathy for prosecuting scientists who doubt human-caused global warming claims.

Celeb astrophysicist and science popularizer Neil deGrasse Tyson, who has stated that there is a 50-50 chance that we are living in a computer simulation, worried on cue that “science denial” could erode democracy. But science denial appears to mean mere lack of support for currently popular views. One would have welcomed a strong stand for academic freedom among scientists instead.

Wesley J. Smith put his finger on that problem at First Things: Science is never truly settled.

So-called junk DNA that does not encode proteins was, until relatively recently, thought by a large majority of scientists to have no purpose, and was even used as evidence of random and purposeless evolution. But continuing investigations in the field led to the discovery that most “junk DNA” actually serves important biological functions. Think what might have happened if scientists seeking to continue exploring this area of inquiry had been warned away because of the “scientific consensus.”

What might have happened? Activists would score a victory and research would languish. That is the central problem: Science, unlike social justice activism, is not a demand that the government do something (or else!). As Retraction Watch and similar sources of information document, most of the problems today are actually on the scientists’ own desks and cannot be resolved by marching elsewhere.

Nature reported very recently that trouble is brewing over the direction of the March for Science: “The volunteers also claim that the organization sidelined and stonewalled experienced activists who wanted the movement to focus on how science can be used in ways that perpetuate racism, sexism and other forms of discrimination.” Evaluating the complaint,  the March organizers might wish to reflect on how activism has affected the credibility of the social sciences.

We might have guessed blindly that post-modernism (anything goes!) would lead to more academic freedom. So why is it not working out that way? The problem is that post-modernism is not about freedom as such. It is the assertion that there is no truth to be sought, no facts to be found, that are true for everyone. Everyone is entitled to feel as they wish.

That said, some feelings matter more to public policy than others. If dissent from claims about human-caused global warming affects Bill Nye’s ”quality of life as a public citizen,” the authors of hundreds of recent papers could face sanctions tougher than mere disapproval in the academy. We learned recently from Chemistry World that suppression of academic freedom is now a global crisis.

Science has never been easy in less free parts of the world. But one factor exacerbating the current crisis is surely this: Post-modern science cannot provide nearly as much moral support as modern science. The modernist thought he knew facts external to himself, facts that were important, unknown in past times, and available to everyone in principle. If those facts (post-facts?) can be deconstructed, a foreign scientist’s conflict with his government is one of countless identity crises, one that is perhaps without further significance elsewhere.

“Post-truth” was Oxford’s word of the year for 2016. The terms post-normal science, post-fact science, and “post-truth” science are current. If the activists win the March for Science struggle, they will inherit a discipline which has been gradually conforming itself to their mindset anyway.

Naturalism has brought science a long way — from a quest to understand nature all the way to a program to address social status. But it can go a step further: Given its many metaphysical claims, naturalist science’s social role would be enhanced if it became a sort of state religion. There are precedents. Darwinian philosopher Michael Ruse points out that Darwinism functions that way in public venues like museums. A state religion’s key advantage is the political power to decide the Top Facts, even in an age of post-fact science.

*Bill Nye’s “My Sex Junk” is still listed at YouTube but is no longer available there, due to copyright claims by Netfix. It was, however, extensively discussed (nearly 600,000 Google search results).

Photo credit: Becker1999 (March for Science, Washington, DC) [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons.