When Science Looks Like Religion

The battle for the claim to which tribe is truly “scientific” has again heated up. Fueled by a prickly exchange between Michael Shermer, assuming the liberals-are-anti-science corner in Scientific American, and Mother Jones‘ Chris Mooney, who literally wrote the book on how bad conservatives are at science, writers for different blogs and magazines  put forth their best pitches for their own team. This is hardly the first time this debate has occurred. After all, no intelligent person of any worldview wants to be told that they are actually the ones who have been wasting time admiring the shadows on the cave wall. However, as Stan wrote on Friday, most sides in political discussions have moral inclinations that align with scientific evidence at least part of the time. This means that there is a high likelihood that different political groups will be “right” on certain issues, although not for the right reasons. In rushing to claim the mantle of scientific backing, political groups merely seek and publicize scientific findings that reinforce their priors.

Humanity has a bad track record of selectively appealing to authority to justify our biases. For much of human history, public figures would defend their positions by demonstrating how they coincided with their god’s will or expectations. The respective gods’ wills and expectations of the world’s major religions have consistently changed according to the new needs and developments of their more modern adherents (save for a tiny minority of orthodox groups). This could either suggest that all of their gods happened to be hip, understandable deities that conveniently mellowed over time (humorous, but unlikely) or that the spiritual leadership of these religions simply lowered the moral standard that modern living was expected to meet. Like our modern tendency to cover our personal biases with the veneer of science, God’s will became less of an end and more of a means.

As this recent episode demonstrates, today, intellectual opinions and policy proposals are defended by appealing to a new higher authority: science. This is, of course, a significant improvement. The scientific method is the best approach that we have developed to remove human bias in empirical inquiry to date. It’s nice to live in a world where assertions are expected to be backed by evidence and weighed against alternative explanations, despite the fact that some people use it to reinforce, rather than challenge, their priors. However, the tendency for laypeople to blindly embrace whatever is described to them as “science” as a moral truth is no more comforting a standard than the one that preceded it. In replacing gods with the scientific method, might we run the risk of mistaking the scientific method for a god, free of error and human bias

Even practitioners of science from time to time fall prey to a religious preference for dogmatism over detached truth-seeking. During last week’s discussion on which political group is “better” at science, one of my friends posted an interview of psychologist Jonathan Haidt from last year. In it, evolutionary biologist David Sloan Wilson poses the question de rigueur, to which Haidt delivers an even-handed response: conservatives and liberals are both “bad” at the science that offends their moral sensibilities. In Europe, for instance, it is the left that is generally regarded as anti-science because much of the research conducted in those countries-on nuclear power and genetically-modified foods-tends to push the left’s buttons and invokes their public ire. In the US, it is the religious right who doles scorn and obstruction upon scientists who conduct taboo research on, say, biotechnology or climate change. So far, so good.

It is when Haidt draws comparisons between science and religion that he first draws the skepticism of his interviewer and things get interesting. Wilson acknowledges that scientists are not exempt from the biases that make us all human, but suggests that the mechanisms they have developed to minimize their influence-like peer review, empirical standards, and open discussion-largely squashes any scientist’s attempts to merely affirm his moral matrix by disguising it as science. Haidt agrees that it is possible for the scientific community to internally police their collective proclivities to search for the answers that they want to find rather than the answer that is most likely correct. However, Haidt suggests that these internal mechanisms will only properly function when a given body of  scientists is diverse enough to contain alternative points of view and detached enough to not allow emotional connections to cloud their better judgments towards their cherished subjects of inquiry.

The Norwegian documentary Hjernevask created by comedian Harald Eia provides one good example of how adherence to the standard social science model has taken a turn towards the canonical in the narrator’s home country. Throughout the seven part series, Eia first visits his old sociology professors that taught him everything he knew about gender, race, and class differences; namely, that they are almost completely culturally determined and it is unthinkable to suggest otherwise. Next, Eia travels to globe to consult big name international experts-luminaries like Steven Pinker, Simon Baron-Cohen, and David Buss-on their differing opinions on the matter. Needless to say, these gentleman found several problems with the hard cultural determinism of the Norwegian sociologists, particularly concerning the sociologists’ ambivalence towards twin study research that suggests that significant portions of our personality are biologically, not culturally, determined.

In formulaic fashion, during each episode Eia returns to the sociologists to which he originally spoke and shows them the videos of their ideological opponents across the pond. Rather than responding to these criticisms with research results that support their positions or cast doubt on their adversaries’, the sociologists that were interviewed simply waved away the critiques. The inconvenient studies were either “not interesting,” or “contrary to what [the sociologist] felt and experienced.” Ironically, many of these sociologists accused the other scientists of only looking for the biological explanation that they wanted to find, despite the fact that all of the British and American scientists readily conceded that culture does account for a small part of our personality outcomes. Because the Norwegian sociological community is not diverse enough and is too emotionally connected with its subject of inquiry, this academic body acts less like a scientific group and more like a religious sect.

The claim that science is like a religion is a bold one. It certainly caught David Sloan Wilson off guard when Haidt first suggested it. After Haidt pressed Wilson to consider his own (decidedly unpleasant) experience introducing the concept of multi-level selection to his peers and subsequently invoking their reflexive hostilities, the claim became less abstract and more convincing. Science is not religion, but if the proper safeguards to prevent groupthink and emotional attachment are not present within a discipline, it can sometimes function like one. Like our ancestor’s tendency to slap their preferences with the Word of God to make it a moral truth, some modern social scientists also continue to fall prey to the false allure of deifying their preferences under the guise of “science.”

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