What is Scientism? What is Science?

Broad fields of human activity such as art and science are difficult to pin down with a dictionary definition. The same is true of many isms, whether we are discussing capitalism, socialism or scientism. So if we’re going to argue that scientism is not science, we have to start by explaining what each one entails.

In an essay for the AAAS, while arguing that scientism is not part of science, Thomas Burnett, of the John Templeton Foundation, defines science as “an activity that seeks to explore the natural world using well-established, clearly-delineated methods.” Putting aside that science explores more than just the natural world—-we could use science to investigate the properties of elements that are completely artificial; or to look into the health-side effects of titanium implants— are the methods consistently and clearly delineated? Physicist Philip Moriarty does not think so. He argues that experimental science is a lot messier than the oft-described method of (1) basing a falsifiable hypothesis on a scientific problem; (2) designing a controlled experiment with as few variables as possible (3) collecting data (4) and seeing if it confirms or rejects the hypothesis. How is it done, really? Moriarty points out that scientists don’t necessarily initiate their research with a hypothesis. They putz around in a specialized area, ending up on unexpected paths along the journey. In his paper, “Beyond Falsifiability: Normal Science in a Multiverse“, Sean Carroll reminds us that “science proceeds via an ongoing dialogue between theory and experiment, searching for the best possible understanding, rather than cleanly lopping off falsified theories one by one.”

What characterizes scientists is that while probing into the nature of things, they avoid the path of least resistance by creating extra work, paying attention to detail and second-guessing themselves to make sure that their explanations approximate reality. They do this by acknowledging that uncertainty is built into the fabric of their trade. Even before they publish, they report their most basic measurements with a range of possible values, and down the road, clear-cut conclusions cannot always be drawn. And although we are often reminded that science is more a way of knowing than a body of knowledge itself, the latter is key too. Without the latter, without the organized summary in the form of review papers, graduate and undergraduate textbooks of the “ongoing dialogue” and “best possible understanding” that exists within the branches and twigs of science, the enterprise would be as chaotic as the search results of Google.

Let’s explore an historical example. Once ionized radiation was discovered in the early 20th century, it had been assumed that the Earth was its only source. If that were true, the radiation should decrease with altitude. Gradually some balloon experiments involving ascents to a height of 4500 m revealed that radiation remained practically unchanged compared to that of the Earth’s surface. This suggested that some of the energetic charged particles were coming from outer space. To confirm this suspicion, more measurements with better instruments and less uncertainty were made at 5000 m. Radiation there was twice as intensive as it was on the surface, and at a height of 9300 m, it was nearly 40 times stronger, day and at night.  The sun therefore could not have been its source. As is always the case, one answered question in science begged another. What was the nature of these cosmic rays?

Millikan who had also discovered the elementary charge, realized that if you place a Wilson Cloud Chamber inside a magnetic field, you can calculate the energy of a charged particle partly by measuring its deflection. In a cloud chamber, such a particle interacts with a gaseous mixture such as pressurized steam and alcohol by knocking electrons off water molecules during collisions, leaving behind a trail of ionized gas. The trail becomes temporarily visible as the particles act as condensation nuclei, and the condensation streaks can be photographed. When the chamber’s charged particle is also exposed to an intense magnetic field, the particle’s deflection will be affected by both its mass and charge.

Philip Anderson’s team decided to perform measurements on the tracks from cosmic rays. He maintained a strong magnetic field using 4 large solenoids and 10% of Cal Tech’s entire electrical supply at night not to affect the university’s peak demand for power. A camera took photos of the small cloud chamber placed in the middle of the solenoids. Since the cloud chamber was not continuously active, to get enough observations, he had to take a total of about 1600 pictures. Anderson decided to include a 6mm lead plate into the chamber, making it possible to determine changes in the particle’s kinetic energy.

In one of the photographs, Anderson noticed that the track of one particle had a curvature opposite to that of an electron, suggesting that the first one had a positive charge. But meanwhile the range and radius of curvature implied that the particle seemed to have a mass much less than that of a proton and of the same order of magnitude as an electron.

Had Anderson not been self-critical (although others would have been happy to oblige!), he would have taken this as the perfect confirmation for the existence of a positively charged electron, what we now call a positron. Dirac’s wave equation had allowed for the existence of antimatter. So why not declare a victorious and final affirmation at that point? Instead, Anderson first considered other possibilities that might have led to the same observed trail. But the other scenarios either violated the Conservation of Energy or relied on events of very low probability.

Then came other evidence. A couple of years later, Irène Joliot-Curie and her husband used alpha particles and aluminum to form the unstable isotope 30P. Upon breaking down, the isotope produced a particle with the same properties as those observed by Anderson. The latter himself observed both the emission of positrons and electrons from thorium. When encountering one another the matter and antimatter produced gamma rays.

We now realize that even humans are a source of positrons: the small amount of 40K, among what is mostly 39K in our bodies, turns to 40Ar. The atoms of this minor component of our atmosphere have an atomic number that’s one positive unit lower than that of potassium. Positive beta (β+)decay is well-established. A proton inside a nucleus can be converted into a neutron, a neutrino and a positron if the daughter nucleus(example 40Ar ) has a greater binding energy than the mother nucleus (in our case39K). We even have PET scans, a form of medical imagery that relies on the β+decay of artificial isotopes. But my favorite discovery involving positrons is the fact that when our sun’s protons fuse to form deuterium, that too is a classic β+ decay reaction, without which there would be no proton-proton chain reaction and no sunshine.

Could anything other than science have taught us about the key role that positrons play in the sun? Probably not. But why do children, and some adults too, enjoy playing in sunshine? Is that a question that only scientists can answer meaningfully? When people believe the answer to such a question is yes, then frighteningly they have subscribed to scientism.

Another example given by Burnett is a quote from the late Stephen Weinberg. In the The First Three Minutes, the Nobel Laureate wrote, “The more the universe seems comprehensible, the more it also seems pointless”. What on the surface seems like science is instead a highly subjective generalization. Years after writing the book, Weinberg went on to add that although science paints a picture of a “chilling, cold and pointless universe“, he also insists that we human beings can give the universe a purpose through the way we live our lives by loving each other by discovering things about nature, by creating works or art.” But he’s still not talking science with the first part of his statement. How is the universe cold when it has billions of stars whose cores are so hot? How is the universe pointless if it is so good at countering entropy and avoiding equilibrium when long-standing energy sources such as average-sized suns are available? There is organization and meaningful exchanges among “colored” quarks at the subatomic level, among molecules and amid all life forms. Even galaxies have structure.

In Consilience, E.O. Wilson wrote, “We can be proud as a species because, having discovered that we are alone, we owe the gods very little…. ” How are we alone? Aside from the possibility of life elsewhere in the universe, we live with other intelligent animals: other primates, whales, crows, and for all we know, all animals have some form of consciousness. You may argue that’s irrelevant. His point is that we should be proud because we are not indebted to gods who we thought were in charge of providing us with sustaining elements. But the more ecology we learn, the more we understand how important the elemental cycles are to our survival and to that of all life forms. The fact that many of us no longer personify aspects of the planet as “gods” hasn’t changed anything. And yet the truth of interconnectedness was discovered by other cultures without the help of science, a blow to scientism.

Wilson also claims that the humanities, ranging from philosophy and history to moral reasoning, comparative religion, and interpretation of the arts, will draw closer to the sciences and partly fuse with them” with the result that science and the scientific method, from within this fusion, would not only explain physical phenomenon, but also provide moral guidance and be the ultimate source of all truths There is no evidence that the humanities can provide more moral guidance by becoming more scientific. The classic novels and, moreover, the wisdom of a wide variety of cultures have already come up with a strong moral foundation. It’s something that our species did without science. Humanities and plain common sense remind us that when science becomes subservient to power, technology and economics, morals get compromised.

In the 1990s, Hawking and a few other physicists argued that the “theory of everything” was around the corner. Some claimed it would solve the riddle of existence. Later in life, Hawking acknowledged that such a theory would be forever out of reach because our descriptions of reality are always incomplete. No unification theory has emerged yet, but as it important as it would be to science, it would make little difference to everyday existential issues. Adolescents would still have to deal with the complications of sexuality and finding their future, economic role in society. Adults would still have to juggle their many responsibilities while dealing with pain, disease, mortality and unfairness of both the random and deliberate kind.

To help us deal with all those issues, most scientists realize that we’ve gained much insight through conversations, wisdom passed through generations, quality films, classic novels, songs and so on— forms and products of human activity that do not rely on science. In other words, most scientists are not victims of scientism. They acknowledge that existential truths can be discovered without knowledge of atoms and energy and without probing into dark matter. But by the same token, many devoted to the humanities and even clergy men who are not extremists realize that in matters of how things work and where things come from, those are best left to science. One does not have to mock religion or subscribe to scientism to admit that if 100 different cultures had 100 different evidence-free stories of how the earth or humankind came to be, there’s a high probability that the fine details were purely speculative and incorrect.

Feynman, the physicist, was very good in reminding us that analyzing a flower’s composition or discovering why it is colored does not take away from the sensual experiences we get from its pigments, texture and bouquet of esters. In a sense, when studied, a flower can become even more beautiful and more deeply appreciated. Blake advised us to “see the world in a grain of sand and heaven in a wild flower.” Science also shows us a world in a flower by revealing the different mechanisms behind its colours and how and when it synthesizes its attractants. But overenthusiasm for science should not come at the expense of other endeavours, as when Feynman says, “Science alone of all the subjects contains within itself the lesson of the danger of belief in the infallibility of the greatest teachers of the preceding generation.” Political, pedagogical or art history easily falsifies Feynman’s statement. Science is not unique in that regard.

Other Sources:

The Apparent Existence of Easily Deflectable Positives Science  09 Sep 1932:
Vol. 76, Issue 1967, pp. 238-239
The Nobel Prize in Physics 1936 Nobel Prize Site

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