For those who don’t get the title pun, we sometimes imagine that science (i.e., the social institution based on the modern scientific method) is in a class by itself, definitively removed from the sloppy human efforts to understand our world and universe that preceded its invention. But, unsurprisingly, it is a very human enterprise. Our efforts to conceptualize the wonders and complexities around us have always been sloppy and imperfect. The development of scientific methodology represents a major advance in disciplining that process, but not transcendence of inevitable human messiness. Thus, while we have somewhat cleaned up our processes of conceptualization in the modern era, there is still no such thing as immaculate conception.
Cute, huh? But, wait. There’s more. The fact that science is messy doesn’t mean it’s irrelevant. Our vision of the world that has emanated from this slight refinement of our messy observational and interpretive processes is very real and significant. We do indeed have a deeper, sharper, and more reliable understanding of causal relationships, both in general and particular. And, when it comes to discerning verifiable facts and systemic dynamics, a scientific perspective is superior to any alternative. We know, for instance, that the sun rises and sets because the Earth rotates, rather than, for instance, because it is drawn by a chariot across the sky. We understand lightening as the electrical, meteorological phenomenon that it is, rather than as a bolt hurled by a god. And we understand human biological conception as involving the fertilization of a female egg by a male sperm, always. No exceptions. There’s no such thing as immaculate conception.
Scientific misconduct, such as the recent example involving a Harvard psychology professor’s research on primate cognition (http://www.economist.com/node/16886218), proves that there is, in the first sense described above, no such thing as immaculate conception: We are still firmly within the realm of a messy human process, polluted by political and pecuniary motivations and pressures, made marginally less reliable by the irreducible residue of unreliability inherent to human behavior. But it doesn’t undermine what science has more generally proven over the course of centuries, the cumulative refinement in understanding of the systems which encompass us: Despite our lack of immaculate conception, there is still no such thing as immaculate conception.
There are those who, for unscientific dogmatic reasons of their own, want to refute widespread and generalized findings of science by reference to specific instances of the human messiness of science. Global warming deniers, for instance, certain that they can credibly claim that global warming is still a question in legitimate dispute, point to the emails exchanged among particular researchers referring to specific instances bringing into question specific pieces of data. But climate science is decades all, involving thousands of researchers spread out all over the world, and an accumulation of data that is truly extraordinary and overwhelmingly consistent in the systemic trends it reveals. No specific instances of individual malfeasance (even if that were the case, which it wasn’t in this instance) would disprove the cumulative weight of that collective scientific enterprise. There is no vast scientific conspiracy to pull the wool over right-wing radicals’ eyes.
Some don’t wait for specific instances of malfeasance to refute inconvenient findings of science. They rely instead on an organized ignorance of what science is, and what it isn’t. When I was a high school teacher, the christian fundamentalist parents of one of my students objected to my using genetic diffusion and innovation (i.e., evolution) in a comparison to cultural diffusion and innovation in world geography class (I had offered to let their son excuse himself from class if the topic ever came up again). In an email from the father, he referred me to a website that offered a million dollars to anyone who could prove that the theory of evolution was true. I tried to explain to him that it is the nature of scientific theories that they can never be “proven” true; they merely keep getting stronger due to accumulating supportive evidence, an absence of definitively refutational evidence, and a general scarcity of even mildly incompatible evidence. But, to someone with a dogmatic belief that they want to defend against science, all they need is a construction of reality which isolates the entire corpus of mildly inconsistent evidence, combining that with the inability of their opponents to prove what is not amenable to proof, and they have their own immaculate conception, cleansed of the systematic application of reason which stands against it.
It’s appropriate that this post about science, acknowledging its contamination by motivated human behaviors but recognizing that that contamination doesn’t discredit the overarching enterprise, follows my post about religion (“Is Religion A Force For Good?” ), in which I broke religion down to its constituent elements, identifying its beneficial and detrimental aspects, and drawing attention to the fact that the latter are not peculiar to religions, but rather are elements found in other forms of human cognition as well. No matter what lens we are using to understand the world in any given moment, it is more a matter of how we use that lens than what the lens is. And the best lens of all is composed of the best elements of each, synthesized into a coherent whole, and utilized with integrity and humility.