Why Science Is Unpopular

Science’s successes let us ignore it.

Posted Dec 01, 2019

Imagine a world in which every culture loved its own cuisine and prepared its food according to time-honored recipes. All food is comfort food, and eating is expected to remind people of safety and security.

Introduce into this world a small group of people who believe that dining is supposed to be aesthetically and nutritionally satisfying.

These people undertake to discover two bodies of knowledge, which might be labeled “physical science” and “social science.” The physical science concerns itself with research on what exactly is in food, and which foods in which amounts lead to better health outcomes and longevity. Physical science deals with things that are not visible and harder to get a handle on, but their very invisibility makes the conclusions less open to debate among the general population. Physical scientists themselves were once not authorized to have opinions about things like how the body works or how the solar system works; nowadays, no one else is, generally speaking. The social science of cuisine concerns itself with issues such as how to make food taste better and why people do not follow healthy diets. The subject matter is visible, the terms are well-known words, and the implications affect how people ought to behave, so everyone has an opinion.

Both sets of scientists in our imagined world would be lambasted by the general public, the physical scientists for suggesting that your parents and your culture didn’t feed you optimally, the social scientists for suggesting that a good chef can make things taste better if only you can give up your attachment to what you’re familiar with. Also, you might think scientists are insulting your grandma, and they kind of are.

Science, according to Skinner, is a subculture “especially concerned with verbal behavior which contributes to successful action.” In some spheres, there is little argument about what constitutes success. Planes fly, televisions work. But it doesn’t take long for the scientific roots of effective technology to disappear in the fog of history, and many people take the fruits of science for granted. (Anticipating argument about whether airplanes are the fruits of science, I don’t mean that someone designed them based on laws of physics established through laboratory research; I mean that they emerged from a culture of critical thinking, experimentation, iterative truth-seeking, iconoclasm, pragmatic definitions of “truth,” and unconcern about what God wants of us.) The features of scientific culture that produce truthful statements operate, almost without exception, as counterweights to emotion and pride. Emotional attachments to, and pride in, ideas that lead to unsuccessful action are the primary reasons such ideas survive.

In other spheres, especially where the social sciences are concerned, what constitutes success is hotly debated. We can’t agree on what a good person is, so we can’t agree on how to evaluate childrearing practices. We can’t agree on how identity categories should be weighed in considering the worth of a person, so we can’t agree on economic distributions. We can’t agree on balancing an individual’s personal responsibility versus environmental or cultural influences, so we can’t agree on how to structure the justice system.

Borrowing an analogy from genes, there are three main arenas in which a modification in verbal behavior can demonstrate success (that is, in which the fruits of science can be considered successful or unsuccessful). One, genes can succeed or fail in the context of other genes. A gene could appear that in theory gave us the power to fly, but if that same gene interfered with the development of the heart, then the person would die before being born. Analogously, an idea can emerge that in theory would lead to enormous advantages, but if it conflicts with other ideas on which science is currently depending, the idea will wither. Tell a scientist that you have a new way of protecting data on servers and you may get a hearing. Tell a scientist that you have a new way of generating perpetual motion, of traveling faster than light, or of squaring the circle, and you are likely to get snubbed. Ideas that violate established laws of nature are not likely to bear fruit in a scientific culture until the laws have stumbled on discrediting data.

Two, genes are successful to the extent that they equip an organism for survival. The oak’s sturdiness, the squirrel’s nimbleness, and the shark’s sharp bite exist because weaker oaks did not last long enough to produce acorns, because clumsy squirrels fell or were eaten, and because duller sharks tended to go hungry. This kind of “geographical” success of genes, expressed in the natural environment, is akin to ideas that, in the culture of science, produce instruments or actions that work.

Three, genes are successful (in species with males and females) to the extent that they attract the opposite sex and lead to reproduction. This is called sexual selection. This is easy to see in sexual features that do not cost much or that pose few geographical risks, such as signs of which sex the individual is that other species don’t even notice. It’s harder to see in brightly colored birds (which attract females but also predators) or the peacock’s tail, which presumably attracts peahens at the cost of mobility. Ideas that appeal to other people, whether or not they lead to geographical success, are akin to genes that are sexually successful.

Science specializes in ideas, and in methods for sorting those ideas, that lead to successful action, rather than ideas that appeal to other people. One irony is that insulation from early death lowers the stakes for sifting bad ideas; very little is at stake for most people on the question of whether the earth is flat, so many people maintain that idea without facing any cost other than the reactions of other people. The cost of declining to vaccinate has been lowered considerably by the success in limiting the disease.

The more successful science is, the more we are insulated from death, danger, and disease; the more we are insulated from death, danger, and disease, the lower the stakes get for insisting on ideas that work; the lower the stakes get for insisting on ideas that work, the more we focus on other people’s good opinions and the less we care about what actually works.

Still, if you listen to an idea through the lens of how you feel about it, you are not listening scientifically.