The Collective Endeavor

Philae on Comet 67P Churyumov-GerasimenkoWe know very well that science is not truth—indeed, central to science is the idea that we must acknowledge both the subjectivity of human perception and the limits of individual knowledge. So science does not aim to replace those perceptions; it aims instead to refine them. Science strips away the biases of the individual, the biases of the community, the biases of particularity, and the biases of variable conditions. In so doing it aims not for a pure and incontrovertible view of the world, but merely a verifiable view.

Science is thus not truth, merely the lens through which we view truth. Yes, its role is to bring truth as nearly into focus as it may, but greater than that is its role of ensuring that we are all using the same lens. By prescribing the method, science drives us all to view the world with the limits of our collective understanding rather than the limits of our personal understanding.

And in that endeavor, science is essentially democratic. It combines and refines our individual lenses so that we may, together, discuss and refine our knowledge of the world. It allows us to be reliably on the same tack, rather than tossed and driven by the capriciousness of subjective viewpoints. Science proposes agreement on both which viewpoint we should use (the one with a bias towards the repeatable and the impersonal) and on the idea that such a perspective is necessary.

That last idea, that a collectively-agreed-upon viewpoint is a prerequisite for collective understanding, is not frequently acknowledged in the public understanding of science. Yet, it is fundamental. It is also, unfortunately, the most quickly-rejected premise when scientific understanding conflicts with ideology.

Ideologues and denialists often give full throated support to the other key piece, the repeatable method, while ignoring the fundamental unpinning: that only collectively can we arrive at useful truth. They trot out their own cherry-picked experts to claim the world is not growing warmer, or to allow that it is but not because of human actions, or to insist that elements of biology are irreducibly complex, or to raise a hue and cry over this week’s chemical.

And these misguided denialists think that because they have one scientist or one paper to point to that their conclusion is equally valid. They think that science, rather than being a tool for the discovery of truth, can be a tool for the bolstering of their preexisting beliefs. But that version of science is so sadly hamstrung that it loses all meaning.

Some have framed the debate about science in so many areas of our culture as a debate about the validity of science. I think it is more honestly a debate about the meaning of science. Is science, as I have framed it, a method for cutting through the biases of humanity? Or is it, as the denialists would prefer, a method for reinforcing those biases?

Obviously, I think the latter view of science has no value. I think it is fundamentally undemocratic, in that it denies the collective work of humanity in favor of the ideology of a few. I think it is fundamentally elitist, in that it aims to privileged those ideologies above and beyond evidence. And I think it is fundamentally hubristic, in that it does not acknowledge how deeply and completely we can be wrong.

I also think it is very difficult to avoid. There is a tension is science between knowing and not knowing. We turn to science as our best way of knowing, and for our best current understanding. But science also progresses infinitely, and grows infinitely. What we know now is always incomplete and subject to change. Certainty and uncertainty must coexist.

In so unsettled a mode of knowing, is it any surprise that we often resolve our uncertainty with ideology instead of evidence?

And this is why the unstated premise of science is so critical. When we acknowledge that our best version of truth arises through collective agreement and effort, we explicitly subordinate ideology to evidence, and to one another.

To acknowledge that science is not truth is also to acknowledge that the most valuable truths are not those ordained in our worldviews—they are those we pursue and discover together.


Image Credit: DLR German Aerospace Center

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