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Is science a tool or a world-view?

March 28, 2014

tools

Nye portrayed creationism as a cancer. Each time he spoke, he closed with the same warning: Creationism threatens technology, innovation, and prosperity. He insisted that you can’t do good science or run a successful society while maintaining a distinction between real, experimental science and mythical “historical science.” At one point, he showed a satellite image of the National Zoo in Washington, D.C. “That capability,” he said of the satellite, “comes from our fundamental understanding of gravity, of material science, of physics and life science.”–Will Saletan

I’ve often wondered how people like Bill Nye can maintain this apocalyptic vision. As Saletan notes in the very next paragraph, there are actual, real-life engineers and scientists who reject evolution. They aren’t even that hard to find. So what gives? How can Nye–and many others–so easily reject the data right in front of them? Cognitive dissonance, ironically often used for creationists, is part of the explanation. Nye is human after all. He too can have contradictory beliefs.

There’s another explanation. You see two images when scientists speak about “science” (something I think we should avoid, but that’s another story). One is science as a useful tool: it helps us cure diseases, win wars, grow the economy, feed the planet, and so on. The other is science as a world-view: it imparts a sense of wonder, conquers fear, and reveals beauty. These images are a spectrum rather than distinct categories. Most scientists have some of both, though applied researchers are usually closer to the science as a tool view and basic researchers tend to be on the other end.

The problem is that the overwhelming majority of non-scientists, and especially the religious, don’t care very much about science as a world-view. They live on the very far end of the spectrum where science has almost zero intrinsic value. To those people science only matters because it helps them do stuff they care about.

Science lobbies appreciate this fact, which is why they focus on the concrete, tangible benefits of research. They know it would be ridiculous to ask for billions of dollars because some people think particle physics is beautiful. Policy experts also appreciate this fact. The standard “explain your thesis to your grandmother” interview question for my DC fellowship is judged on how well you make your research relevant. I suspect many academic scientists don’t appreciate this fact. Or if they do, they don’t weigh it as much as they should. Academics are especially prone to hyperbole about the wonders of science.

When it comes to creationism, I wonder how much of scientists’ response is driven by a lack of imagination. By not considering the possibility that most people view science radically different than we do. How can people believe in satellites and gravity but not evolution? Quite easily thank you very much! Satellites are useful and awesome. They do neat things like stream college football to my flat-panel TV. Evolution, on the other hand, is neither useful nor awesome. It definitely does not stream college football to my TV. Since it helps me with nothing at all, I’ll go ahead and reject it.

Whether or not we agree with it, it would help to understand this view of science. What we think of as a wondrous, magical way of looking at the world may simply be a tool that–like all tools–most people rationally abandon when it’s not useful.

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. March 28, 2014 10:12 pm

    Did it ever enter into your imagination that the vehement objections are about creationism as a tool, a tool that its users want to be used as an equal to the tool of science. Why should that be allowed to stand?

    • March 28, 2014 10:53 pm

      I doubt that since no creationist worth his/her salt will claim that their methods are equal to that of science. Instead they will claim it to be superior due to divine input.

    • March 30, 2014 7:47 am

      Thanks for the comment David. That’s an interesting point. I’m not sure I would have phrased it that way, but I see what you’re saying. I would reformulate it this way: some Christians think all knowledge should be viewed through a Biblical lens. But even those Christians have no problem with much of science because it doesn’t really affect their Biblical world-view. As I’ve noted, many creationists are engineers, doctors, etc. So “why should that be allowed to stand”? Well, because it’s not obviously harmful. In a pluralistic, diverse society, I think we need to exercise prudence before we just declare certain lifestyles or beliefs out of bounds. Thanks again.

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