Junkfood Science: Science versus Superstition

December 08, 2006

Science versus Superstition

The Policy Exchange, a think tank in England, just released Science vs Superstition: The Case for a New Scientific Enlightenment (2006). It’s a collection of opinion essays about scientific inquiry and the rise of “superstition over science.” Not light reading, but it offers a brain work-out for those interested in exploring topics, albeit controversial, in today’s public debates.

It’s a free download.

Here’s just a taste:

In contemporary Western society we live longer and healthier lives than in any previous historical period. Science in the 21st century promises even greater longevity and health.

It may seem paradoxical, then, in a period when science promises so many great and exciting contributions to humanity’s future, that we are at the same time beset by a fear, uncertainty, and at times an outright antipathy, towards science; that we are distrustful of the promises science makes, and fearful of the risks it throws up and of the consequences of scientific intervention in the world around us...

Of course, scientific discoveries have always raised controversy, and the social changes such discoveries have engendered have always been as likely to throw-up opponents as supporters. But those who oppose science today are very different from the kinds of groups and individuals who objected to scientific developments in the past...

Just as today’s opponents of science come from very different perspectives than former opponents, so too is the form and substance of their arguments historically novel. The arguments which do most to undermine our belief in science today often present themselves not as opponents, but as proponents of science. ...[but are] selective in their use of science, and their interpretation of the scientific data is equally determined by pre-conceived political agendas. Further, the form of their arguments is not a critique of science as such, but simply a call for greater precaution and greater external, extra-scientific regulation in the name of “ethics,” Both approaches, however, ultimately serve to breed a mistrust of science.

Ultimately, the problems discussed in this book are not limited to science. Mistrust of science is an expression of a more fundamental mistrust of ourselves as human beings.

To call for a new scientific enlightenment is not to make a call for a greater faith in science. On the contrary, it is a call that what currently stands as scientific fact must be held up to account, just as much as the current state of science generally must be investigated, challenged, and criticised. The chapters in this book are an attempt to begin that process.

Calling for a new scientific enlightenment means, ultimately, calling for a greater faith in the human spirit and in the capacities of human beings to investigate, to know, and, - where we decide it appropriate - driven by our expanding knowledge and guided by reason and the search for truth, to change the world in which we live for the better....

As a final observation, suggests that the precautionary coalition has a paternalistic, even anti-humanist, perspective on society, its citizens and its economies. The perspective is one that assumes that once we have begun to engage in a direction that might lead to undesirable outcomes, we will be unable to stop, or to make choices between good and bad outcomes. It is the possibility of human action in the world for human betterment that the precautionary principle throws into doubt. It is scientific activity itself about which the principle calls upon us to be precautionary....

The supporters of the precautionary principle are moving on a slippery slope by trying to impose the ancient ‘wisdom’ – better to be safe than sorry – over scientific knowledge, as the guide to our actions.This is really a call to move away from conscious knowledge, information, education, ethics of responsibility and the capability for judging freely, towards the unconscious and the ultimately uncontrollable.

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