We believe science is rational. But, like the church it once fought, it has its own established power structures and its own politics to defend. Has it become the new church, with beliefs tended by the faithful and heretics excluded from publication? Or is this a travesty of an institution that has brought so much advance?
John Horgan is a science journalist and director of the Center for Science Writings at Stevens Institute of Technology in New Jersey. He was a senior writer at Scientific American from 1986 to 1997, and has also written for The New York Times, National Geographic, Time, and Newsweek. Horgan’s most recent book is 2012’s The End of War, which argues that war should be viewed as a scientific problem to be solved like any other.
Here, he speaks to the IAI about the power of science and the twin threats of politics and postmodernism.
We are repeatedly told that scientific developments and technology will be able to solve all of our problems. For example, Macmillan the cancer charity claims that through advances in chemistry we’ll be able to abolish cancer. Do you think we rely on science too much to answer all of our questions?
Well, science has improved our lives in many, many ways, especially applied science. We’re communicating via telephone, for example, and I have access to virtually all of the world’s knowledge instantly through my computer. Our technologies are becoming cleaner all the time – I live right next to the Hudson river which is much less polluted now than it was 30 years ago when I first moved to New York. So science makes our lives better in many material ways and it has also enriched our lives intellectually by showing us how the universe works, how nature works, it reveals the laws of physics and biology and so forth.
But there are many problems that science has a very hard time solving and that science is even contributing to: pollution, global warming, inequality, warfare etc. So we’re constantly trying to weigh the benefits of science with its downsides and point out the problems and try to get science to be more beneficial. I think we’re in a period right now, at least in the US, where science is particularly affected by the militarism and capitalism of the culture in which it’s embedded in ways that scientists themselves are loath to discuss. That’s one of the biggest issues; not that science is becoming like a religion, but that science sometimes is perpetuating some of the problems it’s trying to solve.
You’ve alluded to one of the major anxieties of the 20th century – that scientific and technological advances can have catastrophic consequences such as the development of nuclear weapons. Do you think scientific enquiry should be more guided by ethical values?
I have become more moralistic in my old age and I originally thought that asking science to be moral is like asking artists to be moral – it’s too restrictive. But now because I see all these huge problems that we’re struggling with and because science is so powerful and has contributed to some of these problems, I think it’s essential for scientists to take on more ethical responsibilities than they have.
One specific area that concerns me is how neuroscience in the United States has become quite dependent on the Pentagon for funding. In 2013, Barack Obama announced the BRAIN initiative, which is funnelling hundreds of millions dollars into neuroscience. Most of that money comes from the Pentagon through the Defence Advanced Research Project Agency. But virtually nobody in neuroscience is talking about that or why the Pentagon has its own interest in neuroscience: it’s interested in neuro-weapons, and in possibly enhancing the capability of American soldiers.
After covering science for thirty years now, I’ve never seen a period when scientists were so careerist, were so focussed on just getting the next grant, just on getting attention from the media and from the public, more focussed on making money and less focussed on the ethical dimensions of science. That really worries me.
You’ve mentioned that science is an incredibly powerful tool. Could you elaborate on where it is that science gets its power from? Is it simply because it’s so instrumentally valuable, or does science really show us how the universe works, how things really are out there?
I am not a postmodernist. Some of my best friends are postmodernists – I’m not, I’m what some of my postmodern friends would call a naïve realist. To me it is crushingly obvious that science has revealed deep truths about nature, about the universe, embodied in theories such as the Big Bang theory and general relativity and quantum mechanics and evolutionary theory and DNA-based genetics. Science has helped us create this map of the entire universe and the history of the universe and of life on earth that is extraordinarily powerful. The power of these theories is demonstrated by all their applications that have transformed our world.
I’ve been involved in many debates about the relationship between science and religion, including recently with British mathematician and Christian John Lennox. Some religious people say that science is just another faith, but that’s bullshit. There is nothing in the realm of religion and religious faith that comes close to nuclear weapons or the internal combustion engine or GPS receivers. These technologies are based on scientific principles and are demonstrations of the power of science.
But then you get to some of the deepest questions of the universe, like where the universe came from in the first place and how life began. That’s a different matter. Recently there has been some overreaching by scientists who have arrogantly suggested that they’ve figured out the mystery of the universe, and there are no significant problems left. Lawrence Krauss made this ridiculous claim in a recent book, Richard Dawkins has also claimed that physics has solved the mystery of where the universe came from in the first place. That is a problem of scientific overreaching and arrogance, but that does not negate the accomplishments of science, which are enormous and very real.
Can science answer these existential questions that you mention, or do we need to keep open a space for other ways of thinking about the world?
These are all things I’ve really struggled with, not just as a journalist, but on a personal level as well. Certain people like Dawkins, Stephen Hawking, and some of the really hardcore religion bashers who’ve emerged from science in the last two decades, have laid out a view of reality that is very cramped and reductionist. I’m an agnostic, I see the universe as being much stranger and more mysterious than some of these hardcore atheist scientists seem to think it is. There’s a lot more room than the reductionists would often imply for imaginative stories about where the universe came from and what its purpose is.
That’s not to say that any of the stories coming from monotheism make any sense to me. But I’d like to think I’m open-minded and that there’s a lot of room for healthy interesting disagreement and for imagination to play in when you’re talking about some of these ultimate existential questions.
Many people feel increasingly ignorant about new scientific developments, and yet conversely we rely on such developments more and more to solve our social and physical problems. Is the scientific establishment becoming something like a priesthood or is this a necessary by-product of increasing specialisation in research?
If scientists are the priesthood, I don’t know what that makes science journalists. We’re supposed to be translating the esoterica of science into language the masses can understand. I don’t see that as a huge problem. There’s tremendous hunger for explanations of string theory and multiverse theory and new findings related to quantum mechanics. The public seems to have a huge appetite for that; they gobble up the books by Stephen Hawking and other physics writers like Brian Green and so forth. The crucial factor for me is whether you can understand these things well enough to know the difference between what’s real and what’s bullshit. Sometimes scientists try to bully people into believing them and hide behind obscurity. But for anybody who cares to invest the time, these things can be understood in terms that matter.
Increasingly scientific enquiry is being undertaken within a hierarchical structure. Do certain pressures such as professional careerism, university targets, and peer review undermine free scientific enquiry?
I’ve worked for Scientific American for many years, and I have that stuffy conservative view of what counts as science. I think it should be difficult for new ideas to get a hearing. I think the conservatives in science, the barriers that are put up to new ideas and radical claims help to ensure they maintain a certain level of quality in science. In principle I think that’s a good thing.
One of the problems that we’re seeing lately is that, in spite of all these quality control mechanisms like peer review, a lot of rubbish is being published. This is what the work done by John Ioannidis has revealed. It’s really distressing and I don’t think anyone knew how much bad science was being published, but now we’re seeing that it is really an enormous problem. I think in principle that the open publication message is healthy. Yes, you’re going to see some bad work that’s published and gets a lot of attention, but the correction mechanisms can come into play very quickly. We saw that with BICEP2 recently. It was argued that twists in the cosmic microwave background supposedly proved the existence of inflationary theory – really dramatic evidence for the creation of the universe. It got a huge amount of press, but within a few weeks people were doing detailed technical analysis that showed that there were flaws in it, and it was finally withdrawn. Maybe it should never have been published in the first place, but I thought it was actually a great example of how the open internet review of scientific claims can work.
Do you think there are more things in common between science and religion than we usually recognise, or do you think we should keep them completely distinct?
Well I wrote a whole book called ‘Rational Mysticism’ trying to figure out whether there’s any common ground between spirituality or mysticism and a rational scientific outlook. The only compatibility I could find is in terms of the improbability of the universe. Religion stems from an intuition about the universe as being miraculous, as being so improbable that it had to have been created from some sort of intelligence. Science has also shown that our reality is almost infinitely improbable. From the origin of the universe and life to the emergence of conscious complex intelligent life like humans: at each one of those stages the odds seem almost infinitely against it.
Other than that, science and religion are very far apart. Science has given us the chilling insight that is that we’re extraordinarily lucky to be alive, we’re here through chance, and we could disappear randomly at any moment, either through something we do to ourselves, or because an asteroid destroys the world or whatever it may be. That contradicts the fundamental assumption of all religions which is that this whole universe is a stage for this crazy adventure that humans are on. That to me is where the two world views really diverge.
It has been argued that humans developed religion in order to cope with life and comprehend the universe. Similarly science consists of the pursuit of objective knowledge. Are the cultural motivations behind science really so different from those which might have led cultures to develop religious belief systems?
I think science and religion both spring from the same motivation to try to comprehend the universe in a way that makes it more comforting to us. Science can do two things: it can give us truth and understanding, or it can give us power over nature. Sometimes the power we get – quantum mechanics for example – doesn’t make the universe comprehensible; it makes the universe stranger or weirder. But it’s an extraordinarily powerful theory. The vast majority of physicists don’t care about the paradoxes of quantum mechanics; they see it as a set of formulae that are very powerful methods for getting certain things done.
100 years ago, if you asked major intellectuals where we would be right now they would say that the power of science to explain the world and to improve it would have rendered religion obsolete. Obviously that hasn’t happened; religion is still a very powerful force in our world. Why is that? What is missing from science that people should still turn to religion for meaning and consolation? Science says that there is no intrinsic meaning for our existence, that there are only meanings we invent for ourselves, and that’s a very difficult worldview for a lot of people. Therefore they go for this narcissistic, anthropomorphic view of the universe as created for our benefit – psychologically that makes a lot of sense.
Today religion seems to be on the rise, perhaps filling a role that science cannot. Should we be relying on science more and accepting that we can’t answer these big questions, or do we need something else to fill that void?
In my debate with John Lennox he claimed you cannot have ultimate hope for humanity without religion, without believing in God. I rejected that: I’m very optimistic about the future, I have children, I believe that their lives are going to be better than my life, and that they’re going to see some extraordinarily positive changes in the future. My last book was ‘The End of War’ where I predict militarism and warfare will fade away. It’s a tough message to get across, but there are good reasons to believe that could happen. There’s been great progress in combating disease and poverty and tyranny and the arc of human progress is in the right direction. I see this as the culmination of the Enlightenment. There’ve been some key figures in our moral progress like Gandhi or Martin Luther King who are religious figures, but for this kind of moral progress we don’t need religion. Religion can impede us in various ways – we can see that in the world today. So I don’t think that we need to abolish religion to make the world a better place, but I do think that the world can keep getting better without religion.
Finally, do you think that science is the best instrument with which to face the problems the world might throw up for us, or do you think we need to retain a more sceptical attitude towards the power of science?
The problem is that science isn’t monolithic. Science has contributed great things, but science has also impeded progress by creating weapons of mass destruction, fuelling arms races, and propagating racist theories. Sometimes when humans think they’re being reasonable they’re actually being completely irrational and cruel, but I still have hope because there has been so much progress that we can keep moving in the right direction. What is crucial is not science per se, but reason combined with constant self-questioning and self-doubt and scepticism and examination of our own beliefs. Science needs to be guided by a moral compass, and to show a lot more modesty than it’s shown lately.
Image credit: Chris Beckett