Arts/Literature

Can we be a little more careful how we abuse the word "science"?

Every once in awhile we will, for a variety of reasons, pick out a word that has positive connotations and proceed to flog that motherfucker to death. Like “engineer.” Engineer is a word with a meaning. From the Oxford:

Pronunciation:/ɛndʒɪˈnɪə/
noun

  1. person who designs, builds, or maintains engines, machines, or structures. – a person qualified in a branch of engineering, especially as a professional: an aeronautical engineer
  2. person who controls an engine, especially on an aircraft or ship. – North American a train driver.
  3. skilful contriver or originator of something: the prime engineer of the approach

That meaning does not include garbage collector (sanitation engineer) or housewife (domestic engineer). Those are perfectly good jobs, but they are not engineering jobs.

Another one is science. And for obvious reasons. Science is good. It has delivered to us greater understanding of every facet of our world and made life incalculably better than it would be in a science-free alternate universe (which, by the way, would have no conception of alternate universes). So the history of America, especially the last couple of century’s worth, is the history of trying to cloak oneself in the mantle of science.

Many people in academic fields related to mine are guilty of appropriating the word wholesale, but as Neal Postman illustrated, there is no such thing as social science. Social research is valid and it is of vital importance, but it is not science. Not to be too harsh on those who rage after quantification, but if you accept a .05 degree of confidence as significant, then you’re not exactly dealing with laws. There may be an effect, and it may be a meaningful one, but gravity works 20 times out of 20, not 19 times out of 20. Just saying.

As for silliness like political science? Bitch, please.

In this same vein, can we please, sweet hell, please focus more mockery on “biblical science” and “creation science” and the “science” of “intelligent design”? Fred Clark has some thoughts on a recent upsurge in this horsewax over at Slacktivist (which you ought to be reading religiously, as it were).

Unlike [Ken] Ham, I do not claim to be a scientist. He would argue that I therefore ought to defer to him on scientific matters because he is a scientist — a “creation scientist” — and a layperson such as myself therefore ought to acknowledge his expertise on the subject.

Hogwash. I may not be a scientist myself, but it’s not difficult for me, even as a layperson outside of the sciences, to see that Ham’s claim of expertise is absurd. First, I can look to see what credible scientists think about Ham’s “science.” The actual experts in the sciences find Ham’s ideas laughably wretched. And second, even as a non-scientist, non-expert layperson who studied literature and theology, I can understand enough to appreciate that Ham’s scientific claims are pure bunkum. You don’t need a Ph.D. to recognize that, despite his claims otherwise, there’s nothing scientific about Ham’s “creation science.”

I studied theology, not science, so in my case it makes sense to focus most on denying Ham’s legitimacy as an expert on the Bible. But that does not mean that I should therefore allow him to continue unchallenged in his claim to be an expert on science. The same is true for those approaching Ham’s nonsense from the side of science. They should focus most on criticizing the aspects of his claims that they are best equipped to respond to, but at the same time they shouldn’t accept or affirm his claims of “biblical” expertise.

Game. Set. Match.

There’s no shame in not being a scientist (although there’s tremendous shame in “demagoguery, bad-faith arguments, circular reasoning and blatant hucksterism,” as Clark puts it). Science isn’t the only discipline by which humans approach knowledge and wisdom and if you’re a great social analyst, why be insecure about what you do? After all, some of our greatest truths were revealed not by scientists, but by folks who were very much not scientists. You know, like Martin Luther King. And Gandhi. And Mark Twain. And William Shakespeare. And Carl Jung. Disraeli. Wilde. Aristotle. George Carlin. Yogi Berra. You get the idea.

So CUT. IT. OUT. NOW. Don’t piss me off, because I’m an online opinion scientist. If you really get on my nerves, you might also want to keep in mind that I hold an advanced degree in Poetry Science, as well…

4 replies »

  1. I really should do a breakdown of “realist,” as in “climate realist.” The people denying the conclusions of climate science (that human activity is the main driver of climate disruption) are NOT “realists” in any sense of the word I’m familiar with.

    Misnomers are how ideologues torture the English language to manipulate people into thinking and doing what the ideologue wants.

  2. Since the point of the article partially revolves around using words properly, I see (at least) two big issues with some of the claims it makes.

    The first one relates to idea that relying on statistics and confidence internals prevents something from being science. This doesn’t take off the board only things like social sciences, but also takes off the board things like medical sciences. Experiments can potentially be done as a part of science, often are actually, but for most (well, all) experiments all you get are statistics and confidence levels and intervals. You can’t do an experiment that shows that something always happens, or that something never happens, just that you can see it happen, or can’t see it happen, enough to trust that it always/never does with a certain level of confidence.

    So if you consider all experiments, in any fields, to not be science, then the post is at least self consistent. Incredibly wrong, but self consistent. But if you accept that some experiments can be done while still remaining in the realm of science, then claiming that something isn’t science simply because it uses experiments is wrong.

    Or did I misudnerstand, and the problem wasn’t the use of statistic themselves, just that the “final”/”current” results give you a statistical result instead of a 100% certain result for all repeats? Like that claim of gravity working 20 times out of twenty?
    In that case, well, what with a photon thrown through a beam-splitter (or through a surface with a series of slots, to remain extra classical)? Where will it reach, always, 20 times out of twenty? Well, good to know that optics isn’t really a science, the same as most of those pesky faux-sciences dealing with subatomic particles…

    Second, a culture without science will not have a concept of alternate universes? You need science to be able to even conceive that things could go different, or at least that there are some sort of “places” that go by different rules than ours?

    Many pre-scientific religions will disagree, and that even if you ignore the claim that science is a basic requirement for just literary/entertainment fiction. The Greek’s Tartarus wasn’t exactly a physical place in our reality, neither were Aztec locations like Mictlan or Tlalocan (or the rest of the heavens and underworlds), and more and more. Heck, even the Jewish/Christian Heaven and Hell may have started off somewhat physical but became disconnected from the real world (so technically maybe in alternate universes) over time but long before the rise of science.

    Now, technically it’s possible that the word for “universe” is new enough to be a scientific term (I doubt that, but don’t really intend to go search for the etymology right now since it isn’t critical), but even if that’s true it isn’t relevant since you talked about the concept, not the exact term. And the concept of places existing besides our own, with different rules, well, that doesn’t require science.

    • Yaron: Good points all around. I singled out the quant question because of the central role that stat research has assumed in the “social sciences” since WW2. In some cases I have no problem with it – heck, I have a Psych degree and I focused on social and personality – but the drive toward scientism has gotten way the heck out of hand. I have seen “research” at conferences that it was hard not laugh at. Worse, when I have posed questions about method and technique to the presenters, the reaction is sometimes a complete inability to grasp the nature of the question. Hell, now I’m told the same silliness is even taking over history.

      Ironically, you have qualitative researchers doing important case study work, and cases are a perfectly acceptable scientific method.

      Ultimately, it’s about the triumph of ideology and insecurity over good sense and the failure to align methodology with the research question. My piece here might be best understood as a semi-humorous rant, and that means I didn’t button all the technical details down. But I assure you, I have had those buttoned down debates often enough in my career…

      Thanks for the comment.

  3. Ah, well, I certainly don’t have too much of a problem with saying that bad science (something that claims to be science but done without the currently known and accepted best practices of science) isn’t really science.

    Yes, that would indeed cut off a lot of what is published these days from the social sciences area. Not all, though.

    And I do overall agree with the main sentiment here, so as a rant it certainly works.

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