Untimely Observations

Gods of Science

As I was reading through The Iliad recently, I was particularly struck by the pettiness and the fickleness of the Gods. The surprising thing about the eternal Gods is how easily they get caught up in the moment. They become emotionally involved in human affairs to pass the time -- like couch potatoes sucked into reality television. The Olympians have their own favorites, their own biases, their own loyalties, their own alliances, their own tastes and prejudices.   They have some sort of plan, or at least Zeus seems to -- but even he could just be shooting from the hip. As the skyfather’s plan unfolds, the deathless ones squabble with one another and meddle playfully in mortal dramas. The Gods favor one side for a while, and then just when that side thinks they have things wrapped up, the gods turn on them and favor the other side for a while. Eventually, they just get bored, pick a winner, change the channel on the Universal Remote and move on to another show.
So, too, The Gods of Science.

They want us to believe that they are above it all, that they are cold and objective, that they are guided only by the light of Unbending Truth -- an analog to Fate.  But they’re not. Those who gaze down on the world from Universities have their own favorites, their own biases, their own loyalties, their own alliances, their own tastes and prejudices.  They’re caught up in the moment, too. Their Unbending Truth of today gives way to their Updated Unbending Truth of tomorrow, but we mere mortals cannot question or stand against them. They know things, they assure us, that we men of clay cannot possibly grasp.
I was reminded of the changeable nature of The Gods of Science recently when The Scientific American asked, “Is the Out of Africa Theory Out?”

All the ancestors of contemporary Europeans apparently did not migrate out of Africa as previously believed. According to a new analysis of more than 5,000 teeth from long-perished members of the genus Homo and the closely related Australopithecus, many early settlers hailed from Asia.

We live in amusing times when The Scientific American appears to confirm, suddenly, that we are not all Africans.

What is not so amusing is how many students have been taught the “Out of Africa” theory as if it were Unbending Truth, when it turns out it was just yesterday’s Unbending Truth. How many young minds were influenced by this idea? How many worldviews did this Truth of yesterday subtly -- or dramatically -- alter? How many of these students became adults and went out into the world, making decisions and even influencing public policy based on a theory that may now be regarded as a falsehood?
This is only one example.

Margaret Mead’s bad feminist anthropology influenced generations of “social scientists,” psychologists, writers and policy makers. Writers like Steven Pinker have noted that her “descriptions of peace-loving New Guineans and sexually nonchalant Samoans were based on perfunctory research and turned out to be almost perversely wrong.” (The Blank Slate, 2002) Yet, in papers written about the problem of “compulsive masculinity” from the 60s and 70s, Mead was cited enthusiastically by academics who desperately wanted to believe that humans are naturally peaceful and it is merely “society” or “socially constructed masculinity” that makes men violent. These bad ideas based on bad science still influence our most prominent thinkers and policy-makers today.

On top of all of this, the Gods of Science keep re-arranging the damn Food Pyramid. They can’t even agree on what we should eat.

It’s not that scientific inquiry is completely futile or unhelpful. We who use word processing software on laptop computers cannot claim to be primitives proper. But it is this fickleness of the Scientific Gods on High that recommends we remain skeptical about their latest Unbending Truth and look first to history and tradition for guidance. History itself can be viewed as the biggest scientific experiment of all, revealing what does and does not work for humans, and giving us hints as to why. Science sometimes proves us wrong, and sometimes it proves us right, and sometimes The Gods of Science change their minds. When Science deals with people, it is at its most biased -- as when the deathless Gods favor their own kin. Scientists are people, too, so they all have a horse in the race. However, the Truth of human nature will out and like Fate, it will have its way. A few decades of bad science and mis-education won’t change that in the long run.