Science policy
Is non-science non-sense?
November 15, 2017
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At the beginning of November, I attended the Canadian Science Policy Conference, where one of the headline guest speakers was the new Governor General: former astronaut and currently Right Honourable Julie Payette. The Canadian science and science policy communities had an expectedly positive response to the appointment of such a scientifically minded person to this emblematic role. Her Excellency’s speech really played to the home-town crowd, too, emphasizing that science is increasingly embraced in policymaking here in Canada, and calling for science to now be increasingly embraced in society at large as well, even to the point that science would become a matter of cocktail conversation. There was a lot of controversy, though, about how Payette described the beliefs of those who have not yet been converted to our brand of discipleship, those beliefs that do not pass scientific muster. In today’s post, I’ll point out what I see as an underlying tension in her position and what a resolution might require.

Science as a rallying point

In general, Payette’s speech called for people to be unapologetic about their love and passion for science. Nerd-dom should not be enjoyed only behind closed doors; being cast as weird or just a little too quirky should not be simply accepted; scientists should no longer be Other, opposite. (Put another way, we should all watch Big Bang Theory a little more through the eyes of Sheldon and a little less through the eyes of Penny.) Payette called for greater science literacy across the board in society, as a means to bridge the gaps between us and strengthen the democratic functioning of our state.

In this effort, Payette rightly noted the challenges posed by communication technologies and social media in particular: never have we had more reach in connecting with other people around the world, and yet this same technology creates and reinforces extremely deep divisions between us. Digital communication technology is a double-edged sword, and critical distance is key when engaging with information encountered on social media, which can all too easily build personalized echo chambers around us. The Governor General described science as the “indisputable tool to find solutions and move forward,” encouraging attendees to be more active in moving society to “use our heads and our critical thinking” to make progress on the important issues that we face.

But what about everything else?

The troubles arose when Payette started to describe The Flock that all the good shepherds at CSPC were meant to guide. To be more accurate, it was certain beliefs at which Payette took aim, namely regarding astrology, anthropogenic climate change, vaccines, “natural” medicine, and (certain interpretations of) divine creation. The audience was warned to remain vigilant against the incursion of such non-scientific beliefs within society.

Some have interpreted this speech as the Governor General stomping all over religious neutrality of the state, with others responding that she was simply laying out matters of fact about which there is no reasonable controversy. One particularly incisive columnist noted that traditional Indigenous knowledge was conspicuously absent from the list and that giving it similar treatment would surely have brought down a political firestorm the likes of which we seldom see. There seems to be general agreement that this speech at least flirts with the line of what is and what is not acceptable for the Governor General to say. And of course the media had to ask the Prime Minister, cabinet ministers and the rest of the gang to chime in.

Two views on non-science

I support Payette’s main point: we, as the community of researchers, have a responsibility and a duty to contribute to society meeting its greatest challenges head-on. As for decrying religious and other non-scientific beliefs, there are two ways that we can interpret her position. The more expansive interpretation is that only science provides us with anything of any value; the more restrained interpretation is that only science provides us with knowledge claims of any value.

The more expansive interpretation is definitely problematic, because there are clearly cases where science & technology have been a mixed blessing at best, introducing new challenges into our lives (e.g., atomic bombs, the social media echo chambers that Payette herself worries about). Conversely, there are clearly cases where things other than science have enabled valuable advances of humanity (e.g., democratic political systems—the same ones that Payette calls researchers to bolster through greater engagement in public discourse, and in which Payette herself now plays a visible role).

What about the more restrained interpretation? If we agree that science is humankind’s premier knowledge-creation tool, this position still leaves space open for religion, culture and other practices to play an important role in our lives. Even if religion isn’t a powerful tool for uncovering facts, there are other roles in human life that religion can rightly fulfill. So far, such a position seems quite tenable. The difficulty arises here from the fact that Payette identifies science as the premier tool to overcome the important challenges facing our society.

The “New Deficit Model”

In essence, in making this statement, Payette is saying that our current problems are primarily epistemic problems. Otherwise put, our problem is that we don’t know enough. This position is just a new variant on the good old-fashioned, oft-derided deficit model of policymaking; if only society and decision-makers had more knowledge, they would make the right choices. But we know that knowledge alone is not—and should not be—the only ingredient in our decision-making recipes.

If epistemic problems are the overriding ones, then science has the upper hand, because we agreed (tentatively above, under the restrained interpretation of Payette’s view) that science is the premier epistemic tool in our toolbox. Religion may be important for grounding fellow-feeling among humankind. Payette’s insistence that science is the lone solution implies that knowledge is the lone problem, and religion just isn’t our tool of choice for knowledge, even if it does a bunch of other valuable things.

The Governor General wants to set science as the focal point around which society can rally to come together and address its most pressing challenges. But her position already compromises the possibility of it playing that role, because science, religion and other cultural forms are not allowed to enter the discussion on a level playing field. In trying to create a rallying point, we are not well served by reducing our problems to a single dimension—be it epistemic, political or any other—because one cultural form will then always end up taking a primary position, relegating others to a secondary role and having no legitimate place to speak.

Where to from here?

Payette opened her talk with a call for science to no longer accept being Othered, but the solution she has proposed simply inverts the polarity, Othering everyone else. As long as we create a primary axis of division (science vs. not-science, epistemic problems vs. all other kinds), we will fundamentally separate ourselves into opposing groups. What we need is to engage with people on their terms rather than our own, to understand them as they understand themselves rather than as simply “not us.” We need to see through the eyes of various cultural forms, living them from within rather than criticizing them from without.

I nonetheless agree with her Excellency’s main point: the science and science policy communities have a duty to help rally our society to face the generational challenges ahead of us. Where we diverge is that she positions science as the focal point around which we should rally, whereas I maintain that a functional understanding of the interface between science and other cultural forms is needed. The science community does not have a monopoly on understanding that interface (and in fact probably dismisses it too quickly). But this community can mobilize enormous resources; we have been given many opportunities in society, and we have a responsibility to use them for the benefit of all.

If we are going to make real strides to improve the delicate balance between diversity and inclusion, we need a more nuanced view of the diversity of the problems facing our society, the cultural forms at our disposal, and how those forms relate to each other. This requires nothing short of understanding the ways in which science, religion, art and other cultural forms each contribute to the multi-faceted thing that is human existence.


Note: All views expressed are those of the individual author and are not necessarily those of Science-Metrix or 1science.


About the author

Brooke Struck

Brooke Struck is the Senior Policy Officer at Science-Metrix in Montreal, where he puts his background in philosophy of science to good use in helping policy types and technical types to understand each other a little better every day. He also takes gleeful pleasure in unearthing our shared but buried assumptions, and generally gadfly-ing everyone in his proximity. He is interested in policy for science as well as science for policy (i.e., evidence-based decision-making), and is progressively integrating himself into the development of new bibliometric indicators at Science-Metrix to address emerging policy priorities. Before working at Science-Metrix, Brooke worked for the Canadian Federal Government. He holds a PhD in philosophy from the University of Guelph and a BA with honours in philosophy from McGill University.

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There are 2 comments

  • Scott Dempwolf says:

    Brooke, in my view the debate or struggle between science and religion is fundamentally about power, not truth. Science is the quest for knowledge and truth in the physical universe. Religious faith deals with the metaphysical, and in the vastness of space, time, and human thought there is certainly room for both. Speaking from the Judaeo-Christian perspective which I am more familiar with, there is nothing about science that is inherently ‘heretical’. If you are a person of faith, science is an exploration of how God’s creation works. Science is not a quest to disprove the existence of God nor should it be. Nor is science a religion, for there is nothing in science that we accept on faith. Science is a method of inquiry and a way of understanding the world.

    The problem is that both science and religion are interpreted, used, and acted upon by imperfect people who misinterpret, misunderstand, or misrepresent them in benign and sometimes malevolent ways. The challenge we face in the present age is that giving in to the either-or debate plays right into the hands of those who misinterpret both science and religion for their own malevolent purposes. That kind of power struggle diminishes both science and religion. The challenge is to shift the argument to the idea that is being misrepresented, as Pope Francis has done, for example, on climate change and other issues. Doing so exposes the power motive of those making the argument.

    Ultimately what is lacking from both our science and our religion in the present age is humility. Comparing scientific knowledge to religious faith is as arrogant as it is fruitless. If we are going to compare scientific knowledge to something, let’s compare it to what might be knowable in the vastness of the universe. If we are going to compare religious faith to something, the appropriate comparison is God or the prophets, or Buddha, for example. Science is not ‘better’ than religion; it’s just different. It is more useful for solving certain types of problems, like climate change. It is virtually useless in many of the parts of life that make us human. The heart wants what it wants. It doesn’t matter if you are a scientist or a religious zealot. “Us vs. them” is not about science or religion. It is about what the heart wants; and what the heart wants is power.

    • Brooke Struck says:

      Hi Scott, and thanks again for your thoughtful comments. I agree with your position—that science and religion are just very different activities with different ends and different methods—though I’m sure that there are those who would disagree! Furthermore, even among those of us who might agree, there will be skirmishes around the border countries, when the boundaries between the two are fuzzier and harder to clearly delineate. Definitely important work to be done in that area, and I want to reiterate your pointing to Pope Francis as someone open-minded who really seems to want to find common ground and common cause between science and religion).

      This piece is thought-provoking:

      One tension that stood out to me is that “there is nothing in science that we accept on faith,” and that science “is a method of inquiry and a way of understanding the world.” Is the method itself not a fundamental presupposition? Is the method an article of faith, or are these the wrong words to use when we talk about embracing/implementing a method of knowing? I’m thinking that I might resurrect some of my older work in philosophy of science and write a longer post addressing this topic.

      Thanks again, glad that you’re enjoying the blog!