Science in all its mystery

Here’s evolutionary biologist and psychology professor David P. Barash writing an op-ed for the Los Angeles Times and calling out a subtle but significant and damaging deception perpetrated by scientists en masse when they talk to students and the general public.

Specifically, he decries the way scientists tend to generate, even if implicitly, the idea that “we already know everything,” when in fact most things remain deeply mysterious, and it’s this very mystery that has always driven scientific inquiry.

I have been teaching and doing research at the university level for more than 40 years, which means that for more than four decades, I have been participating in a deception — benevolent and well intentioned, to be sure, but a deception nonetheless. As a scientist, I do science, and as a teacher and writer, I communicate it. That’s where the deception comes in. When scientists speak to the public or to students, we talk about what we know, what science has discovered. Nothing wrong with this. After all, we work hard deciphering nature’s secrets and we’re proud whenever we succeed. But it gives the false impression that we know pretty much everything, whereas the reality is that there’s a whole lot more that we don’t know.

Teaching and writing only about what is known risks turning science into a mere catalog of established facts, suggesting that “knowing” science is a matter of memorizing … It is time, therefore, to start teaching courses, giving lectures and writing books about what we don’t know about biology, chemistry, geology, physics, mathematics. There’s plenty to communicate because we are surrounded by mysteries, far more than are dreamt of in anyone’s philosophy.

— David P. Barash, “Science, such a sweet mystery,” Los Angeles Times, August 16, 2012


About The Teeming Brain

The Teeming Brain is a blog magazine exploring the intersection of religion, horror, the paranormal, creativity, consciousness, and culture. It also tracks apocalyptic and dystopian trends in technology, politics, ecology, economics, the arts, education, and society at large.

Posted on August 28, 2012, in Science & Technology and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. This is an impertinent question. It’s pertinent to me though:

    What’s the difference between posting as Matt Cardin and The Teeming Brain? Is that all of the Teem contribute to the latter’s posts?

    That is a trait of science that deeply disturbed me and caused my anger toward it. In modern science, everything is already explained and put forward as eternal truth well in contravention of Hume’s problem of induction. You can’t say just because it happened like that yesterday, that is the absolute truth. Such is traditionalistic thinking but who can blame them when science is the dominant tradition today. In a time before, everything was a fruit of the Holy Spirit. Wittgenstein makes sure such absolute reign of deduction doesn’t have a ball.

    So anyway, it was my anger with science that made me an even more ardent advocate of the popularization of philosophy. After all, philosophy is the birth mother of these disciplines, she’s the only one who can instil some sanity in them. And people in philosophy means they’ll be more interested in learning than being pontificated to and miseducated. It is this lack of thinking that is responsible for cultural collapse and the apocalyptic convulsions we all suffer from cos we are also affected by the defect in the mass brain/culture.

    • That’s not an impertinent question at all, Monarc. A good one, actually. And you’re pretty much correct: posts published under the Teeming Brain byline are offered in much the same spirit of collective authorship represented by op-eds from a newspaper’s editorial board. The articles, links, information, etc. contained in these posts have often been suggested by somebody besides myself. You can feel free to suggest items of your own (and send them via the site’s contact form) if you come across an article, essay, blog post, review, film, trend, etc., that you think is worth highlighting and calling out to the Teeming Brain audience.

      You’ll hear nothing but a hearty ditto and amen from me when you advocate for a more widespread dissemination and popularization of philosophy in order to get under the skin and behind the implicit assumptions of the current hegemonic stranglehold of a pervasive scientism that holds itself up as the paragon of open-mindedness and self-evident baseline truth measurement.

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