Modernism can be described in many ways, but central to the modernist project have been several related emphases: man by reason alone can come to all truth; science is the chief source or basis of this truth; and unfettered scientific progress will lead to an increasingly better world.
This is a highly optimistic worldview, which places a high emphasis on what science can do. Indeed, in many ways science has become the new saviour. If sources of authority, knowledge and respect were primarily religious figures prior to this period, scientists soon became the new clergy.
Thus religious gowns were replaced by white lab coats, and scientists began to occupy the place once reserved for religious leaders. The scientific method and human reason were now seen as the sole sources of truth and knowledge, and religion and revelation were increasingly given the heave ho.
Of course this did not take place overnight, and we must remind ourselves that most of the early modern scientists were in fact Christians. But over time the rise and rise of science tended to eclipse most religious concerns, and faith was transferred from the priest to the scientist.
Science really did begin to be seen as saviour. As Francis Bacon (1561–1626) optimistically put it, “Conquer nature, relieve man’s estate”. Or as Alexander Pope (1688 –1744) said, “Nature and nature’s laws lay wrapped in night. God said ‘Let Newton be!’ and all was light.” Later Bertrand Russell would boldly claim, “What science cannot tell us, mankind cannot know.”
This optimistic belief in scientific and technological progress led many to think that ‘every day and in every way things are getting better and better’. Of course all this heady optimism took a turn for the worse in the 20th century. With two world wars, a cold war, the Holocaust and the dropping of the atomic bomb, things did not seem all that rosy any longer.
Indeed, was it not the German scientific community which in many ways collaborated with the Nazi death camps? Was it not the scientific community that helped to invent weapons of mass destruction? Postmodernism of course arose as a protest movement against modernism and the Enlightenment Project, and science and technology were heavily called into question. So too was the unwarranted optimism and idealism of the modernist mindset.
But still, if you ask most Westerners today who they trust the most, the guy with the lab coat still gets very high marks indeed. There is still a sense that science is above the grime and corruption of politics and religion. Science is still viewed by many as a pristine and untainted venture.
Scientists are still highly respected by many, and science seems to offer the last word on most subjects nowadays. Of course much more sober voices have warned about putting science on too high of a pedestal, and have noted the very real limitations and shortcomings of science.
As Nicholas Rescher wrote in his 1984 volume, The Limits of Science: “The theorist who maintains that science is the be-all and end-all – that what is not in science books is not worth knowing – is an ideologist with a peculiar and distorted doctrine of his own. For him, science is no longer a sector of the cognitive enterprise but an all-inclusive world-view. This is the doctrine not of science but of scientism. To take this stance is not to celebrate science but to distort it…”
And can science do any wrong? A helpful volume documenting scientific fraud and scandal is the 1982 Betrayers of the Truth: Fraud and Deceit in the Hall of Science by William Broad and Nicholas Wade. A newer volume looking at similar themes is the 2001 book, Science, Money, and Politics: Political Triumph and Ethical Erosion by Daniel Greenberg.
And a recent title which examines the way science can be used as a weapon against religion is Pamela Winnick’s A Jealous God: Science’s Crusade against Religion (2005). I have reviewed these last two books here:
These and other works make it clear that science is not in fact a new religion – or should not be treated as one – and that scientists are humans like everyone else: they can make mistakes, they can fudge the data, they can push agendas, and they can fake their findings.
All of which means we need to regard science as we do most other things in life: with caution and critical scepticism. All of this was brought to light in a recent research paper examining how much scientists may cheat and fake their work.
Just last month Daniele Fanelli penned the article, “How Many Scientists Fabricate and Falsify Research?” (Citation: Fanelli D (2009) How Many Scientists Fabricate and Falsify Research? A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis of Survey Data. PLoS ONE 4(5): e5738.doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0005738)
This is how ScienceDaily explains the findings: “It’s a long-standing and crucial question that, as yet, remains unanswered: just how common is scientific misconduct? In the online, open-access journal PLoS ONE, Daniele Fanelli of the University of Edinburgh reports the first meta-analysis of surveys questioning scientists about their misbehaviours. The results suggest that altering or making up data is more frequent than previously estimated and might be particularly high in medical research.”
The article continues: “To make these surveys comparable, the meta-analysis focused on behaviours that actually distort scientific knowledge (excluding data on plagiarism and other kinds of malpractice) and extracted the frequency of scientists who recalled having committed a particular behaviour at least once, or who knew a colleague who did.
“On average, across the surveys, around 2% of scientists admitted they had ‘fabricated’ (made up), ‘falsified’ or ‘altered’ data to ‘improve the outcome’ at least once, and up to 34% admitted to other questionable research practices including ‘failing to present data that contradict one’s own previous research’ and ‘dropping observations or data points from analyses based on a gut feeling that they were inaccurate.’ In surveys that asked about the behaviour of colleagues, 14% knew someone who had fabricated, falsified or altered data, and up to 72% knew someone who had committed other questionable research practices.”
These are quite remarkable – and disturbing – findings. And as Fanelli says in the article abstract: “Considering that these surveys ask sensitive questions and have other limitations, it appears likely that this is a conservative estimate of the true prevalence of scientific misconduct.”
Of course to point all this out is not to suggest that science is inherently untrustworthy, that most scientists are cheats, or that scientists are any worse than anyone else. But given such contentious hot-potato debates surrounding theories like man-made global warming or macro-evolution, it is always good to keep in mind that scientists are not saints and science is not a saviour.
We are all tremendously enriched because of science and technology. Modern science has accomplished much, and we all tend to benefit from the advances of science. But science is not an unmixed or unmitigated blessing. It has done much good, but it has also caused much harm.
Scientists can and do get it wrong; scientists can be bought with a price; scientists can deliberately seek to mislead and deceive; science can be politicised; and science can easily degenerate into scientism. Thus we must always proceed with caution here. Science is not our saviour, and scientists are not perfect. Both need to be critically assessed and monitored just like anything and anyone else.