by Luke Smith, written on the fourth floor of the University of Arizona library around 2016. Originally entitled Against the Neil deGrasse Tyson-ization of Science.
There's nothing necessarily wrong with science, reason, knowledge etc. To some degree, they're fundamental for survival in this world in one way or another. But one of the more worrisome problems which have arisen since the Enlightenment, and especially in the past several years, is the fact that whenever scientific knowledge has increased, human arrogance has accelerated even faster. This isn't a metaphysical, moral arrogance; it's one that is more and more jeopardizing the human cosmos.
We live in a pop-scientific and pop-technological world. Because common people are constantly weighing themselves down with new gadgets and state-of-the-art genetically engineered food, there's a tendency to want to pay homage to the amorphous blob of "knowledge." Of course, much like the Greek Gods, we cannot seem to speak to "knowledge" directly, or to mentally murky academics, but only to official mediators: journalists and "science communicators" and the like.
The religious metaphor is intentional. Of course the actual view of Popperian science is that scientific "advancement" is less of an increase in knowledge than a decrease in falsity. We can never be sure of what is true, but we can gradually establish what is false and contradictory; science does exclusively the latter. Real scientific work refutes and calls into question established fact and is in a constant self-regeneration. Facts mean nothing in themselves.
And scientific models, from our models of the atom, to models of the Earth's weather and climate, to models of our body are highly circumstantial, and as a rule, will nearly all inevitably be proven false. Theories are the narratives we cast over facts which have not yet been ruled false. We know nearly nothing of how the brain works. Sure, we know there are synapses, and we know what brains end up doing in some circumstances, but we haven't begun to scratch the surface of how a brain is actually engineered (computational models be damned). The same is true of the human body and is especially true of human society.
Now Neil deGrasse Tyson has the annoying mantra that he repeats at every possible opportunity, which goes something like: "the good thing about science is that it's true whether or not you believe in it." First off, I don't know what's good about that; it'd be pretty damn convenient to live in a world where we could imagine away gravity or CO2 or cancer, but aside from this, science, actual science as a critical methodology is manifestly not true and is not the truth. Science is a way of marginally approaching truth by discovering falsity, and in most endeavors, this approachment is so marginal as to be inert in all our daily lives. There is nothing to "believe in" in science anyway, because it's an exposer of non-truth.
But in pop-science, Science® is "knowledge" and deviation from the scientific catechism is "irrational." It's not just irrational to dispute consensus, but irrational to fail to implement it in your personal life.
The greatest danger of pop-science is the unquestioned assumption that life should be led "scientifically." That we should "look for evidence," "question everything," and universally "challenge authority" (unless that authority is a professor). The problem should be blatantly obvious in hindsight.
An obvious example: in the 20th century, Western societies had to deal with the very real problem of a bizarre increase in lung cancer rates. We "know" now that smoking tobacco and other substances apparently cause drastically higher lung cancer rates, but this was lost on the people at the time.
The relationship between smoking and cancer was highly circumstantial; there were some statistical correlations established, but as any pop-science guru will tell us "correlation is not causation!" For decades, scientifically minded people looked for evidence while millions more died. Smoking companies took refuge in the fact that there was no mechanism understood behind how smoking could cause lung cancer. With all scientific rigor, they insisted for decades that the increase in lung cancer was due to something else, or merely an increase in diagnosis capacity. And they were on the side of scientific skepticism!
Only now that there is some understanding of how carcinogens in smoke can damage the lungs can we say that the "scientific consensus" is that smoking causes lung cancer. Cute, but if people had been "irrationally" cautious, the human tragedy would've been substantially mitigated.
The problem is that "looking for evidence" before acting or non-acting is personally and socially dangerous. In nearly all circumstances, our intuition (crafted by millions of years of evolution) or social norms (which keep us to established safe routes) are much better guides to life than the scientific consensus, despite them being "irrational" (and sorry, religion is part of this too). When someone guzzles down some newly fabricated energy drink or gallons of soda, they're nearly certainly damaging their bodies in ways science does not yet understand. Don't wait 40 years for some longitudinal peer-reviewed study to prove that eating plastic is bad for you. Trust your instincts before you give credence to some YouTuber who says inane things like "There's no evidence that..."
My favorite little "irrationality" that we all commit is of course, sleep. After millennia of trying to understand it, there is no established scientific reason or justification for why humans "need" sleep. Sure there are hypotheses (memory processing, repair, maybe even something Freudian), but none close to common currency. In the words of one of the world's most prominent sleep researchers, William Denent, "As far as I know, the only reason we need to sleep that is really, really solid is because we get sleepy." Of course the absence of logical evidence to the necessity of sleep keeps no NdGT fan from wasting their time on the "Bronze-Age Myth" of the importance of sleep.
The human body is a complex system in which every "system" is overlapping, somewhat redundant, all-affecting and fundamentally beyond linear analysis. Our scientific studies can find binary variables that correlate with a low p value, but that tells us nothings about what's actually going on and nothing about the underlying mechanisms. Again, the same is true of the human brain and the same is true of human society. Nothing is a simple input-output system.
What this means is that basically nothing from the world of pop-science can ever affect the basics of our lives because the interaction of our component parts are just non-amenable to any kind of generalizations that make intuitive sense to us. Everything we do affects out bodies in ways we can't predict so the proper strategy is always an "irrational" precaution and avoidance of novelty.
Things, of course, get especially touchy when talking about the "rational" management of society. Every good denizen of the post-Enlightenment world, even most of those on the "Right" have the idea that the economy and social relationships are simple one-to-one hydraulic systems that can be managed like a little steam engine. Now we've been rationally managed to hell and not back (and the solution is always more rational management).
The terrible truth is that traditional social norms are irrational and still do exist for a reason in the perennial gale of social evolution. Social change and social progress (note the lack of scare quotes) have always been happening, but only now do we have the naive idea that the units of society (people) have the competence to design and contribute to an otherwise unconscious evolution of social memes.
Anyway, I'll give the last word on this issue to Noam Chomsky, who somehow manages to say something clear and admirable on the subject:
Science is a very strange activity. It only works for simple problems. Even in the hard sciences, when you move beyond the simplest structures, it becomes very descriptive. By the time you get to big molecules, for example, you are mostly describing things. The idea that deep scientific analysis tells you something about problems of human beings and our lives and our inter-relations with one another and so on is mostly pretense in my opinion—self-serving pretense which is itself a technique of domination and exploitation and should be avoided. Professionals certainly have the responsibility of not making people believe that they have some special knowledge that others can't attain without special means or special college education or whatever. If things are simple, they should be said simply; if there is something serious to say that is not simple, then, fine, that's good and interesting. We can perhaps find deep answers to certain questions that do bear directly on issues of human interest and concern, but that is rarely true.
One of the worst aspects of all of this is that this understanding of pop-science encourages people to distrust what they know or can judge of the world in favor of the caricature of the consensus of institutionalized academics. People have this idea that there are these intellectual, peer-reviewed demigods in universities who discover the secrets to the universe and communicate them through their messengers stationed at BuzzFeed and the Huffington Post. Betraying their infinite wisdom would make you "irrational" or a "fundie." The reality is that these demigods really just went to graduate school because they were lazy and initiativeless, and even in the abstract, most of their real work has nothing to do with your life whatsoever. It's only the messengers that convince you of that because it stimulates their power trip.
Science journalists, much like journalists generally, are people too incompetent and emotional to work in the private sector, too dumb to be academics (and the standards are abysmally low these days), too full of themselves to work in charity and too bumbling, weak and arrogant to work in a blue collar or manual occupation. Journalism is an attractive career to many because it demands the least rigor and honor and promises the greatest power and influence.
Their self-ordained duty is to overwhelm the public with a confusion of "studies" that increasingly seem to micromanage a neurotic person's life. "Studies show that" classical music may help infant brain growth, or that gluten ravages the intestines, or that simply owning more books causes higher scholastic achievement, or that Vitamin C or antioxidants or kale or whatever health-food de jour solve all the world's problems.
At the end of the day, the worst part is that we talk about "science" as if it's some kind of anthropomophic creature with desires and feelings and a plan for us all. It's a uniquely modern flaw to say things like, "Science tells us that..." "Science is about.." "Science is against..." Does this not strike anyone else as creepy? The interpretation of science forced on the public is a scriptural one, where law to live life by are codified in "peer-reviewed" journals and communicated by intermediaries. 'Science's' purview is infinite and any failure to conform is some congenital failure or reason.