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Scientism, a threat to science

Written By BiharWatch on Tuesday, April 30, 2019 | 4:22 PM

One-time events on earth are outside of science
-Paul Weisz, in Elements of Biology

The most incomprehensible thing about the universe is that it is comprehensible
- Albert Einstein in "Physics and Reality"

Water from rivers which goes to sea is a waste. Is it really so? Is it scientific to argue that water which goes to sea is wasted? A Tamil proverb says, “sea begins in the mountains” capturing centuries old scientific wisdom. Is this proverb and the science of water cycle which is taught in schools incompatible? Are they unscientific? Is any anthropocentric approach scientific?

In an essay titled “The Folly of Scientism” published in The New Atlantis, a journal of Technology and Society, Austin L. Hughes is Carolina Distinguished Professor of Biological Sciences at the University of South Carolina wrote, “A typical scientist seemed to be a person who knew one small corner of the natural world and knew it very well, better than most other human beings living and better even than most who had ever lived. But outside of their circumscribed areas of expertise, scientists would hesitate to express an authoritative opinion.” The idea of reason cannot be equated with science. Those who do so practice scientism and Hughes concludes that like all superstitions, scientism undermines the credibility of science.

Take the case of a nuclear scientist who makes repeated claims without questioning by media that water from rivers which goes to sea is a waste, can such claim be deemed scientific? Will it be deemed so if this very claim is made by a hydrologist or an engineer of any branch? In what circumstances will such claim be considered scientific? Will there ever such situation?

Are claims of benefits from nuclear energy by nuclear scientists scientific? Was the disaster in Fukushima, Japan scientific? What was unscientific about it? 
Likewise eugenics too was promoted as a science for improving the human race by controlling reproduction. As scientific discipline, eugenics is totally been discredited in the academic world. It had also found mention in the report of National Planning Committee of the Indian National Congress headed by Jawaharlal Nehru which was constituted in 1938. Nehru had championed the cause of scientific temper, dams as temples of modern India along with scientific breeding for the birth of a fit human race. In later years, he regretted creation of large dams and referred to it as diseases of gigantism.   
The case of biometrics is illustrative. Biometrics is the science and technology of measuring and statistically analyzing biological data for the purpose of people identification based on supposed uniqueness of biological data (finger print, iris scan, voice print etc).

 The studies after studies show that biometrics as science too is deeply problematic but mass media and policy makers are accepting it unquestionably. The faith in biometric technology is based on a misplaced assumption that are parts of human body that does not age, wither and decay with the passage of time. Basic scientific research on whether or not unique biological characteristics of human beings is reliable under all circumstances of life is largely conspicuous by its absence in India and even elsewhere.

A report “Biometric Recognition: Challenges and Opportunities” of the National Research Council, USA published on 24 September  2010 concluded that the current state of biometrics is ‘inherently fallible’. That is also one of the findings of a five-year study. This study was jointly commissioned by the CIA, the US Department of Homeland Security and the Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency.

Another study titled “Experimental Evidence of a Template Aging Effect in Iris Biometrics” supported by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), the Biometrics Task Force and the Technical Support Working Group through Army contract has demolished the widely accepted fact that iris biometric systems are not subject to a template aging effect. The study provides evidence of a template aging effect. A “template aging effect” is defined as an increase in the false reject rate with increased elapsed time between the enrollment image and the verification image. The study infers, “We find that a template aging effect does exist. We also consider controlling for factors such as difference in pupil dilation between compared images and the presence of contact lenses, and how these affect template aging, and we use two different algorithms to test our data.”
A report “Biometrics: The Difference Engine: Dubious security” published by The Economist in its 1 October 2010 issue observed “Biometric identification can even invite violence. A motorist in Germany had a finger chopped off by thieves seeking to steal his exotic car, which used a fingerprint reader instead of a conventional door lock.”

Notwithstanding similar unforeseen consequences government’s faith in science of biometrics remains unshaken. It seems that considerations other than truth have given birth to this faith. The core question here is: there a biological material in the human body that constitutes biometric data which is immortal, ageless and permanent? They who say that it does are guilty of practicing scientism and discrediting genuine science as a discipline. In fact it is a case of display of unscientific temper by implication.

It is noteworthy that these efforts are going in a direction wherein very soon employers are likely to ask for biometric data CD or card instead of asking for conventional bio-data for giving jobs etc. It is likely to lead to discrimination and exclusion. Biometrics is being bulldozed down people’s throat as truth detection technology. In fact right to have citizens’ rights is in the process of being denied for instance, in India if citizens fail to scientifically nay biometrically prove that they are who they claim they are, notwithstanding the unreliability and admitted error rate of the technology.

There is a need for the academia especially from the sciences, Parliament, Supreme Court, state legislatures and High Courts to examine whether or not biometrics provides an established way of fixing identity of Indians as is currently being done through programs like aadhaar number as part of world’s biggest biometric database project.

Take another case. A killer mineral fiber called asbestos about which it has been conclusively established with valid scientific finality that all asbestos including white asbestos causes incurable lung cancer. But India is world’s biggest importer of white asbestos from countries like Russia. This in spite of the fact that all relevant scientific institutions of more than 55 countries including World Health Organisation have recommended that elimination of asbestos use is the only way to prevent incurable diseases like lung cancer because there is no safe and controlled use of white asbestos is possible. But scientific institutions in India like National Institute of Occupational Health, Ahmedabad concluded the contrary because they admittedly were sponsored by the asbestos industry. Doctoring scientific findings of research to meet the requirements of the sponsors of the research is an act of scientism. Indians are not immune to toxic fibers for sure but government chooses to practice scientism.

The molecules of death, called Dioxins were used under the brand name Agent Orange in the US-Vietnam war. The war veterans of both the countries are suffering from the health consequences of the war chemical. The ecosystem and food chain of Vietnam are still to recover from it. Instead of learning from it, the Indian government has proposed some 500 waste incinerators-the dioxins emitting machines- across India in peace time. The support or silence of “institutional science” when such unscientific decisions are taken constitutes scientism.

Scientists learn about how the smallest particles in the world work. This knowledge has been helpful for humanity. But the possibility of widespread and long-term harm from these particles cannot be ruled out and merit adoption of precautionary principle. In Nanomedicine, journal of nanotechnology, the potential for nano-sized particles (which are measured in billionths of a meter) to breach the blood-brain barrier, the tightly knit layers of cells that afford the brain the highest level of protection — from microorganisms, harmful molecules, etc. — in the human body and cause harm has been explored.

While some neuroscientists are purposefully engineering nanoparticles that can cross the blood-brain barrier so as to deliver medicines in a targeted and controlled way directly to diseased parts of the brain.  But the fact remains “nanoparticles designed to cross the BBB constitute a serious threat in the context of combat.” In one instance, a one-year moratorium on such research was imposed.

Scientism refers to the philosophy that treats science as the only means of acquiring knowledge. It espouses the view that only scientific claims are meaningful as if the influence of class division does not matter and as it is politically neutral. These divisions mediate scientific perceptions and practices.

Scientism  is practiced when words like ‘scientific,’ ‘scientifically,’ ‘scientific method’ and ‘scientific temper’ are used for praise, when technical jargons are used deliberately in society at large, when someone is preoccupied with drawing a sharp line between genuine science, the real thing and pseudo-science. It is also practiced with the obsession about explaining the success of science, when answers are sought for questions beyond the scope of sciences and when any inquiry besides the scientific inquiry is denigrated.

Scientism is not only about science it is also about junk science, made to order science and institutional science. The claim about river water going to sea being wasted will certainly fall under of these categories.
Will science ever cover the entire gamut of truth in its domain? Is science the only means of answering questions? Can science itself be deemed truth? Those who claim that it can be deemed so, face the charge of practicing scientism. The fact is that “the reach of scientism exceeds its grasp.”

If an opinion poll shows that a large majority of scientists prefer a particular kind of colour in their bed room, can such preference be deemed “scientific”.

Within all disciplines of science itself, many working scientists know that certain theories of their discipline are either false or absurd. In such a situation all that is within science as a discipline can be deemed scientifically defensible. The history of science shows how certain theories were discarded for good.

Long back DD Kosambi, the noted mathematician and scientists held that science is also history of science because the cumulative nature of science is seen in the fact that every major discovery in science is absorbed into the body of human scientific knowledge, which gets used later on. What is essential is absorbed into the general body of human knowledge, to become technique.  He referred to the freedom of the scientists to undertake research he likes. In a 1952 essay Kosambi wrote, “In 1949, I saw that American scientists and intellectuals were greatly worried about the question of scientific freedom, meaning thereby freedom for the scientist to do what he liked while being paid by big business, war departments, or universities whose funds tended to come more and more from one or the other source. These gentlemen, living in a society where he who pays the piper insists upon calling the tune, did not seem to realize that science was no longer 'independent' as in the days when modern manufacturing production was still expanding…The scientist now is part of a far more closely integrated, tightly exploited, social system…” The political economy of science which was described then remains unchanged in the 21st century.
Science has influenced society, just as society has influenced science. Science is directed at finding patterns of order in the observed data. There is a reciprocal relationship between the two.  Science has altered economic, social and political beliefs and practices. Since its inception, influence of class divisions permeated science both materially and ideologically.

This has affected its structure, development and use. Science is generally kept away from the service of mankind as long as it serves a class interest. It is made available to the people at large only when it benefits this class.

The core issue is how much of science is used for betterment of human conditions and how much of it is directed at destruction of living species and the planetary resources with an ever expanding weapons industry under a military mining industrial big data complex.

As has been the case in the past the path science is taking is being guided by the interest of the dominant class which has externalized human cost and issues of inter-generational ad inter-species equity.

While science faces threat from scientism as it can give result in ‘radical skepticism’, all the scientific disciplines are being undermined by institutional economics and management which have emerged disguises as science of sort.

Wittingly or unwittingly they who identify genuine science with institutional science also practice indefensible scientism. There are structural compulsions for practicing scientism which are rooted in the inequitable social structure which enlightened political intervention alone can alter. How else can the science of keeping mother’s milk poison free for the coming generations take birth?

Gopal Krishna





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