Nature magazine definitely announced, daring to be doubted, “Science and politics are inseparable”. They followed this up with, “We cannot stand by and let science be undermined”, and so endorsed Payoff Joe for president.
To say science and politics are inseparable, one must know what both are. Politics needs no explanation. What is science?
Some say science is a process. This is wrong. The way you complete the morning paperwork is a process. Renewing your driver’s license is a process. Everything is a process. Being a process is not what makes science scientific.
Here is what science is: a collection of theories about how and why the world works. It’s theories that makes a thing a science. Scientific theories are an amalgam of physics (which is empirical), mathematics (which is not empirical), and metaphysics (not empirical).
That which is not empirical cannot be tested against observation, and thus must rely (in brief) on belief. That’s where the politics comes in. To see that, contrast technology with science.
Technology is science’s close cousin. It often takes the more-or-less true theories of science that are amenable to manipulation, theories of the kind that say “Push here and then this happens because of that”, and puts them to work.
It should be clear that observation, upon which technology relies, is not the same as theory. A person ignorant of theory can “push here” and see that “this happens” or not. He needs no “because that”. Technology doesn’t need theory. If you get something to work, it works, and you need not know, or can be wrong about, why.
Because of this, technology is judged more rigorously than science. It has to work—and here is the key!—but science does not.
The reason for the difference is obvious enough: You can sell a non-functioning technology for only so long before you’re caught (see, inter alia, Theranos). But you can sell theories forever.
Not all of science’s theories have to be true, but they all have to be pleasing. Consider a multiverse theory, which pleases some. It claims an entirely new universe peels off from our own every time a wave-function “collapses”. This peeling off can never be observed, so the theory can’t be proven or falsified by observation, but it sure can generate enthusiastic papers, theory building upon theory, all of the how-many-universes-can-dance-on-the-head-of-a-pin variety.
Theories do not need to make predictions that can be checked to be liked. Even if liked theories do make verifiable predictions that fail, it is a breeze to explain aberrant observations as outliers or special exceptions. Theories are infinitely malleable: falsifiability has always been a dead end.
Politics intrudes at this point, because what makes theories pleasing is often their non-empirical parts. It is those parts which are embraced with the most enthusiasm.
Technology can remain mute about deeper questions, but science cannot, because all theories have meaning and all touch on metaphysical beliefs to some extent. The parts of theories that are metaphysics and math is why it isn’t always inappropriate to speak of believing a scientific theory. You can, for instance, only “believe” math, because numbers can never be observed (try observing the largest prime). Same thing for many metaphysical propositions. We believe the non-empirical based on argument that makes use of observations but extrapolates from them to the non-observable.
There is much to all this (ahem), so let’s only examine or two cases.
A particular metaphysical belief that has crept into science is that man is god. It’s never said in so dramatic a fashion, of course, but the lineaments are there. There is a case to be made this started in quantum mechanics a century ago, in which some theories require man’s acts to “collapse” those wave functions mentioned above. This implies that, without us, nothing, or nothing important, happens.
Even if that is false or fanciful, metaphysics is inescapable in scientific theories.
For instance, an older metaphysical belief says only God can change the essence of a thing into something new: after a prayer, the bread becomes Christ’s body, a miracle. But man now believes he too can manipulate natures (the plural is not a mistake). A male can become a female by speaking the “transition” into existence, a miracle.
In neither case can any observation falsify these metaphysical propositions. What good does it do to tell a tranny he is, based on all observation, a man? All he will admit is that outward appearances deceive, that he really is a woman in essence, in nature because he says so.
Metaphysics always trumps physics. Metaphysical beliefs are a lot closer to ultimate Reality, and thus dearer to people’s hearts than any empirical theory. Take differentially heated fluids flowing on rotating spheres. There are two main theories regarding this, relying on two different metaphysical beliefs. One is that man is not part of the world, and that he corrupts creation (gods can be good or evil). The other is that man is made from dust, and so is a natural part of the world.
Nature magazine, calling on the first metaphysical belief, speaks of “irrefutable evidence” of global-warming-of-doom theory. If they mean those parts of the theory that man is an aberration, requiring government of enlightened gods (themselves) to restrain evil demigods (us), then they’re right. Bad forecasts will never challenge their belief—if they hold is strongly enough.
For any scientific theory that has taken the taint of politics, from coronadoom to evolution, unless you can successfully challenge the underlying metaphysics you will not change any minds.
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