After the recent Republican debate, I saw a tweet (which unfortunately I can no longer find) quipping that Ben Carson motivates us to ask the tough questions, such as whether brain surgeons are really as smart as we assume. The clear political valence of the joke aside, it moved me to think about popularly-attributed intelligence and who it is we as a society turn to for theoretical nourishment and practical wisdom. The answer is: Science. We look to scientists to suggest problems of misplaced faith, ignored biases, and misconstrued concepts. Yet it seems our cultural trust in the sciences is misleading at best, and damaging to our social, cultural, and political fiber at worst.
Both the social and natural sciences express easily demonstrable ideological biases. The conservative Weekly Standard and the liberal New York Times have published pieces exploring the lack of intellectual diversity among social scientists, particularly in the behavioral sciences, and the egregiously-unexamined conclusions that follow. Both of these articles frame the discussion in terms of liberal and conservative political discourse, but we needn’t even go that far. The problem is simply that we assume that men and women with studies, data, and numbers are somehow more reasonable and less biased than their qualitatively-oriented fellows. Sure, a lack of intellectual diversity is a problem, but what should truly concern us is the bias toward the scientific and numerical, which blinded us to that lack of diversity in the first place.
The damaging faith in certain epistemic precepts is even stronger where the natural sciences are concerned. Last year, my alma mater exploded with excitement when Neil DeGrasse Tyson came to give a talk. Never mind that the man had made a number of statements critical of philosophy as a discipline or that he’d notoriously presented (perhaps through no fault of his own) a flawed and presumptuous narrative about faith and science in his reboot of Cosmos. Holy Cross celebrated him as a great popularizer of science, a valorous knight in the struggle against ignorance. Other notable public scientists, such as Jerry Coyne and Richard Dawkins, have proven to be equally as ignorant regarding philosophical questions. Yet, their non-scientific speculations are taken seriously because of their affiliation with the supposedly unideological and unbiased idol that is “science.”
While personal responsibility in reading and critically engaging others’ work are certainly important, I am more interested in chipping away at our culture’s ideological artifice. Science’s supposed ability to distinguish fact and value grants it a sort of sacred aura in need of "secularizing". Readers ought to approach a scientific study as skeptically, if not more so, than an essay in a literary magazine (at least the latter doesn’t pretend to easy objectivity).
If those of us who sympathize with the Humanities, those of us who believe in their efficacy in sculpting and nurturing young minds, wish to change our cultural norms, the task must start here; the sacred must be made profane, for “if a temple is to be erected, a temple must be destroyed.”