Putting Science in its Place

Photo by Noam R

Although I might be described as a dyed-in-the-wool scientist, I’m about to say some things that are critical of science, which may be upsetting to some. It’s like those warnings on a movie or show: strong language, nudity, smoking, badmouthing science. So, before I lay into it, let me express some appreciation for what science does remarkably well.

  1. Science exemplifies careful observation—isolating confounding factors to focus on a particular interaction.
  2. Science follows a method that suppresses personal attachment to an idea: nature becomes the arbiter of truth.
  3. When it comes to elementary particles and fundamental physics, one can hardly do any better; although even an atomic nucleus is complex enough to defy exact treatment.
  4. Science advances by trying to tear itself apart, so that surviving notions are very strong.
  5. Because of science, we have a decent outline of how cosmology, evolution, and biophysical systems work.

It has its place.

But the very thing that makes science powerful is also its biggest weakness. It relentlessly pushes wrinkles aside, smoothing its zone of interest to the least complex system one can obtain for study. This is ideal when wanting to observe a Bose-Einstein condensate in isolation, or the genetic mechanism for producing a certain protein. Science also tends to dissect a problem (or literal critter) into the smallest, disembodied pieces—which then have trouble relating back to the whole integration of relationships between pieces. Other “ways of knowing” attempt to grapple with the whole, accepting it as it is and not applying reductionist tools.

Limits of Science

In promoting the cut and dried, dissected, abstracted, tidy realm of science, we can lose the ability to celebrate the wonder, mystery, and awe of complexity and relationship that defy simple frameworks. The artificial, rectilinear, ordered, Cartesian world we construct around ourselves alienates us from more durable but messy realities. We infantilize ourselves by insisting on unambiguous truth. What is the one right way to: live; eat; exercise; socialize; earn; recycle; energize; travel? What’s the right solution to climate change?  What is the right set of human rights?  What’s the right approach to the Israel/Palestine situation? Science has trained us to expect correct, repeatable solutions that can be confirmed by a peek at the back of the book. Complex relationships often have no right answer, in which case it is counterproductive to cast around seeking one. We are conditioned to be attracted to authoritative answers, and might as a whole lack the poise to admit that many real-world situations will never be reduced to black and white; right and wrong.

Science’s success has produced an expectation of unlimited understanding. A sort-of fetishism arises. It’s intoxicating to think that we’re on the path to knowing everything, like gods. Yet, the best answer to almost any question a six-year-old will ask is: we don’t really know. Why do we sleep? What do dreams do? Do all animals have feelings? Do chickadees ever laugh, in their way? What is it like to be a kelp plant? Why is there a universe at all? Are there aliens kind-of like us? Why do tears accompany crying? If sneezing and coughing don’t happen during sleep, are they ever really necessary?  What is time?

We might know some relevant things around the margins of such questions, but not the full story. Not only do we not know it all, I would say we never will. Science has limits. We won’t know why things exist, and will never prove there are no aliens across the vast stretches of space and time, no matter how long we search without detecting signs. Science is a fantastically sharp tool for some jobs, but won’t be able to cut through every complexity—nor should it try. Science is a way to get at a truth (or a part thereof), which is something. But it should not be mistaken as the way to get at the truth.

Science, being both a powerful tool and itself unconcerned with the intractable whole, has to be tempered by something bigger than itself. It plays a role, but ideally not as the master.

Fever Dreams

This is going to seem a little “out there,” but a significant epiphany came to me during a recent illness. When I’m sick, I have these repetitive dreams (they might be called fever dreams?) in which I am trying to do something simple, but it fails time after time. I might be trying to draw a circle or square in a graphical program, which involves holding the shift key until releasing the mouse button. But something goes wrong every time and I get ellipses or rectangles. For hour after grueling hour, I will be tormented by serial failure. Such dreams have also taken the form of Tetris before: falling shapes that refuse to go where I try to put them, or simply aren’t shapes I can place without creating holes. I muse that my brain is paralleling my immune system’s relentless trial-and-error process in building an antibody that will crack the virus. Around the time the fever dream stops, I feel that I’ve broken through the illness and can finally get good rest as I move on to a recovery phase.

During my recent affliction, the dream-task involved mailing tubes, for reasons unknown to me. They were to be stacked in alignment. But they kept showing up at odd angles to how I wanted them, and sometimes had other faults as well (incomplete, disintegrating). The epiphany was: accept them as they are. Let them stack up any old way they wanted. Variety is good! Let a thousand flowers bloom. Look at that new misfit: awesome! I can tell you that the experience was far more pleasant than previous dreams of this nature. I was even a bit delighted by the defiance of order: no matter what happened, it would all be fine, and I need not stress.

The jumbled mailing tubes reminded me of the game pick-up-sticks, where inevitably some are both under and over other crossing sticks, precluding the possibility of an algorithmic removal of each stick in turn without having to slip out from under another (possibly disturbing it and losing the game). Yet real instances of stick piles will exhibit this resistance to being dismantled cleanly, which I confirm as I process trimmings in my yard.

In a similar vein, consider the proverbial Gordian knot—a knot so complex as to defy solution. This tangled mess presents a direct challenge to science, which instantly becomes consumed with schemes for its undoing. Science torments itself over sometimes unsolvable puzzles. Yet such puzzles exist, whether or not science is emotionally mature enough to cope.

I guess the point here is that science operates in a space that is not always compatible with complex reality. Science seeks certainty and struggles to accommodate ambiguity. Back to Tetris. Perhaps the fundamental problem with the game is an insistence on building a tight-packed pile. Sure, that’s how the (arbitrary) game is structured, and how to keep it going and build up a score. But compare this artificial space to something like soil. If soil were tight-packed without air pockets, it would be dead to life. Pockets are a plus! The problem with Tetris is the rigid goal of eradicating any pockets. What’s the intrinsic value in that? It’s much less stressful if you’re willing to take life as it is and perhaps create pleasing or even random patterns, if we can abide such things.

Sometimes True

I like this passage in Vanessa Machado de Oliveira’s Hospicing Modernity. The book describes common themes in Indigenous storytelling about “little people” in the forest who can help humans navigate their realm if shown the proper respect, or bring them to peril if not. Then a quote:

If a person is not familiar with this type of storytelling, at this point invariably some obvious questions come up: “Is it myth or reality?” “Is it science or folklore?” or “Is it true?” I have observed how the Indigenous people I work with answer the “is it true” question. They usually surprise people with an unexpected answer, which is generally a version of: “Sometimes.”

I chuckle at the perfect impishness of this response, and admire the wisdom within. I feel that I could be friends with this person.

The author goes on to say that the story is not as much about whether it’s true, or what the story means so much as what is the story trying to move? What does it do over time, and to time itself? Basically, if a story motivates a more respectful relationship with the land, then it has powerful “truth” that will bear out in the fullness of time.

I really like this, and especially the clash with the narrow Western mentality that truth is absolute and forever. “Sometimes true” just does not compute, to the scientific mind, and might blow a fuse—usefully.


I sense that Indigenous cultures (speaking here of cultures that have developed long-lasting sustainable relationships with their land and communities) look at and accept the entire Gordian knot, and simply ask how they might respect it: how to co-exist in reciprocal relationship. It is not a threat. We need not be at war with it. The adolescent impulse to untangle it may not serve any useful end, other than to leave what was beautiful in a frayed wreck.

Let’s take the case of animal emotions. Science gets mired in experiments that try to show conclusively that an animal does or does not experience emotion. But the matter is never settled, as no experiment can allow the human to experience another mind and know beyond the shadow of a doubt that the reaction accesses something identical to what we call emotion. Another approach is to bypass the hand-wringing and take it as truth that animals have emotions, and act accordingly. The scientist will never be satisfied that the assumption is true, and grind on the question while missing an opportunity to enjoy relationships with animals on the assumption that all beings experience emotion, in their own ways. It’s more than just the scientist’s loss, as the entire community of life suffers by not being afforded a default level of respect. Demanding proof before acting generously is no way to be in “right” relationship.

Incidentally, when science treads on the ground of identifying familiar human experiences or qualities in entities other than humans, the charge of “anthropomorphizing” is never far behind. Think about this accusation: making it a cardinal sin to attribute human-like qualities to another living being could not be a clearer indication of a human supremacist attitude. It’s pretty gross.  Channeling Jeff Foxworthy, if you’ve called out anthropomorphizing, you just might be…

Perhaps more exotic is the notion of bio-intelligence in plants. We can’t get our heads around how a plant—lacking a brain or nervous system—could possibly possess awareness and intelligence. Science reduces observed behaviors to provable stimulus/response pairings, but how is our own intelligence fundamentally different than stimulus/response, other than being a complex instantiation? A plant can sense its conditions and react “smartly” to them, in ways honed by the success of the species in the multi-level selection process of evolution. Plants must have figured a lot of things out to successfully operate in this world. They know what they’re about: they have been plugging along for many millions of years. They have awareness, and various means of communication to others. Just because it’s not very human-like does not make it invalid—bringing me back to channeling Jeff Foxworthy.

Science gets stuck on this unprovable conjecture of bio-intelligence, as we don’t have the evidence or even framework to fully appreciate the story. Science has trouble proving that something doesn’t exist, in some form. Meanwhile, Indigenous cultures get on with life assuming that plants hold ancient wisdom. That acceptance allows a more meaningful, reciprocal relationship that is not only deeply satisfying, but promotes long-term success for all involved. The scientists are missing out—self-limiting by rigid dogma.

I am reminded of a scene in the sobering movie Saving Private Ryan. Early on, a group of soldiers who are tasked with finding James Ryan in Normandy indeed find a fellow by that name. Not realizing it’s the wrong one, they break the news that all his brothers died. This James Ryan, who had two young brothers in elementary school, asked how they died. In combat.  When they realized their mistake and apologized for the confusion, the poor Ryan couldn’t shake the idea that his brothers back home might still have met an ill fate, not knowing exactly where the disconnect might lie. “But how do you know they’re okay?” “I’m sure they’re fine” didn’t mollify him. The guy was a wreck, and as a result could no longer enjoy the hellhole of a war he was in. Science likewise can work itself into an unproductive fit by not being able to prove something one way or another, and it will always be so. It needs to chillax.

Subservient Science

This is why a healthy approach to living on this planet cannot place all—or I would say even most—of its eggs in the science basket. It simply won’t deliver all the answers (especially the most important ones), and impedes deeper appreciations and relationships.

Think of science as a powerful tool, like maybe a power saw. It can really take things apart. But it’s not always the right tool. Maybe it seldom is, in fact. We also don’t want to put it in the hands of children, or use it without first thinking carefully about the consequences and if there might in fact be more productive paths.

Before picking up the science tool, we would do well to first ask: to what end? What would it get us? Why would the knowledge be desirable? Would the community of life, as a whole, likely benefit or suffer from this knowledge? Is it satisfying idle curiosity, mindlessly advancing capabilities, or does it move something good for all life (vs. just humans at unaffordable ecological cost)? Other plants and animals are not subject to this same burden, but then they are not practitioners of “fast” science.  They observe more patiently, and root their reactions in a a deeper context.

I would recommend that we relax rigorous rigidity and put more stock in operationally productive stories: stories that move something good. Who cares if science can’t validate the stories? Science has its limits, dude. Let’s not get paralyzed by pedantry. The good stuff awaits, if we can let go of the shiny trinket in the “monkey trap” (I cringe to use the speciesist term).

[Note: I owe much of this awareness to recently reading Iain McGilchrist’s The Master and His Emissary.]

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