Playing Together

The Science Pope?

May contain nuts. 

Robot-pope Did life on Earth commence with the arrival of a biological material on a meteor (as in Spore), or around deep sea vents, or in “primordial soup”? Does the answer for the ‘missing’ matter in the universe point to dark matter, dark energy, or errors in our theories of gravitation? Did humanity develop upright posture to better dissipate heat, to free the arms for gathering food, to better wade through water, or simply because we’re lazy, and it uses less energy to walk upright? Does the Higgs boson really exist, or is it (as I contend) an awful kludge – and will the Large Hadron Collidor settle this dispute, or bring about one of a handful of exciting doomsday scenarios?

Science is packed full of such energetic debates between rival epistemic positions. (‘Epistemic’ is philosopher-speak for ‘stuff about knowledge’). Wouldn’t it be great if we could resolve all of these issues and know what is really true? We could appoint a board of scientists to weigh all the evidence and decide the real epistemology. Hey, why stop at a committee – they’ll just waste all that time arguing about it. We could appoint one individual to decide what’s true and what’s not true. We could appoint a Science Pope – an epistemic action hero to tell us what’s True and what’s False. An end to scientific argument! Scientific Truth forever! 

Cue the victory parade!

Now hang about, those of you who have not detected the scent of my sarcasm, isn’t one of the complaints that militant atheists like to level against the historical Catholic Church precisely that it tried to act as an epistemic legislator, thus blocking the True and Just advancement of the scientific method – the story of Galileo proves it! The Church was wrong and Galileo was right, yeah? Scientific Truth forever! Testify! 

Actually, as the maverick philosopher Paul Feyerabend demonstrated – Galileo was right, but for the wrong reasons (his conclusion would accord with future theory, but his method was flawed and insufficient as evidence), while the Church was wrong for various reasons, some absurd (Biblical inerrancy), but some bang on the money (observing the very pertinent flaws in Galileo’s research.) Not to mention Galileo shot himself in the foot by turning his staunchest ally, Pope Urban VIII, into his enemy by writing a book intended to examine both sides of the argument into a book that bigged up his own position (which, remembering that his evidence was insufficient, he was drawing solely from intuition), while implying that the Pope was a simpleton. In this regard, Galileo was a politically naïve fool.  

None of this denies Galileo’s brilliance – his later works were indeed the foundation of future scientific thinking, and he did correctly intuit that heliocentric models were accurate. But in the matter of his dispute with the Catholic Church, Galileo was a brash upstart, whose arrogance was as great a factor in his fate as the Vatican’s epistemic totalitarianism. None of which is to deny that there was an epistemic autocracy in sixteenth century Europe.

A Science Pope would mirror this old fashioned epistemic dictatorship, exhuming the corpse of a nasty practice the Catholic Church has gradually (and somewhat reluctantly) been giving up for more than a hundred years now. Contrary to popular perception, evolution has been on the Catholic syllabus for quite a while now, and let’s not forget that it was a Catholic monk, Gregor Mendel, who fathered modern genetics, and a Catholic priest, George Lemaître, who proposed the Big Bang theory in 1931. Representatives of Catholicism have actually contributed rather positively to the scientific endeavour. 

It’s not Christianity versus Science, much less Religion versus Science (has the Dalai Lama ever made an epistemic prescription?), the religious cold war, as I have dubbed it, is between militant atheists and militant Young Earth Creationists – whoops, sorry, I’m told they now prefer to be referenced as Biblical Authoritists, which should surely help weaken their position far more effectively than any argument their opponents might try to advance. By the way, while I’m here, the US is host to perhaps 30 million atheists (as quoted by American Atheists) and perhaps 140 million Young Earth… er… Biblical Authoritists (as calculated from the most recent evolution census data). That’s about 10% and about 46% of the population of the US – although what proportion of those are actually militant about their respective positions is less clear…

I suppose a few scientistic fanatics waiting in the wings might still want to mount a Science Pope defence (although undoubtedly not under that title!) on the grounds that Papal epistemology drew from the Bible (well, in part, yes, but in part, no) but the Science Pope would draw their epistemology from the pure white light of Reason and Science and thus would be able to synthesise Pure Scientific Truth. Never mind Kuhn’s widely accepted philosophy of science concerning the temporary stability of scientific paradigms, this kind of reasoning falls into the mistake so nicely captured by Mathew Cromer’s twist on Michael Shermer’s theme: science is a method, not a position. There is no permanent Scientific Truth – to believe there is would be to adopt a position of epistemic authority as bizarrely inconsistent with the scientific method as anything the Young Earth Creationists propose. (And they, at least, are upfront about the foundation – and thus limitation – of their epistemological position).

I doubt there is anyone who would want to propose a Science Pope - although there seems to be a few people who think they have appointed themselves to the role.

The thing about proposing a Science Pope is that this is a magnificent lightning rod for all sorts of absurd nonsense. I hope at this point it’s clear that a Science Pope – or any more innocently worded variation on the same theme (“Council of Scientific Truth”, “League of Accurate Scientific Pronouncement” etc.) would be a truly atrocious monstrosity. The very strength of our modern scientific method is that it supports many competing viewpoints, which engage in a kind of epistemic natural selection between all individuals – everyone is free to interpret scientific research through their own lens.

This is precisely the underpinning for science that Feyerabend felt was the only consistent position, something further pursued by John Dupré’s pluralistic metaphysics. Dupré denies the assumption of reductionism that all science is explicable in terms of the science “underneath” – thus everything will ultimately be explicable by physics – and justifiably so. It takes a gigantic leap of faith to jump over the fact that nothing of this kind has actually been demonstrated thus far, and it’s very unlikely (for instance) that psychology can be fully explicated by physics, nor even chemistry. I notice Dupré has his supporters, which is a very encouraging development.

Yet perhaps I have been too cavalier in dismissing the possibility of a Science Pope.

The Vatican has yielded its epistemic authority while maintaining its moral authority – accepting, of course, that this authority extends solely to Catholic Christians who choose to accept this authority, and have every right to do so in a society that values freedom of belief. Although a Science Pope with epistemic authority would be a resurgence of everything that was awful about the Papacy’s historical attempts to be the arbiter of knowledge, perhaps there might yet be a role for a Science Pope who was a genuine parallel of the Catholic Pope – a Science Pope with moral authority, someone who could tackle the increasingly urgent need for a coherent ethics of science before it’s too late. 

But of course, few if any scientists would accept an external source of authority, and indeed many seem to believe that the pursuit of knowledge is a perfectly reasonable higher moral authority to cleave to, while readily pursuing research that is dehumanising, threatening to the future survival of all species, or otherwise ethically questionable by the varying standards that most of humanity upholds. In this regard, I sometimes wish there was a Science Pope that the wider scientific community might listen to when considering the impact of their research, rather than just the commercial benefits.

Would it be so bad to have someone who could say every once in a while: please don’t research that, some of us are trying to live on this planet!


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One problem with the Science Pope, as it were, is that there seems to already be a contingency of people who seem to believe the Science Pope actually exists, and are blindly following his orders -- and scoff at those who do not automatically accept his ex laboratoria pronouncements as gospel truth.

The greatest strength of science is the belief that established science is wrong.

Yes, but sometimes I see a general consensus in science that simply MUST NOT be challenged. This is best seen in global warming (or global climate change, as they prefer now). But notice that this is partly because of a mixture of politics and religion as well (yes, I consider certain forms of environmentalism religion).

Well, that's a question. I've heard from people who have claimed that, for example, the Global Climate change is being "enforced" by certain people. It is a Must Not Be Questioned, and people who DO question is are blackballed. -- or so, as I say, I have heard. Are they telling the truth? I don't know. I'm not a scientist per se, and I'm certainly not one studying in the global climate change area.

That's the flip side of it, as it were. Scientists are people, too, and most people like it when other people agree with them -- and anyone who feels strongly about some point tends to have trouble with people who feel differently. Science does best when everyone is willing to discard what was done before in favour of the new theories, (provided there's evidence) but when it's YOUR theories being questioned... well, ... that's different, innit?

It's not really the fallacy or not of scientific theories that his Science Pope is meant to address, is it?

It is the morality of proposed research. Which is absurd, IMO. One person, to dictate the morality of all proposed science? To, by extension, predict the effects of all proposed science?

In terms of morality, there's already science bishops, if you will. What positive difference could it make to extend the hierarchy upwards? Not to mention the fact that science is a method, not a doctrine, so you can't really have any authority over it, since anyone with money can do it.

Also, this is another in a string of question marks raised above the ethics of scientists as a whole. Making such a generalisation seems over-inclusive, unless the ethics under discussion are universal. Secondly, if you want an analogy, isn't unethical for the indigenous people of the amazon basin to be logging indiscriminately? Many of them do, for economic reasons (so fat westerners can eat beef). Yet if you wanted them to stop, would you really try to appoint a figure-head to appeal to their ethics? Ban the practice, feed the people it puts out of job, and so on. But trying to solve practical problems like unethical research is like trying to halt the AIDS epidemic by telling people to have less sex - impractical.

Trevel: "The greatest strength of science is the belief that established science is wrong."

I thoroughly agree with this claim. The foundation of my scientific beliefs is the surety than in the future people will have different beliefs which are equally scientific, but which accord with observations more completely. Such is surely the direction we are trying to head in.

Ian: the thing about climate science is that it has become grossly politicised on both sides. This issue began to be explored back in the 1970s but became politicised in the 1980s when President Reagan hired an advisor to produce a viewpoint that dismissed the credence of the global warming position. It has been an area of virulent conflict ever since.

You also say:

"yes, I consider certain forms of environmentalism religion"

Well they don't identify these beliefs as a religion so it is probably safer to call it a nonreligion, like Marxism (i.e. something with many of the hallmarks of religion, but that is not identified as such). But yes, staunch environmentalists have specific metaphysical beliefs, specific ethical beliefs, and a guiding narrative ("Save the Planet!"). The parallel with religious belief systems is apposite.

Trevel: "Science does best when everyone is willing to discard what was done before in favour of the new theories, (provided there's evidence) but when it's YOUR theories being questioned... well, ... that's different, innit?"

There's definitely an element of this at work. I like to quote Max Planck:

"An important scientific innovation rarely makes its way by gradually winning over and converting its opponents: it rarely happens that Saul becomes Paul. What does happen is that its opponents gradually die out and that the growing generation is familiarized with the idea from the beginning."
- Max Planck "The Philosophy of Physics" (1936)

Ian/Trevel: on the subject of the debate over climate science, it has become highly partisan on both sides. I have remained agnostic on this issue for quite some time, and I would say that while the weight of evidence lies in favour of humanity being a major cause of climate change, it is not possible to rule out other causes at this time.

Regardless of the inability to reach certainty (which is never properly attainable), I feel that the risks inherent in climate change are sufficient that we should begin taking action immediately - regardless of the outcome of the climate change debate, we are destroying the natural habitats on the planet which are part of our essential life support system. Action on this cannot wait without risking severe consequences.

zenBen: sorry, you have misinterpreted me slightly. I present two versions of the Science Pope in this piece, but *both* are intended as nonsense.

The 'epistemic authority' Science Pope is something we are currently burdened with (in spirit) and I feel needs to be lampooned. The 'moral authority' Science Pope is something we don't have, never will have, and that I simply pine for out of a desire to have *some* brake against research which is ill considered.

I am not advocating any kind of Science Pope as an actual proposition - only as a cartoon centrepiece for debate.

Moral authority simply means that people listen to your ethical advice. Since scientists have a nasty tendency to listen only to themselves, I don't see any way to have moral authority in science - but I feel an urgent need for a coherent ethics of science. The way to create this this will not be by appointing scientific pontiffs, however, but to change the way we think about science's relationship to society. This transformation is, I contend, desperately needed, and must begin with open discussions in the scientific community, and ideally in discourse with the public.

"But trying to solve practical problems like unethical research is like trying to halt the AIDS epidemic by telling people to have less sex - impractical."

Did you miss something out of this sentence? (Trying to solve practical problems *how* is impractical?) Or do you truly mean that it is impossible to prevent unethical research? Surely there are ways to encourage ethics in science - surely this is not an impossible battle.

Further debate welcomed!

I did notice that it was nonsense, I even called it some such word. Reminds me a piece
I wrote suggesting Dawkins as a prophet - everybody took that seriously at first too.

"Did you miss something out of this sentence?"
'trying to solve practical problems (such as unethical research) is like trying to halt the AIDS epidemic by telling people to have less sex, because it is impractical to expect results by suggesting that people do something that is against their baser natures'.

My point was that money feeds science, and money feeds scientists, and scientists like to eat just as everyone else. Very little research gets funded for its own sake. Most of the money comes from corporate partnership, and of the rest, a large proportion is government programs. A modern academic must either bring in corporate dollars or become a career teacher (which brings no respect and no advancement).

So if you want to make them work ethically, start at the source. Start with the money-men.

zenBen: thanks for clarifying! But can we realistically start with the corporations?

I have lost, as I have matured, my "naive cyberpunk" idea of evil uberpowerful corporations who we cannot influence in favour of the more viable idea that almost all these corporations (excluding , say, military contractors) depend on consumer spending - which means if you can get the consumers to agree to the issues, you can change the corporations with comparative ease. Look at McDonalds scrabbling to undo their unhealthy image now that public scrutiny has turned upon them.

So I suppose, if your chain of inference holds, the way to resolve the ethics of science is to begin with the populace at large.

But of course, how do we maintain collective action in our fragmentary age? I suppose the internet is our last, best hope for peace. ;) Simple forms of collective agreement; dynamic fora for political discussions in an apolitical format - perhaps we need new tools to advance the discussions if we are to make the changes we need.

Best wishes!

PS: your "prophet Dawkins" piece had the air of sarcastic wit, but lacked a crucial explicit 'flag' to allow it to be interpreted as nonsense, I think. But then, my nonsense is often similar mistaken despite being clearly labeled as such! Perhaps we should just take our licks as they come. :)

There is an interesting talk on how collective action might be enabled in future, here:

For me, alas, life is too short for YouTube. I prefer to read rather than to watch - I can process text orders of magnitude faster than I can watch video, and I just don't have the patience for it these days.

I appreciate you sharing this, but I would have appreciated a synopsis even more! :)

Best wishes!

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