Science and Ideology

Georges LeMaitre is, in some sense, the literal father of the Big Bang Theory, in the sense of “father” as a Catholic priest, as he was a priest and a theologian as well as a gifted astrophysicist (even if his PhD is from the wrong institute of technology).  As such, he offers a rare glimpse of the Galileian problem from the opposite perspective:  someone with too obviously “religious” baggage offering up a theory too much at odds with the areligious conventional wisdom.

Einstein, previously a believer in steady state universe, may have been instantly won over by LeMaitre’s model, but other contemporary astrophysicists and cosmologists were not of the same level of genius.  Many reacted to LeMaitre’s argument by noting the similarity between the Big Bang Theory and the concept of creation ex nihilo as per Aquinas:  it seemed to them that LeMaitre, who, after all was a Catholic theologian on top of a physicist, was selling Catholic theology in the garb of modern physics, and was something to be resisted.  Whether LeMaitre intended this is difficult to discern:  at minimum, he certainly recognized the problem, according to those who had personal interactions with him.  If so, however, this redoubled his effort to keep as much distance between his theory and religion, as captured in the following quote:

As far as I see, such a theory [of the primeval atom] remains entirely outside any metaphysical or religious question. It leaves the materialist free to deny any transcendental Being. He may keep, for the bottom of space-time, the same attitude of mind he has been able to adopt for events occurring in non-singular places in space-time. For the believer, it removes any attempt to familiarity with God, as were Laplace’s chiquenaude or Jeans’ finger. It is consonant with the wording of Isaiah speaking of the ‘Hidden God’ hidden even in the beginning of the universe … Science has not to surrender in face of the Universe and when Pascal tries to infer the existence of God from the supposed infinitude of Nature, we may think that he is looking in the wrong direction.

Indeed, when Pope Pius XII wanted to refer to the Big Bang as the moment of creation in a public announcement, Fr. LeMaitre advised against it:  it was bad enough that people were seeing religious propaganda in his theory.  It would be worse if the religious leaders actually did use it as part of propaganda.

This underscores a fundamental problem with “selling” science beyond scientists.  We might want to believe that “science” is self-evident truth that stands by itself.  In fact, “science” stands on the bulwark of empirical uncertainty.  Science stands on the strength of the data that undergirds it and the interpretation of that data:  science is true as far as we can see, based on statistical implications of the data in light of the theoretical understanding of how universe works as far as we understand it.  Professional scientists spend lifetimes learning both.  Laypeople do not.  Their understanding of both the data and the theoretical underpinnings of science are full of gaps, misconceptions, and other problems.  These problems do not necessarily mean that laypeople are “dumb”:  they simply have not invested time and effort to learn the ways of science, that is all.  Since they spent their time and energy on other things, they may well be far cleverer than scientists on other matters, even.  Rather, at best, they “know” what scientists say and they believe it as far as they trust the scientists and their motives.

Note that, among LeMaitre’s skeptics, the distrust of his motives as a priest led to undue skepticism of his theory, except for those of exceptional genius like Einstein who could evaluate his theory solely on its merits.  We are not speaking of mere “scientists,” but men of great genius themselves like Fred Hoyle.  If they had trouble buying into theories that offend their existing preconceptions, why should we think laypeople with far less scientific expertise would simply lap up whatever some famous scientist has to say?

The art of persuasion, unfortunately, is not well appreciated by many who fancy themselves scientists:  they believe that they have the truth on their side and the heathens who reject it must be forcibly converted at the sword point if necessary.  If this sounds incredible, this was in fact done in some societies–i.e. the Soviet Russia.  A version of this also captures the essence of beliefs held by people like Richard Dawkins.  Less stringent adherents to this view subscribe the notion that “scientific” findings must be used to influence society and policymaking even in face of opposition by many in society, through propaganda and various skulduggery as necessary, if the issues are “important” enough.

I had written about the controversy surrounding the findings by Michael LaCour before.  Recently, Science has published another article that seems to affirm his findings, ironically authored by those who debunked the original article.  What does this really say, though?  At first glance, it might appear that the article is saying that those who are bigoted against transgender people can be persuaded to change their mind via personal contact that offer them an alternate perspective.  So a victory for progressive social tolerance demonstrated via science(tm), yay, right?  Well, wrong!  What it does show is that those who think they have a strong opinion about a topic that they don’t know a great deal about via personal experience in fact do not have very durable opinions on them, even if the opinions might be extreme.  In fact, this might be seen as an illustration of how extreme views are not the same as durable views, and some people, under some circumstances, can change their views all over the place–in fact, Phil Converse found a version of this, in terms of more conventional political matters, in landmark research in public opinion back in 1960s:  he was rather contemptuous of those who did, as weak-minded spineless lot without real sense of politics, or those lacking “ideologies.”  In a sense, this is not untrue even for the Brockman and Kalla study:  those who reported prejudice against the transgendered don’t really know anything about transgender people.  So what if they had extreme views?  It’s founded on nothing of import and can be shifted even with relatively little input.  The logic can be illustrated quite simply, using a Bayesian probability model.  The durability of the opinion change uncovered in the study is new, but it is also true that they were not given an impulse, say, in via counterpropaganda, to change their opinion in opposite direction as is often the case in politics.  In other words, all that the research has shown in that people’s opinions, even when they seem “strong,” (in terms of extremity) are quite malleable, garbed in the politically touchy lingo.

The political sensibilities of today are, in some sense, the Catholicism of Fr. LeMaitre that shaped the perception of Big Bang Theory to his skeptics, or, indeed, the Jewishness of Einstein to the Nazis.  The findings by Brockman and Kalla are about public opinion and their malleability, not gay science, no more than Big Bang Theory is Catholic science or relativity is Jewish physics.  Yet, this is how it might be perceived by those with, eh, different socio-political viewpoints.  Those who are heralding this finding are not doing any favors by draping the theory in rainbow colors, any more than Pius XII did by claiming the Big Bang as the Biblical moment of Creation.  Science has do abandon politics and ideology, social (and especially political) science even more so.  The more “political” it gets, the more it moves into the realm of propaganda, away from science.  As one might say, even if you think you are shilling for the truth, if you are shilling, you are still a shill.  Even if what you are shilling is the truth, nobody trusts a shill, and they are right not to.

PS.  Shilling for truth undermines the truth rather than elevate the shilling because “shilling” depends on the conclusion, not the process.  A shill is an advocate for a cause:  he believes some cause to be “true” and is using the truth to bolster his cause, perhaps not unlike the Devil quoting the Scripture to make his case–if you do not share the shill’s cause.  That the Devil is quoting the Scripture, if anything, if you know you are talking to the Devil, is all the more reason NOT to trust the Devil.  If you are trying to sell the Bible to a Christian, you don’t want to come off as the Devil.



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