Is science racist?

 A few weeks ago a group of Auckland academics had a letter published in The Listener expressing misgivings about proposed changes to the New Zealand science curriculum. They were particularly worried about the weight given to Mātauranga Māori. The intention of the new curriculum appears to be to give due consideration to a couple of key ideas: first that there are a number of ways of gathering and synthesising knowledge of the natural world, and within a New Zealand context it is important to acknowledge, understand and learn from our traditional ways of thinking. And secondly, adherents to ‘Scientific Thinking’ have often times abused their position of privilege to usher in a range of dangerous and very much non-scientific prejudices and belief systems under the guise of ‘science’. Understanding that within the context of colonialism is important given our history. Both of these seem to be fairly non-controversial ideas. There are indeed many ways of constructing systems of knowledge and understanding, and some right old tosh has been called scientific, and this is hardly a problem confined to the past.

 Nevertheless, the academics, in their upset, were probably trying to draw our attention to something about the very nature of science: what it is, and how we ought to think about it. Specifically, the case they were making, or at least the most generous interpretation of it, is that there is indeed a thing called science, a very specific and constrained way of constructing predictive models of the measurable world, that can be claimed both to transcend culture and do a better job of building such models than any other available method. Although much of the philosophical and practical machinery of this endeavour was formalised in Europe during the seventeenth and eighteenth century, it is probably a little unreasonable  to call the core elements of scientific practice European, and more unreasonable too to think of the promotion of this method itself as colonialism. Actually it’s just a bunch of people trying to work out some fairly technical things about the world about us using whatever methods seem to work best. Whether you are working in India, China, Japan, Peru or Switzerland, if you are working in this area of core scientific research you are indeed engaged in a truly universal project of discovery, with a shared set of processes, conventions, terminologies and aspirations. Anyone who has been involved in an international scientific project will recognise something truly beautiful in this endeavour, and by looking at the massive efforts being made by climate scientists to better understand the changes taking place on our planet, or the mad, scrambling real-time attempts to get a handle on the way covid spreads, mutates, interacts with our immune systems and can ultimately be thwarted, we can get a sense of the power of such international co-operation. So whatever we do, we don’t want to lose sight of that aspect of science.

 The fear of the academics, perhaps, was that in teaching both the value of Mātauranga Māori and the way scientific knowledge has been used as a mechanism of colonialism and control, we might accidentally throw the baby out with the bath water and lose sight of the special and distinctive nature of scientific inquiry. 

 In terms of public reaction, the response to the academics was swift, uniform and unforgiving. Their views were variously described as arrogant, racist and ignorant. All of this was entirely predictable, given the political climate in which we operate. We’re not particularly good at taking a deep breath and then slowly, painstakingly dealing with nuance and complexity. And that’s understandable. It’s hard work. We’re particularly work-shy when there is the danger of our views being misrepresented. No surprises there.

 So, what should we make of this issue? I think one thing to note is that both sides are probably wrong about the same key element of the argument. For me, the central worry of the academics, that this will lead to us misunderstanding what science is all about, is misplaced. Importantly, I don’t think the baby was ever in the bath in the first place. It’s not an exaggeration to say we do almost nothing to educate budding young minds on the way scientific knowledge is constructed. How many students in secondary schools ever come across the problem of induction for instance, which is philosophically central to the intellectual edifice of science? How many of them are taught about the attempts of Popper to address this conundrum, and more importantly, why he is generally considered to have failed? How many could speak with any confidence about the criteria by which scientific theories become accepted or rejected, or could explain the philosophical implications of favouring fecundity, explanatory power, predictive power, simplicity or coherence? The thing is, we’re not currently teaching what science is in schools. In general, most people with science degrees never learn this either. They learn the how of scientific method, but rarely the why. The philosophy of science should be a compulsory element of science education, but it isn’t. So, if the academics are genuinely worried about preserving our understanding of the special nature of science, then what they ought to do is start teaching it. And, to be frank, prior to that, some of them would do well to start learning it themselves first, because an outdated nod  to Popper and falsifiability, or the reflexive pivoting to Kuhn, ain’t going to get the job done here. What science is, how it works, and how misunderstanding this frequently leads to abuse of power, is an important and fascinating subject.

 It’s unfortunate that it was the mention of Māori indigenous knowledge that got the academics exercised about a problem we’ve had in our curriculum for decades, because it does make it far too easy to critique their point of view as stemming from a discomfort with a more culturally progressive society. There is absolutely no problem at all with teaching an understanding of the value of Mātauranga Māori, and an historical understanding of the way the forces of colonialism have so often co-opted suspect scientific understandings for their own dismal purposes, alongside a solid understanding of what the universal scientific project is all about and what makes it so special. Indeed, the two topics would complement each other perfectly. For, when we try to get our heads around what science actually is, we can get a far better understanding of why a lot of the nonsense pedalled in the name of science is no such thing, and some of the fundamental misunderstandings underpinning many of  our racist views would make a most excellent case study. What’s more, looking at the way power elites subvert the stories surrounding  scientific understanding for their own purposes is the perfect springboard for understanding the difference between core scientific knowledge, essentially the tightly predictive models we build that might tell us, for example, how the load will be distributed across a particular bridge design, and our personal, prejudiced interpretation of science: see the way many modern atheists attempt to use science to show their chosen belief system as the correct one as an excellent example. Understanding this difference is key to appreciating scientific knowledge, and wielding it with appropriate levels of caution and humility.

 And, to be balanced here, the critics who went straight onto the attack very rarely acknowledged properly that this thing called science, as a unique human project, does indeed exist. They too made the exact same error of conflating science with its cultural context and interpretation, and were their voice to be given too much weight in this debate we would indeed be in danger of selling our ākonga short by depriving them of access to these beautiful and subtle distinctions. Too often the critiques have implied that scientific knowledge is irreducibly laden with value positions and statements, and that’s not entirely fair. It is something more than our collective beliefs and prejudices that led us to developing mRNA vaccines. The equations of quantum mechanics didn’t just emerge from a set of biases and a particular world view, and the way that in turn has enabled semi-conductors and the digital revolution (for all that is good and bad about that) is absolutely testament to the power of a very specific way of interacting with the physical world. It’s not the only way of interacting with the physical world, and frequently it’s not the smartest way of interacting with it, but it is unique, it is universal and is a part of our intellectual birthright. Again, it is quite possible to highlight this within the context suggested by the new science curriculum. Mātauranga Māori is not the problem here; it would make an excellent addition to the programme, as would a little philosophy of science. This is not an either or situation, rather the two areas are perfect complements.

 To finish on something more concrete, let me outline two ways in which science enthusiasts frequently overplay their hand, because I think both illustrate the way a little understanding of the philosophy of science can help disarm debates like this. The first takes me back to the topic of my previous post, and the idea of levels of analysis. A cultural prejudice that has sat at the heart of much of the western scientific narrative is the idea that by reducing a phenomenon to its  component parts, we get to the truth, or reality of its nature. Think of the over-eager science teacher who tells a class ‘while this door looks solid, it is in fact mostly empty space. The atoms making up the door are themselves mostly empty space, and the illusion of solidity is a function interacting forces. In fact the door is an illusion, constructed by the human mind to help it deal with the world.’ The kid looks at the door and thinks, no, looks pretty real to me. Then they knock on it for good measure, to prove their point. What’s actually going on here is two different models of the same phenomenon, and both privilege particular types of information, specifically the information the user is interested in. Seeing the door as a solid and continuous mass is perfectly useful for our day to day interactions with said door. Seeing it as mostly empty space may be  useful for particular arcane scientific  interactions with that door (can’t think of one offhand) and is very useful for delighting in the unifying features of the physical world at one lower level of analysis. We can see these not as competing perspectives, as there’s no need to declare a winner or name the most ‘true.’ Because as soon as you start making assumptions that the real nature of a thing is to be found at the lower order of analysis, you make a fundamental philosophical error, and one with profound real life implications. If people are really just biological machines, and these machines  are themselves just made up of cells, and these cells are just made up of atoms, and the universe is really just an impartial playing out of mathematically constrained relationships… then we, in trying to understand our human existence, throw out all the things that make that existence worthy of consideration (not least our capacity to ask the question in the first place.) At its most insistent, this entirely non-scientific cultural programme implies a sort of materialistic nihilism, which, while a perfectly valid philosophical choice if that is your bent, is not one required by, or even especially consistent with, scientific method. And yet Western thought has moved more and more towards this world view, and science has frequently been used in defence of it, so yes, colonialism and ignorance both. Funny how often those two things go hand in hand.

 The second frequent error is the failure to understand that the very strength of the scientific project is simultaneously its greatest weakness. Science is immensely useful for understanding some aspects of our physical existence, but completely useless when it comes to understanding most of them. Our lives, it turns out, are gloriously complex and messy affairs, while science revels in the controllable and the repeatable. Today I watched the quite fabulous Emma Raducanu win the US tennis open. Her talent, her tenacity, her intuition and her carefully honed skill set were a joy to watch, as were those of her opponent. And, despite the fact that the game itself, collision of racket with ball and trajectory of ball through the air, is pure physics, you can bet of all the people she’ll be thanking for her win right now, a physicist for helping her understand the essential nature of the game she plays will not be amongst them. The contribution physics can make here is all but inert, because the variables are too multitudinous to make real analysis practical or helpful (interestingly mathematical analysis has made more inroads in sport, but that’s another tale). Even things that seem at  first glance to be mostly scientific, like your GP listening to your symptoms and offering a diagnosis, are absolutely soaked in intuition, listening skills, experience, emotional response and guesswork. Not because your GP is slack, but because they are time constrained, you are an individual case, communication is imperfect, key information is missing, medical responses are necessarily value laden, and they are human. In so many areas of life our ever evolving intuitive and cultural knowledge outperforms scientific knowledge, because it is a much more practical way of dealing with complex situations (consider a person who attempts to take a ‘scientific approach’ to raising a child for instance – it’s simply laughable, albeit in a sad way). In education we see this almost on a daily basis, some expert who considers themselves scientific in their approach telling us what we are doing wrong in the classroom. And we as teachers sit there and think, ‘yeah, okay, you’ve never actually been in a classroom have you?’ Now, so long as science has the humility to know its limitations, that’s fine, but frequently it doesn’t. Let’s put that in the curriculum. 

 I think being aware of these two standard errors alone would do a huge amount to help people understand both the special value of science and its peculiar limitations. If the new curriculum turns out to be an opportunity for having these sorts of discussions in the classroom, then that will be wonderful. My entirely unscientific bet, however, is that it won’t. Because the problem isn’t new, and it has absolutely nothing to do with the valuing of Mātauranga Māori within a scientific context.

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