Science from Tenor

On the second day of Rosh Hashanah, the rabbi at my synagogue gave a sermon about four themes, all of which he felt needed addressing when there was a larger crowd than usual (though, it should be noted, the sanctuary was sparsely filled, especially compared to the SRO crowd the day before): racism, sexism, anti-semitism, and “the war on science.” As he recited off his list, the first three items made perfect sense to me; I was even proud to hear him cover current events like the Black Lives Matter movement and Donald Trump’s misogyny and how they are understood within Jewish tradition (hint: the first one’s good, the second one’s bad). That fourth item, though, piqued my curiosity a bit.

Since when did a war on science begin? Is it like the ill-fated War on Drugs? Or the ill-fated War on Terror? Or the ill-fated War on Poverty?

It turned out the rabbi was talking specifically about climate change deniers and their penchant for ignoring the overwhelming evidence pointing towards the anthropocentric damage we’re doing to our planet. I admit that it was a bit refreshing to hear a clergyman align his religious values with scientific discourse, encouraging his congregation to do the same. He fell short of explicitly blaming market-based motives or any specific lobbying efforts for why the country as a whole struggles to enact legislation. But that’s to be expected considering his delicate position as congregational leader of a highly varied group, culturally and economically.

“Science”, of course, is a complex apparatus, an assemblage of research, experiments, textbooks, journals, breakthroughs, studies, and—oh yeah—scientists. If there is, in fact, a war on science, then it seems quite obvious to me that its allied forces (i.e., science’s great defenders) would be led by General Neil deGrasse Tyson, astrophysicist, host of National Geographic’s Cosmos, and oft-retweeted Twitter personality.

You may remember some of Tyson’s best work:

This tweet declaring that there are objective truths and that, by aligning ourselves with them, the world will become a better place.

Or this one, awkwardly defending Trump supporters.

And then there’s this one.

This last tweet is particularly characteristic of a common Tyson theme: science provides truth and order, while religion is dangerous and arbitrary.

Never mind that “science” can be used for nefarious purposes—see the white supremacists using 23andMe DNA test results to prove they are, in fact, white. Forget that, by its nature, science resists progress by assuming anomalies to be innocuous—see Thomas Khun in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions:

By ensuring that the paradigm will not be too easily surrendered, resistance guarantees that scientists will not be lightly distracted and that the anomalies that lead to paradigm change will penetrate existing knowledge to the core (65).

Instead, realize that science would probably not be science without religion.

In a 1983 essay titled “Motive Forces of the New Science”, Robert K. Merton offers that the ascetic imperatives of the Protestant ethic laid the groundwork for the consecration of scientific inquiry.  “Science embodies patterns of behavior which are congenial to Puritan tastes,” he writes, “Above all, it embraces two highly prized values: utilitarianism and empiricism” (119). Science and technology provided the tools and frameworks for increased power to merchants, a rising class in seventeenth century England. In a Puritan value system that preaches “methodic labor” and “constant diligence in one’s calling” (118), the orderly and dedicated actions of the scientist align beautifully. “And society, once dubious of the merits of those who devoted themselves to the ‘petty, insignificant details of boundless Nature,’ largely relinquished its doubts” (112).

Merton is sure to acknowledge that “Many ‘emancipated souls’ of the present day” are unfamiliar, even made uncomfortable by the aligned values once (still?) shared by science and religion. He points out that this is projecting twentieth (or twenty-first, as the case may be) century values on seventeenth century society. “Though it always serves to inflate the ego of the iconoclast and sometimes to extol the social images of his own day, ‘debunking’ may often supplant truth with error” (116).

It seems illogical and unlikely that an accomplished academician the likes of Tyson would be ignorant to this sort of basic sociology of science. But you can’t make it to the rank of General of the Scientific Defense Forces if you are not debunking, especially when your arguments are tweetable and GIFable.

So maybe the War on Science is actually most like the War on Christmas, Bill O’Reilly’s non-sensical, anglo-centric effort to convince his followers that saying “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas” is somehow anti-Christian. Don’t worry, though, Gen. NDT has an answer for that, as well: