Blinded me with science

is my Trade Tripper column in this weekend's issue of BusinessWorld:

Gone are the days when the world’s debates hinged on ideologies, be it communism, socialism, feminism, Marxism, or any other -ism. Pretty much everybody now agrees that a democratic, market-oriented form of governance works best for societies (and particularly the poor). This all the more because socialism and communism, going by empirical evidence, are clearly spectacular failures.

Indeed, any possible source of struggle for the 21st century would likely be from the differences in religions (or the lack thereof). The secular progressives’ response to this is to advance the idea of science as the better alternative to faith-based philosophies. Unfortunately, they presuppose certain things about the nature of science that are not actually correct.

One thing that people may not realize is that the scientist’s ability to function hinges substantially on what ordinarily would be considered as mere beliefs. Secularists would like us to think that science works exclusively on cold data. The fact of the matter, however, is that oftentimes it operates a lot on blind faith. Think about this: how many scientists actually talked to the foreign or past researchers they referred to, how many of them actually bothered or had the time to verify the information contained in the studies, journals, or research they relied on for their own work, or vetted the universities or international organizations they cited (not to mention their source of funding)?

Considerably, all scientific work proceeds from three huge assumptions: that the scientific process was done properly, that the modes of perception upon which the observations were based were optimum, and that the interpretation of what was observed was done objectively.

This fact was actually highlighted by a series of stories The Economist ran last 19 October 2013 (“How science goes wrong”): “A simple idea underpins science: ‘trust, but verify’. Results should always be subject to challenge from experiment. That simple but powerful idea has generated a vast body of knowledge. Since its birth in the 17th century, modern science has changed the world beyond recognition, and overwhelmingly for the better. But success can breed complacency. Modern scientists are doing too much trusting and not enough verifying -- to the detriment of the whole of science, and of humanity.”

Furthermore, the “hallowed process of peer review is not all it is cracked up to be, either. When a prominent medical journal ran research past other experts in the field, it found that most of the reviewers failed to spot mistakes it had deliberately inserted into papers, even after being told they were being tested.”

Finally, in “Trouble at the lab” (The Economist, 19 October 2013): “The idea that the same experiments always get the same results, no matter who performs them, is one of the cornerstones of science’s claim to objective truth. If a systematic campaign of replication does not lead to the same results, then either the original research is flawed (as the replicators claim) or the replications are (as many of the original researchers on priming contend). Either way, something is awry.” All the foregoing “fits with another line of evidence suggesting that a lot of scientific research is poorly thought through, or executed, or both.”

As a political aside, such is probably why even US President Barack Obama (who seems to want to give an image of being a man of facts rather than of faith, unlike his predecessor) himself also considers science a “non-essential” (see “Why isn’t science deemed essential?”, Hank Campbell, USA Today, 15 October 2013).

Despite all that, however, science is indeed important as it provides us an avenue to arrive at absolute truths. As pointed out by philosopher Fr. Cecilio Magsino in his blog Viatores (“The limits of science,” 18 October 2013): “Science does provide us with absolutes, if by absolutes we understand definitive statements. Take the formulas everyone knows: F=ma, E=mc2. Science does give final answers. Doctors know that finally we have cures for certain illnesses. I understand, though, what he is trying to say: that science always moves forward so as to present new theories to better understand the world and nature. That is true. But what we cannot say is that science does not arrive at truths with great certainty.” But there is a caveat: in the end, however, the thing about “science is that its truths are always valid within a context, that in which the conclusions were arrived at.”

So, we’re clearly not belittling science (or scientists). Quite the contrary. But as Fr. Magsino points out: “Science is the great endeavor of the human race and, in a way, it has united the world. But like anything that is the product of human work it needs philosophy or wisdom to make sense out of it.”

Or as Pope John Paul II more poetically described it in his magnificent Fides et Ratio: “Faith and reason are like two wings on which the human spirit rises to the contemplation of truth.”