Monday, July 6, 2015

Anti-Science Bias

As I said earlier, when I was growing up I was more interested in math and science than in the humanities, but by the end of high school I took up the humanities instead. Looking back, I've occasionally wondered whether I ought to have continued in the sciences. It is impossible to know now whether I would have preferred a more technical career, but as the job market tightens now it appears to be in most people's interest to beef up on science and technology if they want good jobs in the future. I have been thinking for a long time about why people get turned off science and will say a few things on that topic.

I've noticed that even the greatest scientists often have other strong interests that have nothing to do with science. Isaac Newton owned and read more books in the humanities than in math and science. His most famous work, Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica, which revolutionized physics and astronomy, contains few equations and follows a style similar to that of Euclid. He spent many years studying alchemy and mysticism, which today would place him among the ranks of the gullible. Albert Einstein also read widely and had hobbies such as playing the violin and sailing. In addition, as I mentioned earlier, many scientists write well - as well or better than many professional writers in the humanities - which indicates more than a superficial level of reading in non-scientific literature.

In the U.S. some parents are called "helicopter parents" and closely monitor their children in order to optimize their chances for success. The Asian "tiger moms" who have been in the news recently take radical steps to ensure that their children get top grades, particularly in math and the sciences. I consider these sociologically significant developments and think that these parents correctly recognize that their children will need this knowledge and the right credentials in order to have economically successful lives as adults if current trends continue. According to the "tiger mom" mentality, their children will become doctors and scientists or hold other top positions, while the children of many other parents will be doomed to lower-paying jobs or unemployment. This is interesting because even the wealthy class in the U.S. doesn't see things quite that way. Rather, the Bushes, the Kochs, the Rockefellers, etc., figure that they already have enough wealth and know how to keep it. Old money often becomes interested in the arts, charities or politics, and in most cases their children are set for life, making the relatively desperate behavior of "tiger moms" irrelevant from their point of view. One might argue that the rich are shortsighted in this instance, but I think that they represent some fundamental human features that aren't likely to disappear any time soon.

My interpretation of this situation is that we are biologically and culturally predisposed to recognize and respond to the signals associated with high social status. While there is some recognition among wealthy Americans that their children need state-of-the-art educations that include science, they also recognize that the highest social status was once granted to those who didn't need to work and were, for example, merely conversant in the arts. The model in the U.S. dating from the nineteenth century and earlier has been to become fabulously wealthy by hook or by crook and then spend the remainder of your life demonstrating what good taste you have and what a nice person you are. These days, once rich, that often translates into buying ridiculously-priced art, building superfluous multi-million-dollar houses, funding research to cure AIDS, starting foundations to end child hunger, etc. The tastes among tech billionaires are a little different from those who were rich in the past, but the social function is little changed. A paradox seems to occur in parts of the upper middle class. These parents are not wealthy enough to be confident about the well-being of their children under many plausible future scenarios, and not all of them seem to have caught on to the fact that many of the professions could soon be downgraded with respect to income and social status. New software and outsourcing are already cutting into the pay of lawyers, and artificial intelligence may eventually cause a significant reduction in income among the medical and other professions. Some upper-middle-class parents still think that their children will do fine if they study, say, classics, art history or Romance languages, but economic reality is rapidly making that strategy implausible. In their case it seems as if obsolete social norms are doing their families a disservice.

Of course, in the U.S. in particular, there are more obvious sources of anti-science bias. As one of the ostensibly most Christian nations in the world, the U.S. is a stronghold for creationists and anthropogenic climate change deniers. There is also a lingering disruptiveness in the South emanating from the Civil War, making some Southerners behave like Luddites who, in a psychological sense, seem as if they would like to go back in time to the pre-industrial era during which their ancestors were able to become wealthy with slave labor. The South, though slowly modernizing, still possesses elements of willful anti-intellectualism that impede its economic and social progress and put it at odds with the developed world. Not much proof is needed to demonstrate that creationism is a pseudoscience that is best ignored, but it is still popular in the Bible Belt.

From an intellectual standpoint, the most interesting aspect of resistance to science has occurred in universities following C.P. Snow's introduction of the "two cultures" concept in 1959. Although I'm a long way from academia, there still seems to me to be an enormous rift between science and the humanities. They seem to be going their separate ways, with no shortage of enmity and little cooperation. I sometimes get the impression that the better scientists are more open-minded than the humanities academics who seem hell-bent on remaining scientifically illiterate, yet there are also a few presumptuous scientists who seem to have little understanding of the nuances of Western culture. The most arrogant and insensitive scientists use the successes of science to embellish their social prestige and don't always realize that they themselves have not escaped cultural paradigms that exist independently from the rationality that they claim to exemplify. The people who defend the humanities rightly recognize the importance to us of cultural history but at the extreme end do not represent openness to insights into reality that we would never have gained without scientific research. Extreme humanistic academics value culture so much more than science that they are comfortable living in a make-believe world that they erroneously believe can survive scientific scrutiny. As I wrote earlier, I believe that much of the popular thought in the Western tradition that pertains to ethics, political theory and human nature in general can be seen as warmed-over Christianity that harbors unquestioned theological dogma. While the worst scientific offenders are imperious bullies, the worst humanists are naïve fantasists.

To generally explain all of the above, I would say that we are in the process of an evolutionary transition. Although we are all instinctive scientists and observe and analyze the world from the moment that we are born, modern science fails to satisfy this instinct because it is too advanced and raises too many questions that we find threatening. It is one thing to invent the wheel but something else entirely to demonstrate precisely how we are related to chimpanzees. Until recently our scientific inquisitiveness did not conflict with our anthropocentric mythologies. People would rather not know that their behavior isn't all that different from that of chipmunks. Furthermore, science itself has become difficult and tedious. Gone are the days when a scientist could come up with a good idea and run experiments himself to prove whatever his theory might be. Now most scientists must diligently study abstruse topics for many years and then participate in large research teams whose projects may take decades to complete. It is possible to spend an entire career testing one theory that finally proves to be incorrect. Those who favor the humanities may not be wrong if they think that scientific jobs are like boring and meaningless desk jobs at a large corporation.

This tension regarding science may resolve itself in one of two ways. On the one hand, it is possible that the current pressures to make people more scientific will continue, and top scientists will become the leaders of society by virtue of their command of the relevant subjects. On the other hand, technology may reach a point where scientific research will be carried out through artificial intelligence, leaving people free to spend their time however they choose. I am inclined to think the latter will occur, because we are already going through scientific burnout and our brains are hitting limits that we never encountered in the past. We are good at being primates, and at the moment we are hesitant about becoming more intelligent than we have ever been. However, it is important to keep in mind that evolution has no predetermined path, and we may have big surprises in store.


  1. Nobel Laureate economist, John Harsanyi, said that “apart from economic payoffs, social status seems to be the most important incentive and motivating force of social behaviour". Paul do you think this is true? The older I get the less it matters to me however, I do think that it matters a great deal to people.

  2. I don't know whether or not there has been a definitive study of social status, but it certainly is a major motivator for many people. The economist Robert Frank also writes about this topic. He notes that status is always relative. The mansions from the 1920's are tiny by today's standards because competition for status has led to increasingly larger houses among the rich. He points out how stupid and wasteful this is.

    I think interest in social status varies a lot from person to person, and what they think constitutes social status also varies. So one person may think a 40,000 sq. ft. house is great, another might think being a Buddhist is great, and another might think that being a Buddhist in a 40,000 sq. ft. house is great. A lot depends on the conditions in which one grows up and where one lives. Often people who grow up poor in a place where there are rich people around push themselves hard (e.g. Martha Stewart), perhaps because they start out with low self-esteem. Probably people who grow up thinking that they have enough status don't care about it as much. Ideally smart people could figure this out and transcend it, but I don't think many do. We meet a lot of retirees here, and while some are obsessed with houses, multiple houses in some cases, there are people like me who don't give a crap.