Saturday, July 8, 2017

Science or Ideology?

Ideology is the systematic body of ideas, ideals, and beliefs forming the basis of human action. Science is the systematic study of the physical world in order to acquire knowledge about how it works. Knowledge of how our world works may be influenced by the ideology we bring to the study process. 

To what degree is scientific discovery tainted or influenced by ideology of the scientists? All parties may not agree on the results of scientific studies and research. Even fewer may agree on the action plan our results suggest. This statement implies some science is heavy on ideology and could have negative outcomes. We acknowledge that ideology could have both negative and positive results as we appraise the fruit of science discovery. The statement “Science tells us that…” could be heavily value-laden. 

The scope of the 450-year old Scientific Revolution is often misunderstood. In that period science has provided us with a wonderful means of discovery of the truths of our physical world, invention, and application. Modern society could not function without its benefits. Science existed prior to the revolution but its impact was inconsistent among the world’s cultures. Some productive empiricism, observation, and induction existed but utilization of formal scientific method was still distant.

The Scientific Revolution formalized the methods of science investigation and research and has paralleled other important social revolutions such as the modern Agricultural Revolution, the Industrial Revolutions, the Urban Sanitary Revolution and the 19th century medical revolution in Germ Theory. Each of these revolutions was opposed by some members of society on ideological grounds. In terms of pure science, ideology has sometimes blocked the way to truth discovery.

In our study of science we are concerned about the philosophy of science which overviews our concerns about these issues. At the risk of complicating (or clarifying) our discussion, we present a definition of science philosophy: “Philosophers of science typically understand the epistemological and philosophical dimensions of science—presuppositions, values, what kinds of knowledge claims are being made and how they are justified.”  

Science historian Mary Jo Nye, speaking about famous science philosopher Michael Polanyi (1891-1976) writes, “By the 1970s practitioners of the social construction of science…were explaining scientific theories as the result of negotiations of competing interests within scientific communities, so that scientists’ claims for the value-free objectivity and universal validity of their results became a matter of self-interest rather than reflections of the natural world.” Polanyi stressed the importance of personal commitment in the practice of science. He claimed personal knowledge and commitment drove the scientist more than scientific method. “We believe more than we can prove; we know more than we can say,” stated Polanyi. One of his signature publications was titled “Personal Knowledge.” With this degree of personal input to science, we observe that science is not a totally objective field of study.

Thomas Kuhn (1922-1996), physicist, historian, and philosopher of science wrote of “paradigm shifts” instead of linear progress in our knowledge of science. The scientific community is ruled by shifting consensus. His seminal work The Structure of Scientific Revolutions was not the first to advance the idea that personalities and politics play a large role in science. Many modern science philosophers such as Karl Popper (1902-1994) and Paul Feyerabend (1924-1994) have advanced divergent views of the objective certainty of science truth as opposed to science as just another ideology.

Like it or not, ideology and science always overlap. We challenge readers to investigate the difficult complexity of this phenomenon for themselves. Instead of the hope of separating ideology from science, we must accept the benefit of ideology in all human production, science included. We strive for sound thinking as we search for an appropriate balance. Neither ideology nor science exists as a singular entity.

Christians working professionally in physical sciences, earth sciences, or biological sciences may interpret scripture passages as devotional or inspirational in their professional activity. Jeremiah 33:25 refers to the fixed laws of heaven and earth. The astrophysicist takes inspiration from insightful cosmic commentary by the prophet in Isaiah 40:21-26. The famous passages in Psalm 139 on the fearfully wonderful prenatal “weaving” of our unformed body motivates awe for the omnipotent Author of Life. A case could easily be made that ideology, tantamount to worldview, inspires professional production. 

The differences between ideology and worldview are subtle. The influence of ideology could channel scientific process or application in many different directions. For example, if political or profit-minded ideology negatively impacts science, results could be more harmful to science than devotional or inspirational effects. Actions resulting from benevolent or altruistic ideology is a desirable outcome of the linkage of ideology and science.