Not-So-Popular Science


Uncommon Sense: The Heretical Nature of Science, by Alan Cromer, New York: Oxford University Press, 240 pages, $23.00

Do we discover the world, or do we invent it?

Or, put another way, is there a difference between Newton and Shakespeare? We think that if Shakespeare had never lived, no one else would have written Hamlet. But if Newton had never lived, the law of gravity would still apply.

These seemingly simple questions touch the core of a fundamental and ongoing fight over the very nature of truth that is being slugged out in universities, think tanks, and political arenas around the globe. This debate pits modernists against postmodernists. In this context, modernity refers to the idea, often associated with the likes of Francis Bacon, René Descartes, and Isaac Newton, that reason and systematic observation should be preferred over tradition and dogmatic authority.

As children of the Enlightenment's drive for scientific knowledge and analysis, modernists claim that we discover the world. It is out there, separate from us and independent of our minds and wishes. Using our intelligence, we can learn about the world, but we are essentially passive observers of it. The laws of physics are external and objective, universal and socaily neutral, true at all times and all places. In this "scientific" world view, the truth of a statement rests on its correspondence with observable evidence and its ability to predict future results. Truth is public.

But postmodernists, who rule much of the academy and many of today's political movements, believe in "the social construction of reality," meaning that all knowledge–even physics–is a cultural phenomenon, inextricable from human biases and desires. This view dismisses the very idea of objectivity and argues not just that we can never know what objective reality is but that no such thing exists. Some feminist scholars, for example, contend that objectivity, rationality, and the scientific method are constructs that validate self-serving ideas of hierarchy and dominance by which mostly male scientists distance themselves from nature in an attempt to dominate and exploit it. In the postmodernist world view, truth is private and local, and there are fundamentally different truths perceived by blacks, by women, by gays and lesbians, and by other oppressed minorities. The standard of truth is not external but internal, and the central question is not "What is out there?" but "Who is speaking?"

Alan Cromer, a physicist at Northeastern University, jumps into this brawl with an impassioned, heavyweight defense of science and objectivity. He also provides an explanation for why so many people throughout history have failed to join the modernist camp. In Uncommon Sense, Cromer argues that people are naturally subjective, that they do not easily distinguish their wishes from the world, that abstract, analytical thinking is hard to come by, and that, as a result, the development of science was not inevitable. Far from it: Of all civilizations–including those, such as China, that made impressive technological advances–only the ancient Greeks developed science.

The greatest achievement of the Greeks, Cromer argues, was the idea of objectivity–the idea that the world is rational and consistent, that it can be understood by reason, that not all statements are equally valid, and that the better argument wins. The Greeks, he says, "didn't invent just new subjects for thought, but fundamentally new ways of thinking."

Cromer demonstrates that throughout all of recorded history, the idea of objectivity and public knowledge has been a minority view. He contrasts ancient Greece with ancient Israel, Homer with the Bible. "Homer is the world's first exemplar of objective thinking," says Cromer. "In the Iliad, the assembly, in which men of different rank debate matters of mutual concern, is a hallowed institutional, and skill in debate is held as high as skill in war."

In contrast, the Bible is filled with "self-appointed prophets [who] claim personal knowledge of God's will, which they exhort the people to obey. The claim is never questioned, even rhetorically. Such claims of personal knowledge are very much with us today, from papal encyclicals to television evangelicals." They are also with us in the feminist refrain that "men just don't get it," which is similarly a claim about private knowledge, immediately available to some but inaccessible to others.

Religious thought, closely akin to belief in magic, is fundamentally at odds with reason and objectivity. Galileo and Darwin ran into so much trouble with religionists not just because their statements disagreed with church teaching. More importantly, they appealed to reason and observation rather than dogma. As Cromer notes, "Judaism, Christianity, and Islam are monotheistic religions based on the teachings of prophets. They share the belief that some human beings can directly know the mind of God, but they disagree on which of them are the true prophets and which are the false ones….Scientific thinking didn't–and couldn't–evolve from the prophetic tradition of Judaism and Christianity." Despite the many hoops that some religionists try to jump through to bring the two together, religion and science cannot be reconciled. They are radically different ways of knowing the world.

Cromer argues that the religionists–broadly defined–always outnumber the scientists. That is why science and objectivity are "heretical" ideas. People want to believe that truth can be obtained by personal insight, intuition, and belief. Science, on the other hand, he says, is "a sort of growing up, a putting aside of childish egocentrism." We have great trouble doing it as individuals and as cultures. Abstract thinking does not come naturally to most people. Reason, he says, is "an oasis in the midst of a vast desert of human confusion and irrationality." Hence his title, Uncommon Sense.

Cromer's faith in the scientific enterprise is virtually absolute and unshakable. He disagrees with Thomas Kuhn's description of scientific progress as a series of "paradigm shifts" by which a new system of ideas and explanations replaces an old system, which is then itself discarded. Not so, Cromer says: "Science is overwhelmingly cumulative, not revolutionary, in its structure." Very little of what has been established by scientific investigation is thrown away. Rather, old theories become incorporated into new theories that are more inclusive and have greater explanatory power. Thus, Einstein's physics did not replace Newton's mechanics. Rather, the Newtonian world was shown to be a special case of the Einsteinian world. Newton's laws of motion still perfectly describe systems where velocities are slow. And they are still taught to physics students, not as a historical oddity but as the laws that apply to the macro-level world we know.

Uncommon Sense is a masterful, coherent, well-thought and well-written statement of the scientific world view and argument on its behalf. In the last chapter of the book, Cromer even proposes a wholesale revision of our educational system aimed at teaching young people to think rationally, scientifically, and objectively. He exemplifies the very commitment to rationality that he extols. He marshals facts, he explains, and he is very persuasive.

But, of course, I already agree with him. I also doubt that anyone who doesn't already agree with him will be persuaded. Science, alas, is different from the social realm. We certainly can hold up Euclid's geometry as the model for all knowledge: Start with premises about which no one can disagree, and then, using logic alone, prove theorems that are as certain as anything we know. Unfortunately, only geometry is like geometry.

Can anyone recall a political debate in which anyone's mind was changed by facts or by arguments? Think of Nightline, or MacNeil/Lehrer, or Crossfire, or Firing Line. When is the last time that any of the guests on those programs–or any other–said to an opponent, "You know, I never thought of it that way. You're right, and I'm wrong"? As Cromer concedes, it is easier to believe in private truths than in public truths, more pleasant to believe in the social construction of reality than in an objective and indifferent world, and more delightful to believe in magic than in science.

Democracy is based on the notion that the better argument wins and that through public debate the truth will out. But almost without exception, people define the better argument as the one that they agree with. And, as we know, the truth lies at the bottom of a very deep hole. People are rarely dissuaded from the private-truth tradition by rational argument. Cromer has no doubt (and I share his conviction) that objectivity and scientific thinking are more than just one more way of looking at the world. He is certain that his model of reality is fundamentally and essentially true.

But then again, that's what all religions say. Ironically, there is no knockout punch with which Cromer can end his argument. You can hear those who disagree with him already lining up. Their first argument will be, "Well, he's a white male scientist, so what do you expect him to say?" That is what passes for argument in the postmodern world.

Lee Dembart, a former editorial writer at the Los Angeles Times and editorial-page editor at the San Francisco Examiner, teaches journalism and mass communications at the University of California, Berkeley.