Today’s Contemplation: Collapse Cometh XXXVII

Got involved in a discussion after an Facebook Friend (Alice Friedemann, whose work can be seen here) posted a study on the decline of ‘rationality’ over the past few decades.

My initial response was as follows:

My initial thought is that this shift is more the result of a paradigmatic shift in academia itself from ‘Modernism’ to ‘Post-Modernism’ that has slowly filtered into the mainstream than anything else. As a university student during the entire decade of the 1980s, I was exposed to A LOT of Post-Modernist philosophy that questioned ‘Rationality’. Off the top of my head I recall a number of the philosophies I was exposed to coming from such academics as: Roland Barthes, Jacques Derrida, Claude Levi-Strauss, Michel Foucault, Clifford Geertz, Friedrich Nietzche, Martin Heidigger, Jean-Paul Sartre, Stephen Jay Gould, G.W.F. Hegel, H.G. Gadamer, Thomas Kuhn, and Jurgen Habermas. The topics included: rationality, literary criticism, deconstruction, deconstructive criticism, hermeneutics, philology, metaphysics, and dialectics. These all reflected a questioning of the strict ‘factual’ or ‘rational’ universe at one level or another — especially the ‘subjectivity’ verses ‘objectivity’ aspects of ‘science’. Here’s just a few of the books I still have in my dwindling collection:

The conversation has brought back some of my interests that arose during my university education (the ten years were in the pursuit of four degrees from biology/physiology to psychology/anthropology that culminated in an M.A. in archaeology and B.Ed. for a career in education; retired almost ten years now). It’s been a while (decades) since I studied this stuff but here are my two cents on the topic:

There is definitely a difference between the hard/physical sciences and the soft/social ones. Measuring and observing chemical reactions, the movement of stars, or biological/physiological properties then projecting their past and/or future states is quite different then doing this when humans are involved in the equation, be it psychology, economics, history, etc..

Perhaps one of the reasons that the Post-Modern era occurred was the result of the social sciences attempting to legitimise their fields as ‘science’ in order to be taken more seriously. Regardless, I still believe humans cannot ever be ‘objective’, especially about themselves; there are just too many psychological mechanisms affecting our cognition. Then there are the ‘incentives’ that exist in research and academia that impact ‘science’; not only the interpretation of results but their use and distribution/publication.

I also believe that as an endeavour practised by very fallible human beings science cannot help but be ‘subjective’ in nature. On more than one occasion we can see the exact same physical evidence being ‘interpreted’ in diametrically-opposed ways by ‘experts’ in the same field, and consensus, if it does occur, can sometimes take place as a result of persuasiveness and influence of a group rather than as a reflection of the evidence itself. This makes one of the more important aspects of science, the modelling of future states, even more problematic — to say little about our ‘interpretations’ of past states.

Throw complexity, non-linearity, and chaos into the mix and everything becomes less prone to accurate modelling and interpretation, no matter how sophisticated or how much data is input. In fact, the more data and more complex the model the more prone it is to error, especially due to the assumptions that tend to get built into them. The smallest of input errors can result in the largest of output result errors.

Certainly there are some models and projections that are better than others and evidence leads to ‘laws’ that are for the most part, irrefutable; but for better or worse, science tends to work on probabilities and rarely absolutes, with the passage of time being the verification of how accurate the base assumptions and model are.

So, I think we need to be careful as Post-Modern thought is challenged and rejected that the pendulum doesn’t swing too far the other way and as some are doing attempt to place science upon a pedestal from which it cannot be questioned or criticised, ever. I’ve run into individuals who will not accept any questioning of ‘science’ or criticism of the endeavour. As soon as you pose a question you are labelled a ‘denier’ and ignored or attacked. Science is absolute, irrefutable, and always correct. Always.

One of the dangers I’ve observed in an unquestioning faith in ‘science’ becomes the increasing leveraging of cherry-picked science by the ruling class to justify/rationalise policy and/or actions; something that has happened in the past and that we seem to be seeing more and more of with it being accompanied by the insistence that the policy/action taken is absolutely correct, cannot be questioned, and anyone critical is anti-science, anti-rational, anti-government and should be silenced, ostracised, marginalised, deplatformed, etc., etc.. And it could very well be that the apparent increasing questioning of ‘science’ is the epiphenomenon of people questioning the ruling class, not necessarily the scientific process itself.

And while the above beliefs of mine may appear as anti-science to some I would argue they are not. They are simply critical awareness of the fact that science is an endeavour practised by very fallible human beings that live in a social world where they are pushed and pulled in numerous directions by a variety of forces that can and do influence the way they think and interpret their physical world. Add to this the (ab)use of ‘science’ by the ruling class and we have the perfect environment for controversy beyond a simple reflection about the human aspects of the practice of science.

We have to be very careful that science does not become a cult where its adherents are ‘righteous’ and ‘better than the others’ because of their ‘correct’ beliefs. That sounds an awful lot like using science to create a new religion to me.

I close with a passage near the beginning of an article on the idea of a ‘renewable’ energy transition by Professor Emeritus Dr. William Rees and Meghan Seibert that I believe is relevant:

“We begin with a reminder that humans are storytellers by nature. We socially construct complex sets of facts, beliefs, and values that guide how we operate in the world. Indeed, humans act out of their socially constructed narratives as if they were real. All political ideologies, religious doctrines, economic paradigms, cultural narratives — even scientific theories — are socially constructed “stories” that may or may not accurately reflect any aspect of reality they purport to represent. Once a particular construct has taken hold, its adherents are likely to treat it more seriously than opposing evidence from an alternate conceptual framework.”

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