You know what’s really en vogue right now? Not summer neons, not that ombre shit (thank God that trend is almost over). No, it’s SCIENCE. Just like that: SCIENCE. All caps, period at the end, declarative as fuck, SCIENCE. Science has been in fashion for some years now, made especially trendy by science popularizers like Neil Degrasse Tyson, Bill Nye, the late Richard Feynman, the smattering of Carl Sagan quotes all over the Internet, and the martyrdom of the late Christopher Hitchens. Also helping it along are online communities, like the Facebook page, I fucking love science, as well as Reddit’s lively (as well as loathsome) Atheist community. Science has had a big revival in popularity insomuch that it is “cool” to like science these days, whereas back in our parents’ generation it was nerdy and lame.
Disclaimer: Part of me can’t believe I need to put this here, but before I go on, I have to say that it’s good that people are into science. We need more people getting into it. The US routinely trails behind global leaders in scientific advancements and innovations, despite having some of the best facilities for teaching science at the university level. The same trend is visible in K-8 testing among US schools. If anything, we ought to be taking our enthusiasm for science, implementing it in education, and making sure it sticks. I am NOT advocating for the eradication of the sciences. That’s not what I’m about. However, I do come from a humanities field, which encourages discourse and discussion. And right now, the popularity of science is a backhanded compliment.
Science presents itself as a sort of alternative to all types of ideology, but specifically religion. Science presents itself as free of prejudices and biases of the past—it’s looked upon as a subject for which there is no room for politics. It’s also often seen as a path to all the right answers.
An interest in science does not a critical thinker make. I need to first point out that you can subscribe to a lot of things, and so long as you roll with the revelations you won’t be “wrong.” Or you’ll be wrong until you roll with a revelation that proves you were wrong, and you change your position to be right (looking at you, Higgs Boson). That’s all a revelation is: making something previously unknown, known. Fitting a new truth into your previously limited viewpoint. From a societal standpoint, science is the reigning and empirical ideology, but as Stephen Bond notes, in the case of racial science and human experimentation, “science was defeated by political ideology, and not by science itself.”
“There was nothing that could have defeated it within the empirical framework of racial scientists. Their racist experiments confirmed their racist hypotheses based on their racist observations. But while the science supported them, politics, in the aftermath of World War 2 and the Holocaust, did not. After 1945, racial science became politically unacceptable in western liberal democracies, and remains so in spite of the various attempts to revive it. It was not disproved by the scientific method; instead, the political ideologies behind racial science were discarded, and replaced by new ones that did not accommodate it.” — Bond, Stephen Bond
A more present-day example: These days most people object to the classification of homosexuality as a mental disorder, citing it as outdated and prejudiced. Part of “rolling with the revelations” is understanding that the climate of science changes with our politics, and that you can be wrong as many times (if not more) than you can be right. But this is not the way science is treated today. The phrase “It’s science!” shuts down a discussion entirely because everyone silently agrees that science speaks for itself, and if someone dares to say otherwise, they are but an ideological dummy not worthy of commenting on this high level of discourse. Because where science is a pinnacle of cold hard data, ideology is a slippery, figurative, outmoded, and highly delusional way of looking at our world.
Well the joke’s on all of us because science is an ideology, and it’s one of the most powerful drives behind our moral and political decisions. It is just another lens by which we see the world, and each other. It is a lens just as economics is a lens, history is a lens, religion, politics, or as Derrick Jensen says, “Choose your poison.” Science answers specific questions, such as “What is the color of the universe?” but leaves others unanswered such as “What does it mean to be good?” or even “What is good?” Sam Harris makes an argument for science’s role in morality in his book, The Moral Landscape, but this argument is often heavily criticized. His views are also Islamophobic, bigoted, and altogether NOT a shining example of morality. As proponent of the idea that science is the answer to all things in the world, EVER, Harris is the perfect example of an ideological false prophet, whose fervent advocacy for science has led to various colleagues criticizing his blind faith.
Science doesn’t present itself as ideology. It presents itself as fact….which is exactly what every ideology does! From our point of view, it looks like it’s always butting heads with stupid fanatical people. “Sheesh, guys, get your heads out of the sand, SCIENCE is coming through!” But because of its prestige, science has a reputation of greatness to uphold, and the more you buy into it as a source of ultimate rightness and truth, the blinder you are to its influence.
“The mythology holds that science describes physical reality, that science is truth. And if science is truth, then all other forms of truth—all philosophical truth, all ethical truth, all emotional, spiritual, relational, experiential truths—are devalued. They’re regarded as something else besides truth.” — Stanley Aronowitz
If you cannot see the ideological aspect of science in Millenial culture, all one has to do is take a look at the various heroes sainted through image macros, memes, and name dropping of users on the Internet. Sagan is the easiest to dissect. People have made whole videos with sound bytes of Sagan’s wisdom, accompanied by ambient music and overlaying images of stars. Sagan is also quoted with magical and inspiring proverbs like: “If you want to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first invent the universe.” A scientific man, but also a romantic man, he doesn’t have to be in the least bit sciencey to be revered, and to be made spiritual. Sagan and Feynman’s resurgence on the Internet, specifically, is contributed through spectacle, and internet popularity.
Ideology doesn’t just extend to those who are into science but don’t know anything about it. Science operates through a long established hierarchy, which means that at the very tip-top are people who are the most privileged. In order for studies to be considered valid, they must gain accreditation from the right institutions. On the one hand, peer-reviewed studies are important for discrediting articles about a stay-at-home mom’s one weird tip that can make you good-looking AND immortal (doctors hate her for it!). On the other hand, peer reviewed science, despite its “open university” model, remains an ivory tower of mostly rich, white men. Even access to scientific papers require subscriptions, making them largely inaccessible to people who cannot afford them.
This allows for white rich men in ivory towers to dictate what is “objective truth” to people who are not white, nor rich, nor men. It is reinforcing an authority figure who the underprivileged are told to trust without question. And trust they do. Patients regularly give autonomy to doctors when doctors push for “aggressive” cancer treatments at the expense of the patient. Investigative journalist Barbara Ehrenreich points out in her essay, “Welcome to Cancerland” that pharmaceutical companies and carcinogen-producing companies have a close working relationship with mainstream breast cancer organizations. Foundations like Susan G. Komen agree to only fund research that tests for genetic causes for breast cancer and absolutely no funding goes into research for environmental causes (unless you count their stance on hair dye, alcohol, and microwave ovens). Meanwhile, money is funneled into companies that contribute to the rise in cancer rates, and pharm companies benefit by participating in a “$12–16 billion-a-year business in surgery, ‘breast health centers,’ chemotherapy ‘infusion suites,’ radiation treatment centers, mammograms, and drugs ranging from anti-emetics to tamoxifen.”
When working-class Latino residents of the Central Valley of California complained that the pesticides and toxic runoff from agriculture had led to a rise in birth defects, scientists invalidated personal accounts and lived experience from people who spoke up. Why? Because there had been no legitimate study, and no true quantitative data. As far as science is concerned their claims are not true. How would we make it true? Who would fund that study? Surely, not agricultural groups who wouldn’t benefit from it. Certainly not the residents who could not afford to fund it, even though they would have the most to gain by doing so. In this way we use science in a way that fails its Humanist duty.
Science has long been wrapped up in capitalism, which means so long as we ascribe a huge importance to it, as long as we accept it as an ultimate source of truth, people with money will have the means to advance the truths that most benefit them. It allows for us to highlight certain truths—validate them and treat them as universal—while invalidating and ignoring other truths, the truths of the disadvantaged. Science comes from rich stock and works hard to stay rich. And truth is never objective because it is always filtered through the lens of an ideology.