Beware the public backlash from ‘science triumphalism’

A radical new manifesto for science communication is warning about the dangers of making arrogant claims that academic knowledge can explain the mysteries of the universe. Matthew Reisz meets its authors

April 11, 2024
Scientist Rebellion activists from environmental organisations attend the Scientist Rebellion protest against climate change to illustrate Beware the public backlash  from ‘science triumphalism’
Source: Paulo Amorim/VW Pics/Universal Images Group/Getty Images (edited)

With anti-vaxxers, climate deniers and populist politicians seeking to undermine the credentials of scientists, is it wise to write a book criticising “scientific triumphalism”?

Accusations that scientists are an elite and self-satisfied bunch whose tendentious pronouncements can be dismissed as shrill hectoring have often been used, after all, to chip away at expert authority – with potentially deadly consequences.

Yet a new book, titled The Blind Spot: Why Science Cannot Ignore Human Experience, warns that scientists do indeed need to avoid “overreach” and suggests that a more humble approach to scientific communication, recognising the uncertainties felt by researchers, is likely to be much more effective in heading off a rising tide of scepticism towards science.

“If science is presented in a triumphalist way,” reflects co-author Evan Thompson, a professor of philosophy at the University of British Columbia, “it’s inevitably going to be alienating to human experience and it’s going to create a backlash”.

Some might wonder exactly what is “triumphalist” about outlining facts based in empirical evidence. For The Blind Spot authors – who also include astrophysicist Adam Frank and theoretical physicist Marcelo Gleiser – this unappealing loftiness can be found in public engagement that veers from the informative and enthusiastic into the hyperbolic and autocratic. Documentaries “telling people they are nothing more than their genetic programming”; “breathless science news articles that claim future generations will upload themselves into computers”; “lectures or op eds that claim that physics has now answered the question of why there is something rather than nothing” are not only inaccurate but a form of “harmful overreach” that “feeds the stereotype of the scientist as cold, emotionless, and ‘not like us’”, explains the new book, published by MIT Press last month.

Gleiser, who is professor of natural philosophy at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire and has worked on cosmology, string theory and, more recently, astrobiology, is equally resistant to any pronouncement that “sells science as having all the answers”, he tells Times Higher Education. “When people write these books that say we have figured out the mind of God or solved all the problems of the universe or that you can explain altruism using evolutionary psychology, they are doing a deep disservice to humanity.” Not only are there things that science will never be able to understand, even in principle, he explains, this embrace of uncertainty should be welcomed: “We scientists are completely fascinated by unknowns. I always say that science is a flirtation with the unknown,” he reflects.

Gleiser is now working on a project with Blind Spot co-author Frank, professor of physics and astronomy at the University of Rochester, “looking at how information theory can be used to understand agency and autonomy in living systems”. As Gleiser puts it, people and animals are “pretty good at knowing ‘That’s food and this is a rock.’ We eat the food and we don’t eat the rock, so there is a meaning to this information-gathering in living creatures, from bacteria to us. We don’t really know exactly how that works and so we’re trying to figure it out.”

Frank, whose work on how stars form and how stars die has shifted to the physics of life, quips that he originally went into physics because he “wanted to know something about the nature of reality, not because I wanted to build quantum toasters”. He was once convinced that science was going to provide “perfect knowledge of external, independent, objective reality” and, since he came from an atheist family growing up in a very religious community, he got into many arguments for claiming that “science can explain everything”.

Montage of Adam Frank, Evan Thompson and Marcelo Gleiser as described in the article
Lia Kendall/Eli Burakian Montage (edited)
Adam Frank, Evan Thompson and Marcelo Gleiser

The young Gleiser was also “very much in love with what I would call now the Platonic dream of decoding reality into a sort of geometric blueprint”. It is precisely this “dream” of science being able to ignore the human observer and provide a totally objective, God’s-eye view of the world that they call the “blind spot” and want to challenge.

This claim of omniscience evolved alongside the understanding of celestial mechanics and works pretty well in that field, they argue. Somebody studying the interaction of planets in the sky or balls on a pool table, explains Frank, “doesn’t really have to consider the blind spot view”. But, as he soon found out, things change dramatically once one hits the famously counter-intuitive field of quantum mechanics. 

Of the theory's many weirdnesses, suggests Frank, “superposition” is perhaps the weirdest of all, “because it’s the idea that a subatomic particle doesn’t have properties. It can have property a and property b at the same time, which is the same as saying it doesn’t really have a definite property” – until it is measured or observed.

“Measurement, which is done by measurers, is right there in the theory,” Frank goes on. Yet many fellow physicists, he believes, “go through enormous conceptual gymnastics” to avoid accepting the implications of this. The “many worlds” interpretation of quantum mechanics, for example, means that “every time a quantum event happens, an infinite number of unobservable parallel realities is created”. Is it really worth doing “so much damage to our intuitive sense of how the world is”, Frank asks, “just to preserve the blind-spot bias?”

If quantum physics demonstrates the theoretical problems of trying to eliminate the human observer from our understanding of the world, such problems become more obviously relevant, according to Frank, “when thinking about life as a physical system” or “when people want to develop theories of cognition or consciousness”. Here, embracing the idea of an objective external observer “gives you the illusion of being right: it gives you a hermetically sealed, perfectly rational structure that is dead and has squeezed the very thing you’re most interested in out of it...There’s no third-person view of life. You have to be alive to know what life is.” One simply can’t avoid the questions of autonomy, agency and meaning that he and Gleiser are exploring in their joint research project.

Their book acknowledges that it is “an important research strategy” to “map from properties of consciousness to properties of the brain”, but that in itself is not enough to solve the age-old mind-body problem or overcome “the explanatory gap” between the mental and the physical. The authors survey and reject the most common solutions: physicalism (“there’s nothing but physical reality”), panpsychism (even inanimate objects have a primitive form of consciousness) and illusionism (conscious experience is just an illusion). Progress in this notoriously difficult field is only likely to come, they argue, from “a science of consciousness in which experience really matters”.

But what does this mean in practice?

This is where Thompson’s expertise can help. He works on the philosophy of mind, sometimes in collaboration with experimental cognitive neuroscientists, exploring topics such as perception, consciousness and the nature of the self. “The scientific study of mind in the 20th century,” he points out, “arose on the heels of behaviourism, which tried to banish anything to do with subjectivity or conscious experience.” Yet he sees this as a totally false path. In studying consciousness, emotions, attention or memory, “we need to have a much more systematic phenomenology of human experience than is typically the case in cognitive science”. One promising approach is to combine “first-person reports of emotion or memory or attention” with “second-person interviews that guide individuals to give more precise descriptions”.

It is the first-person perspective, adds Thompson, which needs to be given pride of place as “the actual source of knowledge, even when you’re trying to step outside of it and model aspects of it, as we say, objectively”.

The Blind Spot makes a rich and complex philosophical argument, but it also has major practical implications, both for how we should do science and for how it should be presented to the public.

The final section turns to how “Earth, as a ‘living planet’ with a biosphere as one of its core systems, is not the province of the geology, biology, chemistry, and physics departments taken singly or even added together”. It has also been profoundly shaped by human action. Studying it, therefore, requires what Thompson calls “a kind of complex system, network thinking which includes the political and the social”, whereby “you cannot really bracket out the observer, because the observer is involved in the network of processes that are being studied”.

This insight has led to the development of “earth system science”, Thompson explains, building on “James Lovelock and Lynn Margulis’ Gaia theory, which was a very different way of looking at life and the planet that incorporated ideas from all sorts of different domains, atmospheric chemistry and microbiology and evolutionary biology. Both of those figures were very sensitive to the larger social and philosophical and historical context.”

We urgently need, in Thompson’s view, further development of such “interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary fields that bridge the natural sciences and the social sciences – not just connect them, but weave them into each other”. Yet this requires significant “institutional restructuring”, given that universities still tend to be “organised on a 19th-century way of thinking about science, not even a 20th-century way”.

It was precisely for this reason that Gleiser created the Institute for Cross-Disciplinary Engagement at Dartmouth, in order to “bring scientists and humanists together, in front of public audiences or in workshops, to address very fundamental questions that cannot only be answered scientifically or through the humanities. You need a big connection between the two.”

He believes that ecological studies have been particularly effective at “bringing different people into the conversation” and is encouraged by “seeing more physicists talking to philosophers and biologists and ethicists”. Nevertheless, Gleiser acknowledges that career incentives and tenure committees still often discourage people from truly embracing the transdisciplinary approaches we so urgently need.

A book that weaves quantum physics, cognitive science, Gaia theory and the mysteries of space into a new paradigm certainly does not lack ambition. But it also demands new approaches to communicating science, the authors believe, which should help enthuse readers rather than cause them to despair. Writing a book that reflects the uncertainty felt by scientists should “guard science from being labelled an autocratic way of knowing”, says Gleiser, “because it’s when you become autocratic that people start to become despondent and cynical”.

Overcoming our blind spot about the human-centred nature of science also “makes science more interesting”, adds Thompson, “because now, rather than having a dead, God’s-eye view, we bring the richness of being an experiencing subject into the question. Rather than asking about the world without us, we understand that science is really about the world and us together. And that opens up a whole new range of questions.”

Some might see in such pronouncements a surrender to the anti-scientific, pick-and-mix combination of knowledge and dubious anecdote favoured by conspiracy loons on social media. But far from being anti-science, the authors of The Blind Spot all “love science”, says Frank, who regularly gets death threats for defending  the scientific method and advocating for action on climate change. “We eat science for breakfast every day – I get very upset if anybody tells me I’m anti-science.”

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Reader's comments (1)

Not entirely fair to make this comment without reading the book - but if the authors really think that elaborating first-person reports of experience through second person interviews is a promising research strategy, they really need to get out more and look at the sociological literature on why such data are culturally situated accounts, rather than literal descriptions, of experience.