Science and the stupid society

When is progress a matter of faith?

The last dispatch was a little long and difficult. But I think there’s something interesting there, so let me see if I can be a little more clear what I’m going on about.

A few days back, there was a little flurry of conversation on Twitter about the idea that we should “believe in science” or “trust the experts”. There were a number of interesting points made by a number of people; rather than attempt to summarize them, let me direct you here and then you can click around as you like. But for the purposes of launching my discussion, please allow me to draw your attention to this:

So the idea here is that “science” is this set of truths that are expounded by scientists—that the planet is warming, for example—and these truths remain truths whether or not people accept them: because the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere has risen over the past century and a half, global temperatures are going to go up, whether or not people go around calling climate change a hoax.

This idea is wrong, though. It’s maybe a little less wrong if you replace “science” with “nature”, where nature is all the various processes which determine the way in which existence unfolds, which we seek to understand in various ways as far as sensory perception allows. But even that isn’t quite right; for one thing we humans are a part of nature and we certainly give fucks. Sometimes it seems like that’s all we do.

What is science then? So let me now flip back to my last dispatch and quote the definition of culture used there:

A culture is a collection of values and behavioral norms held in common by a subset of society and which structures the aggregate behavior of that subset of society.

To quickly repeat a few points from the last post, a prosperous society is one which is capable of sustaining a high degree of complex cooperation. The better able we are to work together in highly complex ways, the better able we are to turn a given set of resources around us into desirable outcomes: peace, material abundance, high living standards. And the way in which we achieve all of this complex cooperation is by building and maintaining an intricate ecosystem of overlapping institutions. These institutions are cultures, as I’ve defined them in the quote above. They are made of people, who share in common a set of values and behavioral norms, who act according to those values and norms in particular contexts, and who in so doing constitute the institutions in question.

So one might say that market economies are a part of what makes prosperous societies prosperous. A market is a cultural institution. Which is to say that a market is made of people acting according to particular values and norms in a market context. What’s so nifty about the human facility for culture—specifically, for the human capacity to act as a member of many different cultures and to code switch from one to another depending upon the context—is that it enables us to maintain a huge diversity of institutional forms, within which different rules of the road apply. We all participate in market culture at some point, and when we are participating in that culture we tolerate certain forms of behavior that would be frowned upon in other contexts. Specifically, we feel more at liberty to behave in a purely self-interested manner when acting within a market context than we typically would in a different context: in the non-market context of work within a large company, for example, or while volunteering within the community.

If we weren’t capable of observing different norms in different contexts, then our institutional repertoire would be far more constrained. If we could only act in a self-interested way, for instance, then we could perhaps sustain some forms of exchange, but not the complex kinds that involve lots of enabling institutions, many of which only work well when their membership is capable of behaving according to other motivations. One might say, for instance, that complex exchange requires peace and order, which requires militaries, which cannot function in a world of pure self-interest (given that soldiers must be willing to prioritize duty to others over self-preservation in some circumstances). Thus the ability of the individual to associate different cultural rules with different contexts enables society to sustain an enormous variety of institutional forms, each of which can exhibit different aggregate behaviors and play different social roles, giving rise to incredible complexity. We can be (at least a little) self-interested in a market context, which allows us to enjoy the benefits of market activity. In other contexts we can be—meaning that we are socially permitted or encouraged to be—more selfless.

Science, to get back to the matter at hand, is an institution like this. There are people, all over the world, who hold in common particular values and who observe particular behavioral norms in particular contexts. When those people in those contexts behave according to the associated cultural norms, we get “science”. Science isn’t monolithic. It has myriad sub-cultures, and it overlaps and intersects with other institutions (like “academia”, individual universities, government agencies, private research labs, etc). But I think we can speak of a science macroculture, within which people share particular values and observe particular norms, which serve to align incentives and shape the aggregate social role of the scientific community.

Is science special in some way which might differentiate it from other institutions? In some ways yes. As I noted in my last dispatch, you can look at the operation of all of society’s overlapping institutions as working something like an information-processing system. Each of us is bombarded with information each day and each of us responds to all that information in all sorts of ways: we put on a coat, we buy a latte, we say a prayer, we file a report, we honk at the guy looking at his phone while driving. Take all those behavioral responses together and you get the output of the information-processing system. 

Sometimes outputs are what you might consider good: living standards go up, violence goes down, people feel better. Sometimes outputs aren’t so good: people go hungry, wars break out, incomes fall. What accounts for the difference? Sometimes it’s the nature of the inputs; you get an external shock, like a major earthquake, and so things aren’t as good one day as they were the day before. But it’s also the institutional structure of society: how institutions relate to each other, how much of the information-processing work is handled by which institutions, how that work is carried out, that kind of thing.

And so you might say that the emergence of the culture of science, the evolution of the norms that people within that culture observe, and changes in the way that culture interacts with other institutions have played an important role in improving society’s outputs. To be more specific, you have the emergence of beliefs about the value of systematic inquiry into the operation of natural systems, about how people who share those beliefs ought to conduct their inquiries, about the value of sharing information and the ways in which disagreements ought to be resolved—all of that—and then you also have changes in the way scientific institutions relate to the rest of society, where there is greater public legitimacy and status accorded to those within the scientific culture, more weight assigned to the statements of members of the culture, more deliberate effort to foster scientific culture and put its revelations to practical use, and so on. 

And in the end you can step back and say that science has enabled changes in behavior all across society in ways that have improved health, increased economic productivity, edified the masses, expanded civilizational possibilities—all in a manner that is distinct from the effects of other cultural institutions. Basketball is an institution, for example, which is made of people adhering to certain values and norms, which has become a more significant component of the institutional ecosystem over the past century, and which provides all sorts of benefits to both members and non-members of that culture. But I think we can distinguish a qualitative difference in the way that basketball expands civilizational capabilities and the way science does. Markets are more like science than basketball, in this respect, even though “science” and “markets” play very different social roles. 

Ok, well, what about something like religion? Of course we can draw some important practical distinctions between the social role of an institution like science and that of religion. If you injected me with a deadly bacterium and offered me the choice between a course of potent antibiotics and prayer to the deity of my choice, I’d take the antibiotics. And indeed, if you told me that the world had been struck by a deadly and contagious virus, and you said I had to choose whether to assign members of the culture of science to the job of coming up with a treatment or members of the cultures of religion, I’d choose the members of the culture of science. 

But that’s not because members of the culture of science have an in with the no-fucks-giving abstract force Science, who can whip god’s ass. It’s because I trust that people who consider themselves to be members of the culture of science (among many other cultural groups to which they also belong!), when observing the norms of that culture and guided by the values of that culture, are more likely to generate an output that will seem to me to push society toward a good outcome with respect to this virus than are people who consider themselves to be members of the cultures of religion (who may well also be members of the culture of science!) when observing the norms of that culture and guided by the values of that culture. It’s not that Science beats Religion. It’s not that this one person, a scientist, contributes more than this other person, a congregant. It’s that a set of values and beliefs held in common by some members of society can, in particular contexts, guide the actions of those members of society in a way that is useful in solving particular sorts of collective problems.

Now maybe you’re saying come on, that’s just dancing around the obvious point that scientists can analyze the genetic material of the virus, learn how it works, and design an effective vaccine, whereas spiritual leaders can’t. Science got us out of the dark ages, and science is the reason you’re not going to die because a random scratch got infected, so quit being an idiot. And maybe I am being an idiot. This is always a possibility.

But I think that maybe this way of looking at the issue is useful, for a few reasons. First, it reminds us that in a very important way science isn’t at all different from religion. It’s just people, acting according to a particular set of beliefs and values and behavioral norms. Because science is made of people, it is messy and fallible in all the ways that all human institutions are messy and fallible.  

Secondly, whatever the adherents of a religion think they’re doing, the role of that religion in society comes down to the way in which its cultural norms influence members’ behavior, which in turn influences the broader process of information-processing across society as a whole. The members of a particular religious group may believe that they are engaged in a spiritual mission with a supernatural purpose, and I’m not about to tell them they’re wrong. But from the perspective of an outsider, what matters is the way their actions affect the function of society: how their faith affects their response to inputs and leads to different outputs than we might otherwise observe.

This is true of both religion and science! What broader effects science has depends entirely on how the actions of the members of scientific culture influence the actions of others, both as individuals and in aggregate. That’s a really big thing to understand! Sciencey people may be able to create a vaccine, but the vaccine is only of so much use if people refuse to get it. Addressing the challenges presented by climate change means taking all sorts of actions which are informed by science; the science is of crucial importance, but without the broader response it mostly serves to provide a clearer understanding of why the world is falling apart around us. 

Stepping back, what made the emergence of scientific culture in the West—the Republic of Letters, the Royal Academies, the journals and universities and labs and all the rest—so significant was the fact that society at large evolved institutionally in various ways which enabled people to benefit from new knowledge. The powerfully transformative second industrial revolution, for example, which stretched from the latter decades of the 19th century into the middle of the 20th, saw the systematic application of new scientific knowledge in the development of new technologies and production processes: in industrial chemistry, electronics, materials science, and so on. You could say that science made us rich, but that’s not right. It’s not even right to say that people practicing science made us rich. Rather, all of society made itself rich, as countless individual actions taken by countless members of society participating in all of the different cultural sub-groups of which they were a part worked in aggregate to generate new knowledge and apply it usefully. The information-processing work came to yield better outcomes because of changes right across society.

Furthermore, you can see how the institutions of science and religion might often interact cooperatively in socially beneficial ways. Yes, Galileo was tried by the Inquisition, I understand there are many circumstances in which religion has prevented society from expanding its capabilities by drawing more fully on the contributions of science. But there are other cases in which religious values provided the motivation for individuals pursuing greater scientific knowledge, or in which religion was an important element of a broader institutional ecosystem within which support for science (or for other institutions, like public education, which provided ancillary social services to science) increased. 

It is tempting to see frictions between institutions, like science and religion, as clashes of rival truths. And look, we can’t ignore the extent to which the function of institutions is shaped by essential beliefs held by the members of those institutions, which often boil down to: we are in possession of unique truths. These cultures wouldn’t work the way they do if people behaved as though cultural guidelines were merely instructions; there’s a difference in watching people read the lines of script without feeling and in watching actors inhabit their roles with passion. What gives institutions like science and religion their power is the way in which we see our membership within them as part of our identity.

But in stepping back and seeking to understand how society works, it’s helpful to see that we aren’t talking about rival truths at all, but rather about different social institutions which play different social roles, with more or less complementarity across times and places.

And as thinking adults in a moment of social distress, we might also benefit from taking a broader perspective. It feels good to enmesh oneself within an important cultural group, to observe its norms and reap the benefits that come from affirming one’s identity in that way. We seem to be engaging in the construction of new subcultures now, new tribal identities which affect the way in which other major macrocultures, like science, influence the broader information-processing work in which society as a whole is engaged. So where before, science was this odd, cross-cutting institution whose influence was moderated by many different institutions interacting with science in many different ways, we might venture to say that science’s aggregate behavior increasingly is warped by these new, rival sub-cultures, in one of which “affirm science as an article of faith” is a central value.

It may feel good to members of that culture to live their values, but the aggregate effect of members of that culture adhering to their values could be a sharp deterioration in the quality of the outcomes yielded by our institutional ecosystem. More simply: it is bad for society as a whole when shout outs to science become a cultural touchstone for one half of a highly polarized society. Whose “fault” it is that society is polarized is beside the point. Arguing that science is true and that it is thus the obligation of those who believe that science is false to fix their beliefs doesn’t help either. “But science is true!” You feel that feeling, don’t you? I do too! It’s not helpful in this situation. To make yourself feel better about what I’m saying, go back to the start of this post. Science isn’t some disembodied entity. It’s made of people observing particular values and habits in particular contexts, and its aggregate social effects depend on the interaction between science and other institutions. The problem we have is that we’re fucking up that interaction. Turning the “science issue” into a matter of rival faiths strikes me as something that will not help. 

I don’t know what will, exactly. This is the thing that worries me most about the “stupid society” problem. We didn’t design the institutional ecosystem that took us from a less prosperous world to a more prosperous world. We don’t understand how it works now. This makes pinpointing the problems and addressing them...difficult.

But it seems to me that the work of keeping the world on a path toward greater prosperity is likely to take a little more thoughtfulness, a little more cultivation of norms which affirm the worth and value of humankind broadly, and a little more abstention from norms which harden the boundaries of the nascent sub-cultures we see dividing our society.

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