Replay: When philosophy dominates science

Traffic’s up after the informal announcement of the publication of our Astronomy and Astrophysics curriculum, so in the coming weeks we’re going to replay some of our more important posts from the archives for our new readers. 

** Written by “Surak” **

Dr. Robb Wilson, who blogs at The Scholar Redeemer, commented on my article “Separating philosophy from science,” and made the following important points:

“good science is NOT aphilosophical”

“a blanket statement that philosophy corrupts science is misleading … there is a philosophy at the root of methodological naturalism as well.”

In light of his excellent comment, I would like to take another shot at what I intended to say.

Ancient Greek philosophy was indeed the solid and necessary foundation on which the first scientific efforts took place, and it was the Judeo-Christian worldview that made modern science possible. I fully accept that whenever and wherever the dominant philosophy/religion of the day acted as a rational foundation on which something higher and broader could be constructed, science flourished. But sometimes the dominant worldview has included beliefs that act like confining walls and a low ceiling on science. The most obvious example is the ancient belief that the Earth was the center of the universe, which helped delay modern science by about 1,800 years.

The point I wanted to make in my original article is that there is today a philosophy that dominates most Western centers of learning, and elements of that philosophy threaten to delay desperately-needed scientific advances in fields such as biology, medicine, psychology, and social behavior. My fears seem to be confirmed by an article published in the February 7, 2011 online edition of the New York Times, titled “Social Scientist Sees Bias Within” by John Tierney. The article quotes Jonathan Haidt, a social psychologist at the University of Virginia, regarding what he describes as a liberal bias in his field:

“This is a statistically impossible lack of diversity,” Dr. Haidt concluded, noting polls showing that 40 percent of Americans are conservative and 20 percent are liberal. In his speech and in an interview, Dr. Haidt argued that social psychologists are a “tribal-moral community” united by “sacred values” that hinder research and damage their credibility — and blind them to the hostile climate they’ve created for non-liberals.

While Tierney and Haidt appear to see the problem largely in political terms as part of a liberal vs. conservative struggle, the root of the problem for this branch of science is really philosophical because the “sacred values” cited by Dr. Haidt are those of humanism.  Our original article on ‘transcranial magnetic stimulation’ was an attempt to demonstrate that a similar philosophical problem exists in biology.

There is also evidence that humanist dominance is causing severe problems in the field of anthropology, for example, the controversial decision last year by the American Anthropological Association to remove the word “science” from an official statement of its long-range plan. The problem extends to general psychology, as well. In their 2005 book, Destructive Trends in Mental Health: The Well-Intentioned Path to Harm, Rogers H. Wright and Nicholas A. Cummings identify some distressing developments in behavioral science. In the preface they include the following statements:

Why, after decades of fighting to establish the rightful role of professionalism in psychology, do we now question the validity and integrity of some of the prevalent practices in our profession? The answer is simple: psychology and mental health have veered away from scientific integrity and open inquiry, as well as from compassionate practice in which the welfare of the patient is paramount.

These taboo topics typically unleash a silencing array of unwarranted charges ranging from political incorrectness, insensitivity, and lack of compassion to (in the extreme) bigotry. We are troubled that disciplines such as psychology, psychiatry, and social work, which pride themselves on diversity, scientific inquiry, intellectual openness, and compassion for those who need help, have created an atmosphere in which honest, albeit controversial, points of view are squelched.

We decry the extremism on the right, but we do not address it in this volume because that is not the problem within organized mental health today. Psychology, psychiatry, and social work have been captured by an ultraliberal agenda, much of which we agree with as citizens. However, we are alarmed with the damaging effect it is having on our science, our practice, and our credibility.

It [American Psychological Association] is no longer perceived as an authority that presents scientific evidence and professional facts. The APA has chosen ideology over science, and thus diminished its influence on the decision makers in our society.

Within the profession of psychology there is currently debate over treatment techniques and interventions that have not been scientifically validated.

It is obvious that we need a greater diversity of ideas and a counterbalance to the prevailing ideologies within mental health circles today. … We must broaden the debated by reducing the ridicule and intimidation of ideas contrary to the thinking of the establishment in the field of psychology.

Once again, the ultra-liberalism identified by the authors is best understood as the political manifestation of a relatively new philosophical orthodoxy, and the indisputable truth is that humanism is the philosophy that dominates many if not most universities and colleges in America today. I believe a strong case can be made that some humanists are guilty of many of the same transgressions against science that Christians have long been accused of, including

  • Attempting to establish a new orthodoxy verging on dogma
  • Stifling of descent
  • Condemning and purging those with non-humanist views
  • Corrupting science for political, social and economic goals

If psychology and the social ‘sciences’ continue to be dominated by a philosophy hostile to the free exploration and exchange of ideas, how will they ever develop desperately needed casual understanding about the human condition? A delay in the behavioral sciences similar to the delay in the physical sciences that occurred between Aristarchus and Copernicus would be more than a scientific tragedy; it would be a disaster for humankind. Our hope has to be that the study of human behavior will somehow break through the confining walls of humanism, undergo a cathartic paradigm shift, and become true science.