Don’t make a hammer into a spanner.

This post was written in reaction to a report suggesting that science needs be more open and use other approaches to understand the human condition. This is wrong. Science by its nature has a particular framework and methodology for enquiry. However, science on its own cannot answer every question - other tools are needed. But changing science is not the answer - choose a different tool.
Photo by Cesar Carlevarino Aragon on Unsplash

I recently read a report by the Galileo commission, Beyond a Materialist World View, Towards an Expanded Science. It is a massive document; the summary alone is 52 pages and I cannot claim to do it justice in this blog [1].

There is one aspect of the report that needs to be challenged. The commission critiques the scientific process as depending upon assumptions that cannot be proved by science (correct). It describes science as having certain characteristics, such as being reductionist and empiricist in methodology and naturalistic and materialistic. While I would argue that science often studies emergent properties (in systems biology for example) I would largely agree that, within the realm of science, this is how science works.

They then argue that these approaches cannot explain complex phenomena, such as consciousness. I do not know enough about consciousness to understand whether it has a totally scientific explanation or not. It probably depends on how you define consciousness. However, I would agree that there are many important things in life for which a scientific explanation is inadequate; why do I love my wife? Why do I feel certain emotions?

It is the next step that I take exception to. They argue that science therefore needs to change to take on board other approaches to finding the truth.

But to do that is to deny what science is. Science does operate in a naturalistic and materialistic framework; it does use reductionist and empirical approaches. That is how it works. That is science. Science has been indisputably successful means of discovery. However, it is not the only means of discovery. The arts and humanities and spirituality tell us important things about the human condition.

Science can only be used at the certain conditions, for example when there is a scientific question to be addressed. It cannot tell us about many things that we hold important in our existence. As argued by Popper, only some questions are scientific. Unfortunately they are not always the interesting ones!

Scientism is the belief that science is the best (or only) way to explore something. Scientists [2] are often criticised (quite rightly) when they stray into areas where science has nothing to say, or where other tools could be used alongside science.

The authors of this report have fallen into a variant of scientism. They argue that science is inadequate to answer a particular question on its own, and that science therefore has to change to be able to answer it.

This is raising science to be on a pedestal higher than it should be! Science should be one tool in the toolbox of enquiry, it is a useful tool, but not a universal tool.

Poetry can be used as a tool for enquiry. While poetry may help me understand why I love my wife, or feel certain emotions, it is not good at answering a question about how viruses infect a cell. The answer is not to change poetry and make it more scientific, you need to put that tool away and get another one, more suited for the job.

Why do people want to expand the remit of science to include other approaches to discovery? Is it because there is a belief by them and society that science is better than anything else? Does incorporating something into science raises its status and acceptability? That is a mistake, the result is a pseudoscience which muddies the water and devalues the currency of both science and other frameworks of enquiry.

I do not deny that many scientists are guilty of ignoring the wider toolbox. The success of science has bred arrogance in many of its practitioners. Scientists need to be encouraged to collaborate and to be open to other tools being used.

But don’t make a hammer into a spanner - it won’t do either job well.

[1] Any report whose executive summary needs a summary of its own needs a good editor! [2] When I talk about scientists, I'm describing people while they are practicing science. I am not suggesting that individuals are limited to using one approach or another to enquiry.

Andrew George

An executive coach and consultant. Andrew has been held senior roles in universities. His interests include medical research and innovation, education, leadership and research ethics.

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Published 13 March 2020

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