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Science and Its Limitations

The debate about a new academic freedom law in Tennessee recently generated a nervous panel discussion on MSNBC. The panel, led by Richard Dawkins and Steven Pinker, had three basic points to make in response to the "threat" of academic freedom, points that caught the eye of science wars veteran Stanley Fish.

Writing in his regular New York Times column, Fish took aim, twice, at the MSNBC panel's politically motivated insistence that: (1) academic freedom law is another word for religious anti-science, despite its policy of open inquiry which originated within the tradition of classical liberalism; that (2) science alone is trustworthy, and deserving of public trust over against "religion," as science alone is based on evidence, intelligible to and verifiable by all, expressed in authoritative papers published in peer-reviewed journals from which one can cite "chapter and verse," and that (3) science is therefore good for all purposes, even good for settling public policy debates like the one we're having (or had) in Tennessee.

As to the first point, it should be noted, briefly, that academic freedom is basically the idea that teachers should be free from fear of administrative retaliation to objectively teach both sides of a scientific controversy, including those having to do with Darwin's theory, climate change, and human cloning.

This point-counterpoint approach to science education has its advantages. As J.S. Mill said, "He who knows only his own side of the case knows little of that." It is hardly a religious activity to legislate for more learning about Darwin's theory, climate change, and human cloning, which is the purpose of Tennessee's academic freedom law.

As to the second point above, academic freedom is not religion, so the panel's silly talk of science vs. religion not only mishandled that thorny subject, but also amounts to changing the subject. (We get it, Dawkins and Pinker, you guys like "science" and you don't like "religion." What does that have to do with whether Tennessee should pass an academic freedom law?) Moreover, to say that science rests on evidence as reported by "authorities" hardly makes the case for the superior trustworthiness of science.

As to the third point, yes, science is worthy of some measure of public respect, but only to the extent that science acts like science, and not like something else. Science is respectable and trustworthy, that is, when it recognizes and stays within its natural limits, when it starts and ends deliberately, clearly apolitical. Dawkins and Pinker do no favors to the reputation of science when they suggest that the trustworthiness of scientific literature somehow militates against the public policy of academic freedom.

Regarding those reputation-protecting limits on science, science is not, as some would have it, a universal language of public verification, or what philosopher Richard Rorty called a "final vocabulary." Similarly, it is not the case that all problems are really scientific problems at bottom. (To a carpenter, every problem is a nail, and every solution a hammer!)

Some problems are not amenable to a scientific solution, such as, for example, what exactly I mean by this sentence. A brain scan won't help you or anyone else figure that out. Brain waves, while indicia for brain activity, won't tell you what I mean, as physical states lack "intentionality," or "about-ness," which is roughly what you're after (i.e., authorial intent) when you read text. To figure out what I mean here, you'll want to know (or at least presume) a thing or two about my purposes in writing, and for that a thing or two about the author, which is a non-scientific matter.

In this spirit, Fish writes:

If you want to build a better mousetrap or computer, you will look to scientists and engineers. If you want to improve your marriage or learn how to win friends and influence people, you will look elsewhere, perhaps to couples counselors or to a religious tradition. If you want to figure out what a poem means, you consult and deploy the vocabulary and categories of literary criticism. And in each instance you will do this not because you have some metaphysical belief about the adequacy of a method to its independent object, but because, in your experience, the resources for solving this problem or addressing this issue are to be found over here and not over there.
Fish's tripartite argument, adapted from Thomas Kuhn, is that science is (1) good for some purposes, not so good for others, (2) a mediated form of inquiry, no less than the others, and in no clearer contact with "reality" than the others, and (3) neither objectively "better" nor "worse" than, say, religion or literary criticism, since the purposes served by each activity are incommensurable with one another, as are the methods suited to such purposes.

This is an argument Fish often rehearses in the pages of books, journals, and newspapers to help repel scientism's advance on the humanities, liberal arts education, and everything else worth saving. But the first part of the argument, Fish's warning about the limits of science, is particularly applicable to the public policy debate on academic freedom. Yet it is instinctively ignored by science's political wing, as the MSNBC panel illustrates.