Reality Straight Up!

Thoughts & Observations of a Free Range Astrophysicist

Postmodernist airplanes don't fly so well

Postmodernist Airplanes

Science is not just another world view

It’s easy to tell this airplane wasn’t designed by a postmodernist; it flies! Science: When it really matters, nothing even comes close.

This article originally appeared in my Astronomy Magazine column, For Your Consideration.


As an Astronomy reader, you probably know the universe is billions of years old and that humans have been to the Moon. But not everyone agrees. These days a lot of people feel perfectly justified in rejecting scientific claims on a whim and insist that their own opinions are as valid as any scientist’s. When even National Geographic puts “The War on Science” on its cover, it’s clear something is up.

Whether they know it or not, today’s anti-science movements are rooted in postmodernism.

Attitudes toward science have changed radically since I was a kid. Much of that change traces back to Thomas Kuhn’s 1962 book, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Rather than a powerful approach to understanding the world, Kuhn described science as a privileged elite solving puzzles within socially agreed-upon frameworks he called “paradigms.” If too many unsolved puzzles accumulate or if old ideas lose favor, there might be a revolution to overthrow one socially constructed paradigm and replace it with another. But, insisted Kuhn, it was wrong to call the new paradigm better than the old in any objective sense. Certainly neither tells us anything about “reality,” whatever that is!

Paul Feyerabend and his fellow postmodernists went even further. To Feyerabend, scientists are just another priesthood. Astronomy, astrology, medicine, magic, cosmology, and creationism are all equally valid. Saying otherwise is social oppression. Few who belong to today’s anti-science movements are aware of it, but they are the offspring of postmodernism.

Science stands apart for a very simple reason – Science works!

In 30 years as a working scientist, I’ve seen a lot of scientific sausage being made. I have to admit, there is truth in what Kuhn and Feyerabend have to say. The romantic notion of a detached, objective, and selfless quest for knowledge is a myth. Paradigms exist, as do the social and political dynamics described by Kuhn. Feyerabend was right when he said that scientists often follow no formal method at all.

The postmodernists are right about science, just up to the point that they are horribly, completely, and irreparably wrong. Let me offer a piece of advice. Never get on an airplane designed by a postmodernist! Scientific knowledge deserves special status for an obvious reason: Science works. When you need real answers, nothing else even comes close.

But saying so isn’t enough. To answer the anti-science crowd, we need a clear understanding of what science is.

Destructive testing of ideas is what makes science “science.”

When structural engineers want to know if a building will withstand an earthquake, they put a model on a shake table, crank up the vibrations, and try to make it collapse. If you want to know how sturdy something is, try to break it! This is called “destructive testing.” Whether shake testing a building, crash testing an automobile, or evaluating new software, destructive testing is the gold standard when you need confidence that something will work.

Science is the destructive testing of ideas

Destructive testing sets the gold standard for engineers. Science – by which I mean destructive testing of ideas – sets the gold standard for human knowledge.

As a human endeavor, science can be as messy a business as the postmodernists imagine. But as a path to knowledge, science is anchored to reality by destructive testing, not of buildings or computer codes, but of ideas.

The philosopher who got the important part of science right was Karl Popper. In his 1934 work, The Logic of Scientific Discovery, Popper said that the cornerstone of science is “falsifiability.” If you haven’t tried to show that an idea is false, then you know nothing about whether it is true. What’s more, if you don’t make falsifiable predictions, then what you are doing is not science, regardless of what you may call it.

A pile of rubble is a pile of rubble, regardless of your paradigm.

Whether solving puzzles, staging revolutions, or having pizza and beer, scientists push on ideas. It’s just what we do. We don’t always like it when predictions fail. We might even try to look the other way! But truth will win out. Science is not purely objective, but ultimately it is democratic. Regardless of who you are, dishonesty is not tolerated. You don’t get to ignore evidence. And when a theory’s predictions fail, they fail in anyone’s lab.

Destructive testing of ideas tethers science to a reality that exists apart from any paradigm. When a structure on a shake table collapses, no social agreement is needed to see the resulting pile of rubble. And when previously conquered diseases reemerge in unvaccinated populations, suffering is real and indiscriminate.

The essence of science as I know it is freewheeling, out-of-the-box, ineffable human creativity followed by brutal, no-holds-barred intellectual violence. Scientists dream beautiful ideas and then batter those ideas with hard reality to see what breaks. Destructive testing is the gold standard for engineers. A well-tested scientific theory is the gold standard for human knowledge.

From creationism to climate change denial to homeopathy, there are a lot of postmodernist airplanes out there with open doors, inviting you to take a ride. Leave rationality at the door and hop on board if you like. But I don’t recommend it. Personally, I think I’ll stick with science.

Postmodernist Airplanes ^ Science is not just another world view  © Dr. Jeff Hester
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Comments (4)

  • Joseph Foy

    |

    Nice column. I wonder if the romantic notion of the scientist as a detached, disinterested, and somewhat selfless individual wasn’t itself only briefly held in the West, similar to the way that a certain view of the nuclear family only briefly dominated the decades after World War II. For example, few actual scientists of Maxwell’s time held such a notion of scientists, and the public has often been suspicious of scientists as dangerous and perhaps even power mad.

  • Jeff Hester

    Jeff Hester

    |

    “All those scientists, they’re all alike. They say they’re working for us, but what they really want is to rule the world!” Mel Brooks fans will of course recognize the reference.

    I always thought the whole mad scientist thing had a certain panache, but, alas, the reality is different. With a few notable exceptions (Edward Teller comes to mind), scientists typically spell “power” with a very small “p,” indeed. An astronomer interested in power might rise as high as a program head for a low-budget wing of NASA, or maybe even a college president. In the mean time, scientists make up a grand total of two of the 535 members of the 114th Congress.

    Even as postmodern cynicism about science grows, however, a lot of scientists hold fast to that romantic notion you mention. Sometimes they also hide behind that notion, much to the detriment of the society that they serve.

    Returning to the focus of the article, Carl Sagan spoke of science as “a candle in the dark.” Scientists understand that there is a difference between what is true and what is not, and that we don’t get to choose which is which. But in their naiveté they typically fail to grasp that not everyone shares their interest in knowing the world as it really is. Climate change is an example of an issue where scientists have a responsibility to be anything but detached and disinterested.

    If we can’t find the selfless courage to stand up in public and cry “bullsh*t!,” who will?

  • Pete Sniegowski

    |

    Thanks for the column. Someone needed to write it, and I was glad to see that Astronomy has the guts to print it. Have you had much blowback?

    I sponsor the astronomy club at an all girls high school in Denver, and this is one of my favorite quotations to share with the girls:

    …”greatness of soul is not fostered by those philosophies which assimilate the universe to Man. Knowledge is a form of union of Self and not-Self; like all union, it is impaired by dominion, and therefore by any attempt to force the universe into conformity with what we find in ourselves. There is a widespread philosophical tendency towards the view which tells us that Man is the measure of all things, that truth is man-made, that space and time and the world of universals are properties of the mind, and that, if there be anything not created by the mind, it is unknowable and of no account for us. This view, if our previous discussions were correct, is untrue; but in addition to being untrue, it has the effect of robbing philosophic contemplation of all that gives it value, since it fetters contemplation to Self. What it calls knowledge is not a union with the not-Self, but a set of prejudices, habits, and desires, making an impenetrable veil between us and the world beyond. The man who finds pleasure in such a theory of knowledge is like the man who never leaves the domestic circle for fear his word might not be law.”

    Bertrand Russell

    I look forward to future columns.

  • Jeff Hester

    Jeff Hester

    |

    Thanks for the feedback, Pete. I have been an admirer of Russell since I first encountered him as an undergraduate.

    Astronomy Magazine has been good about letting me take the column where I like. I’ve known Dave Eicher for a long time. He feels very strongly about these issues, and understood what he was doing when he turned me loose. This column got a little blowback, but not nearly so much as the column that I wrote about global warming the previous month! I hope that you continue to enjoy what I have to say.

    Best of luck with your astronomy club! Give the club my regards. You never know what you might be starting. I actually got interested in astronomy when I took a Boy Scout merit badge program offered by the local planetarium when I was a kid.

Comments are closed

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Over his 30 year career as an internationally known astrophysicist, Dr. Jeff Hester was a key member of the team that repaired the Hubble Space Telescope. With one foot always on the frontiers of knowledge, he has been mentor, coach, team leader, award-winning teacher, administrator and speaker, to name a few of the hats he has worn. His Hubble image, the Pillars of Creation, was chosen by Time Magazine as among the 100 most influential photographs in history.
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