Tuesday, June 07, 2005

Column on Puzzles with Science

Shifting Science or What?

Tibor R. Machan

I am not sure now but I used to think science, at least, managed to hang
together pretty well. There is no Catholic or Jewish or Buddhists
chemistry or biology, only biology. Even economists aspire to this. Thus
Milton Friedman is reported to have said that we?d do well to forget about
Chicago or Austrian or Marxist economics but worry only about good versus
bad economics. Amen to that.

Alas, with sciences getting more and more specialized, discord tends to
strike its ugly head on many fronts. Each week there?s a different report
about whether, for example, Viagra is good or bad for those who take
it?one week it gives one anxiety or heartburn, the other it reduces the
risk of heart attacks or produces some other beneficial side effect (and I
am making this up but only slightly). Frankly, I cannot keep up with what
Bayer aspirin does any longer, or antibiotics or, of course, coffee or
even cigarettes. (Recall Woody Allen?s character in Sleepers, I think it
was, who wakes up a few decades after having been checked into hospital
only to learn that smoking was, after all, good for people!)

I don?t know what drives this mad rush to announce the latest and
invariably inconclusive or tentative findings, although I have a hunch. In
the academy there is nothing more respectable and advantageous than coming
up with something original, whatever is one?s field of study. From the
time one is required to write a doctoral dissertation to the end of one?s
productive career?which for many is when they obtain tenure, and perhaps
understandably so, given all this mad hustle?one is supposed to come up
with original research or scholarship. Never mind that one?s field may
indeed have run out of stuff to discover or figure out, at least for a
while. That?s irrelevant?what matters is that promotions, tenure,
consulting gigs, and the rest all depend upon whether one is doing things
no one else has thought of.

Accordingly, discoveries must fall under neglect and imagination has to
be the driving force. Whatever is, just maybe, possible, is what will get
one an foot in the door of originality, since what actually exists may for
the time being have been pretty much fully explored. And that tend to lead
to artificiality, to made-up novelties, to make-believe subjects of

It now looks like the sciences are falling into line with this, too, so
from one day to the next one cannot be sure of what is true in biology,
medicine, physiology, chemistry, and all of their sub fields. I suppose
there are some folks who are happy about this?the folks who think
scientists are too arrogant and too confident and have a tendency to lord
it over the humanities. Religion, after all, has never managed to get on
the same page with much?the 4200 different ones in the USA alone are all
committed to more or less diverse truths about God, Jesus, angels, sin,
immortality, heaven, hell, guilt, innocence, how to live, how to die, and
the rest.

Now it looks like science is falling apart too, even the hardest of them,
physics, which is battling over whether everything is really just one
thing?the latest candidate being something called ?strings??or are there,
perhaps, basically different types of things in the world, each deserving
its own science (which may account for why there are different sciences
such as biology, chemistry, anatomy, etc.).

I am not making some breakthrough point here, only registering some
confusion I believe many share with me. When it comes, at least, to the
practical import of the various sciences, the reports keep getting more
and more volatile, less and less coherent.

Maybe this is due to some basic problem, some possibly philosophical
malady?say, in epistemology, metaphysics (both of which some scientists
have almost casually jettisoned recently). Or maybe it is because of some
journalists, the ones who are always eager to present something allegedly
newsworthy, even if there isn?t such a thing just at the moment. So they
may tend to grab anything the offers a slight hope of a new discovery, or
invention, never mind that these haven?t yet gotten properly sorted out by
the researchers.

In any case, it just goes to show you that one cannot much reply on any
experts and has to do one?s own thinking, however risky that may be.

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