Science as Credo
by Roy Lisker
The Suppression of Unorthodox Science
The history of science is hardly the history of free inquiry. Rarely does science engage in self-examination, whether scientifically or simply reflectively. Occasionally we may benefit from the perspectives of those observers and historians from outside this branch of knowledge, who seek to bring to the world some solid wisdom.
More frequently they fail to awaken interest within a rigid system that believes, as Organized Science does, that all mistakes were committed in the past. (“We might have got it wrong with Galileo and Semmelweis, but that was then.”) Seldom is truth met with unconditional acceptance in professions that are not renowned for their engaging humility and willingness to embrace information that conflicts with their cherished and well-defended beliefs.
And so Freud was leaned on to radically alter his seduction theory. Under duress from colleagues, he lost concern for the welfare of sexually abused and beaten children. Rather, from 1894 onward he helped to found a system that blames the victim, turning his original thinking on its head—it’s the children who try to seduce the parents! Only then could he find acceptance in the Viennese community of psychologists who then launched him on his stellar career.
Freud’s case was not isolated. Wilhelm Reich’s books were publicly burned by the FBI in a New York City incinerator in 1957; Immanuel Velikovsky’s work was trashed by the U.S. scientific establishment, his publisher leaned on to offload his contract—in the middle of a bestseller; and Julius Hensel’s pioneering work on “rock dust” fertilizer was sup-pressed by the NPK people who had something big to sell the world. So what if everyone is now lacking in essential trace minerals as a result?
Pat Flanagan’s Neurophone patent was confiscated by the U.S. government and held for fourteen years—for “national security reasons”—while this most brilliant of brilliant American scientists was starved out. And what threat did his invention pose? It enabled deaf people to hear sounds through the nerves in their skin.
Are these examples mere aberrations in an otherwise inclusive organization, or is there is a system-wide suppression syndrome? And if suppression is the norm in our supposedly objective scientific establishment, what exactly have we lost?
I believe that we will probably never know what we have lost, or at least the extent of the loss. That’s because who we become is a reflection of the attenuation of our available options by a system in which greed is valued above the human creative potential, and even the life force itself. This system’s natural response is to suppress that which threatens its stake in the status quo.
Science is funded by giant corporations that do not have a vested interest in, say, organic agriculture, water as a fuel, or good nutrition and sanitation as ways of improving health rather than vaccinations and antibiotics. Science is not pure, nor has it ever been. The “Scientific Method” exists only for the purpose of censoring the innovations of independent thinkers.
The unconventional scientist, the person who comes up with something that threatens a billion dollar industry, will find him or herself either very rich or very dead. Or possibly both. Still, some courageous souls do try, despite the risks, to make their knowledge public. These truly great researchers and inventors are the pure scientists—the ones with a better idea, a new periodic table, a fresh perspective in looking at the universe, a cure for cancer. They represent thousands of other free thinkers who remain anonymous because their ideas and inventions have been bought up, suppressed, forgotten.
Common sense dictates that the quality of life of the human population would be greatly improved if only good ideas would triumph in a free marketplace of ideas.
But there is no existing free marketplace of ideas, and so good ideas do not triumph in the end. Thus it seems that, despite the vigorous protests of skeptics and others who profit from existing conditions, the evidence would indicate that suppression is the norm.
The current reality of a world in which creativity and independent thinking are stifled portends a dismal future. Is there any hope with a view like this one? Perhaps not.
But then, perhaps it is up to us to change our outlook for the years to come.
Science as Credo
by Roy Lisker
It seems to me that there are too many people in today’s intellectual agar-agar who discovered at some early stage that they could feather their nest egg by the interminable cranking of a handful of dependable algorithms in obsessive-compulsive fashion in the same way as the Hindu peasant chews his betel-nuts, the cracker-barrel philosopher his wad of chaw, or the elderly Jewish housewife in Miami Beach her bag of sunflower seeds—and thereby concluded that any real effort towards a higher spiritual or cultural life is a waste of time.
For a great deal of science is nothing more than such forms of compulsive cud-chewing. Truly original ideas are few; many famous scientists have built their entire careers on one or two ideas.
In mathematics (the science with which I have the greatest familiarity), those who developed two original and entirely unconnected trains of thought are given special mention in the bibliographies and histories of the science: Bernhard Riemann, for work in both complex variables and differential geometry; or Gauss for work in number theory, probability and physics.
Really independent ideas are difficult to come by in any field—and by “idea” I mean something like “evolution” or “the square root of minus one,” or “the atom.” Consider Thomas Hardy, capping a successful career as a novelist with a second career as a poet. Serving us as the exception which proves the rule, his poetry, though much of it is of a high quality, is monotone in its affect of dreary gloom. He is fond, for example, of grieving the miseries of children who aren’t even born yet!
Most scientific work, to return to the point, is mechanical, methodical, repetitive and dull. A person may turn out several hundred papers in his lifetime of work without the grace of a single idea worthy of the name. It must be stressed that this in no way negates his competence, dedication or “credibility.” He can indeed be quite a good scientist.
Yet one retains the impression, buttressed by numerous historic en-counters with every sort of bully in scientist’s clothing, that a lifetime of this sort will reinforce an impoverishment of the soul, stinginess of the heart and narrowness of mental vision that is hardly any different from that of the medieval monk, scribe, soldier or peasant. . .
A few months ago, I attended a poetry reading given by a Czech poet/neurophysiologist Miroslaw Holub, at the Lamont Library of Harvard University. I liked his poetry quite a bit; I am sure he is a good neuro (etc.), and know him also as a prominent activist in the years between Dubcek and Havel. Commenting on the differences between literary theory and scientific work, Holub related this conversation between Paul Valery and Albert Einstein.
Valery asked Einstein:
“Albeit, answer me this: When you get a new idea, do you run to your notebooks to write it down as fast as you can before it’s forgotten?” To which Einstein replied: “In our profession, Paul, a new idea arises so very rarely, that one is not likely to forget it, even years later.”
To support my thesis that the scientists of the modern world are in no sense the torchbearers of true civilization, but are little different (in the majority) than the brain-dead scholastics of the Middle Ages, I have identified a Credo of thirteen articles resembling the dogmatic catechisms of various cults and creeds, such as the words of the Mass, the laws of Leviticus, the Nicene Creed, the Benedictine Rule, the Confessions of Faith, the Book of Common Prayer, and the like:
THE SCIENTIST’S CREDO
That research be its own justification, whether its purpose be noble, silly or malevolent.
We see this in particular in research on animal subjects, however there are many examples to be taken from all the sciences. The truism that many discoveries which were useless at the time they were made turned out to be of some use, even a century or two later, has, in our day, been elevated into the above principle, which asserts that “All research must be valuable because it may be useful.” Such an argument would, in the older religious credos, be equivalent to an exhortation to monks to commit murder because they might find something which, thirty years later, will give them some good reasons to instruct novices in the evils of murder.
That there are hidden laws of Nature which guarantee that the fruits of all research must ultimately be of benefit to mankind.
This is a stronger version of Article I, however, the emphasis here is on the “hidden laws,” which posit a kind of ultimate “Moral Essence,” or “Unconditioned Virtue” in research. There has been no attempt, as far as I know, made by anyone to discover these laws or to derive them from raw data. I may myself approach the NSF [Nation Science Foundation] to underwrite a few decades of Research to validate or invalidate the belief that Ultimate Goodness lies at the bottom of All Research.
That the unbelievable amounts of suffering inflicted on living creatures, including human beings, through research in biology, medicine, psychology, and related Sciences, have been as necessary to our Salvation as torturing was necessary to the Salvation of the victims of the Inquisition.
The definition of salvation changes from one era to the next, but the facts of power and sadism undergo little alteration. As long as there exist so many highly qualified professionals in respected fields who enjoy causing suffering to the helpless, it matters little that they toil in this service of some given creed or another one. Ten minutes of rational judgment could easily cancel 50 percent of all the experiments in which living creatures are subjected to such horrible tortures. (It is my belief that this figure can be raised to 100 percent, but that constitutes another essay.)
Still, there is no arguing with Salvation.
That there exists a well-defined methodology known as the “Scientific Method,” and that every intelligent person not only knows what it is, but has exactly the same idea of what it is.
We are here confronted with yet another classical barge before the tug-boat dilemma: the standard definition of intelligence as that mental factor which understands and uses the “Scientific Method.” The vulgar definition of this method, that which is adhered to by most members of the scientific community, is some dreary mix of Positivism and Empiricism. Positivism claims that Universals can be proven by the accumulation of Particulars, while Empiricism claims that facts, and facts alone, are self-evident.
In point of fact, this author knows quite a large number of intelligent people who don’t buy either of these viewpoints, but they are also not among the legions who recite the Credo every morning upon rising.
That science is not responsible for its creations.
We all know that Szilard, Fermi, Ulam, Oppenheimer, etc., didn’t make the A-bomb: God made the A-bomb.
One is reminded of the famous remark of Pope Clement II in the fifteenth century, when he was asked how he and his friends might, in good faith, throw all the gold plates used during their daily feast through the windows of the Vatican and into the Tiber River, while at the same time most of Europe was starving:
“God made the papacy; it’s our business to enjoy it.”
That science has absolute control over its creations.
Most of us go to sleep secure in the knowledge that genetic engineers are following all those guidelines (that they, in their superior wisdom also established), and that therefore Godzilla will not spring out of a test tube, at least not while we’re alive.
It might appear to the discerning that Principles V and VI cannot both be true: yet that is the nature of true religion, which cannot be imagined without paradox and contradiction! Read, for example, Rudolph Otto’s “The Idea of the Holy.
That the lifelong gratification of idle curiosity must produce all the raptures experienced by the mystics of the Middle Ages.
What indeed is this much jubilated “Scientific Method,” if not the promise of some delectation of infinite and perpetual bliss in the discovery, for example, that (Catalan’s Conjecture) the Diophantine Equation, xy-uv = 1, has only one non-trivial solution in integers, namely x = 3, y = 2, u = 3; or that the uncovering of counter-examples, if there are any, would require more computer capacity than that presently available over the entire planet!
Alas, that Plotinus, Meister Eckhart, Heinrich Suso, Thomas a Kempis, St. John of the Cross, and so many others were not born in our glorious age of scientific faith, so that they might achieve union with the Ultimate Reality through computing 20 million roots of the Reinmann Zeta on the line s = 1 + iy, or through bashing in the brains of a thousand monkeys to learn about head injuries, or through counseling the world for more than half a century that it must find some way of copulating with its mothers to achieve psychological health, or through using the inhabitants of Bikini Atoll as guinea pigs for the study of radiation sickness, or through elaborating very complex and involuted theories with no experimental basis, no predictive power, and hardly any theoretical purpose, such as string theory in particle physics.
Twenty years of wasted effort in the elaborate gymnastics of string theory must be worth, in the free market, at least a dozen visions of the Virgin Mary in tenth century gold crowns.
That Science is value-free.
Most of these abominations are justified, sooner or later, by arguments to the effect that Science is unable to determine values. There is, in other words, a limit even to the great powers of the Scientific Method. A book of matches is also value-free; this hardly give us the right to use it for the purposes of burning down someone’s house.
The “ultimate benefit” argument, and the “value-free” argument are frequently employed by the same official personages, usually in the same paragraph.
That Science is the highest value.
The meta-principle that there is no contradiction in contradictory principles, is invoked with a high frequency in all organized religions; and, as a religion, Science is nothing if not organized, perhaps the most highly organized in the history of organized religion. One can well imagine, for example, that the author of this essay, sick unto dying from the gangrene of functional employment, would derive quite a lot of satisfaction and a good income by joining the ranks of Walter Sullivan, James Gleick, Gina Kolata, Isaac Asimov and so on, by writing a science column for some magazine or daily newspaper.
This is indeed true, the trouble being that he is unable to pay homage to the drivel demanded by the Religion of Science, a spiritually emaciated cult worship of such universal acceptance that “science writing,” “science proselytizing,” and “science worship,” are inseparable in the public consciousness.
The Article of Faith which requires us to believe that “Science,” as a metaphysic and mass opiate, is the highest and most enduring value, has prevailed over the past two centuries so that it has turned almost all of our schools and colleges, and certainly all of our big universities, into either technical schools or research institutes. Things have changed very little since twelfth-century Sorbonne, when Theology was lord of all, and all other intellectual endeavors had to go begging. It is only the name of the game which is different.
In today’s schools, Philosophy has been reduced to an inane obsession with sententious doubt. Letters apologizes for its very existence. There’s no money in an English degree, and the teaching of Languages for any profession outside the diplomatic corps has fallen to such a low level that even the pampered scientists of our day are in danger of losing their grasp on the scientific treasures of the past five hundred years, almost all of which were written in Latin and Greek—indeed, scientists in today’s America can’t even speak a good French, German or Russian, something unimaginable seventy years ago.
Culture is ridiculed with a sorry yawn; mathematicians, physicists, biologists, or even chemists who imagine themselves on the slashing edge of knowledge will make comments about modern art, music or poetry that a poor lonesome cowboy, far from the centers of learning and art, would be ashamed to utter.
Such is the power of faith.
That non-scientific thought is ignorant, superstitious or crazy and merits ridicule and even persecution.
Read Stephen Hawking’s Brief History of Time. His account of the history of Science is factually threadbare -yet quite valuable in presenting the “Standard Model” of European Science: every advance was halted by obscurantist monks and popes who burned Giordano Bruno, silenced Galileo, taught the unlettered that the Earth was flat, and so on.
While not disputing the validity of these charges, it it very clear that the things which Hawking, or Star Trek, or Nova, or The Shape of the World, or Asimov, or Sagan (Carl, not Francoise), or Hofstader, or hosts of others really don’t like about the Medieval Church, is the presence of a strong and well-organized competition. This myopic view of history also fails to understand that the kind of world that Science has created for us, and the kind of spiritual desert it wishes all of us to live in, is driving hundreds of thousands, millions of the “ignorant” into the arms of these simplistic, foolish, backward yet in so many ways more spiritually enriching faiths, such as Creationism, which people like Sagan and Stephen Jay Gould waste their time in hating and fearing.
As long as there is a well-entrenched, powerful intellectual Establishment trying to teach all of us that the pointless and sterile accumulations of silly facts has more spiritual merit than the compassion of a Mother Teresa or the courage of a Mahatma Ghandi, the legions of the “ignorant” and, presumably, the “damned,” are going to swell.
That anything but the latest theory (“the paradigm”) is ignorant, superstitious or crazy and should be ridiculed or even persecuted.
(I am indebted for this example to Dr. Andreas Ehrenfeucht, at the University of Colorado.) We know that the father of the theory of Drifting Continents, Hans Wegner, was ridiculed and ignored throughout most of his scientific career for his belief in this theory.
Imagine today, however, that there is a geologist who for lots of good reasons believes that this theory is false.
He would probably be given much the same treatment that Galileo received, less brutal in its methods, perhaps, but with exactly the same results: a black-listing and a silencing.
That social involvement interferes with pure thought.
Why should the priesthood, the social elite who are carried on the backs of the society like Hindu Brahmans of old in the hoodhahs of elephants, worry themselves about the cow dung that the elephants have to step in? Go to half a dozen science conferences and you will see that the academic scientific world lives in a kind of permanent merry-go-round from lectures to banquets to receptions to luxury hotels to jetliners to grants to awards to citations to publishing contracts to…
That Science is pure thought.
Few words in our vocabulary are quite so impure as the word “pure.” The Burmese Buddhist tradition maintains that any person who is so advanced as to have no more than one sexually unclean thought each month is already a very high holy man and should be accorded deep veneration.
How much less can we expect of our modern day Western scientist?
How often, even in a single day, does he (most of them being men, but this applies also to women), think of the path of the electron,
or the structure of DNA,
or the classification of all finite groups,
or the hibernation of grizzly bears, without at least one reflection on how much money it can make him,
or how many conferences he can travel to with it,
or how much flattery his colleagues will give him,
or how big his pension is going to be,
or how handsome he will look in that photograph in the Encyclopedia Britannica of the year 2024,
or how much closer he is to the Nobel Prize,
or how much better his theory is than that of the x, y, z group over in Illinois,
or how his children will look up to him,
or how bored his wife will be when he explains it to her,
or how, even though it has little about it that appears useful in any way, somebody might just, in two hundred years, discover a practical application that will eventually earn him posthumous praise as a benefactor of Mankind.
Of such does the purity of Science consist.
It has about the same rating as the purity of the monks in the medieval monasteries, of which we have read so many accounts. We see indeed that the “Credo of Science” is nothing but a long list of delusions on a par with the parting of the Red Sea, the immortal snakes of the Polynesian islands, the bodily ascension of Elijah, the material Ascension of the Virgin, the rebirth of Quetzacoatl, the immortality of the Pharaohs [sic], and the like.
It is therefore hardly surprising that the scientific community (apart from the many individual exceptions), has contributed nothing to the advance of civilization beyond its barbarian precursors.
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