Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Not with a bang but with a "lets go shopping"

One reason I like science, and though they be thorny rascals, many scientists, lies in my understanding of the craft and culture of science:
The first duty and permanent struggle of anyone who seriously presents to others and themselves that they are scientific is to stop fooling themselves.
They will succeed only to the degree that they are not blinded by the many hazards of ego, by affiliations or any other self centered need to be right.

A lack of education about how science works, or an education hostile to its workings, disposes one to cynicism and the expectation that science just makes stuff up for aggrandizement of its cult, like any other religion one has been raised to mistrust.

In the so-called "soft sciences" where instrumentation and meaningful numbers are rare and theories don't often lead to experiments or at least to those we could ethically perform, the workings and results of science are held to be less trustworthy and more culturally determined than in the physical sciences. If I were more widely read, I'd have my own opinion on that but such, I gather, is the reputation of studies in the social sciences like sociology and political science.

That is both understandable and unfortunate. We all know the benefits of hard science can be, are being, swamped by the disarray, disharmony and many crossed purposes of our social realms. Because of the widespread ignorance of a usable, generally accepted sociological framework for conducting the vital discussions of humanity's best courses and cures for the ills of its ill-distributed resources and disenfranchised peoples, we fall back on tribal ways, even in the worlds richest nation. The tribal is threatened by and militates against the global framework, whatever it might be.

But this does not mean the attempt to be scientific about our social problems is not made. Even without a theory at the outset, one can say "let me guard against my own biases and assumptions and catalog all our institutions and trends...we are the data." Has anyone tried? Like I said, I am not widely read. But for other reasons, I bought a copy of Morris Berman's Dark Ages America, the final phase of empire. The right kind of dry academic praise appeared on the dust jacket. Flipping to random pages I found phrases and sentences that snapped into place among my own perceptions:
" possible causes of this massive destruction of community, [Putnam] cites in particular the impact of television, which has privatized American lives,..."
" enterprises [replaced] by multinational outlets. Shopping malls are now America's most distinctive public space, and mall culture is about being in the presences of other, but not in their company."

But the book went unread at the back of an overflowing to-do list. Then my brother, the natural born philosopher, happened to mention the book to me and praised the author's resolve to look into the roots of America's demonstrably decaying trends without any prejudice or attempt to discount any evidence. He told me the guy may have succeeded. So, that's what I am reading now. The harsh reviews for the book mostly characterize it as an America-hater's screed and that alone tells me he has breached the invisible barriers of self-congratualtory bias in which the American psyche cocoons itself. If the author has failed, will my own biases obscure that? Let my review attempt to replicate the results of others, for that is our method.

Don't you know? The last bit of news you ever get is that you haven't been hearing the whole story about your own situation.

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