I’ve pushed back before on the limits of research, “rational” policy, evidence-based policies, and the assumption that research is objective, etc.
On Being recently discussed science and the unknown. Here are a few choice bits.
On the limitations of science:
Dr. Gleiser: . . . one of the grand goals of modern physics is to build a Theory of Everything at all. Not a very beautiful name. But a theory of everything that would in principle explain all that we can observe in nature in terms of a single force, so to speak. And it’s a very beautiful idea. It’s very Platonist in its essence, you know, that the essence of nature is mathematical. There is one big symmetry out there and that symmetry is beautiful and beauty is truth. And hence, you know, there has to be that sort of idea in nature as well. And a lot of people, including Einstein — Einstein spent 20 years of his life looking for this Theory of Everything, this unifying theory, and of course he didn’t find it.
I went to grad school trying to find it too, right, and after many years doing this and talking to lots of my colleagues I came to the conclusion that that’s impossible. That the Theory of Everything is an impossibility as a matter of principle. And the problem is this: that the way we understand the world — and interrupt me if I go on for too long.
Ms. Tippett: No, no. It’s good. We’re all — we’re with you.
Dr. Gleiser: The way we understand the world is very much based on what we can see of the world, right? Science is based on measurements and observations. And the notion that we can actually come up and have a theory that explains everything assumes that we can know everything, right? That we can go out and measure everything there is to measure about nature and come up with this beautiful Theory of Everything. And since we cannot measure all there is to measure, since our tools have limitations, we are definitely limited in how much we can know of the world.
So you can even build a theory that would explain everything that we know now. But then two weeks from now, someone else will come and find something new that does not fit in your theory. And that’s not a Theory of Everything anymore because it doesn’t include everything that can be included.
On piety toward science:
Ms. Robinson: . . . we’re pious toward science. It does in fact criticize itself and overturn itself. It deserves that reputation. But this strange little world that we’re presented as being scientific isn’t, you know; it’s some sort of petrified conception that would have been at home in the 19th century.
Ms. Tippett: Do you have any …
Dr. Gleiser: No. I actually — being a scientist I actually agree with Marilynne. You know, I think that once you adopt that there is only one way of understanding the complexity of things you’re just emptying humanity of its value. You know, of the plurality of visions. And so, yes, science is powerful. I love it. I do it. But there are other ways of knowing, you know. And to say that there is only one way of understanding the mind, which is a topic that Marilynne talks so much about in her book, is just silly, to be honest. It’s impoverishing the richness of human culture.
I think all of this is important. Science and research is full of bias and embedded assumptions. For example:
- Materialism drives faith in the notion that managing brain chemistry is the real path to recovery and suspicion of anything that can’t be measured or have its mechanisms explained.
- The notion that there’s a direct line between research and policy or practice contains the assumption that what is know is all that is to know or, at least, all that matters.