Here’s a couple of thoughts – is the scientific method the way to be sure of things? And, is there only one scientific method?
What provoked those thoughts? An article in the Guardian citing research about jihadists
What kind of person becomes a jihadi terrorist? Specifically, what kind of educated person? The overwhelming majority of graduates recruited into Islamist terrorism studied engineering, science and medicine. Almost none are social science or arts graduates, according to research. The insight could have important implications.
Almost half (48.5%) of jihadis recruited in the Middle East and north Africa had a higher education of some sort, according to a 2007 analysis by Diego Gambetta that is cited in Immunising the Mind, a new paper published by the British Council; of these 44% had degrees in engineering. Among western-recruited jihadis that figure rose to 59%.
The author of the paper, Martin Rose, describes what he terms the “engineering mindset” which, he claims, makes science and engineering graduates more susceptible to jihadist indoctrination.
The culture of science teaching, says Rose, resolves all too easily into a right and wrong, correct and incorrect binary. This damages the ability of science and engineering students to develop the skills of critical examination.
……three specific traits that characterise the “engineering mindset”: first, it asks “why argue when there is one best solution?”; second, it asserts “if only people were rational, remedies would be simple”; and third, it appeals to those with an underlying craving for a lost order, which lies at the heart of both salafi and jihadi ideology.
It does seem that the jihadists see the world in a binary way – black and white, right and wrong etc – “That is perhaps why, in Isis-controlled territory, university courses in archaeology, fine art, law, philosophy, political science and sports have been eliminated, along with drama and the reading of novels.”
This claim that a training in science and engineering leads to seeing the world in binary ways and assertions of certainty is totally contrary to what I just read in “Sapiens” by Yuval Noah Harari. He describes a number of revolutions in human development – the agricultural revolution, the cognitive revolution and finally, the scientific revolution. Of the scientific revolution he says
The Scientific Revolution has not been a revolution of knowledge. It has been above all a revolution of ignorance. The great discovery that launched the Scientific Revolution was the discovery that humans do not know the answers to their most important questions…….modern people came to admit that they did not know the answers to some very important questions, they found it necessary to look for completely new knowledge.
This seems to suggest that scientists might be best placed to say “I don’t know”, rather than to make claims about the possession of “THE TRUTH”.
Isn’t a good scientist always unsure? Does a good scientist ever claim they have the complete, final, definitive knowledge or understanding of anything?
Well that’s what I thought about science until I oversaw a science student’s notebook one day. The scientific method described there was of “Observation; description; explanation; prediction; control”. That shocked me when I read it but suddenly a particular approach to science made sense to me. I hadn’t taken on board that the ultimate goal of science was control. I thought it was explanation – possible explanations!
But a little further on in “Sapiens” Yuval Noah Harari writes
In 1620 Francis Bacon published a scientific manifesto titled The New Instrument. In it he argued that ‘knowledge is power’. The real test of ‘knowledge’ is not whether it is true, but whether it empowers us. Scientists usually assume that no theory is 100 per cent correct. Consequently, truth is a poor test for knowledge. The real test is utility. A theory that enables us to do new things constitutes knowledge
Back to Bacon again! The sometimes claimed “father of the scientific method”. I never warmed to him with his desire to dominate Nature and human beings.
So also there are two kinds of empires, as rewards to those that resolve them. The one over nature, the other over men; for the proper and chief end of the true natural philosophy is to command and sway over natural beings; as bodies, medicines, mechanical works, and infinite other things
So maybe here’s the link – its a particular type of “scientific method” which is a quest for certainty in order to wield power.
Maybe it’s time for us to invest more in the humanities if that’s what is required to produce critical thinkers who can live with the reality of uncertainty.
Rose suggests that the British Council, the organisation funded by the UK to spread British cultural influence around the world, should involve itself in education reform, to “humanise” the teaching of scientific and technical subjects. A broader-based education would give vulnerable students the intellectual tools to develop an open-minded, interrogatory outlook – and to question authority, whether scientific, political, religious or scientific.
And maybe it’s time to promote a different scientific method – one based on wonder, curiosity, and the humble belief that we never know everything about anything.