Back when I was doing my linguistics degree there was an exchange between one of our lecturers and the students in the class that I still remember to this day. The lecturer asked the class a question which was answered correctly by the student but the lecturer told him it was the wrong answer. She was looking for a single word answer, the name of one of the concepts we had been learning. The student objected that he had explained the concept correctly and so his answer was not wrong. The lecturer informed him that part of what he was learning was a scholarly language and his inability to remember the right word made his answer incorrect.
Linguistics has a technical term for what the professor was referring to. It’s called a Speech Community. Being a student of linguistics is partly about entering the speech community of Linguistics which has its own vocabulary (which the student hadn’t learned properly), preferred syntax patterns, hierarchy of speakers etc. From a socio-linguistic point of view, the professor rebuking the student for language use was no different to a group of teenagers making fun of a friend for who doesn’t understand the meaning of some fashionable slang term. The context is very different but the mechanism the same.
Speech communities develop naturally because humans are social creatures. But speech communities come with a number of weaknesses that must be mitigated. The student in the above story was correct to state that it was more important to know the concept than to know the right word that denoted it. The opposite of this is to know the right word without understanding the concept. This happens all the time. It’s possible to learn the right words through mimicry and social cues alone. Formal speech communities such as educational, professional and technical institutions have a duty to guarantee a minimum level of competence in their members part of which means ensuring members can walk the walk as well as talk the talk. Our education system relies on written testing in the form of essays and exams which is arguably the worst way to deal with the issue in that these forms of testing are nothing more than regurgitation exercises that are easily gamed. A well-functioning speech community enforces rigorous standards to ensure its members understand the concepts and not just the words. A decadent speech community does not.
A related problem with speech communities is that they can stagnate. A community sets up an in-group and an out-group by definition. Like any other organism, there must be just the right amount of interfacing with the environment for the speech community to remain healthy. It must be able to accept new members so that it can bolster its stocks of energy and enthusiasm but the inflow cannot be too quick or too great otherwise the internal structures get overwhelmed. On the other hand, if there is no inflow at all, the speech community atrophies and loses contact with the outside world.
The great physicist, Richard Feynman, proposed two rules in relation to science that are also relevant for all speech communities. Firstly, he said science is the belief in the ignorance of experts. In other words, just because somebody is a member of a speech community and knows the right words to use does not mean they necessarily know what they are talking about. As a member of the general public, any given speech community is a black box to us. We cannot know without investigation whether it is decadent or not. Because nothing is pure in this world, we can assume that there is always some level of decadence involved. Therefore, we must bring a measure of scepticism to every interaction with a speech community and its members. We should trust but verify. Often this verification amounts to nothing more than asking questions so that we understand what is being said. In the public discourse, this asking of questions is outsourced to journalists whose role is to translate the position of a particular speech community into terms that can be understood by the general public.
The second point that Feynman made was directed to scientists specifically. He said that if you cannot explain your work in terms a twelve year old can understand, you do not understand it yourself. A member of a speech community must be able to translate the internal language into general language and common sense. The scientist must do this for themselves because otherwise their own language and thinking becomes so byzantine and obscure that even they don’t understand it any more. They must also do it to the extent that the general public needs to understand their work. This rule doesn’t necessarily apply to a private organisation that does not want to interface with the community at all. It does apply to other speech communities especially the ones that have any kind of power in public life. This is true in politics, in medicine, in science, in religion and any other domain.
If we join these two considerations together we get guidelines about the correct interface between the speech community and the general public. The general public must ask questions of the speech community to facilitate their own understanding. The members of the speech community must explain to the general community in terms the community can understand i.e. everyday language and common sense. That is what a healthy relationship looks like.
What happens when this does not happen? What happens when a speech community has power but is not expected to translate its internal language into language that the average person can understand? We need only look at the history of the church to find out. European peoples spent the best part of two millennia listening to the word of God in a language they didn’t understand. A large part of The Reformation and the subsequent upheaval was about making the Bible available in national languages. This process continued until finally even the Catholic Mass was conducted in the vernacular following the reforms of Vatican II in the middle of the 20th century. As a counterweight to these increasingly liberal reforms, there were the various inquisitions which were also mostly about language use. Who could say what? Who had access to information? Who was allowed to challenge and question the speech community of the church? It turned out the Church didn’t want to explain itself and didn’t mind using some very un-Christian methods when challenged to do so.
The aims of science may be different from those of religion but science is still a speech community and therefore subject to the exact same dynamics as any other speech community. “Science” as an institution now holds arguably more power than the church ever did. But the interface with the institution of science is no longer healthy. One outcome of this is a growing distrust and resentment on the part of the general public. But the complete opposite attitude also emerges: reverence, awe, adulation and hero worship. This is the attitude of a person who has no desire ever to understand but simply to submit. We can see this dynamic very clearly in the climate change debate. On the one side are people who dismiss it entirely saying the institutions are corrupt and on the other are those who believe it entirely and without question as if it’s the word of God handed down on a stone tablet. Both of these positions are caused by a malfunctioning discourse.
The religious worship of science is all the more weird because science itself is based on the exact opposite predilection: curiosity, iconoclasm, rejection of appeals to authority. But this is another phenomenon we see throughout history. The Church for most of its history behaved in a way that had little to do with real Christian teaching. In any case, it doesn’t matter what the institution is or what it proclaims to believe. The problem is generic to all speech communities and all power structures.
Recently on an online forum I saw the following exchange:
Person 1: “If the government told Australians to stand in front of an oncoming bus, they would.”
Person 2: “If science said that standing in front of a bus would potentially save my life and the lives of others, I would.”
This kind of exchange is not unusual these days but this particular formation caught my eye because it’s absurd in a way that is almost identical to the moral problem posed by Soren Kierkegaard in his great work Fear and Trembling. In that book, Kierkegaard explores the issue of what happens if God gives you a command that goes against all reason, logic and morality such as what happened when God told Abraham to kill his son. Claiming that you would stand in front of a bus if “science” told you to is analogous to this.
Who or what is the “science” this person is talking about? The trust that he proclaims in “science” is the exact trust that Abraham had in the biblical story. It’s the trust to believe the “word of science” even though it goes against all your instincts and common sense. It is, as Kierkegaard knew, an absurd trust. Kierkegaard argued that this kind of trust (a leap of faith) is foundational to the religious teaching of Christianity. That may be true but it is absolutely not foundational to science and most people who proclaim to believe in science would ridicule the story of Abraham. Why would such an attitude of mindless reverence towards “science” start to prevail now?
At least part of the reason is because science as a speech community now finds itself in a very similar situation that the church once did. Science has a history of producing “miracles” but it has devolved into a closed speech community which no longer feels the need to explain itself to the public. Neither does a large section of the public expect that science should explain itself. The dynamic is almost identical to what a medieval peasant might have felt looking up to the ceiling of a great gothic cathedral while listening to mass in a language he doesn’t understand. Moreover, he believes he will never understand these things and just admires them, perhaps even feels awe towards them. This is the attitude of many people towards “science” now. Meanwhile, the language of science now resembles the word of God of the Old Testament. It is often arbitrary and even vengeful. It is not the voice of reason but of authority.
Why does a large section of the general public accept, even revel in, this state of affairs? I believe the decline in common sense is a big part of the picture. The medieval peasant might have sat in awe of a gothic cathedral but he still had to grow his own food and take care of his own survival. He still had to have common sense. He might have listened to the priest on arcane spiritual matters but if the priest started telling him how to grow his crops there would have been a problem.
The common sense of the peasant doesn’t exist anymore for the simple reason that there is no need for it in modern society. For the average person, the changing of the seasons is no longer a crucial element that needs to be understood for the growing of crops, it is an inconvenience to be ameliorated by air conditioners and heaters. Similarly, observations of nature once required to plant seeds at the correct time, protect crops from pests or to secure fertilisers for the best results are no longer required. All of this common sense of the peasant was grounded in day-to-day empiricism. The peasant used abstractions as a tool and if the abstractions didn’t work they were quickly cast aside for ones that did. If they were not, starvation would quickly ensue. By contrast, the average person now goes to school for twelve years where they learn nothing but abstractions. Often those abstractions go directly against common sense.
That the earth is round goes against our everyday common sense experience. As soon as we teach children to believe that, we are teaching them to trust something that goes against common sense. Of course, a proper education teaches the child how to reach the conclusion for themselves so they understand the concept and not just parrot the right words. This was another rule that Feynman proposed for science: you should always reproduce other people’s work. Our education system fails to do this. Because the student does not understand how to get to the conclusion for themselves, the words become abstract and meaningless; something to be trusted rather than proven.
The result is a person with no grounding either in common sense or with the methods of science. Such a person carries around a set of abstractions in their head that they have never tested against reality. That’s how you get people who claim they would step in front of a bus if “science” told them it was a good idea. It’s also how you get people who will take an experimental medication without asking the most basic questions about it because “science” told them to. You get a society where Kierkegaard’s absurd thought experiment is an everyday reality.
Of course, the “church of science” has also taken from the average person the area of life that used to be governed by common sense. “Science” grows the food now and tends the livestock and even cooks the meals. Science predicts the weather and even promises to be able to change it if only the lowly peasant will do what they are told.
It is not a coincidence that it took a group of truckers to finally draw a line in the sand against this dynamic. What they have is common sense. Common sense almost always gives the person the self assurance required to demand that science (and the politicians who claim to be following it) explain itself in terms the average person can understand. That is the correct way to mediate between the speech community of experts and the general public. It’s particularly telling that corona should have involved the subject of medicine because a doctor’s office used to be the ideal example of how this process should work. It is a one-on-one interaction where the doctor as expert translates the science directly for the individual patient according to his or her understanding of the world. A robust civil society with a professional class that translates for the average person has been a feature of western societies for a long time but it has been hollowed out and replaced by huge corporations and vested interests which provide the exact opposite of the one-on-one consultation. Like the decadent church of the past, they are too big to do the job properly.
The dysfunctional relationship between the public and “science” leads more and more members of the public to become cynical due to having their legitimate grievances ignored. Meanwhile, the true believers become hardened into a position of religious fundamentalism that is encouraged by the institutions of science who have a natural interest in preserving their reputation and power. There is no longer any attempt to explain the science in terms the public can understand. Instead, truths are handed down in stone tablets dutifully worshipped by the faithful.
In truth, the whole thing no longer has anything to do with science just as the Church at various times never had anything to do with Christianity. It is now a naked exercise in political power. We saw this with the Australian government throwing out Novak Djokovic for no reason or on the streets of Paris last weekend or with Trudeau’s declaration of a state of emergency or countless other incidents over the last two years. Just like the church once betrayed its principles to obtain power, so science now betrays its own principles in order to reign over a bewildered public grasping for a certainty which common sense should provide except it is now missing in action too.
We need a Reformation. Part of it will be a demand that science once again explains itself to the public. Part of it must be a return to common sense as a grounding against institutional power. Part of it must be an educational system that actually teaches proper science. Will it happen or will the Inquisitions continue as they have for the last two years?