Karl Popper, the beloved scientist-philosopher, was critical of historicism. He argued, for instance, that Marxist historicism is what lends it to authoritarianism.
I was recently asked if, ironically, Popper ever examined historicism in relation to science. I didn’t know the answer, and still don't. Having pondered deeply about science, philosophy, and culture in modern times, and having read a portion of Popper's work, I do have an interest in offering my own unique take.
Science does not exist independent of its context of experts and the institutions they co-create to support their work. As such, the institutionalization of scientific inquiry supports interdependence between experts and facts.
But if science is both an objective method AND a context-rich history, is it adequately guarded against the pitfalls of historicism?
With the War on Science looming large on the politico-media stage, this reveals an incredibly timely — and deeply troubling — line of questioning for proponents of science.
At a glimpse, the problem appears to be that bringing the validity of scientific historicism (standing on the shoulders of giants reasoning) into question is a slippery slope argument in which all scientific fact ends up being rejected. The logical way to bury this illogical reaction (strongest of all among scientists themselves) is to treat science and scientific fact as separate.
We do this when we acknowledge that science and its structures are no different than any other human endeavor subject to human foible. No great secret there.
But there is a snag. As science helps enculturate esteem for its self-proclaimed objectivity, its foibles are subject to categorical forgiveness because of the objectivity of the method that underlies it. This makes for a cultural tautology that protects scientific authority — not just its factual basis but its network of human foibles as well.
A similar argument, though not about objectivity, could be made about dogma of any kind.
At least some of Popper’s critique of historicism is that lack of separation between facts and foibles is a formula for authoritarianism.
By my analysis, the reason this occurs, no matter the context, is that without alignment between facts and the messiness of being, we get desperate for someone outside of us to tell us what reality model to operate from.
It’s an age-old dynamic that appears to move cultures towards periods of authoritarianism.
In modern times, there’s another wonky dimension. Science itself delivers unrealistic expectations towards the unfulfillable promise of a scientifically confirmable reality model. With the resulting disorientation, doubt, and despair, you have an educated populace crippled from being able to recognize any better goal.
The science-minded and related culture are torn by a theoretical physics that holds more than one reality model to be true (i.e. QM, relativity, and Newtonian physics). They find themselves, ironically, vulnerable to and in denial of science’s role in existential dissonance — the metaphysical effect of pervasive disinformation.
The utility of theories is undeniable. What is questionable is the pattern of overreach in creating causative or functional reality models where none belongs.
Prediction is science’s forte so far. It might be scary if not terrifying to reject as false the separateness of theories that, while predictive, also conflict with each other when it comes to arriving at a reality model. Reality is not strictly scientifically discernable. This is an absolutely necessary shift in understanding if we are to begin to engender self-healing systems that render authoritarianism unnecessary.
Original publish date Oct 19, 2017