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The Religious Ethos of Science

Religious Rhetorics is back, analyzing contemporary issues in religion with a post about…science?

This wouldn’t be the first time RR has tackled science. That’s because both science and religion can act as “overarching paradigms” in modern society. And because they both can stake this claim, they often clash: stem-cell research, homosexuality, evolution, the list goes on.

In his recent NPR blog post, “Science Deniers: Hand Over Your Cellphones,” astrophysicist Adam Frank criticizes a “vocal minority out there who see[s] scientific activity as [a] buffet of ideas.” From creationists to climate change deniers, these groups generally “allow scientific authority to determine the contours of their life” except when that authority goes against “pre-established beliefs.” Dr. Frank concludes by arguing that we need to make the distinction between science and policy. If we can’t then we need to be consistent: we need to “cho[o]se between science and no science at all.”

Fair enough. But Dr. Frank risks turning science into the very thing he is criticizing.

In his post, Dr. Frank reduces medical, climate, evolutionary, and signal sciences, each with their own methods, instruments, standards of evidence, and applications, into the monolith of science, with what might as well be a capital S. By doing so, he taps into the oft-hailed singular ethos of science. It’s a powerful ethos, one that can heal the sick, predict the future, and even read minds. In his post, Dr. Frank uses this ethos to draw a definite line: either you believe in science or you don’t. It’s all or nothing. Such a tactic is reminiscent of the fundamentalist sects of many religions where you accept all of the teachings of a religious figure or a sacred text, or you’re out.

Besides misrepresenting the diversity and specialization of modern science—I wouldn’t want a climatologist to be my neurologist, thank you very much—this reduction doesn’t persuade people to believe in science anymore than they did before.

As it stands, most people have a rudimentary understanding of science. When they are presented with questions of policy that rely heavily on science, their level of engagement largely consists of talking points they pick up from pundits. Dr. Frank wants us to distinguish between science and policy, but given the US population’s general science illiteracy, those who produce science are also in the best position to determine science policy. In a democracy, this is a less than ideal situation. As a consequence, those not on-board with proposed science policy make the only rhetorical move they feel they can make: they deny the science itself.

Rather than ostracizing people for doubting a slice of science—which scientists themselves do, though perhaps not to the same degree as “deniers”—we need to beef up our science education so that we have a more science literate population. This way people can make informed decisions about science policy.

If Dr. Frank is going to take a page out of the book of religion for science, it should be the page of evangelism not exclusion.

Want to know more?

  • Reduction, also known as “composition,” is a common, long recognized rhetorical tactic. We can either augment the differences between objects in the world, thus dividing them, or we can diminish those differences, thus unifying them. The latter is an act of reduction or composition, and this is exactly what Adam Frank does in his post. For more information see Kenneth Burke’s work on terministic screens in his books of essays Language as Symbolic Action.
  • Although Aristotle originally defined ethos as the construction of the speaker’s character within the speech itself, that definition has since broadened. Here I use it to designate the identity of Science, with a capital S.
  • If you’d like to read more about science and public relations, start with Dorothy Nelkin’s Selling Science.
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One thought on “The Religious Ethos of Science

  1. Nice! Sort of a rhetorical version of Chris Hedges’ _When Atheism Becomes Religion: America’s New Fundamentalists_ (2009).

    Posted by Kari J. Lundgren | June 11, 2011, 6:09 am

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