The March of Scientific Folly

Scientists take enormous pride in their avowals of intellectual impartiality. They profess such sobriety of view as to regard all concepts as equal in weight or significance until new evidence decrees otherwise.

The irony of scientists accepting this belief about themselves at face value is that, among the innumerable kinds of human errors, bias is a relentless nemesis to which scientists are as likely to succumb as anyone else. Given a problem, scientists are quick to urge the solution that either promotes - or appears to be demanded by - their most cherished ideas. Like many ordinary people, they firmly believe that "in the last analysis," the mechanisms explained by their pet theories will prove to be most decisive and relevant.

Recall the exaggerated influence vouchsafed, not too long ago, to psychoanalytic theory. Sigmund Freud taught that no act of daily life is ever trivial or meaningless. Hence, theoretical schemes were extended beyond reason.

Roger Caillois (1913-1978) ironically mocked such thinking: If I forget my umbrella at X's house, it is because I feel a subconscious sympathy for X. My lapse was only apparent. It was, "in reality," a pretext to return to see X, and thereby to reward my secret affection. What if I had left my umbrella at Y's, whom I cordially detest? In that case, my slip was a desire for self-punishment. I atone for experiencing this antipathy, or for wishing Y's disappearance. But what if I forget my umbrella at Z's house? Toward Z, I am indifferent, neither friend nor foe. Here, the psychoanalyst resorts to theory, and tells me that I am mistaken. I only think that I am indifferent; "in reality" I either love or hate, and with uncommon vehemence to boot. The proof? Why, the proof is that I forgot the umbrella! Thus, the circle is closed. In this system, nothing escapes definitive interpretation.

Caillois may have been using irony, but his point was well taken. Psychoanalysis grew into a formidable, intimidating logic. In the above example, absent-mindedness is first a symptom of a subconscious feeling. Then, the latter becomes what the ancients called the petitio principii; we name it begging the question. Whether the umbrella is forgotten at home or elsewhere no longer matters. Whether there is an apparent reason - or none at all - is irrelevant: psychoanalysis can always supply an explanation.

Nothing, indeed, resisted the psychoanalytic exegesis. Politics, sociology, history, or medicine: all were grist for the psychoanalyst's mill. So agrarian communism was viewed - wait for it - as a return to the maternal womb. The capitalist economy was linked to a sado-masochistic anal complex. The communist slogan "Proletarians of the world, unite!" was interpreted by some as a sublimated expression of homosexuality.

SPRING SALE: Save 40% on all new Digital or Digital Plus subscriptions

SPRING SALE: Save 40% on all new Digital or Digital Plus subscriptions

Subscribe now to gain greater access to Project Syndicate – including every commentary and our entire On Point suite of subscriber-exclusive content – starting at just $49.99.

Subscribe Now

In Soviet Russia, Marxism-Leninism incurred comparable excess. Everything had to do with the class struggle. To believe Marxist theoreticians, even romantic love between a man and a woman could be explained as a desire of possession and domination, an attitude that mirrored the oppression of the bourgeoisie over the proletariat.

Biology was no exception. Biological facts were seen through the light of ideological bias. Alas, when orthodox genetics was discarded in favor of the ruling ideological doctrines, as was done by Stalin's favorite Trofim Lysenko (1898-1976), the results were disastrous. Soviet science was set back fifty years.

In the West, Charles Darwin's theories suffered no less egregious distortions at the hands of supposed Darwinian acolytes. It is now a commonplace that evolutionary theory was used to justify capitalist injustice. Illegality and wrongdoing were artfully cloaked as an incontrovertible, science-tested natural law, "the survival of the fittest."

Every time a new, powerful scientific formulation appears, it must go through a period of abusive application. Today, it is the turn of molecular genetics. Temperament, obesity, heart disease, intelligence, homosexuality or criminal behavior: everything is said to reside in the genes.

Distinguished scientists proclaim that our very destiny is inscribed on the DNA molecule, and science-popularizers join the exultant choir, asserting that human beings are nothing but "programmed" entities. The genome contains the complete set of instructions, and is therefore named The Holy Grail, The Bible, The Book of Man. When thoroughly deciphered, it is said, the essence of human nature will be fully understood.

Against these claims, a healthy humanism imposes limits. No science can completely explicate human nature: all the sciences, even the most exact, are partial endeavors. In other words, a man or a woman is more than his or her psyche; more than his or her biochemistry; and more than his or her social identity.

Assuredly, Man is more than his genes. He is also his past, his present and his future. Indeed, Man is more than himself, because the specifically human qualities can only be fully deployed in society. A person reared in utter isolation (or by animals, as the semi-legendary "feral children" adopted by wolves) can never attain full humanity. Thus, the Spanish philosopher Ortega y Gasset (1883-1955) could truthfully state that "the I of Man is immersed precisely in what is not himself, in the pure other that is his circumstance."

In the measure that scientists, absorbed in their research and fascinated by technology, forget this profound teaching of the humanities, they will continue to fall prey to Bias, their implacable nemesis.