"Science is the 'process of understanding the world through experimentation and observation' whereas beliefs are 'feelings that something is true.' Thus, the former represents an ideal of discovering truth that exists separate from the knower, whereas beliefs are internally held understandings filtered through one's world view. By 'unscientific belief', something is held as generalizable fact without substantial scientific supporting evidence..."
(Brown et al. Adv. Nutr. 5: 563-565, 2014.)
Think of the word science today and what immediately comes to mind are subjects such as physics, chemistry or biology — people in lab coats, holding test tubes or peering into microscopes. Yet the methods of science now pervade throughout many other disciplines. The hypothesis, scepticism and maintaining objectivity, have all become mainstays of every serious discipline. Much like the scientist in the laboratory, the finest historians approach their subject with similar care and diligence, for doing so allows for a more credible claim to 'the truth'. In examining hundreds, if not thousands of documents, analytical objectivity is of utmost importance. A course of events must be observed free from all biases, requiring both a high degree of inner psychological awareness, as well as a systematic approach to considering alternative explanations.
Beyond the realm of institutional research — as T.H. Huxley showed — the scientific method can be applied to all areas of life. Indeed, the scientific mindset can be thought of as inherently evolutionary and revolutionary, for it always threatens to reveal the old order as a shambolic and factitious edifice. It encourages us to ask the most important question and to use the word which has driven forth the intelligence and enlightenment of our species: Why?
Why are things as they are? Why must they be this way? These are fundamentally important questions which batter away at the pillars of unscientific belief. None of these questions would be possible without careful observation.
As C.G. Jung observed, much of what humans do is imitative. Of course, this serves us well as children, for it allows us to learn at a rapid pace. As an adult though, such an approach — leading to conformity of thought — becomes a hindrance to our progress, for it minimises the importance of higher cognitive skills such as critical thinking. We assume that certain beliefs must be correct and valid, simply because they have been done in that fashion for a prolonged period of time and that many others have also believed it to be true. It is as if time and voluminous numbers of individuals act as a stamp of truth on beliefs, no matter how foolish and unscientific. As we put many such beliefs under the microscope, we find them crumbling under the rigour of scientific questioning.
In the scientific way, nothing is set in stone. We must accept that what we know is — at least for the time being — the best possible explanation. The public often has a disdain for such thinking, ridiculing the often contradictory nature of research studies, for they expect discoveries to be handed to them in the form of absolute truths. Much to our detriment, absolutist thinking often thrives in societies. It should only be natural for people to embrace such a way of thinking, for it provides black and white answers to questions that are deeply steeped in grey.
The public thirsts for certainty and is often easily swayed by appeals to atavistic emotions and instincts. Of course, within the fog of emotion, no man can effectively summon his rationality and higher cognitive skills. Thus he becomes an unscientific thinker. Despite this fact, emotions are a core element of human psychology. The scientific way is therefore inherently at odds with 'natural' human psychology.
Not surprisingly then, we find that even trained scientists have at one time or another been associated with beliefs which we consider today to be deeply unscientific. Despite his stance against slavery, the biologist T.H. Huxley had fallen under the influence of common beliefs during his time (mid-19th century) when he wrote:
"It may be quite true that some negroes are better than some white men; but no rational man, cognizant of the facts, believes that the average negro is the equal, still less the superior, of the average white man. And, if this be true, it is simply incredible that, when all his disabilities are removed, and our prognathous relative has a fair field and no favour, as well as no oppressor, he will be able to compete successfully with his bigger-brained and smaller-jawed rival, in a contest which is to be carried on by thoughts and not by bites. The highest places in the hierarchy of civilization will assuredly not be within the reach of our dusky cousins, though it is by no means necessary that they should be restricted to the lowest."
What were these 'facts' that made Huxley so confident in holding the above view? There were certainly no objective tests of intelligence carried out on a large and relevant sample size. Instead, much of it was based on fallacious correlations arising out of certain structural differences which had been observed by Huxley and a number of other scientists. Words like 'higher races' and 'lower races' were a common feature of these studies.
A century later, the ethologist Konrad Lorenz held many shocking pseudo-scientific beliefs that were rooted in Nazi ideology. Lorenz applied for membership of the Nazi party in 1938 and over the next several years in papers and addresses argued that animal behaviour studies could shed light on matters of racial hygiene. He also expressed support for Nazi race purity laws and argued that Darwinism, properly understood, led not to communism or socialism but instead to National Socialism. Again, a scientist had been swept up in the unscientific beliefs of his time.
Unscientific beliefs are not the preserve of individual scientists. They can infect an entire community. In the decade following the Second World War, the groundbreaking research of a geneticist was dismissed for decades, once again on spurious unscientific grounds. Barbara McClintock was a geneticist whose experimental and theoretical work played a key part in driving forward the genetics which increasingly lay behind plant breeding. Her big conceptual break was that she showed how flexible and dynamic genes were — in particular, how they could move around on the chromosome and how they could work in relationship to each other. The work was so ahead of its time that her less imaginative colleagues simply ignored it. Not until 1970 did her work begin to receive the recognition which it rightfully deserved.
Moving on another decade, Rachel Carson, a biologist and environmental activist was ridiculed not for the substance of her arguments, but for her gender, together with the threat that her research posed to powerful US agro-chemical interests. While pesticides were causing environmental devastation, smug experts in white lab coats who promised 'better living through chemistry,' were dismissing her warnings as feminine hysteria. Some even went so far as to call her a communist subversive — a pernicious accusation in a country swept up by anti-communist hysteria. Her adversaries constantly raised her gender and her unmarried status as a vector for attack, yet here was a scientist and writer who was once again decades ahead of her critics when it came to an understanding of ecology.
There are many more examples of scientists who have acted at odds with the principles of science, and they persist to this day.
"So what?" one might say, scientists are human too - susceptible to greed, selfishness, peer pressure and questionable methods in the pursuit of status. Like the gene whose expression is influenced by its environment, the scientist's behaviour is in part determined by his own environment. Huxley lived amidst a deeply prejudicial society. Lorenz was swayed by the fervour of Nazism. The critics of Carson were inheritors of a culture of misogyny, reaching all the way back to ancient Athens. Their training and years of experience did nothing to stop them from internalising unscientific beliefs.
We are not infallible, and it would be sheer hubris to think that an education in the principles of science alone would prevent any man or woman from adopting unscientific beliefs. We cannot escape our environment. Nor can we choose the moment in time for our existence. Much of science is oriented towards the outer world, yet only by casting a scrupulous eye towards the inner self — using those same principles of critical thinking, scepticism and logic-checking, on our own beliefs — can we escape the trap of unscientific belief. In the words of Rachel Carson, we must "prove our maturity and our mastery, not of nature, but of ourselves."