Op-ed in science journal Nature disses science and “scientism”, questions Enlightenment values

October 10, 2019 • 10:15 am

Nathaniel Comfort, author of the risible Nature essay at hand (click on screenshot below), is a professor in the history of medicine at Johns Hopkins University. We’ve met him three times before on this site; he seems to be a postmodernist who dislikes genes, New Atheism, and Richard Dawkins.  Now he’s written about. . . . well, it’s hard to discern. If you read the essay (and I both pity you if you do and challenge you to see its point), you’ll see it’s laced with criticisms of Enlightenment values, white males, scientism, and the oppression of the disabled. Oh, and it lauds postmodernism, especially its “other ways of knowing”.

One of Comfort’s main points, at least as I discern it, is that science has somehow deeply changed how humanity has perceived itself. Not so much in the Darwinian way, in which we now see ourselves as part of the branching bush of life, but because of discoveries like our microbiome (seriously, do I think of myself as “Jerry Coyne + bacteria”?), the “blueprint” model of DNA, horizontal gene transfer, epigenetics, CRISPR technology, and so on. This, of course, is not new: many people have flaunted these buzzwords before and claimed they affected our sense of self, even though our sense of self seems to be pretty much what it was half a century ago.

Comfort’s real point, though, appears to be doing down science, or what he misdefines as scientism:

Huxley’s sunny view — of infinite human progress and triumph, brought about by the inexorable march of science — epitomizes a problem with so-called Enlightenment values. The precept that society should be based on reason, facts and universal truths has been a guiding theme of modern times. Which in many ways is a splendid thing (lately I’ve seen enough governance without facts for one lifetime). Yet Occam’s razor is double edged. Enlightenment values have accommodated screechingly discordant beliefs, such as that all men are created equal, that aristocrats should be decapitated and that people can be traded as chattel.

I want to suggest that many of the worst chapters of this history result from scientism: the ideology that science is the only valid way to understand the world and solve social problems. Where science has often expanded and liberated our sense of self, scientism has constrained it.

I am not sure that this definition of “scientism” matches that of other people; usually the definition is of “science extending its ambit beyond what it should be”. In that latter sense, I’d see “scientism” as the misuse of science to push ideological issues, like saying “science tells us that we should sterilize Italians and Jews”, or “science tells us that races are inherently unequal”. And, indeed, science has been misused in such ways, though these misuses have severely diminished over time and, in the end, it’s not science itself that’s responsible for these attitudes, but bigots and other bad people latching onto science. Still, what’s the point of running through this list once again?

Further, just because people holding Enlightenment beliefs can also hold un-Enlightenment beliefs, like killing aristocrats and having slaves, does not constitute an indictment of the Enlightenment beliefs as commonly understood and adumbrated by Pinker in Enlightenment Now—the tripartite values of reason, science, and humanism. These values do not call for the killing of aristocrats or the enslavement of others.

And Comfort gives no examples of how “scientism”, even as he construes it, has constrained our sense of self. He seems to give one example at the end of his piece (see below), but it’s unconvincing. In fact, one can make a good argument that the solving of social problems is in many cases a deeply empirical issue. Perhaps your ideas don’t come out of science per se, but from your own values and ethics. But then confecting solutions often requires empirical data. One example of the former is the idea that all people should be equal under the law, regardless of race, sex, or gender. But how do you fix things? Those decisions, like using busing or affirmative action or even demonstrating that unequal representation results from discrimination rather than unequal preferences, are empirical matters: does intervention X facilitate solution Y? That, I’d say, is “science construed broadly.”

Even immunology and information theory come in for a hit, since they somehow facilitate the discrimination between “self and nonself”, or make people seem like machines, in a socially inimical way. Look at the postmodernism on show here:

Across the arc of the past 150 years, we can see both science and scientism shaping human identity in many ways. Developmental psychology zeroed in on the intellect, leading to the transformation of IQ (intelligence quotient) from an educational tool into a weapon of social control. Immunology redefined the ‘self’ in terms of ‘non-self’. Information theory provided fresh metaphors that recast identity as residing in a text or a wiring diagram. More recently, cell and molecular studies have relaxed the borders of the self. Reproductive technology, genetic engineering and synthetic biology have made human nature more malleable, epigenetics and microbiology complicate notions of individuality and autonomy, and biotechnology and information technology suggest a world where the self is distributed, dispersed, atomized.

Yes, and so what? Where’s the scientism here? Certainly IQ was once used to keep foreigners out of the US and even sterilize women, but we don’t do that any more. As for the other stuff he mentions, that’s not scientism but science. The last sentence about the “atomized” self is pure nonsense.

And then Comfort calls on postmodernists (who aren’t of course scientists) to demonstrate the “deep entanglement of science and society”:

The immunological Plato was the Australian immunologist Frank MacFarlane Burnet. Burnet’s fashioning of immunology as the science of the self was a direct response to his reading of the philosopher Alfred North Whitehead. Tit for tat, social theorists from Jacques Derrida to Bruno Latour and Donna Haraway have leaned on immunological imagery and concepts in theorizing the self in society. The point is that scientific and social thought are deeply entangled, resonant, co-constructed. You can’t fully understand one without the other.

The last bit isn’t really true. Yes, some scientific problems arise in a social milieu, which is trivial, but the truth or falsity of scientific findings themselves is absolutely independent of society. And, as reader Vampyricon noted when calling this article to my attention, “Comfort also leans on the postmodernist myth of science as being focused on dominating nature, a claim that reminds one of Luce Irigaray’s claim that Newton’s Principia is a rape manual.”

At the end, Comfort disses rationality again, because, after all, those who promulgated Enlightenment values were “university-educated men who were not disabled”, and, as Vampyricon noted, wanted to “dominate nature.” Here Comfort mixes postmodernism with wokeness. If any two things are deeply entangled, it’s not science and society, but wokeness and postmodernism, both afflicted with the idea that truths are not empirical and determined by consensus, but personal and validated by feelings:

Yet there is a fruit fly in the ointment. Most of these Age-of-Reason notions of identity, and the dominant sci-fi scenarios of post-human futures, have been developed by university-educated men who were not disabled, and who hailed from the middle and upper classes of wealthy nations of the global north. Their ideas reflect not only the findings but also the values of those who have for too long commanded the science system: positivist, reductionist and focused on dominating nature. Those who control the means of sequence production get to write the story.

That has begun to change. Although there is far to go, greater attention to equity, inclusion and diversity has already profoundly shaped thinking about disease, health and what it means to be human. . .

So, if scientism is bad for society, and the lucubrations of able-bodied white men who went to college are determining our future, what can we do? What is Comfort’s alternative? He offers none. All he does is give us an example of how artistic “liberation” from science leads to some kind of enlightenment for disabled people:

DNA-based conceptions of ethnicity are far from unproblematic. But the impulse to make the technologies of the self more accessible, more democratic — more about self-determination and less about social control — is, at its basis, liberatory.

Nowhere is this clearer than for people living with disabilities and using assistive technologies. They might gain or regain modes of perception, might be able to communicate and express themselves in new ways, and gain new relationships to the universe of things.

The artist Lisa Park plays with these ideas. She uses biofeedback and sensor technologies derived from neuroscience to create what she calls audiovisual representations of the self. A tree of light blooms and dazzles as viewers hold hands; pools of water resonate harmonically in response to Park’s electroencephalogram waves; an ‘orchestra’ of cyborg musicians wearing heart and brain sensors make eerily beautiful music by reacting and interacting in different ways as Park, the conductor, instructs them to remove blindfolds, gaze at one another, wink, laugh, touch or kiss. Yet even this artistic, subjective and interactive sense of self is tied to an identity bounded by biology.

What is the sweating journalist trying to say here, here in the pages of one of the world’s premier scientific journals? Is this kind of art better for disabled people than the many scientists and technologists working on curing disabilities or making it easier for disabled people? (And yes, many of these benefactors are white men who went to college.) Note that the above is Comfort’s peroration, and it’s almost nuts. Not just nuts, but poorly written and loaded to the gunwales with postmodern jargon.

In his last paragraph, Comfort—surprise?—plumps for “other ways of knowing”:

Since the Enlightenment, we have tended to define human identity and worth in terms of the values of science itself, as if it alone could tell us who we are. That is an odd and blinkered notion. In the face of colonialism, slavery, opioid epidemics, environmental degradation and climate change, the idea that Western science and technology are the only reliable sources of self-knowledge is no longer tenable. This isn’t to lay all human misery at science’s feet — far from it. The problem is scientism. Defining the self only in biological terms tends to obscure other forms of identity, such as one’s labour or social role. Maybe the answer to Huxley’s ‘question of questions’ isn’t a number, after all.

Umm. . . Western science and technology—if you construe empirical observation, affirmation, and testing as “science”—are the only reliable sources of public knowledge. “Self-knowledge” is emotion and feeling, but becomes scientific if you want to demonstrate to others stuff like “I am a caring person who helps others.”

But none of this has anything to do with “defining the self only in biological terms.” Such a definition is Comfort’s conceit, and one of the hard-to-discern themes of his piece. But his conceit is misguided and wrong. Even biologists don’t think of their “self” in purely biological terms.

What is also wrong is that the scientific journal Nature published this tripe. What were they thinking?

h/t: Vampyricon

103 thoughts on “Op-ed in science journal Nature disses science and “scientism”, questions Enlightenment values

  1. We’ve met him three times before on this site; he seems to be a postmodernist who dislikes genes, New Atheism, and Richard Dawkins.

    That’s not a CV; that’s Tinder profile.

  2. It’s a flawed thesis from the beginning, that science is somehow responsible for our human failings, and that there’s some other way of fixing us that involves magical thinking. It’s really just wishful thinking.

    1. Exactly. I don’t know if he meets every one of his negative criteria: white, middle-aged, university-educated men from the northern hemisphere, but it seems to me he’s apologizing for his very existence and trying to establish his credentials with the Woke crowd.

      And as someone who benefits from inventions that help the disabled, and multiple advances in the field of medicine, I have no problem with what those men in science have been up to. Obviously, there are advances that are happening now that are inspired by art (e.g. the amazing medical stuff inspired by origami – but that was a white man too). But that sure as ceiling cat doesn’t make art more important to those who need the help!

      Society advances gradually but as Pinker has demonstrated, it’s constantly getting better. Society couldn’t suddenly go from what it was pre- the Enlightenment to what it is now, and we’re still getting better. I’ve seen big improvements in my lifetime,and we’re still improving. The Woke are extremists. They may have some value in moving the Overton window (though that’s debatable), but they’re not in a place that makes sense for society to move to.

      Taking account of people’s feelings is important. Caring for staff in a business is good business. Evidence shows that. And advances need to be based on evidence. But the Woke want us to rely on anecdotes. For example, so far the evidence is that excessive use of trigger warnings is actually detrimental. The demand of the Woke that they be used in every aspect of our lives is proven by science to be a bad thing.

      And once again I’ve ranted for too long. Sorry.

  3. The term “cognitive dissonance” comes to mind; science is NOT about feelings NOR social engineering. It is about Fact vs. Faith (feelings). They need to read the book!

          1. This is off topic, but what does “PCC” stand for? I Googled it and I just can’t find any definition that fits.

    1. Comfort does in deed suffer from a form of cognitive dissonance psychosis. This different from an emotional psychosis like narcissism and lying as seen in Trump and Johnson (UK PM). It is just as potent but less obvious and can be seen in quite few prominent academics.

      1. I don’t think it’s fair to diagnose someone with a psychiatric ailment based on one or a few articles. Certainly no psychologist or psychiatrist would even try to do that. I’d prefer it if we stay away from these long-distance diagnoses and just analyze the article itself.

        1. For sure no psychologist or psychiatrist would attempt a diagnosis from a single document – that’s not what we are paid to do. However pretty well all the other comments in this thread go way beyond the Nature article invoking all kinds of perceptions about human nature. My point is that psychological characteristics are instrumental in a wide range of behaviour from mild to extreme and it’s the extremists that become dominant in manipulating the mild such as in populism at the expense of enlightenment. We all should be aware of this.

        2. Agreed no psychologist or psychiatrist would attempt a diagnosis from a single article because that’s not we are are paid to do. However pretty well all the comments in this thread invoke some kind of wider perception or understanding that’s an amateur diagnosis. My point is that human nature covers a wide range of behaviors from mild to extreme. It’s those that are extreme that are now exploiting the mild as in populism. Enlightenment has never really got of the ground in any pervasive way. It’s important to see how we, as a population, are being manipulated. Comfort, if only in a minor way contributes to this, especially as if as a consequence of writing in Nature he appears in main media.

  4. I stretch to think of any worthwhile contribution postmodernism has made to anything. At least you could argue that Freud, as scientifically useless as his methods were, helped make art richer and deeper, and paved the way for David Lynch and The Sopranos and any number of paintings, books, albums, that operated on different psychological levels. Postmodernism just seems so cold and fruitless by comparison.

    1. I think in the form of “post-structuralism” it made a valuable contribution to literary criticism; it was a major influence on the metafiction novels of the Sixties and Seventies by authors like Thomas Pynchon and Don DeLillo and John Barth et al. and (on your side of the pond) Martin Amis and Salman Rushdie.

      David Foster Wallace did a really good essay on this, “Greatly Exaggerated,” in his collection A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again. That essay used to be available online, but all I could find just now is this brief excerpt.

        1. Thanks for the link Ken, I read about two thirds of it.

          As with lots of DFW’s essays I was initially interested…then irritated by the tricksy self-satisfaction of it all…and then just bored. I can see what he’s doing, and I can see that he’s good at it, but some people just rub you up the wrong way and there’s nothing you can do about it.

          I don’t agree with Wallace that Lynch is particularly post-modern in the sense of playing with structure of cinema.

          I think he’s a Freudian; he’s utterly obsessed with dreams and the subconscious. Once you understand that, you can see that in pretty much everything he’s ever done he’s been trying to recreate the fractured, suffocating atmospher of dreams. The transtitions in some of his films, of people changing identity – that is what happens in a dream. One minute you’re talking to your mother, the next minute it’s Rihanna.

          People say ‘oh Lynch is fascinated by the theme of identity’, but I think the truth is that he’s just fascinated by the things that happen in dreams, and identities shift in a very confusing manner when you’re dreaming. I don’t think he’s interested in identity as such, I think he’s just interested in dreams and the way they unfold, the feelings they give you, and then leave you with, and the way they never let you look back or forward, never allow you to get your bearings.

          1. … I was initially interested…then irritated by the tricksy self-satisfaction of it all…and then just bored.

            Kinda reminds me of a film critic’s review I once read of a porn movie:

            “At first I didn’t find interesting. Then, it got more interesting. Then, it got very interesting. Then, very, very interesting … and then I wasn’t so interested again for a while.”


            1. A film critic’s review of a porn movie? Crikey. I didn’t know they did reviews of porn movies. I wonder what the criteria are.

      1. I read Consider The Lobster on the recommendations of a friend, and violently hated almost all of it. But that was a while ago.

        And I find the structural tricks and quirks utilised by some modern writers annoying rather than interesting or immersive or entertaining.

        I look at them in the same way I do complicated time signatures: most of the time they don’t add anything worthwhile, and they get in the way.

        Do they help tell a story? Do they make the characters richer and deeper and more subtle? I guess sometimes, but I do sigh to myself when some kind of fractured meta-narrative introduces itself at the start of a book.

        Never read anything by Pynchon. He never came up on the Simpsons, see.

        I’m not so taken with Amis’s fiction, but his memoir, ‘Experience’, was beautiful. I remember finding it very moving.
        And funny obviously, especially a scene where his family is driving past a horrible car crash, and all the children look away so they’re not traumatised, only for Amis’s aunt to pipe up “see that man there? WRITHING in agony he was”.

        1. “And I find the structural tricks and quirks utilised by some modern writers annoying rather than interesting or immersive or entertaining.”

          I am with you.

          I detest substitution of style for content. Tell me the story.

        2. Actually, Pynchon has been on the Simpsons twice.See this.

          I’m a big Pynchon fan, read everything. If you want to get into him, try “Mason and Dixon”, which I think is his best book.

          1. I think I remember it now you mention it…although I pretty much write off the later years of the Simpsons(anything post ’97-ish), and there have been a lot of people on it.

            Was it the episode where Homer tried to become an artist and flooded Springfield? Don’t they go past Pynchon’s drive or something…?

            Thanks for the recommendation btw.

          2. Actually, Pynchon has been on the Simpsons twice.

            That’s saying something for the notoriously publicity-averse ol’ Tom. There’s barely even any photographs of him in the public domain.

    2. Indeed; I would go so far as saying that anyone who cites Derrida and Latour in his support can automatically be dismissed as a charlatan.

      1. Yep. And then there’s this:

        Most of these Age-of-Reason notions of identity… have been developed by university-educated men who were not disabled, and who hailed from the middle and upper classes of wealthy nations of the global north.

        But when I follow PCC’s first link, I see a picture of an apparently able, white male who is a professor at a prestigious institution in a wealthy, northern nation and gets his opinions on identity published in a prestigious science journal. Hmmm.

  5. So what are we to do to counter all of this postmodern pessimism ? Vote for people like Trump or Pat Robertson ?

  6. I think Sandra Harding is the source of the Principia as “rape manual” quote. Not that that makes that chunk of sophistry in any way less ludicrous.

  7. What a FSM-awful mess. Why Nature would publish such drek is beyond me.

    This sentence is an example of his style that really turns me off;

    Cisgender women are mosaics: the random inactivation of one X chromosome in each cell means that half a woman’s cells express her mother’s X and half express her father’s.”

    Why the living hell did he write THAT? There’s a word for “Cisgendered women”. It’s “Females”.

    1. Didn’t you get the memo? We now need to use a word to make a distinction between 99.55% of the population and .05% of it, otherwise it’s unfair to the .05%. Just like how we have to say people without disabilities are “able-bodied,” and on and on.

    2. He wrote that because he views everything through the lens of identity politics.

      He must distinguish between the “women” (lower victim score) and trans-women (higher victim score, more worthy, more important).

      A wonderful corrective to all this crap is Douglas Murray’s The Madness of Crowds:
      Gender, Race, and Identity
      , which I recently finished.

  8. I think it’s fine to point out the dangers of science overstepping into ‘scientism’ if one is discussing real risks (if there were creeping foundations to a new eugenics movement, for example). I’m not sure about the examples in this article, though. Humans being displaced from an egocentric perch as center of the universe to a tiny piece of an infinite mechanism might be disappointing to us as humans, but I wouldn’t say it’s a bad thing – in fact even from a spiritual perspective, I think this is a more correct and beneficial understanding. Or, the idea that immunology redefines the ‘self’ in terms of ‘non-self’ – that is not an arbitrary paradigm that immunologists made up for poetic reasons, that is very much the state of the universe. Knowing that we are systems who must maintain a degree of ‘system-ness’ to exist – and that our systems can be destroyed by external, entropy-inducing forces is simply an unfortunate fact, and it would continue to be the case whether we understood immunology or not. Same for the idea of ‘many selves’. This is likely just a more realistic representation of how the ‘self’ actually works. It sounds like what Comfort is upset about is that we are not the one’s choosing what it is we discover about the universe, which to my mind is kind of a throwback to the Abrahamic religious view on science – we can discover some things, but we get to interpret man’s place in the cosmos, and science doesn’t get to interfere with this. I think – if I’m reading him correctly – he flirts with this idea (albeit translated from Abrahamic religion to postmodernism) at the end of the article, where he hints that the discoveries made thus far are somehow the ‘fault’ of white men and that we could do more to bend science to our liking.

    I think overall he is just going back to the facts/value gap, whether he realizes it or not. I feel like so many times our new worries and musings about things come back to these classic, core conundrums. Comfort seems to forget, or at least very much regret, in places that there is a ‘facts’ side to this gap. The truth that does not go away when you stop believing in it. You can feel however you want to feel about immunology, germs can still kill you. I am currently struggling over whether or not to get a c-section due to the microbiome issues it causes – I could tell myself that babies are a unified self who go through life they way they are going to go through it, not a ‘dispersed’ self who can change at each bridge in the path based on the decisions one makes, but that would simply be foolishly putting my head in the sand.

    Comfort may have a point when it comes to values. Do we value achievement and IQ too much? Possibly. While I think a focus on hard work and academics is important, I think it is worth remembering that some of our most valued relationships and experiences take place outside of any kind of ‘growth mindset’ thinking. We do not love curling up with a pet because we are somehow ‘making progress’ or ‘becoming a better person’ during that time – quite the opposite, it’s an exercise in appreciating the moment 100% for its own sake, without trying to push, change, grow, etc., in any way. I do think there’s real value in that, although I don’t know if the increased focus on meritocracy alone comes from science so much as fears about globalization (we’re falling behind!) and worries about income inequality.

  9. The article certainly is tripe. To answer the question posed at the end of your post, perhaps Nature thinks that this kind of article will draw non-scientists into thinking about science. In short, it’s “outreach”, just not very good outreach.

  10. As is customary in this genre of postmodern critique, it’s a hodgepodge of trivially true, interesting bits (if we’re lucky), juxtaposed with an argument that is not supported by the text. Authors appear to think when they write with enough true bits that it rubs off to whatever point they wish to make. But the (ab)use of knowledge does not establish evil “scientism”, and mentioning Derrida does not establish the contribution of postmodernists.

    I don’t see the substance in the “not me” part. There is no apparent “for tat” with the postmodernists. That’s another recurring theme in this genre. Post-structural, or psycho-analytical rubbish is portrayed as more important than it really is. Much like God and theology, postmodernists have occupied themselves with notions that are not even wrong and are stuck in a dead-end.

    Meanwhile linguistics, computer science and cognitive science more generally emerged, largely ignored by such authors. They should read Fauconnier rather than Foucault before they discuss identity, analogy or metaphor.

    In sum, the headline is not even wrong. Our sense of identity does not shift by knowing the genome of our gut bacteria, or from horizontal gene transfer.

    1. “In sum, the headline is not even wrong.”

      I think you could actually write

      “In sum, postmodernism is not even wrong.”

      and be done with it.

      1. “Words, no less than human beings, need a certain amount of space to mean, to be. Failing that, the very feel of the language starts changing, losing its reality. One gets the emergence of phenomena like postmodernism which at times strike one as simply a way of shifting the word-garbage around when it’s grown too deep to be disposed of.”

        Stephen Watson – A Writer’s Diary – Entry of 21 December 1995

  11. Wow! He really hates science. I see squirming and discomfiture oozing out of the paragraphs. But I note that the bulk of his damning evidence ranges from 100+ years to 80 years ago, and he seems relatively blind to social advances since then.

    He and Carl Sagan have totally opposite world views. I miss the latter very much.

  12. I’m hoping China, India, and Japan remain immune from this, because when these pomo decolonizers take over the universities, someone is going to have to do real science. Given its roots in white guilt fetishism I’m confident that Asia won’t succumb.

    1. China and India are only immune to this because they have their own nationalistic pseudoscience to push.

      India might be more immune, since I’ve only seen Modi’s gang touting ancient Hindu scriptures as scientific. I haven’t seen the other parties’ stances.

      China’s pushing traditional Chinese medicine, which contains treatments such as bear bile and mercury oxides, has the full support of the Chinese Communist Party. Though I haven’t heard the other parties… Wait, there are none.

      There’s also been a paper by (mainland) Chinese researchers claiming that all Sinitic languages originate from Chinese, which I’m guessing is the equivalent of saying all rodents evolved from capybaras.

      I’m not familiar enough with Japan to say anything about it. At least, no examples come to mind.


  13. “The history of mankind can be seen, in the large, as the realization of Nature’s secret plan to bring forth a perfectly constituted state as the only condition in which the capacities of mankind can be fully developed, and also bring forth that external relation among states which is perfectly adequate to this end.” – Kant, Idea for a Universal History from a Cosmopolitan Point of View.

    If a logical progression of history is a key aspect of the The Enlightenment it is difficult to see the twentieth century as anything other than evidence in contradiction to this hypothesis. What of deaths due to conflict since 1400 which shows no trend whatsoever.

    Scientism is the political aspect of the sciences. Scientists have a distribution of incomes which is different to the population. They therefore are, by definition, a faction with a factional interest. We should be careful about the sentimental and superstitious stories they tell about what they do.

    Who are they? Who funds them? What do they do? What are their material interests? That would constitute a scientific and materialist approach to the sciences which doesn’t begin with some moral and idealist description of the search for truth.

    1. “Scientists have a distribution of incomes which is different to the population.”

      Does that somehow invalidate the *results* of scientific investigation? Anyone who says that is committing the genetic fallacy.

      1. No, it depends on the particular investigation. It is not beyond the realms of possibility that fields of enquiry would be dictated by the interests of those doing the enquiring. Fields which are militarily useful for instance might be more studied if the interests of the military are shared with scientists.

        1. “Fields which are militarily useful for instance might be more studied if the interests of the military are shared with scientists.”

          It is possible that certain topics of research are neglected for lack of funding, but on the other hand, scientific discoveries are difficult to predict. Penicillin was discovered by accident. By the same token, I don’t think that an early atomic scientist like J. J. Thomson could have foreseen that knowledge of atomic structure would one day enable the creation of the atom bomb. Scientific and technological developments often take meandering paths, and a scientist trying to solve one problem might end up solving a completely different one.

          More importantly, science is self-checking in the sense that it requires peer review and replication of results. It’s not infallible, but it weeds out many errors over time.

        2. “It is not beyond the realms of possibility that fields of enquiry would be dictated by the interests of those doing the enquiring.”

          It seems like almost all enquiry is driven by the interests of the enquirers. Would anyone expect a different result?

          1. I completely agree but then we can’t pretend it is some dispassionate objective activity that is driven forward by its own logic. Rather it is governed by human decisions with interests and objectives that can be criticised.

  14. What is the sweating journalist trying to say here, here in the pages of one of the world’s premier scientific journals?

    I dunno, but I think he should be more explicit in Step Two.

  15. Beautifully put: “but wokeness and postmodernism, both afflicted with the idea that truths are not empirical and determined by consensus, but personal and validated by feelings”.
    I second that.

  16. I’d be embarrassed to have written crap like this in a blog post read by three people ten years ago.

    But in Nature? Where the whole world can see your humiliation? I’d probably have to drink myself into oblivion to escape the shame.

  17. ‘Other ways of knowing’ usually means ‘other ways of kidding yourself’ because without empirical testing there is no check against reality.

    Now it might be that reality is drab and inglorious… but putting lipstick on it and sprinkling glitter around is performance art, not science.

  18. I couldn’t care less what you “identity” is.

    How should that matter in any way*?

    As has been said many times: There’s no Asian science, European Science, African Science, etc. There’s just science.

    When someone says, “As a X …” I just think: Why should I filter or accept what you state, based on your skin color, sexual preferences, sex, etc.?

    Are your ideas good? Do you follow evidence and logic? Those are things that matter to me.

    (* With one tiny caveat: Each person has special knowledge of the events they have personally experienced. This is personal history.)

    1. Oh yes, I go back and make sure I delete any reference to my bisexuality, especially when I’m talking about topics like whether being gay is a choice.

      Though of course when some woke person accuses me of homophobia, I love to spring that on them.


    1. Well, the good news would be that in such a world, humans would all be dead, and the earth would do fine without us! He obviously does not understand that immunology is the SCIENCE of the recognition of self and non-self, and why the discrimination between the two is fundamental to our existence.

      1. “Well, the good news would be that in such a world, humans would all be dead…”

        Presumably the same would also be true for all the other animal species with broadly similar immune systems to us!

  19. “science has somehow deeply changed how humanity has perceived itself”
    This a totally unfounded idea. The average “well educated” Harvard grad (according to surveys) doesn’t even understand why the seasons change. Do most people understand or have even heard about the “blueprint” model of DNA, horizontal gene transfer, epigenetics or CRISPR technology. No.

  20. “Usually the definition [of scientism] is of ‘science extending its ambit beyond what it should be.’”

    Scientism is a speculative world view about the ultimate reality of the universe and its meaning. As such it is closer to religion (or at least philosophy) than it is to science proper.

    Insofar as scientism is based on a religious-like faith in the unlimited powers of science, it is an example of religion, not science, “extending its ambit beyond what it should be.” It might more properly be called “religionism.”

  21. One of the interesting bits about South African history is how Apartheid influenced the sciences.

    You see the Apartheid government were very racist, so they weren’t terribly keen on South African scientists citing research done by people the Apartheid government didn’t consider white.

    And the South African scientists responded by telling the Apartheid government to go fuck themselves, because the value of an observation isn’t based on who observed it.

    While the tribal chiefs played the role of puppet governments in the Bantustans, while Naspers (Which now owns the biggest news distributor in South Africa) actively campaigned for Apartheid, while artists produced propaganda, while the Apartheid government was engaged in wooing black American churches in its bid to avoid sanctions – the scientists would not compromise and reject research on the basis of race.

    Sure, some of that research was done inhumanely, Wouter Basson is a name that will go down in infamy for his role in the use of chemical warfare under the Apartheid governemnt, but it wasn’t “science” that decided to use that research that way, or even perform it, it was a largely theocratic racist state which felt that such methods were necessary to maintain its “cultural values”.

    In other words the exact fucking “other ways of knowing” favoured by the postmodernists who never seem to reach a point of being post-masturbation.

  22. It is entirely too primitive to understand human beings only in terms of biology. That being said, there is every reason to believe that everything else about human beings, culture, language, religion, art, economics, politics, is all downstream of biology.

    For example, languages are constructed from social conventions and vary, but humans only have and can use language because of their biological capacities. It doesn’t work on goldfish, no matter how hard you work against the stereotype that goldfish are stupid or to the extent you overcome your implicit bias against goldfish.

    No biology, no language, and there is no reason NOT to suppose that some sentient extraterrestrial might very well have a system of communication entirely different from ours and not comprehensible to us. . . because they have a different biology.

    The dream that human societies can exist divorced from factors identified by Darwin and Malthus is a falsehood. Populations expand to their carrying capacity, and then collapse due to predators, disease, starvation, and war. The real world is about carving up scarce resources between competing factions. There are a limited number of positions of power, and more who desire those positions than positions available, so politics is always a zero sum game. And last, social engineering intended to extinguish behaviors which evolved over millions of years of selection and provide fitness advantages (say aggression in males) is doomed and counter-productive.

    People don’t want liberation from science, or biology, or scientism. They want liberation from the real world, from the reality that from individual behaviors, laws and customs, there arise inexorable and unavoidable consequences, and sadly, while individuals may sometimes escape justice (red in tooth and claw), societies never do.

    1. I like to think there’s kind of a yin yang balance when it comes to such choices in life. There are certainly times when we are forced to behave in a warlike way and defend ourselves; but the idea of interdependence is also one that a person can easily find examples of in life and in the sciences, and could also easily be used as a metaphor regarding how we should interact. Comfort could have said that the study of ecology has made us all painfully aware of our global reliance on each other.

      Where I disagree with what I think Comfort is saying is the implication (again, I think, he’s a bit hard to follow) that this all comes down to whatever arbitrary metaphor we choose to throw out there (he uses the word metaphor a couple of times in the article and I gather he might be of the ‘language is magic’ persuasion.) I would say that metaphors are not arbitrary. I think they can be used in harmful ways when they are based on fear and emotion (long before the study of immunology, people used the language of filth and contamination to refer to feared enemies, for example) but that it is at least possible to use metaphor and analogy in a way that actually tracks with reality. That means that the use of some metaphors may be incorrect; some may have almost no descriptive value for a given situation even if they are quite pretty (“life is a field of lilies and clouds” or some such thing); and some may not only describe a dynamic well but even have predictive value (Steven Pinker uses the example of engineers making paintbrushes noticing that paintbrushes are like pumps, where they were able to extend the analogy to make a successful synthetic brush based on this comparison).

      If Comfort wanted to write about how science encourages us to use the wrong metaphors in life, and backed this up with examples, I think that would be quite an interesting topic. (I don’t particularly feel this is the case, but I’m not closed to the idea if someone made a good argument for it.) But I think he goes all the way over to the other extreme, and seems to be saying there is no such thing as a good or bad metaphor, only the ones that happen to exist, and the ones that happen to exist now are too white male oriented, or something like that. Not only that, he gives examples where I think the metaphors of science have actually been enlightening, not misleading (the idea that there is no true homunculus like ‘self’, for example – I’m biased because I very much agree with that idea, but to my mind he describes science as influencing our intuitions on that one in a way that is closer to the truth.)

      1. I agree with you, but my language is intended to emphasize that reality is hard, like the pavement when you fall off your bicycle.

        If your car breaks down in a remote area in freezing temperatures, the world doesn’t care about your feelings, and there is a right way to behave that will keep you alive and a wrong way to behave that will get you killed.

        In other words, there is a right and a wrong answer, and its not “socially constructed”, and we don’t live in a hall of mirrors where everything is just a reflection of our own conceptual networks.

        My sense of most of the trendy pomo thought its just a more verbose version of Jonathan Livingston Seagull, if you wish hard enough, you can fly. No, actually, engaging in a bunch of wishful thinking is probably just a good way to get yourself killed off in a crisis.

        1. “Jonathan Livingston Seagull”

          Oh my goodness, that book – it’s sorta amusing but I think certain minds took it way too “seriously” – very colorful way to make your point.

        2. Yeah, that’s where I think it would be more interesting if Comfort discussed what he thinks is a good / bad metaphor taken from X science field and applied to Y daily living situation and why.

      2. “If Comfort wanted to write about how science encourages us to use the wrong metaphors in life, and backed this up with examples, I think that would be quite an interesting topic.”

        It’s worth noting that with Bacon’s “New Science” all metaphors came under attack as either useless or deceptive, so much so that Samuel Parker, a member of the Royal Society, advocated an act of parliament to stop the use of metaphors!

        This attempt to rid scientific language of metaphors was doomed to fail, of course. E.g., in anatomy we have “muscle” (little mouse), “eardrum,” “calf,” and all those aqueducts, canals, chambers, and walls, not to mention goblet and sickle cells in microscopic anatomy.

        The intent to remove metaphor, however, underscores science’s task as being one of definition or separation. Definition takes things apart—this is this and not that; metaphor puts things together—this is this and also that.

        Eventually, arriving at knowledge by separation would dominate the sciences(the scientific method might be defined as separating the world into what’s relevant and irrelevant to a particular hypothesis), leaving metaphor to those pesky poets.

        1. Not to dive too deeply into philosophy of language, but you have this ancient debate over whether language is equivocal or analogical. [Mostly in theology, when you say “God is good” is it the same as “Bill is good”.]

          This diverts into how one approaches metaphor, because if language is equivocal, then a metaphor amounts to using the wrong word to describe something (as you have two concepts with distinct and equivocal meanings). If you belong to this camp, metaphors in science are pernicious because they create a lack of precision and confusion.

          In contrast, if all language is analogical, then the difference between a metaphor and the deployment of ordinary concept is essentially dependent on usage. In this camp, a metaphor can be helpful for underlining aspects of a problem or situation that may be hidden by ordinary usage. I tend to come in on this side, but there is an enormous literature on this question going back to the middle ages, and debate does not appear closed.

          On the other hand, I have had lots of pissing contests with people saying “I am a computer” or talking about the brain as “hardware” (ironically, sometimes at the same time railing against ID), and I want to say i.) you are using a metaphor, ii.) there are similarities between you and a computer, but iii.) there are important dissimilarities between you and computer as well (for example, humans can make a mistake in computations).

          1. I remember reading one of the Churchland’s stating “I am my brain” (or something similar) and thinking, well that’s great, I know where to go if I need a organ transplant.

          2. Mirandaga & KD – really interesting background on the history of metaphors. It seems to me that it would be very difficult to come up with a paradigm for how humans generalize knowledge without any use of ‘metaphor’ at all (using the term broadly, where a metaphor might be a nonverbal comparison). Even as something as simple as recognizing a category member that you have not specifically been taught (seeing a new cat and recognizing it as a cat, a novel chair as a chair, etc.) seems like it would rely on the subconscious bridging of knowledge from one subject to the next in the form of some kind of analogy or metaphoric thinking involving matching features.

            I think the idea of what metaphors one applies to social engineering (which I think is what Comfort was getting at) is an interesting topic, and there probably are a finite number of competing metaphors that are mutually exclusive but applicable in given situation. We can teach children to be very competitive with one another and use ‘battle’ metaphors, or we can strongly emphasize cooperation and emphasize ecology metaphors about relying on one another, for example. That said, I don’t think the number of metaphors you could teach children on that topic is infinite. There are probably a handful of metaphors that could apply to strategies for approaching an interaction and an infinite number that would simply be nonsensical. (And of course for a metaphor to work, people must automatically tune in to the portions that are salient and ignore the details that are not – if a workplace is an ecosystem, we of course don’t start to literally worry about rainfall and soil composition. But it seems to me that we are wired to do this from the most basic level, as we understand from childhood, for example, that a ‘chair’ can be many colors and textures but remain a chair if it maintains a certain number of core features. Even infants and toddlers learn about which features to ignore and which are central when learning categories of vocabulary words.)

            1. “Even infants and toddlers learn about which features to ignore and which are central when learning categories of vocabulary words.”

              I love Lewis Thomas’s conjecture about how the word “pupil,” which originally meant a small schoolchild, came to be applied to the pupil of the eye: “Who else but a child would go around peering into someone else’s eye and seeing there the reflection of a small child, and then naming that part of the eye a pupil?”

  23. “Comfort also leans on the postmodernist myth of science as being focused on dominating nature, a claim that reminds one of Luce Irigaray’s claim that Newton’s Principia is a rape manual.”

    Well, perhaps not entirely a myth. Can’t speak to Newton, but Francis Bacon stated “We must put Nature to the rack and compel her to answer our questions” and Baconian Thomas Sprat followed up with “The beautiful Bosom of Nature will be expos’d to our view.” More torture and voyeurism than rape, but still. . . .

    1. The idea of man having dominion over nature can hardly be said to be an Enlightenment invention or to be an attitude that particularly distinguishes science from other forms of human endeavour. Humanity has implicitly or explicitly assumed its dominion over nature throughout history and this assumption is certainly deeply bound into Christianity, Judaism and Islam. The language of dominance used by Bacon and Sprat reflects attitudes they inherited from countless previous generations. Where they differed from those previous generations was in recognising that the use of reasoned enquiry was the key to understanding nature – irrespective of the ends to which the knowledge gained was subsequently put.

      Science has undoubtedly been used as a tool to increase our dominance over nature (and I for one am not sorry that we have learned how to control infection with antibiotics, for example) but equally science has provided us with the evidence that our exploitation of natural resources has degraded the environment and identified the risks that this poses for other species and ourselves. To argue for action in relation to climate change, habitat loss or other environmental issues is not ‘unscientific’ or irrational.

      1. « The idea of man having dominion over nature can hardly be said to be an Enlightenment invention or to be an attitude that particularly distinguishes science from other forms of human endeavour. »

        Well, quite!

        « Then God blessed them, and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply; fill the earth and subdue it; have dominion over the fish of the sea, over the birds of the air, and over every living thing that moves on the earth.” » — Genesis 1:28


  24. ” Immunology redefined the ‘self’ in terms of ‘non-self’.”

    Trying to draw some important parallel between molecular and cellular mechanisms of immunological self/non-self distinction and the evolution of humanity’s overall sense of “self” in an abstract sense is a cringey undergraduate philosophy move. He doesn’t even develop the idea or have anything further to say on the topic, it’s just your standard Deepak move.

    Comfort is such a weak thinker with so little to say (apart from letting everyone know he is definitely NOT a racist…or something).

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