36. The Ritual of Science

Easter is now past and so have all the religious themes associated with that holiday.  I have no issue with Easter.  Or religion.  Religion and its meaning is strongly embedded within our culture and our history.  Appreciation, however, does not make me a religious person anymore than an appreciation of color makes me an artist.  Appreciation and practice is not the same thing.

What I am is a biomedical scientist and a clinical practitioner.  I appreciate and practice the scientific method.  I do so because I know how to do so.

I appreciate that the scientific method, like all methods of knowing, is flawed and imperfect.  It also has its own culture and history.  It, like religion, can be arcane and contain methods of practice that persist for no other reason than ritual.

Anyone who has designed a research study, conducted statistical analyses, defended a thesis, or has been held under peer scrutiny, understands that some practices in science are vestigial and are no longer truly relevant.  However, we continue to follow scientific rituals — not because they make sense — but because they are expected by those who may review our work.  Science is a collective and hierarchical pursuit.

There is comfort in ritual. There is comfort in connecting to something or someone greater and more ancient than ourselves. It reduces our existential distress. It tells us that we are not alone, that we have meaning, and that all our efforts matter and that they have not gone unnoticed. The symbolic trappings of an convocation procession contains many of these elements.

36. Convocation Procession

Where science ultimately fails, however, is in its exclusivity.  To appreciate and practice science requires years of highly specialized education and the social and economical resources to do so. This luxury is afforded to few.  To argue that religious ritual persists due to scientific ignorance presumes that we all have equal access to the knowledge and practice of science.  This is untrue.  Science is a pursuit of the elite.

Religion, on the contrary, is highly inclusive and accessible.  We are not prevented from walking through the doors of most temples, churches, or mosques. If we respectfully enquire about that religion’s belief and practices we may receive instruction and education.  The invitation to join that community is open as long as we agree or at least consider its belief system and rituals.

The confines of most universities and their repositories are barred to us if we lack proper authority or permission.  By nature, and by design, those institutions are exclusionary.  And the fruits of their production — scientific research and publication — is denied to the vast majority of the population.  If not by jargon then through for-profit copyright restrictions and paywalls. Unlike religion, even if we accept the belief structure and ritual of science, entry is not guaranteed.

For most, the doors remain closed.

The majority of those who hold advanced degrees tend to identify themselves as non-religious.  Most do so covertly and privately.  Some, however, are much more overt in their anti-theist beliefs and tend to promote that perspective vigorously.

Denigration of others’ beliefs and rituals, however, is ultimately unproductive.  Instead, the goal should be to increase access to science and, ideally, increase the level of overall scientific literacy.  People, then, would be free to decide for themselves.

It is always better to build someone up then to tear them down.

36. Aaron Swartz

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