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Ideas of the 21st Century

Ideas of the century: Protscience (15/50)

Steve Fuller on the devolution of scientific authority

tpm cover art by Felix Bennett

tpm cover art by Felix Bennett

The most important intellectual development of the past decade has been the rise of what I call “Protscience”, short for “Protestant science”. By this I mean a pattern evident in the parallel ascendancies of, say, intelligent design theory, New Age medicine, and Wikipedia. Nowadays the Protestant Reformation of 16th and 17th century Europe is taught as an important episode, but one confined to the history of Christianity. In fact, however, it marked the first concerted effort to democratise knowledge production in the West by devolving religious authority from the Church of Rome. We are now entering the second such period, consisting in the devolution of scientific authority; hence Protscience.

The printing press was crucial to the first rise of Protestantism as a convenient and lucrative medium for people to acquire the cognitive resources needed to decide for themselves what to believe, and thereby no longer simply defer to the local priest. Indeed, starting with the Bible itself, books became big business once they were published in the vernacular and in a portable form that allowed for easy circulation. This tendency accelerated during the Enlightenment, and is normally credited for the comprehensive liberalisation of Western culture.

Over the past quarter-century, a new wave of vernacular publishing has been made possible by computer-based information technologies – from web searches to social networking sites. Its impact on the distribution of epistemic authority in society is palpable, though its long term consequences are unclear. However, one thing is certain, namely, that the old institutional solutions for managing the diversity of opinions and claims to legitimacy in the first rise of Protestantism – the secular state and the scientific method – are themselves undergoing a “crisis of legitimation”.

These old solutions were originally designed to resolve potentially violent disputes among the different and often competing interpretations, applications and extensions of the biblical message. In this respect, regular elections and controlled experiments have functioned similarly. Moreover, as the state came not merely to protect but also to promote the welfare of its citizens in the 19th and 20th centuries, science became increasingly implicated in – and defined by – the state’s workings. Thus, scientific elites are now the high priests of the secular state, the source of admonitions related to health and the environment that can end up having a strong bearing on public policy.

Protscience challenges such close state-science ties, not least because the force of scientific authority tends to be wielded in institutions that are unaccountable to those they would govern. But this time the relevant agencies are national academies of science and academic journals that marginalise, or ignore, the views of the people whose lives would be regulated, while at the same time expecting automatic deference to their authority. Protscience aims to re-jig the balance of epistemic power, so that, say, a doctor treats a patient in her clinic more like a client who needs to be sold to than a machine that needs to be fixed.

To be sure, Protscientists are convinced of science’s integral role in their own lives. For that very reason, they insist on taking an active role in determining how that integration occurs. Thus, they take soundings from alternative, often internet-based sources and supplement the methodological uncertainties of all scientific research with their own experience and background beliefs. But perhaps most important, Protscientists uphold their right to decide scientific matters for themselves because they are the ones who principally bear the consequences of those decisions. This results in a pick-and-mix approach to science that retains the vast majority of accepted scientific fact and theory while giving them a curious spin in light of distinctive explanatory principles and life practices.

Interestingly, just as the original Protestants were demonised by Catholics as “atheists” for their refusal to defer to papal authority, today’s Protscientists are denounced as “anti-science”. In both cases, however, the people concerned are generally well educated and quite respectful of the need to provide reasons and evidence for their beliefs. Not surprisingly, then, Protscientists make much of the hypocrisy of established authorities that fail to live up their own avowed epistemic standards. Any report of scientific fraud is grist for the Protscience mill, one more reason to take matters of knowledge into one’s own hands before the entire enterprise of inquiry becomes corrupt.

The Protestant Reformation was the first step on the road to the secularisation of Europe, which Max Weber famously described as the “disenchantment” of the Western mind. Protscience’s relationship to this process is ambiguous, as it both disenchants scientific authority and re-enchants science itself as a life-shaping form of knowledge. At the very least, Protscience takes very seriously the idea that any form of knowledge that would claim universal scope for its claims must have universal appeal for its believers.

Further reading
Science: The Art of Living, Steve Fuller (Acumen, 2010)

Steve Fuller is professor of sociology at the University of Warwick

Read all fifty ideas and more in the special 50th issue of tpm


6 comments for “Ideas of the century: Protscience (15/50)”

  1. I tend to agree with you but I think the historical points you made are debatable.

    It isn’t clear what the relevant lessons of the reformation really are or why it took place (Henry VIII?)

    It isn’t clear what the effect of the Internet (Protestantism) is on science or what the outcome will be.

    Utopia, annihilation or “muddle through.”

    How hot was it in Las Vegas yesterday??

    Posted by James Street | August 12, 2010, 6:32 am
  2. I very much like the analogy between the development of printing and therefore the publication of the Bible in ordinary language, and the declopment of electronic sharing of information. However it is not quite right. The first resulted in ordinary people accessing the official word in a language they could understand. Protestants still believed in God and the Bible as his given word. They were opposing the holding of knowledge to a select few. They were not actually challenging the knowledge itself, merely it’s control and it’s method of application. Protscience that similarly challenges the institutions of organized science and the keeping of power to a self selected elite is defensible. The antiscience that concerns me is where the challenge is based on belief without knowledge, especially in health where many of the challengers are white middle class persons whose basic health is such that they can ignore the claims of medicine without personal risk while observing the less fortunate come to harm.

    Posted by Allen Fraser | August 12, 2010, 8:20 am
  3. The Protmovement isn’t ultimately about the public taking the rein. This public movement is only the first manifestation of the collapse and replacement of current academic models. And who can argue that the academic model of science we have today is not based on an old religious puritanism? :

    Mainstream science is still tied to the old church. Evidence for this is a puritanical psychology where deviation from the norm is routinely cast as pathology - or “sin” in the old vernacular, but the same idea of an experiential and moral abyss at the heart of human nature nonetheless. The new public movement challenges this.

    Drug laws and evolution theory also show how science, like the old church, still sticks to its view of human nature and experience as a fallen state, always potentially dangerous, indicative of a wild, lawless, self-seeking animal.

    Posted by John Jones | August 13, 2010, 10:02 am
  4. Based on what you define protscience to be, isn’t your very first sentence an overzealous, outrageous, subjective opinion?

    It seems terribly dishonest to try proving a point by mangling facts, e.g. passing medical practioners as scientist. Also, wrt. m.d.’s, you have to be exceedingly naive, considering the most elementary realities of finance, among other things, in the last 20+ years, to believe that doctors are even remotely in a position to treat their patients as customers. They don’t have the time!

    Posted by R Sabella | August 14, 2010, 4:47 pm
  5. I agree entirely.

    I tried to add something more, but I agree entirely.

    Posted by John Jones | August 15, 2010, 2:03 am
  6. Science is a method, not a doctrine. The fallibility of scientific knowledge is inherent to science itself. To reduce science to a form of authoritative utterance is to completely misunderstand the very nature of the scientific endeavor.

    Posted by Jay | August 15, 2010, 11:00 am