“Science, which is a belief-system”

A fascinating throw-away line in an article on the BBC website today, ‘Arizona: Naming the dead from the desert‘:

The forensic scientists and I have a lot of faith in science, which is a belief system. It requires trust in officials, in the scientific method, in technology. Many families of missing migrants are coming from communities in Mexico or Central America that have been violated for centuries by officials, scientists and technologies. There is a lot of mistrust.

The context is that, as the intro to the article explains, “It’s the job of a forensics team in Arizona to identify the bodies of migrants found in the desert. Anthropologist Robin Reineke describes how she pieces together the sad jigsaw puzzle of personal attributes and belongings.” The story in itself is more than just interesting, it’s important too: quite a few things that we can learn from there for enterprise-architecture and the like, particularly in terms of the human side of the stories within which we work.

But it was that one throw-away remark – “science, which is a belief system” – that hit me most in terms of its implications, especially in relation to mutual trust. Looking at this from an enterprise-architecture perspective, what are the belief-systems that we each bring in to the story, and in which we ourselves place our professional and personal trust? Yet what aspects of those belief-systems have been experienced by others as failing them in the past, or would seem to threaten to do so in the future? Where do these differences, in belief-systems and worldviews, in themselves create mistrust?

Seems a theme that would be well worth exploring more…

Posted in Knowledge, Power and responsibility, Society Tagged with: , , , , , , ,
4 comments on ““Science, which is a belief-system”
  1. Rob Vens says:

    Important issue, on which I have been attempting to create clarity for a long while. Science should *not* be a belief system, I believe 😉 It is especially the goal of science not to “know” but to ask. Science is about questions, and any “answer” that is accepted, either generally or in specific circles, is by definition not the “truth” but a working hypotheses. The art of science is the art of asking questions, and any focus on answers tends to “corrupt” the scientific method by attempting to create politically acceptable “answers”.
    Belief systems on the other hand are only about answers, and sometimes omit the questions part totally (as in most religions). People immersed in belief systems have a stubborn tendency to view everything they work with as a belief system, for example when they are pursuing a science career. I think it is important for our scientific educational community to clear up the boundaries between the two.
    Enough on that. On to “applied science”. Enterprise architecture should be classified as such. We are trying to create workable practical solutions. However as in science we should be very alert on how and where our belief systems (and those of others) impeach on our work. I completely agree with your questions at the end of your post, and I would like to add to them: ask the questions, but leave it at that. Belief systems should remain as isolated (but acknowledged!) as possible.

    • Tom G says:

      Rob – as Andrej says below, Science is a belief-system: it doesn’t much help if we pretend that it isn’t. For example, even apart from current-period interpretations-as-beliefs, there’s still the belief in ideas such as ‘scientific method’ and ‘scientific law’. We need to start by acknowledging that they are beliefs – with all the risks and challenges that that implies – and build outward from there.

      I do strongly agree with you about the distinction between questions (hence science as literally ‘a quest’) versus answers (particularly answers that purport to be ‘the truth’).

      @Rob: “People immersed in belief systems have a stubborn tendency to view everything they work with as a belief system, for example when they are pursuing a science career.”

      I don’t have any problem with the “tendency to view everything they work with as a belief system”, in fact I think it’s very healthy and very wise to do so. I do have a problem with the even more common tendency to view everything else as ‘a belief system’, but one’s own belief-system as ‘the Truth’ – a tendency that’s all too common amongst would-be ‘scientists’…

      @Rob: “Enterprise architecture should be classified as [‘applied science’]”

      I’ll have to admit I’m very uncomfortable with the term ‘applied science’: the term we should always instead is ‘technology’. The huge danger of ‘applied science’ is that science itself purports to be ‘value-free’ – whereas the application of science (or anything else) is most definitely not ‘value-free’ at all, in fact value and values needs to be right at the core of anything ‘applied’. The core drivers for science and technology are fundamentally different from each other, right down to the roots: in fact in terms of its core structure technology is more closely aligned with magic than it is with science – as illustrated in Arthur C Clarke’s dictum that “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic” (or, for that matter, its inversion as “any sufficiently advanced magic is indistinguishable from technology”… 🙂 )

      Everything that we do is founded in belief-system of some kind; every action we take is founded in belief or faith. (See my post ‘Belief and faith at the point of action‘ for more on that.) Hence your note that “Belief systems should remain as isolated (but acknowledged!) as possible” is not merely a useful comment: both aspects of it – ‘isolated, but acknowledged’ – are absolutely fundamental to a viable enterprise-architecture. Not easy, of course 😐 – but essential nonetheless.

  2. Andrej says:

    That’s a fantastic theme for general human relations. Here is an example, I think, of the sort of confusion that can arise in this space, using the BBC article quote.

    I think two separate but related concepts need to be teased apart. There’s science, the application of the scientific method to ask questions and tease out (always provisional) answers, and there’s Science, which to me seems to be half of the modern secular technocratic religion – the other half being The Market.

    Too much belief in officials or technology (i.e. tools) can be counterproductive in the pursuit of science, but that belief is a pillar of Science.

    Thus it’s possible to be for one and against the other, even though they share the same name and are conflated in popular culture.

    • Tom G says:

      @Andrej: “There’s science … and there’s Science” – that’s a really important distinction that needs to be emphasised everywhere – thanks for that!

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