Why Do People Cherry-Pick Which Science They Accept?

Have you heard of Cafeteria Catholicism? It’s what they call heresy these days, picking and choosing which religious laws one lives by as though picking tidbits you like at a salad bar. You’re not supposed to do that with a religion. They’re meant to be package deals, in for a penny in for a pound.

There’s cafeteria science too, and for two main reasons—one shared with cafeteria religiousness, the other a result of science’s inability to solve or sometimes even face the mystery that matters most to us, the mystery of mattering in a material world.

First, to address what science cherry-picking has in common with religious cherry-picking: We all try to wriggle out from under the weight of burdensome obligations. If your church tells you that you can’t do something that you really want to do, you’ll try to find reasons why you don’t have to comply even though you’re supposed to commit to the whole package.

Science doesn’t lay down moral law. Still, it is a package deal with moral implications. It’s a package deal in that subscribing to science is a commitment to exclusively natural world explanations. When scientists lack a natural-science explanation for some phenomena, they keep looking for one. They can’t just explain away the mystery as the product of supernatural forces. No saying “it’s a miracle!” and leaving it at that.

Once you accept a supernatural explanation for anything, what’s to stop you from relying on the supernatural to explain everything? And what happens to science? You can no longer do controlled experiments since supernatural influences could alter anything.

Science bars all explanation from the supernatural. In this respect, it’s a package deal. To embrace science, you’re swearing off supernatural explanations.

And science has moral implications. It’s a disciplined investigation of consequences, many of which we care about deeply. Smoking increases your risk of cancer, and you really don’t want cancer. Driving and eating meat increase the severity of climate change, which you don’t want either. Science delivers plenty of implied rules for living right.

Most people trust science for the reliable conveniences it affords us—medical care, computer technology, safe air transport. But plenty of us cherry-pick science, for example, denying that climate change is real. Sometimes we ignore science because scientists haven’t reached consensus. Often, we ignore it because we’re cherry picking.

That this is the case for all of us shouldn’t make us cynical. Rather it suggests an alternative strategy for convincing people to do the harder thing instead of trying to wiggle out.

For example, rather than pretending that you’re the brave one for facing the truth about something as burdensome as climate change, admit that it’s a huge disappointment for you too. Don’t say, “You climate change deniers just can’t handle the truth!” Say, “I too denied it as long as I could and now I’m trying to face it squarely. It’s not easy. It means sacrifice I didn’t expect and do not welcome.”

Perhaps a little compassion will make people see that we’re all in the same sinking boat, all of us loath to admit it.

Religious leaders sometimes employ this approach, admitting that it’s not easy to live in accord with all religious strictures. St. Augustine famously said, “Lord, make me pure, but not yet,” which hints at his commiseration with the sinner.

Still, one might wonder in current times why comply with religious doctrine at all? It’s old and full of magical wizardry. And there are so many rules, many of which entail compromise with little practical benefit.  

The ten commandments are hard enough, let alone Moses’ 613 commandments, and that’s just the Old Testament. Pile onto it the new testament and all the behaviors that science discourages for your health and safety and you won’t have much freedom left. If anything deserves the cafeteria treatment it’s religious law. If you have to accept disappointing burdens accept them from reality, not magic.

Except for that second reason that we cherry-pick science. It’s not just that science imposes inconvenient burdens. It’s also that science, for all its power to explain things, has yet to explain why anything matters at all.

The Achilles heel of the sciences is that they are divided right down the middle, and scientists have been unable to explain why.

Why is it that physical scientists can’t say that the moon values a rising tide, but life and social scientists can say that we value things? Why the double standard?

Scientists affirm that living beings and non-living objects are made of the same chemicals and never violate the laws chemistry. Why then do things matter to the living but not to the non-living? And what is mattering or valuing anyway?

There’s this mystery gap running right down the middle of our scientific institutions. On the hard science side, everything can be explained as the product of cause-and-effect. But on the life and behavioral science side, scientists are allowed explain what happens as means to ends—ends of value to the living.

Scientists have not offered a plausible alternative to magical supernatural theories that explain valuing as emanating from God, soul, spirit, or vital force. Many scientists deny that we need an alternative. It’s as though they want us to pretend that everything is cause-and-effect and nothing really matters—not even to you since you’re just chemistry.

If science, while handy, feels cold and mechanical to you, this inability to explain value may be the reason. If you sometimes sense that science won’t be able to explain everything, it may be that gap that makes you doubt science’s comprehensiveness. And if you’re tempted to ignore an inconvenient scientific truth, the gap provides a good excuse for wriggling out.

In this short video, I introduce the scientific mystery of value and the best guess I’ve ever found at how we’ll end up solving it scientifically. 

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