Eduard Kaeser introduces his theme of "science kitsch" by describing the term as an oxymoron. In science, we have the analytical critical search for knowledge about the natural world. However, the term kitsch is usually associated with works of "art" that fail to display any artistry, creativity or good taste. Kaeser's concern is that some science popularisers, whose zeal for science is marred by overstatement, are using science to give authority to personal agendas - or even worse.
"Kitsch is best known in the arts. [. . .] But science kitsch? The combination of these two words rings like an oxymoron. Science - as the common saying has it - exposes, discovers, tells the truth; kitsch conceals, covers, lies. This opposition is too simple, though. Where there is art, there is also kitsch. Where there is science, there is also science kitsch. No doubt, science is the pursuit of truth about the factual world, but there have always been elements of spuriousness making claims in the name of science that are not justified by it." (page 559)
Cover of original edition of The Astonishing Hypothesis (1994) (source here)
The author presents his analysis of science kitsch as a "reconnaissance", identifying different genres and not considering content too closely. For our purposes, it is not necessary to look at each category that Kaeser names. However, his first genre, Disillusion kitsch, is undoubtedly an important starting point for us. Francis Crick, co-discoverer of the structure of DNA, focused in his later years on the study of consciousness. In 1994, he published a book with the title: "The Astonishing Hypothesis: the scientific search for the soul". That which is astonishing is summarised in this quotation:
""You", your joys and your sorrows, your memories and your ambitions, your sense of personal identity and free will, are in fact no more than the behaviour of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules." (Crick, 1994: 3)
Crick's assertion here is actually a statement of reductionism, which is presupposed by him as a principle of science. As subsequent history has revealed, Crick was speaking for mainstream neuroscience in his confidence that love, free agency and consciousness are "no more" than electrical impulses, neuronal firings and chemical reactions. Nevertheless, Kaeser gives Crick the benefit of the doubt when he comments on the quoted words:
"To many readers today this naturalistic grip on the problem of our mind and personal identity seems rather hackneyed, and I stop short of disparaging it as kitsch per se (indeed, I suspect Crick of ironically playing with reductionism). Reductionism may serve as a research programme, as heuristic metaphor, as hypothesis, as catalysing a scientific debate. A large majority of contemporary scientists are reductionists. So most would say that the behaviour of complex wholes is nothing more than the laws governing the behaviours of the parts and their interactions. [. . .] It mutates into disillusion kitsch when you assume the posture of somebody deeply sobered but also awing others by his bleak wisdom; as somebody telling us how the world is "really ticking": Listen people, forget about what you are meant to know, all this turns out to be ignorance, illusion, error! Quite often some heroic and even tragic halo surrounds the attitude of disillusion. A whiff of narcissism is always admixed. Mostly a good dose of boasting, too." (page 560)
This first genre of science kitsch may be identified as confusing science with a presupposed philosophical stance. In Crick's case (and many like him), the philosophy is naturalism that is presented as the essence of science. The problem then is a close-minded dogmatism about the way the world works. It is not possible for naturalistic scientists to follow evidence wherever it leads because their philosophy of naturalism is presupposed as true. This closes off all consideration of any evidence indicating intelligent agency. This is not the authentic spirit of science, and it is rightly described as science kitsch.
Disillusion kitsch is expressed not just by science popularisers, but by numerous leaders within the world of science. Perhaps the most widely cited is by Richard Dawkins:
"Theologians worry away at the 'problem of evil' and a related 'problem of suffering'. [. . .] On the contrary, if the universe were just electrons and selfish genes, meaningless tragedies like the crashing of this bus are exactly what we should expect, along with equally meaningless good fortune. Such a universe would be neither evil nor good in intention. It would manifest no intentions of any kind. In a universe of blind physical forces and genetic replication, some people are going to get hurt, other people are going to get lucky, and you won't find any rhyme or reason in it, nor any justice. The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference. As that unhappy poet A.E. Housman put it: 'For Nature, heartless, witless Nature Will neither care nor know'. DNA neither cares nor knows. DNA just is. And we dance to its music." (Dawkins R., "River out of Eden: A Darwinian View of Life," Phoenix: London, 1996, p.155.)
A second category of science kitsch that is also relevant to our interests here is named Theory kitsch by Kaeser. He introduces it in this way:
"Two components of this style stand out: the metaphorical and the scientific. Its fusion suggests a further kind of kitsch: theory kitsch. Hyperspace, variable diffraction, turbulence, acceleration of events, exponential instability ... Borrow some terms from physics and chaos theory, detach them from their specific meaning and inflate them with new magniloquence. Here kitsch is revealing a less innocuous aspect, drawing on the prestige of science to lend respectability and lustre to uncomprehended and undigested physics or mathematics, pretending to have detected some "deep" laws of history." (page 561)
Modern physics appears to be a happy hunting ground for many science writers wanting to make an impact. Favourite topics are Heisenberg's uncertainty principle, quantum mechanics and chaos theory: they are all used to bridge the gap between everyday phenomena and the world of sub-atomic particles. But they do not get further than speculative hypothesis and analogy. The science is in short supply. Kaeser's example is "quantum healing". The problem with quantum theorists is that they are not theorists at all.
"They are theory looters. As Dutton puts it: "Scientific ideas and jargon are used by them as an exercise in intellectual parasitism; the essential function is not to inform us [. . .] but [. . .] to give their theories prestige". Or, to paraphrase Bertrand Russell, conceptual kitsch relates to science as theft to honest toil." (page 562)
The topic of transhumanism is introduced as Cockaigne kitsch, pointing out that "advocates of transhumanism regale themselves with the gifts and promises of posthumanity". So enraptured are the advocates of this way of thinking, they look very much like evangelists of a religious sect. So we also meet Techno-religious kitsch. Artificial Intelligence visionaries stand alongside transhumanists in pointing a way of salvation for the human race.
"In fact, transhumanism is Christian redemption in technological guise, not seldom of kitschy taste. In addition to the self-congratulating character we notice here a specific self-deifying momentum. It indicates a deep-rooted religious and secular ambivalence that has always accompanied inventions and innovations. So, the appeal to the kitsch sense is often an appeal to the religious sense, too." (page 564)
Kaeser associates science kitsch with "Pop science": "In pop science you can easily find the "triple-E" characterising popular science: education, edification, entertainment." Pop science sets out to educate and entertain using all the resources of popular culture, which includes television, magazine formats and web-based formats. This is a lucrative market to work in: some scientists have found that it brings in more funding than other options open to them. But there is a down-side, because compromises have to be made.
"The pace of scientific research in many fields is so breathtaking that even interested experts in other disciplines often fall by the wayside. Let alone the general public. There's the right to know and there's the ability to understand. And there is the widening gap in between. Somehow the gap has to be bridged, be it only by creating the illusion of understanding science. Today a whole industry engages in that process of turning science into spectacle." (page 565)
In its desire to make science understandable to ordinary people, and to show that science delivers knowledge, the pop science presenters convey an authority that owes nothing to science. Kaeser perceives the influence of postmodern culture in such characteristics.
"One of the most conspicuous features of science kitsch is its immunity to criticism. You may aim all the ammunition of scientific rationality at the malarkey that is told on behalf of science, but again and again you will notice that the babble goes on. An obvious explanation of this persistence is that kitsch does not need scientific arguments because it simply does not play the game of science [. . .] The popularity of all kinds of "alternative" medicine, science and "ancient" wisdom testifies to a failure of modern rationality to satisfy deep longings for something to counteract the fragmentation, alienation and isolation that many people feel. So they look for the "science" that corresponds best to their needs. Hence, ironically, postmodernism has reinforced the fragmentation by emphasising that each culture has the right to know in its own way. There is no universal arbiter to decide what is right and what is wrong. Science is a "culture" among others, and not an "absolutistic" authority. It has to defy the competition of quacks, cranks, charlatans and woo woos more than ever." (page 566)
Whilst the discussion Kaeser provides is perceptive and hard-hitting, I do want to question his last paragraph. He wants the recognition of science kitsch to lead to laughter, showing that we do not respect the promoters of kitsch.
"So, if I am to draw a general conclusion from this reconnaissance, it is this one: The genre of science kitsch may help to regain credit by working as a probe to detect false pretensions, explanatory exuberance and exaggerations in science. Still, I recommend an old and successful home remedy against kitsch: laughter - loud, hearty and without respect." (page 567)
However, it seems to me that scientism is in the driving seat here, and advocates of scientism are not just presenters of pop science. Rather, many are leaders within the academic community. They are already seeking to make science the only pathway to knowledge. They require that naturalism be fundamental to the scientific enterprise and are routinely rooting out any signs of wavering. This is not a laughing matter, but highly serious. Instead of science, we are getting naturalism thrust down our throats and dissenters are frustrated because attempts at rational discourse are met with ideological rejection. Science kitsch is widespread, but questioning kitsch does not appear to sell books or television series. If anyone doubts this, just look at origins issues. Look at how the word evolution changes its meaning, so that changes in gene frequency can be invoked to support Darwin's thinking about common descent. Look at the emphasis placed on the peppered moth, the Galapagos finches and antibiotic resistance to justify far more than they demonstrate. Look at the responses to Stephen Meyer's book "Darwin's doubt": whereas Meyer shows the Cambrian Explosion is devastating for Darwinian evolution, pop scientists are queuing up to get their sound bites across (invariably straw man arguments). To question naturalism is to face the fury of academics, journalists and internet trolls. But our task is to champion science in the face of such hostility. Our goal is to follow the evidence wherever it leads. We seek the freedom as academics to question received wisdom and to propose alternative hypotheses that are a better fit with data. Exposing science kitsch for what it is will be a necessary task for all who value our scientific heritage.
Science kitsch and pop science: A reconnaissance
Public Understanding of Science, July 2013, 22: 559-569 | doi:10.1177/0963662513489390
Abstract: Science kitsch? The combination of these two words rings like an oxymoron. Science - as the common saying has it - exposes, discovers, tells the truth; kitsch conceals, covers, lies. I think, this "shadow" of science deserves a specific scrutiny, not only because it reflects the altered place and role of science in contemporary "knowledge" society but also because it pinpoints the task of relocating science in the "multicultural" context of postmodernism, with its different epistemic claims. The genre of science kitsch may help to regain credit by working as a probe to detect false pretensions, explanatory exuberance and exaggerations in science.