Published online by Cambridge University Press: 14 July 2018
Protscience: Science Upfront and Personal
In a post-truth world, the very idea of a ‘scientific consensus’ may be regarded with suspicion, but science as such is by no means dismissed. On the contrary, it is taken personally. This change in attitude compares to the shift that occurred during the Protestant Reformation, the moment when Christianity ceased being a unified doctrine delivered with enormous Latinate mystique from a ‘high church’ pulpit. Thereafter it became a plurality of faiths, whose followers stake their lives on their own distinctive understandings of the Scriptures. In the case of science, I have dubbed this process Protscience, short for ‘Protestant Science’ (Fuller 2010: chap. 4), by which I mean to include a pattern evident in the parallel ascendancies of, say, intelligent design theory, alternative medicine and Wikipedia.
The Protestant Reformation was the first step on the road to the secularization 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 lifeshaping form of knowledge (Fuller 2006b: chap. 5). In any case, Protscience takes very seriously the idea that any form of knowledge that aspires to universal scope for its claims must have universal appeal for its believers. In more fashionable language, it involves the reflexive shaping of self and world to enable one to live – or die, as the case may be – with whatever one happens to believe.
Interestingly, just as the original Protestants were demonized 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. Thus, any report of scientific fraud is grist for the Protscience mill, yet one more reason to take matters of knowledge into one's own hands before the entire enterprise of enquiry becomes corrupt.
Unsurprisingly, just as Catholic theologians said of Protestant readings of the Bible during the Reformation, scientists have complained that this availability of information has only served to foster misunderstanding and charlatanry.