The Varieties of Scientific Experience

Note: this post has nothing to do with the book by Carl Sagan of the same name, which I just learned about from a comment. Damn Carl Sagan for using up a great title.

I recently realized that certain uses of words like science and scientific really annoy me. The train of thought started with this video of a TED talk by Jane McGonigal. Now, I don’t agree with a lot of what she says in the talk, but that isn’t really what bothered me about it. A lot gets written or said about scientific ideas that I don’t agree with. Disagreement and contention are a normal part of science. Nor was it the fact that it was a TED talk, with everything that signifies. I’ve made my peace with the existence of TED in our world. No, what bothered me was the specific rhetorical approach she adopted, in deploying the idea of “science” in a broader discourse. In other words, I disagreed with her way of talking about science and its place in society more than I disagreed with the science she was talking about.

Thinking more about it, it struck me that people who deal with science experience it in different ways. These varied experiences of science show up primarily when scientific ideas are situated within broader secondary discourses (I’ll leave primary scientific discourses for another post).  When people disagree about science at meta-levels, these different experiences are often the reason.

So something like what William James said about religious experience holds true of scientific experience as well: It comes in some distinct varieties. What are these varieties, and what light do they shed on incidents like my reaction to the TED talk?

These distinctions among the varieties of science run deep. “Television science” or “TED science” or “rigorous science” aren’t just rhetorical models. They are visible manifestations of deeper shared experiences of science.

As with religion in William James’ sense, the nature of scientific experience is perhaps best revealed by the thoughts of a scientifically-minded person in solitude. The following James quote (from The Varieties of Religious Experience) about religion:

Religion, therefore, as I now ask you arbitrarily to take it, shall mean for us the feelings, acts, and experiences of individual men in their solitude, so far as they apprehend themselves to stand in relation to whatever they may consider the divine.

easily transforms to:

Science, therefore, as I now ask you arbitrarily to take it, shall mean for us the feelings, acts, and experiences of individual humans in their solitude, so far as they apprehend themselves to stand in relation to nature.

The original quote, incidentally, gets at why claims that religion and science are not in conflict are deeply disingenuous. They are only not in conflict within some rather shallow methodologically circumscribed experiences of science.

Deeper experiences of science are in conflict with religion because they occupy the same experience-space: “feelings, acts and experiences in solitude.”  For those who experience science in these deeper ways, there is no dual-boot option. You cannot experience religion while experiencing science in those ways.You cannot switch back and forth without experiencing crippling cognitive dissonance.

This conflict between science and religion goes well beyond clever debates about flying spaghetti monsters. You may defend atheism with flying spaghetti monsters, but you don’t choose atheism because of such arguments. You choose it because your experience of science (in a broad sense of the term) crowds out the possibilities for religious experience.

Let me list a few of the major varieties of scientific experience before saying more.

Nine Major Varieties

  1. Science as Method: This is the most common experience of science, analogous to what James called the “religion of healthy-mindedness.” It is a method of investigating certain things (and therefore it has a defined “scope” which excludes, for instance, the idea of a “God”). People who are obsessive-compulsive about “rigor” and the bureaucratic hypothesis-verification process template fall into this category. You can only “do” this kind of science (and what’s more, it is only a one of the ways to “do” science: the bureaucratic, brute-force way). You cannot see scientifically, let alone adopt a scientific sensibility on matters metaphysical, if you experience science primarily as an overt methodology. There is a reason people who experience science this way exhibit intense anxiety about process: many of them really don’t experience science as insight at all. So the process becomes an end in itself, rather than a way to validate insight. Science-as-method is what can be easily encoded within science-as-AI. I suspect many people who experience science this way have never experienced science as “Aha!” in even a minor way. It is like flying in fog with instruments alone and never seeing an exhilarating aerial view of the earth.
  2. Science as Production and Stewardship: This is an experience of science as a process that produces “truths” the way mining produces stocks of gold. You “do” some science, you learn such and such facts about (say) the moons of Jupiter or what helium does at very low temperatures. You put it in a warehouse of contingent truths, and leave open a side door labeled “falsifiability” as a quality control mechanism in your warehouse. When you view science as producing valuable, enduring things, it is natural to experience it as production or stewardship. The best of this breed often have a detached view of themselves as apart from the rest of society, engaged in a thankless and painstaking process of accumulation for the long-term greater good of humanity. Ethical concerns often loom large in this experience of science. On the face of it, this might seem like a tautological view of science. Science creates knowledge, and maintains what has not yet been falsified. What could be wrong with that? I’ll get to a variety of experience that negates this one in a minute.  
  3. Science as Authority: Dead giveaways of this experience of science are uses of phrases like “science now knows” or “scientists now know.” Outside of fairly narrow kinds of popular science, where it is a valid rhetorical strategy, use of such language reveals a deeply social experience of science (and often a spectator-experience, like being at a football game). This is a science that cannot be practiced by Robinson Crusoe alone on his island. This variety is subtly distinct from science as method. When science-as-authority people talk science, they often talk of method, in particular peer review, but they are primarily looking to substitute social proof for material proof because they prefer the former. They experience science in people-over-process ways, but not as a mode of introspection about nature. This is analogous to experiencing religion in solitude primarily as prayer directed at a tangible icon or thought-object. Often, science-as-authority thinkers are satisfied by authoritative-seeming conclusions even if they cannot understand or verify those conclusions personally. They view scientific misconduct or fraud as the equivalent of crimes, trusting that the authoritative-model of science, when “done right” actually works. This experience of science is very close to a legalistic-scholastic one (and organized religion, for that matter).
  4. Science as Belonging: This is so shallow an experience of science l that I am tempted to not include it as a variety at all. There are many for whom science is primarily a way to belong to a social group. There isn’t much difference between doing science and being a Star Trek fan. This variety is important primarily for developmental reasons. Many (but not all) start here. Some of those never outgrow this experience of science. It is also interesting to note that those who do not understand science well enough to experience it at all (type 9) often perceive scientific-minded people this way, regardless of what variety of science those people actually experience. These are your basic “Scientists are people with PhDs” people who are often eager to reveal their credentials at the first opportunity, regardless of whether the context demands it. This is the source of sitcoms like Big Bang Theory. Science-themed tropes in television and movies originate here.
  5. Science as “Progress”: The scare quotes should say it all. That science is a secular accumulation process of some sort is probably a reasonable and useful proposition (though I can think of a couple of approaches to problematizing that). But the idea that this secular drift represents “good” in some sense is one that frankly comes close to offending me. Politicians love to talk about science this way (which makes sense, because they like to fondly imagine that it is a controlled, instrumental process). Does anybody actually experience science as “progress”? I suppose there are some sunny-side-up spectators of science who voraciously devour the latest scientific news who qualify. I cannot imagine what it feels like to be them. Whether or not the idea of progress is correct, this is a case of mistaking the side dish for the entree.
  6. Science as Aesthetic: There are at least two broad aesthetics in science: romantic and classical. But what they share — a tendency to experience science in primarily aesthetic terms — is more interesting than the differences between the sub-varieties. A symptom is active, appreciative pursuit of the most beautiful ideas in some sense of the term (for example, romantics often fall in love with beautiful number sequences, while classicists appreciate clean and elegant ontologies, such as you might find in group theory) over useful, interesting or difficult ideas (which are the other common selection heuristics for picking goals in a scientific endeavor).
  7. Science as Dispassionate Sensibility: I wrote a post about this earlier, so I won’t say more, but this is a radically individualist understanding of science that dismisses issues of method, authority and community as  peripheral matters. Science as sensibility is science as a way of seeing. Which means it can become a way of living. It is also science as a sort of cleansing of one’s own mind, where the real prize is increasing clarity in the very experience of living life, rather than the specific things discovered or learned.  There is something of a monastic ideal here. This experience of science stands in opposition to the experience of science as belonging (in a dog-seeing vs. cat-seeing way).
  8. Science as Nihilism: This experience of science stands in direct opposition to the experience of science as production or stewardship. This variety also shares a great deal with mysticism, but in an evil-twin, anti-romantic sort of way (consider for instance, the Unaha! experience). The nihilism of science doesn’t just lie in its tendency to destroy specific ideas like the geocentric universe. It lies also in the deeply neutral and amoral nature of the things it produces. To experience science as nihilism is to experience the hopelessness that can result as you watch one cherished thought after another bite the dust (recently, the idea of cats as adorable fluffy things took a hit, thanks to nihlistic science), to be replaced by ideas that offer little or no comfort. This is the “nothing is sacred, life is not fair” aspect of science. Though it is not the primary battlefront with religion, it is an important secondary one.  There is a lot more to say about this experience, which I’ll save for another post.
  9. Non-Experience of Science: This isn’t actually a variety of experience, but rather, the experience of those who live in a world shaped by science, but without adequate education to experience it in any meaningful way (distinct from folk wisdom for instance, which can be quite scientific in many cases).
 A Clash of Experiences
To say that one experience of science is “deeper” than another is to make an unfalsifiable value judgment, since experiences are simply what they are. There are no right or wrong ways to experience science.  If there is any correlation between how you experience science and the quality of the science you do, it is probably quite weak. I know of excellent work (much better than anything I’ve done) by people who seem to experience science in what I would characterize as very shallow ways.
That said discourses grounded in experiences of science different from your own can really grate on the nerves. It takes serious effort to develop the patience to engage those who experience science differently. That, I think, is at the root of my annoyance with the Jane McGonigal talk.
I think my own experience of science is dominated by varieties 7, 8 and 6, in that order. People who experience it as 1-5 really get on my nerves.
Not their fault, not my fault. But I still think my science is better than theirs.

I cannot really connect with people whose experience of science is a non-experience. I end up studying them like bugs under a microscope.

This is probably a dangerous thing.

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About Venkatesh Rao

Venkat is the founder and editor-in-chief of ribbonfarm. Follow him on Twitter


  1. Shubhendu Trivedi says

    Looking forward to reading this post.

    Aside: Did you by any chance have the opportunity to read the book by the same name as this blog post? If not so, I would be curious to see how much it would diverge. I haven’t read it yet but have read a rather nice commentary on it by Freeman Dyson (which I agreed with).

    • Damn, had never heard of the book until now. Will add a note. Dumb. Should have googled. The title is too obvious and good to not have been used.

      • Fortunately, titles can’t be copyrighted; so you’ll just have to become more famous than Sagan to supplant his earlier work.

      • Yes! The title is such that it could have been reinvented quite easily and thus, I am quite curious to see the overlap (if the title by itself signals a certain direction of thought). In case I happen to read it I will report in comments, atleast going by the Dyson review there seems to be some divergence.

  2. I’m somewhat dissatisfied with the closing “Clash of Experiences” section. Most (6 – 8)-ers will also be academic researchers / teachers who keep their feelings private and don’t see any conflicts with the (1 – 5) type of experiences. So their experiences simply don’t clash. I do understand the Robinson Crusoe idea that someone can be a scientist alone and for himself but I do not understand its importance and dialectic. This doesn’t mean that I suggest that it isn’t important for people like me and you who are scientifically educated and have a university degree but are not academics but I don’t understand our relationship towards organized science and its social perception either.

  3. None of this works for me — neither as an educated person with a fair grounding in science, nor as a “religious” person (Zen Buddhist).

    I’m not at all convinced that religion is a useful category; I’m fairly sure that even if it is a sensible way to slice up the world, it does not necessarily have anything to do with the concept of “God”. Or at least God as many people think of her/him/it.

    I don’t see either science or religion as activities to be pursued in solitude. Both are profoundly social activities (at times) in addition to being solitary pursuits (at times).

    Nor do I see “religion” as necessarily conflicting with the scientific method. Buddhism, frex, doesn’t require “faith” in the strongest sense. The Buddha is reputed to have said, “Don’t believe just because I tell you so. Check it out for yourself.” Enough faith is required to engage in the investigative process, but no more than that.

  4. So which is the McGonigall experience?

    In my opinion, it’s a combination of 3 (in your classification) – Science as Authority, combined with another type of experience which I think you missed: Science as Product to be Sold. This is distinct from the 2 – Production and Stewardship category: in this experience, you take the stored truths from the warehouse and peddle them to the unwashed masses. It can take the form of a pharmaceutical ad, a journalist who heralds new discoveries (especially as they seem to mandate changes to public policy) or, as in the case of McGonigall, a person who is helped by the “product” and now recommends it to others.

    In this experience of science, deeper examination is unnecessary, and in fact rather an obstacle to the mission. You can see in in the TED talk, where she does not care for the fact that correlation does not equal causation, nor question what costs using the “product” may incur. It’s an experience of an enthusiastic salesman, who may even truly believe in the product, but still the mission is – sales.

  5. According to Jane McGonigal, she experiences “science as witness” with an explicit reference to (Donna) Haraway. See

    She also suggests three (alternative) ways of experiencing science:
    – Science as Play (Huizinga)
    – Science as Theater (Hilgartner)
    – Science as Art (Shlain)

  6. Alexander Boland says

    A question came to mind just now about the whole truth-happiness tension (which seems to be reflected in this post among many others.)

    Where does creativity fit into this? I was reading through Thinking Fast and Slow and there was a passage that directly reminded me of your numerous posts on truth vs. happiness:

    The various causes of ease or strain have interchangeable effects. When you are in a state of cognitive ease, you are probably in a good mood, like what you see, believe what you hear, trust your intuitions, and feel that the current situation is comfortably familiar. You are also likely to be relatively casual and superficial in your thinking. When you feel strained, you are more likely to be vigilant and suspicious, invest more effort in what you are doing, feel less comfortable, and make fewer errors, but you also are less intuitive and less creative than usual.

    Kahneman, Daniel (2011-10-25). Thinking, Fast and Slow (p. 60). Macmillan. Kindle Edition.

    Perhaps it’s more similar to the truth-beauty-money triangle than thought?

  7. Religion will never go away until there is a truly effective substitute. Religion provides emotional support. Science doesnt go there. If you were truly destitute most will turn to the church rather than a gathering of indifferent, haughty and quarrelsome atheists. Just sayin.

  8. As soon as I started reading I was expecting to see Dawkins mentioned as an example somewhere, curious to know which type informs his “evolution explains everything” tune of the past few years. Annoying tune that.

    If the thoughts of Buddha, Shankara, Ashtavakra or Ramana are not familiar to large numbers of intelligent folk because they come framed in the category of “religion” or “spirituality” (which some consider as a new age word for religion) we need a new word for it.

  9. I really like these categories. It’s perfectly fine that they may not be all inclusive or overlap a bit. They provide a very nice lens for viewing people’s relation to science.

    I have something of a disagreement with the end though:

    “To say that one of these experiences is ‘deeper’ than another is to make an unfalsifiable value judgment.”

    There are a lot of people (I think the label “new atheists” captures most of them) who are a combination of Science as Authority (3) and Science as “Progress” (5). When these two are combined what you end up with is literally a religion. Think of the hordes of philosophy majors who hate the damned fools who deny global warming and prevent progress toward renewable energy. To them not accepting scientific authority as truth is a terrible *moral* failure. It makes you a bad person because you prevent progress.

    I think their minds are as much in shackles as the most ardent evangelical. There is nothing deep about the viewpoint, it’s not even shallow. It’s just annoying.

  10. I don’t believe in “Science”. I believe only in “scientific attitude”, and that attitude, which is mainly a form of self-honesty and modesty, can be applied in all fields, from gardening to theology. I think that the separation between hard and soft science is artificial, and that it makes the human sciences less exact, and less … human, and that it makes the exact sciences less human, and less … exact. It is easy to be rigorous in the human sciences, it is enough to *not* hide the many interrogation marks, and to accept the abyssal ignorance, and to remember the hypothetical nature of all our theories.

  11. Matt Johnson says

    Couldn’t 1-5 be summed up as the “objectification” or instrumentalization of science? i.e. science is a mere tool used to accomplish things and goals, in a kind of means-ends rationality? Whereas 6-8 seem to me to be both subjective, and also to signify the importance of science as disposition and process.

    One uses science, versus one is scientific.