When scientists stop thinking

For all that has been written about the scientific method — all that was taught to us over Bunson burners in high school — we really know very little about how science works.  During most of human history, reality and desire were inseparable:  we explained the world as we wished it to be, and made it less so in consequence.  In the seventeenth century, something changed.  Our mastery over reality has accumulated since, so that today we possess a fair idea of its texture on the surface of Mars and in the deepest ocean trenches.

Like all success stories, modern science has many fathers.  The standard line of every scientific genius since before Newton is that he stands “on the shoulders of giants.”  The metaphor is apt, and can be translated to mean that even the most imaginative minds in this most successful of human activities have no clue about how the process works.  Science is done, not theorized about.

Yet the way science is done imposes certain behavioral requirements on its practitioners.  Among the most important, I would posit, is disinterestedness.  This doesn’t mean individual scientists are expected to be Olympian figures, above worldly ambition.  A biography of Galileo or Boyle will quickly dispel such a hope.  From the perspective of science, disinterestedness pertains to facts rather than people.  Scientists must bring the facts forward as they emerge, regardless of how contrary to human hopes and desires they might appear.

Our universe may center around the earth, and any challenge to this model may plunge us into a kind of conceptual vertigo.  No matter.  Let the facts fall where they may.  We may consider a sexually-trasmitted AIDS epidemic to be a disgraceful commentary on our people, so we look for alternative explanations.  No one will stop us.  We are free to look.  But the facts that emerge will not be filtered by feelings of shame or pride.  The work of science is to describe the objects and relations in the world.  What we wish to feel about these becomes the work of morality.

Which brings us to a second behavioral requirement:  modesty.  Again, this isn’t necessarily a personal attribute.  While great scientists affect a humble pose, they tend, like most highly talented people, to have an excellent opinion of themselves.  Scientific modesty pertains to the tentativeness of facts, and to the separation of facts from values.  A scientist may say as scientist eppur si muove:  the earth moves around the sun, regardless of what bishops and cardinals think.

A scientist may say, “The Ten Commandments stand refuted,” or “War is evil,” but only by abandoning his craft.

Modesty recalls that today’s scientific version of reality has often become tomorrow’s benighted superstition.  This recollection saves scientists from overweening ambition:  few aspire to the role of guardians of society, or wish to impose the present understanding of reality as final.   A true scientist feels keenly the limits of his knowledge.

Today, on the fringes of cultural disputes, we hear a lot of complaints about science being “politicized” to favor unsavory agendas.  Usually, the complaints are aimed at fundamentalist Christians, who hold out against Darwin and evolution.  The critics want to relive the Scopes trial.  They hope to strike a blow for the Enlightenment.

I carry no brief for fundamentalists of any stripe, but really:  what are we talking about?  In one or two school districts in this wide land of ours, something called “intelligent design” is being pushed forward as a scientific theory to be taught in schools.  Put aside the merits (or lack thereof) of intelligent design.  Those pushing it are twisting their religious beliefs into a scientific formula:  a foolish but rather moving genuflection before the altar of science.

If, say, fundamentalists were to impose sex taboos on Harvard, or force the resignation of its president for violating these taboos in the course of perfectly sound scientific speculation, then I would worry.  Oh, wait:  that really happened.  Only the fundamentalists weren’t Christians, but secularist academics.  Poor Larry Summers was made to wear the Cultural Revolution dunce cap for six months while apologizing ever more abjectly, then shown the door.  Point made.

Politicization of science happens.  Fundamentalist Christians are often nowhere in sight.

The strangest example of this is the fuss about global warming.  What are the facts?  Pretty unthreatening.  In the last 100 years or so, the mean surface temperature — insofar as we can measure such a thing — has climbed about one degree Farenheit.  Many factors unconnected with human activity probably account for this increase.  Even if the temperature continued to climb — and again, we have no way of knowing — why should we assume it’s a bad thing, let alone a disaster?

For anyone interested in the facts of global warming, this post by James Hudnall (via Pajamas Media) is the best compilation I’ve seen.  Read the whole thing, links included, and weep.

Even more than fundamentalist Christians, it seems, secularists suffer from a sense of sin.  The human race, they feel, has strayed from the paths of righteousness.  The proof is that capitalism has triumphed.  Our punishment will be a catastrophe of biblical proportions:  the earth will burn or flood, animals will die, disease will carry off large percentages of the offending species, heedless homo sapiens.

Unlike Larry Summers’ academic inquisitors, many promoters of climate doomsday really are scientists.  They belong to a recognizable subgroup:  the “concerned” scientist, of the kind that preached nuclear winter in Ronald Reagan’s day.  They are nothing if not political.  But if they frighten the public, they also stand to profit, quite literally and personally, from greater investment in research.

When it comes to weather research, the concerned group appears to have taken control of the great scientific journals, Science and Nature, in which nonhysterical accounts of global warming get either rejected or refuted, and in any case treated very differently from articles predicting doom.

These scientists are openly rooting for a particular interpretation of the facts. In no sense of the word are they disinterested.

Their explanation is that there’s no time to think:  we must act now, before it’s too late.  We must repent.  We must change our ways.  Debate and discussion will make the reckoning more terrible.  A “consensus” of the scientific community, it is claimed, assures us this will be the case.

The towering immodesty of this posture is too obvious to dwell on; so is its profoundly undemocratic (indeed, anti-scientific) bias.  We are to change our way of life forever, without questions or discussion.  Why?  Because the experts ordain it.  Authority trumps evidence.  Consensus trumps reasoned argument.

But the consensus excludes at least some scientists, cited by Hudnall, who don’t buy into the doomsday scenarios or the need for cultural revolution.  So it’s a consensus only for those who agree:  a fine example of circular logic.  But even if we assume that all scientists unanimously believed in the doomsday scenario, what follows?  Science once believed in an earth-centered universe.  The belief turned out to be wrong.  Reality is solid and fixed, but facts — the human take on reality — are perspectival, and therefore tentative and shifting.  (Not long ago, let it be noted, the doomsday consensus was about a new ice age.)

Science, in its institutional modesty, knows this, even if the tribe of concerned scientists, who desire to change rather than understand the world, don’t.


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