Moralizers of science

Morality is about making hard choices.  Moralizing is about striking grand gestures in the hope of applause.  Fighting Nazis gun in hand was a courageous moral stand.  Constantly bringing up the Holocaust and shouting “never again” is a hollow moralizing pose.

Increasingly, science is being coopted by moralizers.  Some of the latter are scientists themselves; others, mere hangers on.  In either case, findings are no longer presented for public reflection.  There must be a moral to the story, and it must be hammered in by those who know best, just in case we miss the point.

Because most scientists work in universities, the moral to the story usually reflects the folk beliefs of academia.  These include a rather mindless egalitarianism, of the kind that made a taboo of Larry Summers’ differentiation between men and women.  They also include an inexhaustible appetite for nonsense concerning global warming.  Most puzzlingly for people esconced in comfortable tenured positions, scientific moralizers loathe the American way of life:  the free market, prosperity, the multiplicity of individual choices that is our way of life.

I observe, briefly, that all this flies in the face of Hume’s demonstration that one cant get to an “ought” from an “is.”  Science describes the world.  It deals in what is.  The leap to what ought to be is the temptation of intellectuals, but the bane of science.

No matter.  Here (via Instapundit) is an example of scientific moral posturing at its most bizarre.  The reported findings are modest enough.  A study of Oceanic canoe designs shows that functional features change more slowly than decorative features.  Because functionality influences survival, Stanford University scientists claim that “cultural traits affecting survival evolve at a different rate than other cultural attributes.”

So, cultural objects that affect life and limb are tinkered with more carefully than those which merely look pretty.  This would appear to be a truism, but the report, in a rather indirect way, proceeds to a larger claim:  that natural selection plays a part in cultural decisions.  I have never doubted this, but the evidence here seems a bit meager to justify the assertion.

We are talking about 96 functional and 38 decorative canoe features of 11 island cultures.  How far can one stretch these numbers?

Pretty far, it turns out.  Nina Jablonski, of Pennsylvania State University’s Anthropology Department, thinks the whole thing is  “revolutionary” and “one of the most significant papers to be written in anthropology in the last 20 years.”  Why so?  Unclear.  We must take it on faith that Jablonksi knows revolutionary and significant when she sees it.

Enter the moralizers.  On the basis of what Stanford University has learned about outrigger canoe designs, our entire way of life, it now turns out, must come to an immediate end.  Consider the language below, and try to discern science in any part of what is said:

Authors of the study said their results speak directly to urgent social and environmental problems. “People studying climate change, population growth, poverty, racism and the threat of plagues all know what the problems are and what we should be doing to solve them,” said Paul Ehrlich, the Bing Professor of Population Studies at Stanford.

Ehrlich, author of The Population Bomb and other books on dilemmas facing contemporary human society, said he does not understand why more effort is not going into urgently needed solutions. “What we don’t know, and need to learn, is how cultures change and how we can ethically influence that process,” he said.

Deborah S. Rogers, a research fellow at Stanford, said their findings demonstrate that “some cultural choices work while others clearly do not.”

“Unfortunately, people have learned how to avoid natural selection in the short term through unsustainable approaches such as inequity and excess consumption. But this is not going to work in the long term,” she said. “We need to begin aligning our culture with the powerful forces of nature and natural selection instead of against them.”

Examples of cultural approaches that are putting humans at risk include “everything from the economic incentives, industrial technologies and growth mentality that cause climate change, pollution and loss of biodiversity, to the religious polarization and political ideologies that generate devastating conflict around the globe,” Rogers said. “If the leadership necessary to undertake critically needed cultural evolution in these areas can’t be found, our civilization may find itself weeded out by natural selection, just like a bad canoe design.”

Neither Ehrlich or Rogers are scientists of any kind.  Ehrlich is the most egregiously and continuously wrong “expert” in the history of the breed — any who doubt this, please consult The Skeptical Environmentalist.  Yet they are allowed to pontificate for nearly half the length of an article purporting to reveal scientific findings.

I return to the distinction between morality and moralizing.  Do Ehrlich and Rogers opt out of “economic incentives, industrial technologies, and growth mentality” to the extent that, say, they never fly an airplane or ride in a car — or brush their teeth or use deodorant — or accept money from a university rich in government grants?  If they have made these hard choices, they are true moralists, however wrongheaded.

If they are only spouting words, then they have heaped contempt on science and disgrace on themselves, in return for the praise of a few like-minded professors.


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