When scientists assume the missionary position

Human beings, we accept, always fall short of the ideal.  Politicians are rarely statesmen, and the lives of great artists seldom approach the majesty of their creations.  The same is true of scientists:  they too are human, and possess their share vanity and ambition.  It would be too much to expect that they embody the disinterested ideals of science.

Maybe this accounts for some of the information, hacked illegally and made available on the Web, that has leaked out of the Hadley Climatic Research Unit in East Anglia.  The picture that emerges is of a cabal of scientists who are very interested indeed:  to advance the faith in global warming, to punish those who disagree, to obtain funding for their pet projects.  Possibly, science, like making sausages, isn’t something that outsiders should observe from the factory floor.

But there’s another possibility, which seems to me more likely.  The tone from the hacked emails is a familiar one:  that of the rationalist confronting the superstitious mob.  There are the few who know, and the many who don’t.  The little group of Ascended Ones at the Hadley CRU kept a close watch on where the boundary lay, warning one another about fellow scientists judged to be “a rather loose cannon” or “not as predictable as we’d like.”  Inquiring journalists were  told to listen to them alone, and treat all critics  as fools.

The rationalist pattern hasn’t changed since Plato wrote the Republic.  First, the muddle of human life is abstracted into a formula.  Then the formula is turned back as a standard for life, and – given that we always fall short of the ideal – life fails the test.  Finally, the gap between the formula and reality exasperates the rationalist, who discerns vast conspiracies by evil forces to frustrate the marriage of humanity and perfection.

The formula in this case was of course global warming, and the superior minds at the CRU were deep into conspiracies and counter-conspiracies to destroy the skeptics and convert the dim but powerful public.  These scientists had abandoned science to do politics.  More:  they had become pitchmen, party hacks, missionaries who knew the answer before they looked at the data.  The level of hypocrisy,  deception, and self-righteousness in their emails would make any of the Mad Men blush.

Two consequences can follow from the revelations coming out of the Hadley CRU.  When scientists assume the missionary position, it’s science that gets ravaged.  Ordinary people, in their sensible way, might decide that only a sick enterprise would embrace such deceitful, manipulative characters.  Such a loss of confidence would have an incalculable effect on our health and well-being.

Or we will learn that scientists aren’t science, and we will refuse to be hectored and bullied by them into changing our laws, economic system, and daily lives to accommodate their enthusiasms.  Scientists are workers in the field of knowledge.  There is honor in that.  But they are not our political guardians, and we will treat them like the plain citizens they are.

That would make this an important episode in the liberation of the twenty-first century from false prophets and self-righteous zealots.

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12 Responses to When scientists assume the missionary position

  1. Brutus says:

    This is your second treatment of this topic within a week. Your tone broadcasts a sizable contempt for those who might attempt use their knowledge and insight to direct human events, as though history should instead proceed only through random drift, I guess, or perhaps the lethargy of default that is the result of democracy. No class of elites, whether political or scientific, should channel the masses in any way that inhibits the unfettered freedom to act against our own self-interest, which can no longer be called enlightened since that view is unavailable to the inexpert.

    Let me point out, as you suggest, that science has no morality, which is a better formulation than to say it is immoral or amoral. Rather, it’s a mode of inquiry and understanding. If its practitioners gain some specialized knowledge, which is by definition their province, that humanity is on a collision course, it makes complete sense to me that they might want to sound the klaxon and convert the masses, since it will take a wholesale conversion to alter our course even a little. It that warning is being raised clumsily and with some self-regard, well, I guess that’s to be expected of a class of people less used to shaping their messages into slick rhetoric than a full-time mass marketer from either of the corporate or political classes.

    • Well, I’m sorry if my tone broadcasts contempt – all I can say is, it wasn’t intended. What I feel is concern. I profoundly disagree with your statement above in this sense: I believe the number of propositions we can confidently assert about the future is rather small, and excludes whole domains too complex for accurate (or even ballpark) prediction. The latter include political judgments on the future – see Joseph Tetlock’s excellent book on the subject, based on a decades-long study of world-class experts – and stock markets – here I’d recommend Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s Fooled by Randomness.

      I have no problem with scientists making cases about a potential disaster in the future. I have a great deal of trouble with “science” being invoked to end an argument. It is not, alas, the voice of God – it isn’t even, necessarily, the voice of the scientists arguing any particular point.

      The clumsiness of marketing their case by the CRU group is a debatable point. That they were engaging in politics and advocacy – becoming missionaries rather than inquirers after knowledge – surely is beyond debate to anyone reading the hacked emails. That was the source of my concern.

  2. Brutus says:

    I meant to disclaim that I hadn’t read the underlying links but forgot. Sorry. I’m familiar with Taleb’s thesis from The Black Swan, which is in large part a restatement of his earlier book. Of all the various scientific domains that we understand only poorly, geophysics is one where the geological record yields pretty clear understandings. That doesn’t mean we can affect much on a planetary scale in the near term, but the trends plotted over the long term bear up pretty well compared to, say, our understanding of economics or the weather.

    As to who is allowed to advocate a position, political or not, I’m curious why scientists are barred. If it’s true that we’re in the midst of the latest of several mass extinction events, I’d rather expect those in the know to get political about it. The alternative is to leave it to the usual rogue’s gallery of clerics, politicos, and celebrities, who frequently have their own agendas, as our cultural history has shown. If your objection is to style rather than substance, well, that’s just more marketing spin.

    • The problem of induction, which is one of Taleb’s themes (and taken from Karl Popper), is pretty universal, and applies to all domains of knowledge. As for climate science, the variables are practically infinite – recall that it was Edward Lorenz, a meteorologist, who stumbled on chaos theory by leaving weather patterns running on a primitive computer. Tiny errors in computation will cause gigantic deviations – the problem of induction in brief.

      At any rate, I don’t believe we can approximate certainty when it comes to climate. We may disagree about that.

      Never said scientists should be barred from having political opinions – seem to recall having said the exact opposite several times. My point is that no scientist, or group of scientists, embody “science” in the way that the college of cardinals embody the church. The invocation of science to end a debate strikes me, again, as the exact opposite of the scientific attitude.

  3. Quite so, oh Vulgar One, quite so… what I object to, and unlike you I make no attempt to hide my utter hatred, is people who seek to give their ‘critical preferences’ the violence backed force of law on oh so many issues. What we see on display is arrogance sanctified by a gnostic like sense of a higher insight to mere common folk, all the more absurd in this age where information is cheaper than at any time in human history but where insight is as rare as it ever was. The ‘random drift’ being disparaged is nothing less than people making several choices as they see fit, from which we must be saved by our betters, presumably. Pah.

    • Thanks, oh de, and I agree with your description of our state of affairs – even if I can’t quite live up to its emotive power. It has been a contention of this blog that the left-right, conservative-liberal, this party-that party schisms we grew up with are sadly outmoded: what matters is the divide between those who trust people to make up their own minds, and live their lives accordingly, and those who feel this trust is too dangerous and must be usurped by some brilliant elite. Thomas Sowell calls it the constrained vs the unconstrained visions, which is accurate but noncatchy. I tend to call aspirants to guardianship rationalists – they look to impose a logical formula where experience has trod an secure if imperfect path.

      BTW, I enjoy your effusions on Samizdata.

  4. Brutus says:

    OK, I’ll entertain this exchange a bit further.

    At issue, if I understand correctly, is a view that human activity should be minimally managed versus one where constraints are either agreed upon or imposed. Perhaps it’s a false dualism like the others cited, or maybe it’s a simple continuum. Your principled objection is that scientists are the new usurpers to the throne and use science like a bludgeon to end debate and withhold trust from the individual actor who should instead enjoy sovereignty in his choices. In that, scientists join a long history of such appointed (sometimes self-appointed) guardians, or to use a less charitable term, despots.

    Whereas the future can’t be known decisively, it would be foolhardy not to plan and/or guard for it. Whose vision is enacted — or no one’s (drift) — is a matter of competing ideologies, and to be fair, one has to acknowledge some but not all competing ideologies as legitimate. So in whom should authority and responsibility be vested? The cleric, the professional politician, the scientist, the pundit, or the individual? It’s clear that you, the Vulgar Moralist, believe authority rests with the individual. It’s a legitimate point of view but not the dominant one.

    My problem with that view is that the individual, despite the availability of more knowledge than ever, has a severely limited view, interest, and/or understanding of the impacts of his own choices. Moreover, when the behaviors of individuals aggregate, lacking constraints, effects such as the mob and the tragedy of the commons tend to emerge, not the so-called wisdom of crowds. Whereas the commons used to be merely a pasture for grazing, globalization has made the commons the entire ecosphere. In that regard, individuals typically don’t perceive the impact of their choices. Otherwise, human history wouldn’t be littered with, say, deforestation.

    Of all the candidates for an authoritative, comprehensive view of our current ecological dilemma, and we are in the midst of one, I dare say that scientists hew closer to reality — inasmuch as it can be known and extrapolated — than either the individual or the masses, who prefer not to concern themselves with things happening at the poles or in the rain forests. Government and religion distort reality worse than most claimants to authority and certainly can’t be trusted. It’s all quite imperfect.

    • Well, let me give it one more try as well – and I’ll begin by saying you make a compelling case. There are no paths to 100 percent certain future success. I agree that the individual may well run amok in a number of ways. My argument, in fact, assumes as much. This blog is about the relationship of freedom to morality: and morality provides those structures which, over long centuries of experience, have allowed both the individual and the community to succeed in their ends.

      The key question is whether one believes anyone – scientists, visionary priests, government experts, whatever – can foretell the future of chaotic arrangements such as human communities. If the answer is yes, then those people should be given absolute power. That was Plato’s solution, and Lenin’s in What Is To Be Done?, and that of many scientists today. But if the answer is no, then we must behave with appropriate modesty, and allow each person to pursue the (common) good from his own perspective. It’s imperfect, but preferable to Platonic tyranny.

      BTW, I posted on this question a few weeks ago in “The limits of human knowledge”:

      https://vulgarmorality.wordpress.com/2009/07/30/

      I don’t pretend to have responded fully, Brutus, but that’s the best I can do at the moment. May well pick up the topic in a future post.

    • Robert says:

      Brutus said:

      Government and religion distort reality worse than most claimants to authority(ie. “scientists”) and certainly can’t be trusted. It’s all quite imperfect.

      If a scientist’s research funds come from the government, he is the government.

      A government bureaucracy distorts scientific research by only funding research that encourages the expansion of said bureaucracy or research that is at best non-threatening. Then there is the perverse incentives generated by the funding priorities of that bureaucracy as demonstrated by “climategate”.

  5. Mark P says:

    “When scientists assume the missionary position, it’s science that gets ravaged.”

    Except, of course, that ‘scientists’ never adopted any such position on Global Warming. Many have been calling it bad science from the start. Perhaps even most.

    What happened here was some scientists got in with power and rode the wave.

    It’s happened plenty of times before. Lysenko in the Soviet Union had a very sweet time for decades.

    The current mob were caught out because the pressure on them from others was relentless. Every error was called out. Scientists, or at least people using the scientific method, have won this round.

  6. Corrinne Novak says:

    As a Scientist I have found it very sad that politicians are using “science” to further their more questionable agendas.

    Politicians of course find Science a very useful tool. Most layman do not understand it and so pronouncements can be handed down from the “high priests” to the lowly masses. If the masses dare question the actions of the politicians, they are told they could not possibly understand the complexities of the “science” Maverick Scientists can be controlled by the threat of cutting grant money or the refusing to publish contradictory work.

    Any Scientist who continues to buck the “political winds” will shortly find themselves out of work and blackballed. As a scientist who has been blackballed for close to ten years I can attest that this is a powerful weapon that is actually used in real life. Everyone is always looking for a “team player” ie someone who will not rock the boat. Welcome to the 21st century version of “science”

    Richard Feynman’s Science now seems dead.
    “It’s a kind of scientific integrity, a principle of scientific thought that corresponds to a kind of utter honesty – a kind of leaning over backwards. For example, if you’re doing an experiment, you should report everything that you think might make it invalid–not only what you think is right about it: other causes that could possibly explain your results; and things you thought of that you’ve eliminated by some other experiment, and how they worked – to make sure the other fellow can tell they have been eliminated.
    Details that could throw doubt on your interpretation must be given, if you know them. You must do the best you can – if you know anything at all wrong, or possibly wrong – to explain it. If you make a theory, for example, and advertise it, or put it out, then you must also put down all the facts that disagree with it, as well as those that agree with it. There is also a more subtle problem. When you have put a lot of ideas together to make an elaborate theory, you want to make sure, when explaining what it fits, that those things it fits are not just the things that gave you the idea for the theory; but that the finished theory makes something else come out right, in addition.
    In summary, the idea is to try to give all of the information to help others to judge the value of your contribution; not just the information that leads to judgment in one particular direction or another.”
    ~~Richard Feynman

  7. Michael says:

    I found this fascinating exchange as a result of my attempts to identify the actual scope (and detail) of ‘blackballing’ scientists, an aspect of a book that I am preparing. Are any of you aware of a source that compiles such information, privately or otherwise? Thank you.

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