Scientists aren’t science – and science isn’t a method

A thoughtful commenter to my post on the hacked emails of climate scientists from the East Anglia CRU heard, in my tone, “contempt for those who might attempt to use their knowledge and insight to direct human events.”  It wasn’t intended.  I don’t feel contempt for science or its practitioners.  But my unceasing admiration for science as an enterprise is matched by a perception of its fragility – let me say it bluntly:  its mortality.

The science of classical antiquity was the greatest collection of human knowledge before the rise of modern science.  It died.  It was entombed under the wreckage of the Roman Empire.  How can the cumulative intellectual achievement of a thousand years perish?  We know conditions changed.  Untutored Germans lorded over the empire’s populations.  Poverty, insecurity, and ignorance afflicted ever more lives.

The requisite behaviors for classical science were lost.  The fragile threads of its working traditions snapped.  It died.  Once dead, it would take a historical miracle to bring science back:  a resurrection, a Renaissance.

Today we consider ourselves invulnerable to such a catastrophic fall from grace.  There are no barbarians at the gates.  Education is near universal.  Classical science, we imagine, was only the childhood of knowledge, while in our day the human race has attained the age of reason.

We invest our scientists with enormous prestige because we believe them to personify the universal reach of science, and we feel confident our science is immune to decline because it rests on an infallible, almost magical, method.  Yet neither of these beliefs is true.  Scientists are merely workers in a knowledge profession, and no more embody science than an ambulance-chaser embodies the majesty of the law.

Modern science, like its classical ancestor, is a tradition, a set of culturally evolved  behaviors and human relations – many methods have been found in this tradition, but virtually none of any practical use to the scientist.  Peter Medawar, Nobel laureate in medicine, wrote:

Science, broadly considered, is incomparably the most successful enterprise human beings have ever engaged upon; yet the methodology that had presumably made it so, when propounded by learned laymen, is not attended to by scientists, and when propounded by scientists is a misrepresentation of what they do.  Only a minority of scientists have received instruction in scientific methodology, and those that have done seem to be no better off.

Which brings me back to those appalling emails and documents from the climate professionals at the CRU, and to the attempt of the latter – in the words of my commenter – to use their knowledge and insight to direct human affairs.

The CRU workers vandalized the traditions of science with abandon, for reasons that may have been idealistic, ideological, or simply venal.  It’s impossible to say, and it doesn’t matter.  They wanted to direct human affairs, and to that end they persecuted those who contradicted their findings, corrupted the peer review process, flattered journalists, concealed and deleted data, in fact hid their proceedings behind the veil of the temple of science, from which they emerged, now and then, to prophesy doom.

The stakes are immense.  In the lead articles of its November issue, the Scientific American endorsed an initial investment in green technologies of $100 trillion over 20 years.  To achieve this, our present political and economic systems would have to be scrapped and new structures put in place, with scientists directing from the top – assuming, in my terms, guardianship over the human race.

What makes critics barking mad, of course, is the evidence from the CRU documents, which demonstrates without a shred of doubt these particular science professionals weren’t relying on their knowledge or insight.  Seduced by the immensity of the prize, they systematically obscured their knowledge.  They fudged, and they cheated.

This is evident from their reaction to the decline in global temperatures over the last decade.  In public, the CRU climatologists argued with some vehemence that global warming will be a calamity for our species.  In private, they were horrified when warming stopped in 1998, and conjured methodological “tricks” to conceal this fact – enshrined in the notorious phrase, “hide the decline.”  Such duplicity effectively rules out idealism as their motive.

But there’s another aspect of the scandal which I find even more troubling, though it has received less attention:  the damage done to science, to the scientific tradition.  At the CRU, as in medieval theology, the answer was known.  Virtuosity was demonstrated in the various techniques for reaching the one answer.  This approach soon pollutes and confuses the fact-seeking mind:  reality, after all, has now become an obstacle to be surmounted.  The hacked documents from the CRU betray a disorientation, a bizarre loss of coherence, which is humorous on the surface but frightening in its implications.

The commented software code in the HARRY_READ_ME.txt file – described as the “core of CRU’s climate model” – reads like something out of Through the Looking Glass. Facts mean what climatologists say they mean.  We realize immediately, on looking at the arbitrary muddle of the code, why the CRU imposed such secrecy.  The alternative, we now see, was to fall from the pinnacle of professional prestige to the depths of ridicule and contempt.

The file calls to mind some epigone in the dim twilight of the Roman Empire, copying a copy of Ptolemy’s Almagest, introducing more errors with each version, growing irretrievably divorced from the spirit of inquiry which sustained classical science.

I don’t really believe mad scientists are going to take over the world.  But I do worry about arrogant, irresponsible professionals tearing away at the fabric of social relations which keeps modern science alive.  If science was merely a method, there would be no harm done:  we would just go back to the book, find the formula, and start over. Unfortunately, science is craft, behavior, tradition, and once these are forgotten science can be lost.

I worry that my children’s generation will stand on the edge of a chasm darkened by ignorance and zealotry.  It adds a deeper, sadder meaning to the phrase, “hide the decline.”

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8 Responses to Scientists aren’t science – and science isn’t a method

  1. Roger Knights says:

    Much as I hate to say it, the phrase “hide the decline” isn’t as damning as it seems, and it doesn’t refer to the flat-lining of the global temperature in this century, but to a failure of recent tree-ring proxies to behave properly.

    “But there’s another aspect of the scandal which I find even more troubling, though it has received less attention: the damage done to science, to the scientific tradition.”

    The scientific establishment were given a red flag about the nature of The Team when the Wegman report was released three years ago, but they were too chicken-hearted, too infected by the AGW meme, and too committed to guild solidarity to heed it. Being complicit, “science” (as a social institution) deserves to have its reputation suffer some collateral damage in the form of losing the shine on its halo.

    I think the anger at “science” is really anger at modern science’s bureaucratic overlay, at its arrogance in thinking that its peer review process provides it with a self-correcting mechanism, and that its “democratic” funding process at the NSF is a good guardian against science getting off the rails. A few simple reforms could fix these problems. Henry Bauer’s book Scientific Literacy and the Myth of the Scientific Method suggests some solutions. Here is a link to one of Bauer’s papers:

    Science in the 21st Century: Knowledge Monopolies and Research Cartels

    By HENRY H. BAUER
    Professor Emeritus of Chemistry & Science Studies
    Dean Emeritus of Arts & Sciences
    Virginia Polytechnic Institute & State University

    Journal of Scientific Exploration, Vol. 18, No. 4, pp. 643–660, 2004
    http://henryhbauer.homestead.com/21stCenturyScience.pdf

    • This is why I love blogging: you learn so damn much. Thanks. Is the book still in print? I’m actually doing a scan of the literature on scientific methods – I don’t recall Bauer’s book showing up on Amazon.

      Will dig into the papers, in any case.

    • Victor S says:

      Roger, you wrote “failure of recent tree-ring proxies to behave properly.” What does properly mean? Does it mean they did not show warming?

      As far as I can tell from an admittedly cursory look at the actions of some of the code and some ‘corrections’ is that all of it biased the temperatures upward. It was and is an entirely dishonest mess more like alchemy than actual science.

  2. Matt Warren says:

    I am quite enamored of science in the general sense. Your depiction of science as a craft is apt, though. It’s naive to assume that one pursuit has superiority over another because of its stated aims. Like any other pursuit, you have to be vigilant and critical.

    You’d think that’d scientists themselves would know better, but I guess that would be to assume they aren’t human. Thanks for the reminder that they are.

    • Along with the industrial revolution – to which it was closely related – modern science has been the most life-changing development in the history of our species. Medawar was right about that. My concern is that science isn’t immortal, or eternal, or ordained in the natural scheme of things.

      It’s people working with other people in a certain mode of behavior. When those behaviors change, when they are exploited for power and prestige as they have been at the CRU, the whole enterprise pales and sickens in the eyes of the public.

  3. Brutus says:

    Before offering my comments, which often take the regrettable form of disagreement rather than mere discussion, let me acknowledge some of the things with which I agree. Yes, as a human institution, science sometimes fails when its practitioners misbehave or veer into other arenas, namely, politics. The continuous fight for funding also places scientific inquiry in a subservient position to economics and realpolitiks, with obvious implications. I also agree that the scientific outlook is vulnerable to loss or disappearance, and I have argued elsewhere that for the masses science is already irrelevant so long as technological innovation continues to provide a constant flow of new goodies. (It’s worth noting that science and technology are subtly distinct.) Also, the self-correcting structure of scientific inquiry is indeed flawed and often suffers setbacks. But I know of no other area of human endeavor so committed to peer evaluation and revision, so bad science is eventually unmasked.

    The core of your objection, lost in many of the details correctly observed, seems to be that scientists now seek greater influence (your word is guardianship) than in the past over the course of human affairs. Neither of us really cares whether the motivation is high minded, venal, or somewhere in the middle. That’s irrelevant. However, you’re projecting a kind of sainthood on scientists (again, largely irrelevant to most outside the media) that may be the root of your disillusionment. Yes, they’re human, just like the rest of us, and sometimes adopt unscientific positions and behaviors. No one is beyond criticism. It is inevitable, however, that we self-organize into social structures having leaders at the top. Personally, I don’t want scientists in leadership positions for which they’re ill suited. But neither do I want their influence negated and ignored as it has been since the Reagan era. In the political arena these days, information is exceptionally open to interpretation and massage — spin, if you will. Cut loose from scientific observation and historical fact, the culture has entered into a hyperreal phase where our perceptions are distorted by a bizarre, holographic projection of reality. Albert Borgmann has written about this. Only a few antidotes to that funhouse mirror exist, and science done right is among the primary ones. When some scientists perform badly, as is apparently true of the East Anglia CRU crowd, yes, by all means, discredit and disenfranchise them, but don’t throw the baby out with the bath water. We still need the baby.

    Finally, the spin surrounding the AGW debate has clearly unmoored quite a few people, those at least willing to entertain the idea, anyway. First there is support in the data, then there isn’t; there is scientific consensus, then there isn’t. Belief in this threat has now become an article of internal faith, like unresolvable debates over abortion, capital punishment, or Mac vs. PC. That’s the spin machine at work. However, there is an underlying reality that is immune to spin. It’s outside the scope of your blog post to pursue this idea any further.

    • Brutus, unlike the CRU I find disagreement rather bracing. And (having said that) I actually agree with much of what you say. I differ in my interpretation of history: I don’t recall any golden age of governmental consultation with scientists, hence I missed the moment it passed away. As for ours being an era of spin – spin and eloquence are two sides of the same coin, and both are necessary in a form of government that ultimately depends on public opinion. I’m pretty sure you don’t mean to say that scientists should step into our political discussions to throw the penalty flag on who’s “wrong” in some cosmic sense.

      This blog pertains to freedom and morality, not politics or science. My concern about the CRU climatologists is that they wanted control, not influence. That touches on our ability to make choices – our freedom. My concern about the entire AGW debate is that it uses science as a pretext to pass a moral judgment on our way of life.

  4. John Markley says:

    “Contempt for those who might attempt to use their knowledge and insight to direct human events” is an entirely healthy and rational emotion, given the oppression, misery, and towering mountains of corpses such people tend to leave in their wake.

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