Rod Dreher

Rod Dreher


The problem with blindly trusting scientists

posted by Rod Dreher

You may have read that a British investigative panel cleared UK climate scientists of Climategate charges (that they had manipulated data to support political ends). But it was not a complete exoneration. Climate scientist Roger Pielke had this to say about the mess:

“The e-mails don’t at all change the fundamental tenets of the science,” said Roger Pielke Jr., a professor of environmental studies at the University of Colorado. “But they changed the notion that people could blindly trust one authoritative group, when it turns out they’re just like everybody else.”

This is a very, very good thing. We should be responsibly skeptical of authority — not only religious authority, but scientific authority. We live in an age of Scientism, in which many people invest science with the power of ideology. Wendell Berry calls this “modern superstition,” because people have given science the powers they used to give to religion. Berry wrote a fantastic book defending the integrity and value of art and religion as ways of knowing, against the idea that Science should be the undisputed master of all. He doesn’t oppose science, but he thinks that all three ways of knowing — art, science, religion — must be understood as limited. The trouble comes when any one is elevated as supreme above all others, and their spheres.
That people still uncritically trust scientists after the history of the 20th century proves that there’s nothing so blind as the person who will not see. To take but one example: the best science of the early 20th century included eugenics, which was all the rage in the most elevated and progressive circles. It’s not so much that the findings by eugenic scientists were incorrect, as it was that the scientistic bent of society took those findings as a guide to morality and social policy. In other words, science told us that there were genetic distinctions between races and peoples; therefore, the superior ones, as determined by science, should dominate the inferior, and indeed have an obligation to use genetics to elevate the inferiors by selective breeding, and by discouraging the “unfit” from breeding. This seems monstrous to us now, because it is monstrous. But that’s what the best scientists and their supporters believed at the time. We look back quite rightly in dismay at how Religion, when it was dominant in our culture, bullied science and led us astray. The lesson that Religion is not a sure guide to all truth, and must be confined epistemologically to its proper sphere, has been well learned in the West. But we are still captive to the idea that Science is the definitive and authoritative way of knowing, and that it is sufficient unto itself to direct the affairs of men.
To this point, and speaking about the Kagan/ACOG scandal, the NYT’s Ross Douthat has some wise words. Excerpt:

The culture of science has a bias toward action — if something can be done, scientists almost always want to do it, or at least want the right to do it, without any interference from the civil authorities. This bias is natural enough, and even salutary, so long as we recognize that it is a bias, and don’t allow ourselves to be bullied into thinking that it’s some sort of scientific law or testable hypothesis.
But such bullying is commonplace: Throughout the stem cell debate, for instance, supporters of embryo-destructive research have consistently invoked the mantle of capital-S Science to close off what debate on what are ultimately moral and political questions, better settled in a legislature than a laboratory. In such controversies — and there will be more and more of them, as our technological capabilities advance — the problem isn’t exactly that scientific findings are being “spun” by one side or another. It’s that the prerogatives of science are being invoked on questions that science has no special competence to answer.

Ross cites a book about science and democracy by Yuval Levin, which sounds well worth our time. Excerpt:

As the ability of science to remake the natural world continues to expand, science itself, or at least our concession to its authority, has left us increasingly powerless to decide how best to use our novel mastery. The problem is not that our inventions might be used for both good and evil purposes, but that we denizens of the scientific age are at risk of becoming unable to distinguish between good and evil purposes. Moral imperatives, including especially those profound moral imperatives at the root of the scientific enterprise, are becoming clouded over just as the scientific enterprise begins to focus its attention most directly on the human animal itself.
This leaves science less capable of deciding how it should apply its power, and it leaves society less capable of properly directing the scientific project. Science from the outset has sought not only to know but also to do. The question is: To do what? Without resort to informed moral judgment the answer, which used to be “to do good,” slowly comes to be “to do what can be done.” In this way the means of science come to be confused with its ends, the progress of research becomes an end in itself, and we move from the imperative to seek the power to do what we know is good to the notion that whatever we have the power to do is good. “We have bricks, so let us build a tower,” we say to one another in the scientific age.



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John E. - Agn Stoic

posted July 8, 2010 at 12:16 pm


Wendell Berry calls this “modern superstition,” because people have given science the powers they used to give to religion.
Well, to be fair, science has a pretty good track record on healing the sick, the lame, and the deaf. Making progress on the blind too…
Science from the outset has sought not only to know but also to do.
No, that’s engineering’s bailiwick.
…and that it is sufficient unto itself to direct the affairs of men.
Does anyone really believe this? This is clearly part of the political domain.



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TTT

posted July 8, 2010 at 12:34 pm


The e-mails don’t at all change the fundamental tenets of the science,” said Roger Pielke Jr., a professor of environmental studies at the University of Colorado. “But they changed the notion that people could blindly trust one authoritative group, when it turns out they’re just like everybody else
This is clearly just a “parting shot” that signifies nothing. If the fundamental scientific revelations and process are sound, then, frankly, how dare anybody quibble about private emails in which one scientist said to another “I hate my critics and I wish they’d shut up”? What do scientific findings have to do with anybody liking or disliking their critics? Do people out there doubt that scientists have smelly armpits too, and only if they smell like lilac and rosewater can their results be trusted?
It’s a petty, anti-evidentiary, personality-based fetish, unworthy of being included in any serious discussion of the pursuit and application of science.



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kevin s.

posted July 8, 2010 at 12:57 pm


“If the fundamental scientific revelations and process are sound, then, frankly, how dare anybody quibble about private emails in which one scientist said to another “I hate my critics and I wish they’d shut up”?”
The issue was that there means of shutting them up involved misleading representations of data and opacity generally.



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Marian

posted July 8, 2010 at 1:18 pm


“The culture of science has a bias toward action — if something can be done, scientists almost always want to do it, or at least want the right to do it, without any interference from the civil authorities.”
As opposed to the political class, which will want to do whatever they want to do even if it CAN’T be done, without interference from scientists?
Captcha: menthol holders



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stari_momak

posted July 8, 2010 at 1:42 pm


Because three generations of idiots aren’t enough!



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Geoff G.

posted July 8, 2010 at 4:43 pm


You know, there’s a reason why educators think it’s important to teach the scientific method in high school and college (regardless of your major).
But of course, doing that would be contrary to God’s word. So we end up with politicians and voters who are idiots and who either blindly trust everything they’re told because it comes from an Authority or who blindly discount all of the science because it comes from the wrong Authority.
Religious thinking is what got us into this mess and it sure as heck won’t get us out.



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Geoff G.

posted July 8, 2010 at 4:46 pm


Throughout the stem cell debate, for instance, supporters of embryo-destructive research have consistently invoked the mantle of capital-S Science to close off what debate on what are ultimately moral and political questions, better settled in a legislature than a laboratory.
This is such a strawman; Douthat really ought to know better. The arguments in favor of stem cell research mostly focused on potential cures that might come out of it. That’s why they had Michael J. Fox making ads in favor of it, not some guy in a lab coat.



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Peterk

posted July 8, 2010 at 9:08 pm


not really sure you can call it an exoneration when the only people questioned were those involved in the problem. Muir Russell didn’t even ask a key question “did you destroy any emails”, a key question because Jones had asked others at CRU to delete/destroy emails. as for hacking the emails were not hacked ie they weren’t in a secure server. the server they were stored on was unsecured and open to all. I suspect someone within the CRU or EAU got tired of the duplicity and the stonewalling of the FoI request, and decided to become a whistleblower and release the emails.



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MH

posted July 8, 2010 at 11:08 pm


People blindly trusting scientists didn’t pay attention in science class or read “The Demon Haunted World” to understand the scientific method.
Also, John E. is correct. Scientists are the thinkers, engineers are the builders, and MBA’s are suppose to be on arc B going back to Golgafrincham. But due to a mistake they wound up in charge.



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Paidagogos

posted July 9, 2010 at 1:35 am


This is a good article. It is accurate and fair with balanced view. The theme of the article is demonstrated and supported by the rash of rancor-filled comments posted by worshipers at the shrine of scientism.



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Stylo

posted July 9, 2010 at 2:37 am


@TTT: “how dare anybody quibble about private emails in which one scientist said to another “I hate my critics and I wish they’d shut up”?”
TTT, there was so much more than rude manners or rejoicing in climate skeptic John Daly’s death. There was bullying of who could peer review, who got published in peer review, requests to delete evidence, willful non-compliance with FOI requests, and redefining what is the peer review literature if necessary. If the science was so sound you wouldn’t be so desperate to make climategate go away.



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TTT

posted July 9, 2010 at 10:11 am


There was bullying of who could peer review, who got published in peer review, requests to delete evidence, willful non-compliance with FOI requests, and redefining what is the peer review literature if necessary.
No, there was TALKING about doing those. There is no evidence that any of it actually HAPPENED. This is a perfect proof of how “ClimateGate” accusers must always shift the goalposts into complaining about thoughtcrime, as they have never had any evidence that anything improper was actually done instead of wished-for in private emails.
One guy says to another “I wish those articles would disappear”. Now follow the lifespan of said articles–and notice that they appeared after all. One guy says “This article seems wrong, can anyone find a way to shoot it down?”–and then nothing further is said, there’s no way to tell if the article was shot down or not, or if it was, if it happened for ethical or unethical reasons. One guy says “I want to punch my critics in the nose”…. must I continue with this ridiculous exercise in separating fantasy from reality?
As for “redefining what peer review is,” that particular bit of venting was in response to one specific industry journal in 2003 publishing an anti-AGW article of such poor quality that half its editorial board resigned in protest and then the publisher refused to allow any rebuttals or re-examinations. It would be insane to expect professional scientists NOT to be outraged in response to such shoddy publication practices.
But apparently, AGW is only real if scientists are flawless emotionless android demigods. Every time their emotions change, a little piece of the world is automatically destroyed, like the rise of the Nothing in “The Neverending Story.” Thoughtcrime is strong stuff.



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Job

posted July 9, 2010 at 8:03 pm


Stop using Wikipedia as a source.



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meh

posted July 10, 2010 at 12:56 am


“The lesson that Religion is not a sure guide to all truth, and must be confined epistemologically to its proper sphere, has been well learned in the West.
How is religion a sure guide even to its proper sphere?



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Jeff

posted July 16, 2010 at 5:45 pm


Eugenics was a social movement and a fad, not science. There has never been any verifiable evidence for it. It was built almost entirely on personal anecdotes and hearsay. Yet influential people accepted it as science and as truth with tragic results.



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