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.