Skip to comments.Does Science Have a Magisterium?
Posted on 12/10/2009 4:24:15 PM PST by GodGunsGuts
At National Review Online, conservative curmudgeon John Derbyshire has weighed in on the Climategate scandal by encouraging conservatives not to jump on the anti-science bandwagon. I share his worry and find his advice is good so far as it goes; but I think Derbyshire’s defense of science might actually encourage the skepticism he wants to prevent. Most of the trouble comes from his invocation of the word “science,” and his claim that science has a magisterium.
His article is called “Trust Science.” I’m not sure what that means. What is “science,” and how do we “trust” it? Imagine if someone said: “Trust philosophy” or “Trust humanities” or “Trust religion.” The command in each case is far too vague to inspire confidence. “Science” isn’t a person or a finite set of propositions that can be tested or divine revelation. It’s not even a single institution. So how exactly do you trust it?
What we should trust is solid conclusions derived from valid reasoning based on publicly available empirical evidence, especially when it leads to reliable resultssuch as getting your 737 from Seattle to New York. But the abstract noun “science” is too vaporous to capture that. Perhaps “science at its best” would be a better substitute.
A related problem is that Derbyshire appeals to a scientific magisterium: “Science contains a core magisterium, which we can and do trust.” This should give anyone who has followed the climate change debate the creepsa reaction Derbyshire anticipates in the column. But he seems blind to why talk of a scientific magisterium is creepy; so let me spell it out.
Other than listing the things Derbyshire thinks are settled and “without serious competitors,” he doesn’t really even identify what the magisterium is. This gives the impression that the magisterium is the subjectively determined list of things that people with power claim are settled. And that impression encourages the postmodern doubters of truth that Derbyshire hopes to keep back from the gates.
Science is different from the Catholic Church, which has a magisterium. This refers to the settled teaching authority of the Church, based on Scripture, the divine traditions reliably passed down from the apostles, guided by the Holy Spirit, and represented in the bishops in communion with the Bishop of Rome. And even this magisterium is only considered infallible under certain narrow circumstances. Although the Catholic explanation of the magisterium is subtle, the basic teachings of Catholicismand the distinctions between negotiable and non-negotiable teachingsare contained in texts such as the Catechism. The magisterium is easily identified with a single institution, which one is free to trust or not to trust.
But science has none of that, and doesn’t claim to. It’s not a single institution. It doesn’t claim to be based on divine revelation or be guided by the Holy Spirit. It doesn’t have a priesthood or a central authority. It doesn’t even have a settled body of teachings. Science isn’t, and ought not to be, a surrogate religion.
Of course, most of what we believe to be scientifically verified truth is based on the testimony of scientists, textbooks, and journalists. In fact, most of what we all believe about most things is based on testimony. That’s okay. But anyone with a passing acquaintance with the history of science knows that every age has had a reigning intellectual orthodoxy or orthodoxies, declared to be “settled science” (a term Derbyshire summons) that were later seen to be erroneous. It doesn’t follow that because most scientists believe something to be true, or hold to a “consensus,” it ought to be doubted. Sometimes there are well-founded consensuses. But if you have good reason to be suspicious of a claim made by scientists, including lots of scientists, then you’re not under an intellectual obligation to submit to it.
In fact, no one appeals to consensus on the really solid stuff. Have you ever heard anyone cry consensus when talking about the Periodic Table of the Elements? More often than not, “consensus” is used to intimidate and silence dissenters. A scientific magisterium sounds like consensus-on-steroids, and brings to mind the big, state-funded “science” of which philosophers of science like Michael Polanyi have rightly been suspicious. It’s reminiscent of the way the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is often invoked to silence debate about the causes of climate change.
Derbyshire is right that no one, conservative or not, should infer from the collusion and evidence manipulation of leading climate scientists that science is just one more political power trip. But in light of Climategate and the previously known shenanigans confirmed by the scandal, it’s up to scientists and the journalists who serve as their megaphones to rise to the defense of science at its bestscience based on solid, publically available evidence, valid arguments, and reasonable conclusions. We’ll see if they do that. In the meantime, invoking the authority of a scientific magisterium looks too much like an extreme form of an appeal to consensus, which may be one of the reasons for public skepticism in the first place.
I trust science without reservation - I’m not too trusting of some scientists or their conclusions though!
“Science” is whatever the party says it is.
I trust science. It is the scientist which I do not trust.
This applies just as much to AIDS skeptics and Creationists/IDers as it does climate science...or any other scientific endeavor for that matter.
Politically motivated lies spread by Al Goracle -no.
There are too many of those concentrating on Climate Studies at present.
They need to be purged, willingly or not.
Trust Science, but don’t trust a scientist with a finger in the financial pie.
SEE: Phil Jones, who admits he isnt allowed to admit that the Earth actually cooled from 1998 - 2005:
From: Phil Jones
To: John Christy
Subject: This and that
Date: Tue Jul 5 15:51:55 2005
There has been some email traffic in the last few days to a week - quite a bit really, only a small part about MSU. The main part has been one of your House subcommittees wanting Mike Mann and others and IPCC to respond on how they produced their reconstructions and how IPCC
produced their report.
In case you want to look at this see later in the email !
Also this load of rubbish !
This is from an Australian at BMRC (not Neville Nicholls). It began from the attached article. What an idiot.
The scientific community would come down on me in no
uncertain terms if I said the world had cooled from 1998. OK it has but it is only 7 years of data and it isnt statistically significant. The Australian also alerted me to this blogging ! I think this is the term ! Luckily I dont live in Australia.
AND SEE ALSO: ‘Climategate’ professor Phil Jones awarded £13 million in research grants.
Amen to that. Indeed, a good dose of market oriented science would cure that. I think it’s time to start phasing science over to the free market. Let supply and demand determine how many scientists we need.
Science is the search for truth. Yeah, I’d NEVER trust that. Seesh.
There is no science without fallible human beings. They are inseparable.
I am FOR science, REAL SCIENCE, unbiased science, not political hacks manipulating data to get a desired outcome.
People who have an agenda have no place in science.
That is not anti-science! And I find it offensive for anyone to question my love for science because I refuse to allow a few quacks who have fooled others into believing they are REAL scientists, when they are nothing more than agenda driven ideologues.
Science? Why not!
But who will tell science?
Science? What Science?
Anyway Science needs to improve and go on every day
Obviously you’ve read his other posts before....
I can’t think of any great scientist that is remembered down through the generations that became great and remembered for following the prevailing consensus.
They all overturned a prevailing belief, and the greater the consensus stacked against them, the more settled the science seemed, the more we revere the scientist today.
Since medical doctors have lost the ethos of the Hippocratic Oath, they have joined scientists in forgetting their humanity, in the pursuit of information devoid of knowledge and wisdom.
Setting aside religious beliefs for a moment, both scientists and doctors need to reexamine their whole spectrum of values.
To explain, values in a non-religious context can be looked at in three ways. The first of these is the scale of life. From simplest to most complex, life has inherent value, but life also has value to other forms of life. Most scientists grasp this well, understanding both that life is ephemeral, and that life consumes or displaces other life.
Many, unfortunately, do not look beyond just life, to realize that there are other values, other scales of values, beyond just life.
For example, if a person has value, does their family have more value, or their “people”, or their nation, or all people apart from other living things? It is easy to assume that many people are more important than one person, but this assumption is not always correct.
There are some scientists and doctors who try to place the value of the life of another person in context with the entire world. How arrogant! It is just another form of dehumanization, and an excuse to abuse another person with emotional impunity and indifference.
Some of them are overwhelmed by the idea of there being so many people in the world. It is easy for them to talk about how much “better” the world would be if a third, or a half, or even most people would just die. This is the problem of a lack of ethics.
And this is the bottom line, for both scientists and doctors. They either embrace life, if they are ethical, or they despise life, if they have no ethos.
The third kind of values are based in sympathy or empathy. Many scientists and doctors abhor this, however, because they just cannot muster such feelings And while the ethics found in religion could make a suitable replacement for this lack of sympathy or empathy, without it, all scientists and doctors can promise is destruction and death.
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