Skip to comments.Antisocial Scientists
Posted on 03/31/2005 7:44:15 AM PST by randog
Another of the problems plaguing the left is their love-hate affair with science. You see this all the time in the storied halls of academe - social scientists arguing about "black boxes", "causality", the "agent-structure problem", and how "chaos theory" may be usefully applied to international relations. They sound like macaques discussing Proust.
People who confuse a passing familiarity with a few of the elements of scientific terminology, with a fundamental understanding of science, tend to come a cropper when they attempt to apply scientific precepts to unscientific areas or methods of inquiry. The problem, as it always is with pseudoscientists, is that they approach science as a religion rather than as what it really is - a method. This is because, to paraphrase Arthur C. Clarke, those who fail to understand science see it as magic. And to paraphrase Carl Sagan (since we're on a paraphraseological roll here), what the co-opters are hoping to do is to acquire the credibility accruing to science, without strict adherence to the method that is the source of that credibility.
The Kyoto debate is a case in point. As I have argued before, the confusion amongst liberals about what is and what is not science has led us down many a false path before (e.g. phrenology, eugenics, Lysenkoism). Kyoto is a case in point; the proponents of global warming cite evidence supporting their political position, and ignore (or even work to suppress) contrarian viewpoints. They treat science as a political game. But failure to acknowledge contrarian viewpoints invalidates the scientific method by ignoring them, you are engaging not in science, but in political advocacy. There is nothing wrong with political advocacy, provided that you acknowledge it as such and provided that you dont attempt to hijack the hard-won credibility of science by pretending that you have applied the scientific method when clearly you have not.
And this is one reason why the left is missing the boat on the current goings-on in the Middle East. If you examine what they have been saying since the debut of the Bush Administration, we find constant repetition of the same analysis, the same reasons for the appalling conditions, the tyranny, the oppression, the lack of equality and religious freedoms, and the improbability of anyone making a difference. Americans were at fault (for imperialism, for oil lust, for hyper-affluence, yada yada yada); Americans were arrogant to try to fix a region "they couldn't understand"; Americans would fail, as has everyone else, to find a way out of the morass. And anyway, "Halliburton-Cheney-Israel-Neocon-Bush-Moron", so there.
The utility of any hypothesis lies in the extent to which it explains observed phenomena. The credibility of the scientific method derives from the willingness of scientists to modify or discard any theorem that fails to adequately explain observable phenomena. Newtonian physics was modified by Maxwells equations, and both later found further refinement in Einsteins work on special and general relativity. Other lacunae in Newton were resolved by subsequent work on quantum electro- and chromodynamics. Each of these theories still contain complexities and asymmetries that will almost certainly be resolved by further refinements or, perhaps, by chucking the whole lot if somebody comes up with a more elegant theory that explains everything at once. But this is the strength of science the willingness to alter hypotheses to explain new data, or if necessary to discard them entirely and start over.
(The Carnivorous Beaver points out that individual scientists often remain wedded to their most dearly-cherished theories in defiance of new data - Einstein's problems with quantum mechanics, for example, or the fact that Carl Sagan went to his grave an ardent proponent of global warming. But individual vagaries notwithstanding, the strength of science as a discipline is that regardless of the stubborness of individual scientists, other scientists will come along to acknowledge and prove that which their forebears could, or would, not. Einstein's quantum-phobia did not stop Schrodinger or Heisenberg; in fact, it probably encouraged them).
But what is not acceptable not ever is to bend, twist, fold, staple, warp or otherwise mutilate the data in order to force it to conform to a cherished theory. And this is what the left is doing in a vain attempt to simultaneously rescue their cherished theories and explain the ongoing events in the Middle East. The undeniable success of the Afghan and Iraqi elections, the emergence of legitimate governments, the decline of the insurgency, Libyas WMD disclosures, incremental movements towards democracy in Saudi Arabia and Egypt, the increase in demonstrations for freedom in Iran, the enormous popular demands for freedom in Lebanon all of this must be explained; but according to the left, it must be explained without discarding, or even substantially modifying, the fundamental premise of the left: that America is to blame for everything; that the war to oust Saddam was unjustified; and that George W. Bush is a simpleton.
Somehow, the circle must be squared!
And, ever game, the left is trying valiantly to square that circle; Nancy Soderberg gave it a shot today in the scrofulous recto-verso of the Glob and Wail. Her tortured arguments, and her abject failure to understand that total and unalloyed foreign policy victories are unlikely to cause Bush to soften his doctrine, place her among the Great Auks of modern journalism another sub-species doomed to extinction by irrelevance and failure to adapt. Sic transit gloria Nancy. Omit flowers.
But Nancy is not alone; this malady afflicts even governments. Witness, for example, the palpable (and delicious!) agony emanating from the Euro-left as they ask obviously rhetorical questions like Was Bush Right After All? (The Independent, 7 March 2005). Some governments Australia, Britain have been onside from day one. Some France are attempting to come to grips with the unpleasant ramifications of absolute victory for Bush (there is nothing so quintessentially French as magnanimity in defeat).
And still other governments have been less willing to entertain doubt about their own policies, preferring to trumpet their moral rectitude while adhering to older and patently unworkable, but more comforting, theses. They are the modern equivalent of the acolytes and philosophers of alchemy, of phlogiston, of the luminferous ether and the indivisible atom relics doomed to irrelevance in a world which has passed them by, because of their failure to adapt.
As death is the engine of evolution, so is error the engine of science. Scientists glory in identifying error, in finding minute flaws to exploit in the work of their forebears. The flaws Einstein found in Newton and Maxwell were obscure beyond belief; why radiant energy is emitted in packets rather than continuously, for example, or why light from distant stars seems to change course as it passes the sun. For exploiting these chinks in the armour of his predecessors, he was exalted to the point that his very name has become synonymous with genius. Indeed, the only true mortal sin in science lies not in committing error, but in failing to acknowledge it.
A theory can never be conclusively proven, only confirmed (or, more often, disproven) by experiment. And a theory remains valid only so long as there is not a single fact that it cannot explain. The Middle East today is rife with facts observable, undeniable, momentous facts that the cherished theories of the left simply cannot even begin to explain. And yet there has been virtually no willingness to change the theories to explain the new facts; indeed, with very few exceptions, we have seen only tight-lipped retrenchment. This is the dedication to science so beloved of the left the same dedication displayed by proponents of crystal meditation, spoon-bending, alien visitation and global warming. Science will be nurtured only to the extent that it supports our political prejudices. The technical term for this is "junk science."
Until they are willing to modify their theories to explain observed phenomena (or discard them and propose entirely new theories), the antisocial scientists of the left belong in the same intellectual dumpster as the astrologers, the palmists, the astral chanellers, and the spoon-benders.
It won't cause them to think, but at least - one hopes - it might shut them up.
Not sure if its "science ping-worthy" but interesting none-the-less.
Thanks for the ping. A very good essay, but I've been getting strict about what's "ping-worthy" lately, to avoid abusing the list. To get a ping, it's got to be about something that's scientifically new or interesting, or else something of political interest (like school board battles over evolution). I'll break my own rule if there's no active thread going for the group, but that's not the situation today.
Your article contains great thoughts. I was thinking along these lines also. One of the faults with modern society is this theory of disorder from which order is supposed to come. This travesty started with the flood of former nuclear scientists into other areas which they did not understand. But, even earlier, this order out of disorder was an old masonic slogan, to your surprise may be.
The profanation of science has economic roots. They are in corporate infrastructure. That corporations are "capitalist" enterprise is the deceit of the century. They are perfect socialist institutions, owned by "public", ruled by appointed managers, making no profit (ridiculous 1% on capital or "losing money"). Read:
Adolf A. Berle "Power Without Property" NY 1959.
He was US Secretary of State.
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