November 7, 2006 | David F. Coppedge

Unhappiness with Big Science: It’s Not Just Creationism Anymore

Feeling marginalized?  Unable to get a hearing?  Shunned by your peers?  Subject to attacks and ridicule?  Rejected by leading publications and the press, while your opponents get free rein for overhyped claims?  You may not be a politician or creationist.  You may be a scientist with views that differ from the consensus of Big Science.  Here are a couple of cases where the complaints of outsiders in other disputes sound very similar to those coming from the defenders of creation or intelligent design.

  1. Global Warming:  That the mainstream journals are convinced human-aggravated global warming is a fact no longer in need of proof, and that drastic measures must be taken to avoid catastrophe, needs no documentation.  Try to disagree with this diagnosis, however, and you may feel like Claude Allegre, a member of the French and US Academy of Sciences who jumped ship; see a press release from the U S Senate Committee on the Environment and Public Works.  The release contains a list of other scientists who reject the consensus notion.  On Saturday, Mike Hulme, one of Britain’s top climate scientists, wrote for the BBC News how the rhetoric has, nonetheless, been intensifying in the media.  He showed instances of the hysteria being reported about a coming “catastrophe” that is coming due to “chaotic” “irreversible” and “rapid” human-caused changes that are putting the Earth at a “tipping point” or “point of no return.”  Hulme lamented, “I have found myself increasingly chastised by climate change campaigners when my public statements and lectures on climate change have not satisfied their thirst for environmental drama and exaggerated rhetoric.”
        In a balancing act on this subject unusual for a newspaper, The Telegraph (UK) is giving prominent press to Christopher Monckton, a global warming critic, in a 2-part series.  Monckton, who once advised Margaret Thatcher on scientific claims and scares, disputes the famous “hockey stick” graph and the climate models that scared the UN and the UK into ominous responses.  The consensus is wrong, he argues, because it is built on bad science.  Monckton gives examples of how data were deliberately fudged or ignored to fit a preconceived result.  A 400-year medieval warming period, he asserts, was 3°C warmer than today’s rise; Vikings farmed areas in Greenland now under permafrost.  This well-documented warm period was deliberately censored, he alleges, to preserve the hocky-stick graph.  In addition, the model used to make the famous graph produces the same uptick at the end regardless of the data, even when random numbers are used.
        His bottom line is that “politicians, scientists and bureaucrats contrived a threat of Biblical floods, droughts, plagues, and extinctions worthier of St John the Divine than of science.”  The Telegraph preceded Monckton’s report with a caution that many would find it a “highly controversial polemic.”  But if he and the other climate-scare skeptics are right – or even partly right – it raises serious questions about how the Royal Society and other scientific institutions ostensibly devoted to scientific objectivity could arrive at hard-line, monolithic, politically-charged positions, such that skeptics must find other venues for the debate.  Cf. 12/27/2003 editorial, “Aliens Cause Global Warming.”
  2. String Theory:  “Teach the controversy!” shouted the title of a book review in Science (Oct. 27), borrowing a phrase from the intelligent design movement.  It’s not that Aaron Pierce believes string theory is The Truth that he criticized Lee Smolin’s new book The Trouble With Physics: The Rise of String Theory, the Fall of a Science, and What Comes Next; it’s that Smolin was so stern in his criticism of the academy for embracing it.  “Smolin believes this represents an unprecedented breakdown in the marketplace of ideas: string theory is so entrenched in the academy that the result is a de facto conspiracy to suppress dissenting ideas.  To his mind, string theorists have too much at stake to make an unbiased assessment, and so it falls to unbiased outsiders like him to make the judgment for them.”  Pierce feels this is a “bold claim,” but is he, an insider reviewing a book unfavorably in an insider journal, the one to judge?  Smolin was not given space to respond.

Are the big scientific institutions in need of reform?  Has scientific “consensus” become an intellectual straitjacket instead of a protection against pseudoscience?  To what extent are funding policies tied to political fads?  How can unpopular views get a fair hearing?  That these questions are being asked in fields far removed from intelligent design or creationism may be symptoms of fundamental flaws in the way controversies are handled in the context of scientific institutions.

  CEH takes no position on global warming, since it is off-topic, but mentions the story above to show how others are finding out how closed and incorrigible the institutions of science can be, and how the media can hype a view beyond all reason.  Monckton points to documented instances of deliberate deception that were rationalized or ignored even after they were made public.  Can scientific institutions actually be guilty of such things?  Answer that question with another.  Are they made up of human beings?
    As for string theory, Pierce listened briefly to Smolin’s complaint that string theory is unfalsifiable and makes no predictions, but he did what the Darwiniacs do: he appealed to the best-in-field fallacy: string theory is “the most promising tool” physicists have, he claimed, and needs more time than impatient critics want to give it.  Let’s exchange “Darwinism” as the subject of the sentence and ask if 147 years is long enough.  Pierce may have invoked “teach the controversy” as the title of his article, but did not follow through.  He dismissed Smolin’s criticisms and rationalized the consensus staying in power.
    Speaking of predictions and falsifiability, did you know these are no guarantees of good science?  There is no agreement among philosophers of science about what constitutes valid science; there is no one “scientific method,” and there are no agreed-on demarcation criteria that can separate science from pseudoscience.  This has been well known for decades despite numerous attempts to solve the problem; no set of criteria are simultaneously necessary and sufficient to distinguish something as scientific.  The problems with empiricism and inductive logic go even further back, to David Hume and even to the ancient Greeks.

    For a detailed and mind-opening look at how complex these questions are, and how difficult it is to define “science” in a way that grants it epistemic privilege, get the new set of lectures on Philosophy of Science by Jeffrey L. Kasser (North Carolina State U) available from The Teaching Company.  Kasser will tie your head in knots with his witty and incisive debunking of the validity of some of our most intuitive notions about science, and even about our ability to observe and make sense of the world.
    Lest one dismiss these as Kasser’s own teasers, he cites the leading philosophers from Hume to the present.  He demonstrates how even simple problems like confirming the proposition “all copper conducts electricity” or “all ravens are black” continue to challenge the best thinkers of the 20th and 21st centuries.  Verification and validation of scientific claims are much more fraught with logical loopholes and doubts than most people realize.
    How, then, can the Darwinists presume to tell us what happened millions and billions of years ago?  Saying “most scientists accept” a notion is not enough.  And on what basis can scientific institutions censor views that are equally logical and empirically supported but go against the consensus?  The common notions about science still assumed to give its knowledge claims superiority, such as logical positivism, are highly suspect, if not defunct, in the view of nearly all philosophers of science.  Yet these are the notions routinely assumed and employed by the Darwin defenders in courtrooms, classrooms and the scientific journals.

Big Science (08/19/2003 commentary) has become a twin of Big Labor: a liberal (12/02/2004), money-hungry, monolithic political force with dubious relations to its founding principles and constituency, and even more dubious credibility.  Individual scientists, like individual laborers, often do honest work.  The party bosses, though, do not always represent them or their best interests.  Power breeds conformity.  The rank and file do what they must to stay out of trouble.  Now you have some insight into the ruling Darwin Party’s behavior toward intelligent design (see 10/27, 09/01/2006, 08/21/2006, 06/21/2006, 05/09/2006, 05/19/2005, etc).
    If you enjoyed this entry, you might also like to review the entries from 12/11/2005, “Does Big Science Know What Science Is?”, 01/19/2006, “Peer Review: Can You Trust a Scientific Journal Paper?”, and 03/17/2006, “Can Scientific Journals Perpetuate False Ideas?”

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Categories: Politics and Ethics

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