Who Really Is “Anti-Science”?

by Bruce S. Thornton

FrontPage Magazine

In any national election we can depend on the usual liberal ad hominemattacks on Republicans and their candidates. One chestnut already appearing is the charge that Republicans comprise the “anti-science party,” as even a Republican, presidential primary candidate Jon Huntsman, fretted recently. Huntsman’s angst arose over doubts expressed by some other candidates, particularly Texas governor Rick Perry, that human-caused climate change is an established scientific fact, as New York Times columnist Paul Krugmanbelieves: “The scientific consensus about man-made global warming — which includes 97 to 98 percent of researchers in the field, according to the National Academy of Sciences — is getting stronger, not weaker, as the evidence for climate change just keeps mounting.”

Well, apparently not all the evidence. Just recently, experiments conducted at the CERN particle accelerator in Geneva by Jasper Kirkby (who is following up on over a decade of research by Danish physicist Henrik Svenskmark) suggest that variations in cosmic rays influenced by the sun contribute to increases or decreases in cloud formation, which in turn affect temperature changes. Kirkby had earlier speculated that confirming Svensmark’s research could “probably be able to account for somewhere between a half and the whole” of 20th-century warming. In other words, rather than accepting premature claims of “consensus” on climate change, some scientists are doing what they should do: adopt George Orwell’s attitude toward saints, and assume that all hypotheses and theories are guilty until proven innocent.

This genuinely scientific sensibility was recently described by physicist Michio Kaku writing in the Wall Street Journal about another consensus-smashing experiment, this one suggesting that Einstein’s cosmic speed limit, the speed of light, might not be as absolute as once thought. Writes Kaku, “No theory is carved in stone. Science is merciless when it comes to testing all theories over and over, at any time, in any place. Unlike religion or politics, science is ultimately decided by experiments, done repeatedly in every form. There are no sacred cows. In science, 100 authorities count for nothing. Experiment counts for everything.” This doesn’t sound much like the attitude of those self-styled defenders of reason and science Al Gore or Paul Krugman, who keep telling us that human-created climate change is an incontrovertible fact established by scientific “consensus,” and so anyone who entertains doubt about the theory is akin to a holocaust denier.

Non-scientists like Krugman and Gore are prey to such arguments from authority in part because of our culture-wide mistaken attitudes about what it is scientists do. Many of us assume that research scientists are cool rationalists objectively gathering evidence that conclusively establishes the truth of a theory. But science doesn’t work that way, as philosopher Mary Midgley points out. Science is not “something so pure and impersonal that it ought to be thought of in complete abstraction from all the motives that might lead people to practice it.” In addition to the usual human motives such as money, ideological prejudice, and fame, such a view leaves out “the importance of world-pictures. Facts are not gathered in a vacuum, but to fill gaps in a world-picture which already exists. And the shape of this world-picture — determining the matters allowed for it, the principles of selection, the possible range of emphases — depends deeply on the motives for forming it in the first place.”

These “world-pictures,” Midgley goes on, necessarily involve “symbolism,” which thus “is not just a nuisance to be got rid of. It is essential. Facts will never appear to us as brute and meaningless; they will always organize themselves into some sort of story, some drama. These dramas can indeed be dangerous” for they can “distort our theories.” The way to guard against this distortion that arises from our “preferences,” Midgley suggests, is to practice the same sort of stern skepticism about them that Kaku recommends for all scientific theories. This means “criticizing them carefully” and “expressing them plainly” rather than hiding behind assertions of impartiality, objectivity, or arguments from the authority of some professional “consensus.”

The idea that disastrous climate change is caused by human activity illustrates the truth of Midgley’s observations, for it depends not just on the evidence (some of which itself is questionable), but on a “world-picture” and a “story” that often determines how the evidence is interpreted. That story is one of the oldest we know, the myth of the Golden Age, that time when humans lived without suffering, crime, or work because a benevolent earth provided like a mother everything humans need. Yet this paradise was lost with the advent of agriculture and cities, which brought in their wake oppressive rulers and laws, private property and greed for gain, cramped dirty cities, crime and punishment, trade and war — the Iron Age in which we unfortunates now live. The villain in this ancient melodrama is technologies like agriculture, metallurgy, and shipbuilding, all of which broke the harmony humans once enjoyed with the natural world, and thus alienated them from their true nature.

The rise of industrialism, widespread urbanization, and ever more sophisticated technologies and inventions has kept alive the Golden Age myth. In 1930 Sigmund Freud gave voice to this received wisdom when he wrote inCivilization and Its Discontents, “What we call our civilization is largely responsible for our misery . . . and we should be much happier if we gave it up and returned to primitive conditions.” These days, much of modern environmentalism indulges this ancient anxiety about the costs of civilization. Al Gore, the Elmer Gantry of the global warming gospel, preached the myth throughout his book Earth in the Balance, where he decried our “technological hubris” for its “increasingly aggressive encroachment into the natural world” and the resultant “froth and frenzy of industrial civilization.” In these new versions of the Golden Age, the apocalyptic scenarios claiming to show the effects of global warming provide a dramatic illustration of the wages of “technological hubris” and capitalist greed. Just as the Iron Age of myth would end when humanity became so corrupt that a disgusted Zeus destroys them, so too the climate change alarmists predict the end of our own civilization unless we begin to rein in our destructive, unnatural lifestyle of selfish greed and wasteful consumption.

Other ideologies, of course, contribute to the acceptance of the climate change narrative. Leftover Marxists, socialists, big-government liberals, and other haters of free-market capitalism have found in global warming hysteria a useful stalking horse for collectivist or dirigiste economics. That’s why at every anti-globalization rally you will see the hammer-and-sickle flying next to the Greenpeace banners. But for most people, the Golden Age narrative, dressed up in the quantitative robes of scientific research, provides what political philosopher Chantal Delsol calls a “black-market religion”: a story of good and evil, sin and redemption, devils and saints that gives meaning to their lives and makes them one of the righteous elect. Unfortunately, too many scientists who should know better let this story distort their work and short-circuit, through professional shunning and gate-keeping, the “merciless” testing of theories Kaku speaks of.

So when it comes to climate change, who really is “anti-science” — the skeptics demanding more empirical proof before accepting as fact an as yet unproven theory that could generate public policies costing trillions of dollars and weakening our economy; or the true believers shrilly insisting on the basis of a presumed “consensus” that the question is settled, and that anyone who disagrees is “vile” (Krugman) or “evil” (Al Gore), a dangerous heretic to be scorned and demonized?

©2011 Bruce S. Thornton

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