Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Scientism, The One True Faith

     [NB: The title of this piece is shamelessly stolen from Helmut Schoeck’s book of a similar name.]

     First, a little “morning maniac music:”

     And as my pastor would say, with that as our theme let’s proceed to the meat of the matter.

     SCIENCE! The word has a compelling sound, doesn’t it? Americans have come to venerate it as a fount of marvels and wonders, an overflowing cup of knowledge and the bounties thereof. Scientists “know” things – things the rest of us don’t know. That’s what makes them scientists, don’t y’know. When they orate, no matter on what subject or to what effect, we hoi polloi are expected – required, really – to accept their pronouncements as articles of faith. I mean, mustn’t we? They gave us the Internet, after all, so how could they be wrong?

     Not since the decline and fall of the cults of Ba’al and Ormuzd has such completely specious, utterly laughable bullshit commanded so many minds.

     A tangential but illuminating question is useful here. I’ll post it in big type, for the perceptually challenged:

What Is “The Internet?”

     (Now, now, let’s not always see the same hands.)

     I’ll cut directly to the chase:
     “The Internet” is not a bunch of computers.
     It’s not a collection of routers or modems.
     It’s not a huge web of cables, either.
     It’s a set of definitions for digital communications protocols that specify how devices on an internet are to pass packets to one another.

     Any conflation of some array of physical devices with “The Internet” is inherently incorrect and badly misleading. It is entirely and exclusively a method: the group of protocol specifications that define how computers on what we call “The Internet” are to exchange data.

     Thus also with science:
     It isn’t a bunch of people with doctorates who spend several hours a day wearing white lab coats.
     It isn’t a laboratory filled with glassware, chemicals, electronics, and experimental subjects;
     And it most certainly isn’t “settled,” no matter what subject or persons declaim on it.

     Science is a methodology for the investigation of reproducible phenomena. Science is the scientific method, more or less as Francis Bacon originally prescribed it.

     Anyone who tells you otherwise is trying to deceive you for purposes of his own. He is dangerous to you and others. He means to take something from you, most likely your money and freedom. When confronted by such a person, put one hand on your wallet, the other over your genitals, and back slowly away.

     But they’re getting very thick on the ground.

     Examples of how the word science has been turned into a bludgeon are many and varied. Courtesy of Mike Hendrix, we have this example from Scott Adams:

     Believer: Climate scientists are correct because the scientific method is reliable over time, thanks to peer review. The experts are overwhelmingly on the same side.
     Skeptic: The prediction models are not credible because prediction models with that much complexity are rarely correct.
     Believer: You troglodyte! You know nothing of science! The scientific method is credible!

     See what happened? The believer was discussing science and the skeptic was NOT discussing science. These are different conversations. The prediction models are designed by scientists, but they are not “science” per se, any more than a microscope is “science.” Both are just tools that scientists use.

     Indeed, the deceptions proffered by Believer are even worse than Adams has said. Note Believer’s citation of “experts.” An expert, more or less by definition, is one who possesses expertise: i.e., specialized knowledge. In point of fact, expert is a word properly applicable only to persons who possess a skill: a talent for dealing with particular problems of a similar sort. Science admits no experts.

     The late, great Richard Feynman once described “science” as the unwillingness to concede the infallibility of “experts.” Feynman, a brilliant physicist who shared a Nobel Prize for his work in quantum electrodynamics, understood science far better than many of today...including many self-styled “scientists.”

     The great cleavage to be emphasized here is the one between science and knowledge. We – and this includes scientists – actually know very little. Our hard knowledge consists almost entirely of data: the facts anyone with the necessary perceptions (and the properly calibrated instruments) can acquire for himself. Strictly speaking, “scientific knowledge” is a contradiction in terms, for science is overwhelmingly more about what we don’t know. It is unable to give firm answers except in the negative.

     The scientific method can only say with assurance that a particular experiment, performed to test the accuracy of a particular prediction, failed to produce the predicted results. What we know is what we observed; all else remains speculation. We can have confidence in certain predictions, because a great deal of experience has repeatedly borne them out, but until the results are in, confidence, not certainty, is all we can have.

     Nearly all human action proceeds not from knowledge but from confidence. Yes, the Sun has risen in the East for as long as we’ve been watching. Yes, it seems likely that it will rise in the East tomorrow morning; we can be confident about it. But it hasn’t happened yet...and someday it might not. Indeed, if the stellar physics I learned as a lad may be relied upon, someday it won’t.

     However, there are some whose political agenda isn’t satisfied with that: they who constantly repeat that “the science is settled” and “no reasonable person can disagree.”

     The “global warming / climate change” foofaurauw is an example of how the Left has turned “science” into a kind of cargo cult. Leftists have promoted white coats, glassware, computers, impressive-sounding institutions, and (above all) research grants as “science,” completely omitting (and often deliberately obscuring) the true nature of science and the principles of the scientific method. They demand that we not question the pronouncements of those it has venerated as scientific authorities, even by citing legitimate, highly accomplished scientists who hold other opinions. Helmut Schoeck coined a term for this: scientism. It’s a quasi-religious belief system, a church implacably hostile to heretics, founded upon the dead trappings of a discipline in no way connected to those beliefs.

     Too many ordinary Americans accept scientism while remaining ignorant of science. It has cost us heavily and will continue to do so.


Jack Imel said...

This is just a sort of arrangement of sentences, since I read and re-read your blog for today. I have long ago discovered our world needs more Feynmans and far fewer Algors...

Francis, you have handled this subject with great craftsmanship. I can't say the same for myself, because I always get so mad talking about it; I have loved science and science fiction my entire life, and have surely come to recognize those others who love it and are honest toward the fields of science. It distresses me like nothing else. I've only noticed this failing of mine since the 80's.

When I was 8 I became friends with the local telephone lineman... he always saved me the old crank phones, and partly used dry cell batteries. I learned Morse code at 8 and got my first ham license at 14, all because of honest, caring people who loved science as much as myself. They weren't politically motivated (I believed).

Something happened in the 60s ...what the hell was it?! In '64 I was resting up from a tour with USMC, getting married and starting the family, and all of a sudden something was corrupted in the culture. I have spent the last forty years trying to figure it out, and you seem to have better explanations than almost anyone. I figure we're about the same age; how come I can't come up with as good analysis as yours? Don't be thinking about quitting the blog anytime soon. God bless your hands that work the keyboard...

John C. said...

Thank you Jack Imel and Mr. Porretto. Jack, I am so glad to hear that I am not the only one who noticed back in the mid 60's "all of a sudden something was corrupted in the culture."

I've also spent years trying to figure it out. Sometimes I just blame TV but I know three's more to it.