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This Is Your Brain on Scientism

March for Science protesters march to demonstrate on April 22, 2017 in Paris.  (Photo by John van Hasselt/Corbis via Getty Images)

March for Science protesters march to demonstrate on April 22, 2017 in Paris. (Photo by John van Hasselt/Corbis via Getty Images)

The problem with convening a March for Prudence is that the prudent—being otherwise occupied and believing public views should be mediated through representation—would never attend. But after the unbounded rhetoric of the March for Science, one wonders if prudence dictates, on this one occasion, marching after all.

That is not to deny science—what with antibiotics and the intrinsic beauty of understanding and all—its due. It is to deny it beyond its due, which is the authority to rule tyrannically over the realm of the indeterminate, where politics dwells and prudence reigns. And it is to deny the intellectual heresy in which many of the marchers engaged: scientism—not the use but the worship of scientific reasoning.

To be sure, many political issues can be informed by knowledge gathered scientifically. But even so, political judgment with regard to this knowledge usually entails choosing “as among evils,” in Edmund Burke’s words. Decisions often have to be made between shades of gray in which there may be no objective right. An objective right that did exist might not reveal itself, and it might not be healthy for republican society if it did.

The problem is not with science but with scientism, an unquestioning reverence that refuses to recognize the inherent limits of human knowing. Bill Nye, who should not be regarded as a serious scientist or as a proxy for those who are, approached such ecstasies in his wildly applauded speech at the April 22 event in Washington:

We are marching today to remind people everywhere—our lawmakers, especially—of the significance of science for our health and prosperity. The process of science has enabled humankind to discover the laws of nature. This understanding has, in turn, has enabled us to feed and care for the world’s billions, build great cities, establish effective governments, create global transportation systems, explore outer space, and know the cosmos.

Science, then, did it all? No moral feeling is involved in feeding and caring for the world’s billions? No aspiration to greatness is necessary to build great cities or explore outer space?

And what, exactly, does it mean that science “enabled us” to “establish effective governments”? The aspiration to scientific politics has far more often been associated with abuse of power.

Thomas Hobbes sought to replicate in politics the scientific method of Francis Bacon, seeing human beings as mere “bodies in motion” governed by the same laws of aversion and attraction that ruled the physical universe. His project originated in science and terminated in an all-powerful Leviathan.

The French Revolution was steeped in the rationalism of the French Enlightenment. It produced unholy bloodshed and proto-totalitarianism. The early Progressive movement’s ambition for “scientific legislation” helped to license eugenics.

This is science unbounded by prudence or moral feeling. That is not, in fairness, what the March for Science demanded, although it seems telling that its “Core Principles” omit any mention whatsoever of scientific ethics. The closest to a moral commitment is the obligatory dogma about “diversity and inclusion” for the ever-growing litany of ever-smaller groups as well as condemnation of abuses of science that would “harm and oppress marginalized communities,” the solution for which is . . . more science, which is to say “data to understand how systemic bias and discrimination impact our communities and how best to change it.”

What the Core Principles do seek is “evidence-based policy and regulations in the public interest”:

Science observes and asks questions about the world. Our understanding is constantly changing, presenting us with new questions and answers. Science gives us the ability to examine these questions, enabling us to craft improved policies and regulations that serve our best interests. Political decision-making that impacts the lives of Americans and the world at large should make use of peer-reviewed evidence and scientific consensus, not personal whims and decrees.

Note the antithesis: One either uses peer-reviewed evidence (which any veteran of peer review knows is a process governed by caprice) and scientific consensus, or one is operating on whims and decrees. There is no room in this picture for prudence, still less for the gray indeterminacies that are the stuff of most politics. Science is to provide certain answers for it all.

This kind of excessive confidence is why hyper-rationalism is prone to Jacobinism. There is every reason to moderate and accommodate oneself to the views of others in the hazy realms of prudence but little reason to tolerate, and every reason to deplore, the irrational. The irrational demands to be broken to the saddle of science and reeducated.

While science clearly, again, has a role to play in public policy, these particular scientists might, if they were to pay attention to their own pieties about objectivity, drop from their manifesto the agitprop about “systems of privilege” and “special interests.” On their own account, scientific investigation is good for discovering “how systemic bias and discrimination impact our communities.” The conclusion about the existence of bias has—in violation of the aforesaid pieties—been reached in advance.

The worst part is that this misconceives the prudent and grounded role of science in public policy, which is not in its conception but rather in its evaluation. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, a champion of the use of evidence in public policy, understood the difference: “[T]he role of social science lies not in the formulation of social policy, but in the measurement of its results. The great questions of government have to do not with what will work, but with what does work.” (Emphasis in original).

Moynihan saw this retrospection as a defining feature of the Founders’ political science:

Read The Federalist Papers, the work of Madison, Hamilton, and Jay, and you will know a lot about America. Read Lenin and you will know a lot about Russia. If you do both, you will note how very much more the Soviet system is based on prophecies about future events in this world.

The difference is that forward-looking science is not bound by the “collected reason of ages” that Burke understood experience to compile. Its prospection removes limits, all the more so because it has the added confidence of believing itself to be based on the sole legitimate form of knowing. Retrospection is inherently grounded in empirical circumstance.

Of course, a genuine science should recognize the limits of its own knowing and—rather than indulging such reveries as (Nye again) its ability to “SAVE THE WORLD!”—speak with modesty about its own capacities. But this is reason leavened with prudence, and prudence is ultimately a moral capacity. The brain alone (celebrated in the obligatory hats of the Marchers for Science) cannot account for it. Perhaps, at the March for Prudence, the official headgear should be knitted in shades of gray.

Reader Discussion

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on April 26, 2017 at 10:24:39 am

Science, then, did it all? No moral feeling is involved in feeding and caring for the world’s billions? No aspiration to greatness is necessary to build great cities…?

“It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest. We address ourselves, not to their humanity, but to their self-love, and never talk to them of our own necessities, but of their advantages.” Adam Smith, Wealth of Nations, Chap. II.

The French Revolution was steeped in the rationalism of the French Enlightenment. It produced unholy bloodshed and proto-totalitarianism. The early Progressive movement’s ambition for “scientific legislation” helped to license eugenics.

This is science unbounded by prudence or moral feeling.

“The madman is not the man who has lost his reason. The madman is the man who has lost everything except his reason.” G.K. Chesterton, The Maniac.

That is not, in fairness, what the March for Science demanded….

What the Core Principles do seek is “evidence-based policy and regulations in the public interest”:

”Science observes and asks questions about the world. Our understanding is constantly changing, presenting us with new questions and answers. Science gives us the ability to examine these questions, enabling us to craft improved policies and regulations that serve our best interests. Political decision-making that impacts the lives of Americans and the world at large should make use of peer-reviewed evidence and scientific consensus, not personal whims and decrees.”

Note the antithesis: One either uses peer-reviewed evidence (which any veteran of peer review knows is a process governed by caprice) and scientific consensus, or one is operating on whims and decrees. There is no room in this picture for prudence, still less for the gray indeterminacies that are the stuff of most politics. Science is to provide certain answers for it all.

This kind of excessive confidence is why hyper-rationalism is prone to Jacobinism. There is every reason to moderate and accommodate oneself to the views of others in the hazy realms of prudence but little reason to tolerate, and every reason to deplore, the irrational. The irrational demands to be broken to the saddle of science and reeducated.

“I find that the most objectionable feature of the conservative attitude is its propensity to reject well-substantiated new knowledge because it dislikes some of the consequences which seem to follow from it - or, to put it bluntly, its obscurantism. I will not deny that scientists as much as others are given to fads and fashions and that we have much reason to be cautious in accepting the conclusions that they draw from their latest theories. But the reasons for our reluctance must themselves be rational and must be kept separate from our regret that the new theories upset our cherished beliefs. I can have little patience with those who oppose, for instance, the theory of evolution or what are called "mechanistic" explanations of the phenomena of life because of certain moral consequences which at first seem to follow from these theories, and still less with those who regard it as irrelevant or impious to ask certain questions at all. By refusing to face the facts, the conservative only weakens his own position. Frequently the conclusions which rationalist presumption draws from new scientific insights do not at all follow from them. But only by actively taking part in the elaboration of the consequences of new discoveries do we learn whether or not they fit into our world picture and, if so, how. Should our moral beliefs really prove to be dependent on factual assumptions shown to be incorrect, it would hardly be moral to defend them by refusing to acknowledge facts.” F.A. Hayek, Why I am Not a Conservative.

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nobody.really
on April 26, 2017 at 13:33:53 pm

Scientism, like any ism, is an ideology, and, like any ideology, is driven as much by ambition, wishful thinking, and base emotion as it is by rational analysis. Science is not the fount of human perfection and happiness; it is a product of humankind's ability to reason and to apply reason in human affairs. The application of science requires moral guidance and ethical scrutiny, because blind pursuit of scientific knowledge leads to uncomfortable spaces.

The Nazis dunked soviet POWs in frigid water in a "scientific" attempt to devise strategies to help downed Luftwaffe pilots survive in the North Sea. One conclusion of such experiments was that exposure to cold caused cerebral hemorrhages. This "scientific" discovery turned out to be wrong. The United States government scientifically investigated the course of untreated syphilis in African-Americans; very scientific, yet somehow unpraiseworthy. The Imperial Japanese Unit 731 did competent scientific work, so much so that their biological warfare experiments were able to decimate several Chinese villages. (The scientifically oriented American government, rather than opting for war crimes complaints gave many of the perpetrators immunity, because, hey, SCIENCE!). The soviets use of psychiatry on political dissidents is probably not an example of "improved policies and regulations that serve our best interests." Orbiting the white nationalist fringe is the "human biodiversity" movement that uses scientific evidence to argue that certain racial and ethnic groups have intelligence, behavioral and personality traits that are heritable and therefore partially genetically determined, a scientific hypothesis that would likely e rejected by scientism on grounds unrelated to method.

The modern scientist has much in common with the prehistoric thinker who thought that virgin sacrifice kept volcanoes from erupting or that fickle gods made the sun rise and rains come., Both applied the evidence at hand to questions relevant to their interests and reached conclusions constrained by the state of their knowledge. Much of what modern science knows is wrong; there is even a book, "Ending Medical Reversals" that focuses on the harm done by adopting as scientific therapies and theories based more on apophenia and wishful thinking than on rational rigor This is why "consensus" is irrelevant to the advance of scientific knowledge, and is no substitute for it. Remember saccharin and how it causes cancer? Or how drotrecogin was the holy grain of sepsis treatment? What was the state of consensus regarding phlogiston theory 400 years ago? What does one one say about the scientific certainty regarding "gender fluidity?"

A key phrase in Mr. Weiner's essay is "condemnation of abuses of science..." Science has no reliable way of identifying "abuses" apart from human values. Science has no inherent conscience.

Science, is a tool without an inherent moral or ethical constraint. The scientific method is useful, for both good and ill, but is not infallible. Its usefulness derives from the ability of human reason to make sense of objective evidence, and that is all it is. It is not something to be venerated or blindly believed. It is something that can cynically exploited by charlatans. It may be used as a prop to argue for greater government control over people's lives just as hucksters with knowledge of solar eclipses were able to con those innocent of astronomic knowledge by implying some mysterious power. Science does not validate atrocity or immorality (as the Tuskegee syphilis and Unit 731 experiments show) merely by their being scientific. And science does not validate any ideology or political fashion that presumes otherwise. The use of science for political ends does not have a happy history.

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z9z99
on April 27, 2017 at 07:29:54 am

Few essays and commentary excite me to want to know everything as this piece does, and I look forward to more. I want to read every book Weiner cited. I might march for voluntary public-integrity.

It seems the recent march advertised Social Sciences, which often start with a subjective premise, create subjective interviews or human-behavior testing, obtain subjective responses from selected persons, and subjectively consider the results. Weiner makes the case that subjective studies address consequence rather than cause. Social scientists convinced Hillary Clinton that she did not need to campaign for president.

“Science, is a tool,” says z9z99, and I add that the person using the tool is a student. The student has “inherent moral or ethical constraint,” preventing the kind of cruel studies z9z99 catalogued. The object of the study is discovery, rather than proof of an idea. More importantly, the study would comprehend the-objective-truth rather than any of truth, ultimate truth, absolute truth or other subjective conclusion. The-objective-truth exists, may be discovered, and does not respond to reason.

Appreciation for Greg Weiner’s essay emerges from the premise: “The problem with convening a March for Prudence is that the prudent—being otherwise occupied . . . ---would never attend.” I omitted “and believing public views should be mediated through representation,” because I do not agree. I think public statements should be freely expressed and neighbors as well as representatives who agree may take advantage.

Merriam-Webster online rates usage of “prudence” from reasoning, to shrewdness, to fiscal-conservative, to cautious. In that set of words, I see no demand for censorship or peer review. For example, once a person launches a satellite and videos the earth like a globe, flat-earth interests die.

I would march to draw public attention to a priority of fidelities: fidelity to the-objective-truth, to self, to immediate family, to extended family, to the people, to the nation, to the world, and to the universe, both respectively and collectively. Fidelity is not easy, but it seems to me that is the quest humankind is on. Human progress might accelerate with more appreciation for fidelity. Regardless, each person may benefit from practicing fidelity.

I think the possibilities to express these ideas have existed since Albert Einstein’s speech, “The Laws of Science and the Laws of Ethics,” 1941, online at samharris.org/blog/item/my-friend-einstein . Einstein’s single illustration of the message is that (perhaps prudent) humans do not lie so they can communicate rather than to satisfy an ideology.

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Phil Beaver
on April 27, 2017 at 11:17:23 am

WHY IN THE WORLD do we continue to give "air time" to this publicity (and money grubbing) seeking failed Boeing engineer who in his efforts to maintain his posture as a "science" guy is now reduced to proselytizing the idiocies of the leftist loonies on matters of science (such as they define it) and sex.

Let me ask you this:

Would you allow this bow-tie bedecked clown anywhere near your children or grandchildren?

Here are some of his latest "Science Guy" pronouncements for your edification:

http://hotair.com/archives/2017/04/26/bill-nye-ice-cream-orgy-guy/

http://www.powerlineblog.com/archives/2017/04/the-insane-left-hits-rock-bottom.php

http://www.newsmax.com/Newsfront/bill-nye-extra-kids-impact-climate/2017/04/26/id/786653/

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gabe
on April 29, 2017 at 10:30:47 am

Here it is in a nut (pun intended)shell!

http://i2.wp.com/www.powerlineblog.com/ed-assets/2017/04/Nye-Quadrant.jpeg?w=600

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gabe

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