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Saving the science from the scientists who say

15 May 2024 | OP ED Watch

Between blasts of dogmatic climate alarmism Scientific American, which alas like Reuters “Sustainable Switch” puts out a newsletter you can’t find online and link to, or at least we can’t, emails us about a piece asking “Can Scientific Thinking Save The World?” wherein the secrets of the sophisticates are revealed: “What the experts say: ‘Science should be an enabler of individual power, not a threat to your freedom’” and “The top three habits of mind for thinking like a scientist are:/ 1. Acknowledge uncertainties within your beliefs./ 2. Be curious and humble about what you don’t know./ 3. Engage with others who hold different beliefs.” Great. Now back to climate change where we crush dissenters’ tiny heads.

The piece to which the newsletter points features a discussion with the three authors of Third Millennium Thinking: Creating Sense in a World of Nonsense, “Nobel Prize-winning physicist Saul Perlmutter, philosopher John Campbell and the psychologist Rob MacCoun”, that is noteworthy for its vacuity. They’re in favour of evidence and open-mindedness and against tribal irrationality but they virtually never deal in specifics so it’s impossible to be either enlightened or offended. Except perhaps when MacCoun explains that:

“Third millennium thinking is about recognizing a big shift that’s underway. We all have a sense of what the long millennia predating science must have been like, and we all know the tremendous advances that gradually came about as the modern scientific era emerged – from the practices of various ancient civilizations to the Renaissance and the Enlightenment, all those shifts in thinking that led to the amazing scientific revolution that has so profoundly changed our world here in what, until the end of the 20th century, was the second millennium.”

Oh, that’s deep. Marketing will love it. Although we wonder whether in fact “We all have a sense of what the long millennia predating science must have been like”.

With more acuity than charity, arguably, C.S. Lewis wrote in The Grand Miracle that in lecturing to RAF members during the Second World War:

“It seemed to me that they did not really believe that we have any reliable knowledge of historic man. But this was often curiously combined with a conviction that we knew a great deal about prehistoric man: doubtless because prehistoric man is labeled ‘science’ (which is reliable) whereas Napoleon or Julius Caesar is labeled as ‘history’ (which is not). Thus a pseudoscientific picture of the ‘caveman’ and a picture of ‘the present’ filled almost the whole of their imaginations; between these, there lay only a shadowy and unimportant region in which the phantasmal shapes of Roman soldiers, stagecoaches, pirates, knights-in-armor, highwaymen, etc., moved in a mist.”

Likewise, do most people today really have a clear and vigorous, never mind accurate, view of life under Sargon, or in Tenochtitlan, or during the last glaciation? I assume we all know it was bad and stultified or something without being very sure who Cheops was but there wasn’t modern dentistry so it stank.

They never actually say what scientific thinking is. But apparently while science can’t tell us how to think about values, it is perfect for telling us how to think about values:

“Scientists can’t tell us and shouldn’t tell us, in fact, what values to hold. Scientists get in trouble when they try that. We talk in the book about ‘pathologies’ of science that sometimes happen and how those can be driven by values-based thinking. Regarding values, where science excels is in clarifying where and how they conflict so that in public policy analysis, you can inform the trade-offs to make sure that the stakeholders in a debate empirically understand how its various outcomes advance certain values while impeding others. Usually what happens next is finding solutions that minimize those trade-offs and reduce the friction between conflicting values.”

So that’s good… uh… compared to Perlmutter’s:

“And let’s remember that we’re not even consistent within our own selves about our individual rankings of values, which tend to fluctuate a lot based on the situation.”

Ah. Situational ethics and relativism. Is that the Third Millennium way? Because it sure sounds like we’ve heard it somewhere before.

The authors do have a few fairly close encounters with Planet Earth when the interviewer commendably asks them, since they want people to be open-minded, to talk about times when they were wrong. McCoun then cites his own argument that decriminalizing drugs did not increase use, and evidence from Italy that suggested otherwise. But then he found that adding Spanish and German evidence showed he was right after all.

They come close to grasping one of the modern causes of collapsing trust in scientific authority when they venture into COVID policies, on which Campbell says:

“With the COVID pandemic, I think we’ve all sadly become very familiar with the idea that the freedom of the individual citizen is somehow opposed to the authority of the scientist. You know, ‘the scientist is a person who will boss you around, diminish your freedom and inject you with vaccines laced with mind-controlling nanobots’ or whatever. And it’s such a shame. It’s so debilitating when people use or see science like that. Or alternatively, you might say, ‘Well, I’m no scientist, and I can’t do the math, so I’ll just believe and do whatever they tell me.’ And that really is relinquishing your freedom. Science should be an enabler of individual power, not a threat to your freedom.”

OK. But was the problem that scientists who had no clue what they were doing did, in fact, boss people around and suspend their freedoms, or that the ignorant rubes only imagined it? And he doesn’t acknowledge the role of scientists in stifling debate by invoking “the science” to prevent inquiry not facilitate it. And how can science be an enabler of individual power? Evidently by enabling individual power. He explains that:

“Third millennium thinking is about achieving that, allowing as many people as possible to be empowered – to empower themselves – by using scientific thinking.”

Keen. Let’s. Does it mean we can raise the “lab leak” theory of COVID’s origins that was ruthlessly suppressed by “the scientists” and the politicians “following the science”? Can we question climate orthodoxy even if we’re not a “climate scientist”?

Maybe. See, McCoun also says:

“A big part of third millennium thinking is acknowledging science’s historic faults but also its capacity for self-correction, some of which we’re seeing today. We think this is leading us into a new era in which science is becoming less hierarchical. It’s becoming more interdisciplinary and team-based and, in some cases, more approachable for everyday people to be meaningfully involved – think of so-called citizen science projects.”

How is this approach novel? Wasn’t Britain’s Royal Society a group of citizens gathering in various informal ways and ultimately receiving a royal charter in 1662 while remaining a private organization? Mind you there could be a bit of a counterrevolution implied, getting away from Eisenhower’s warning, in addition to the “military-industrial complex”, of a science-governmental one:

“Today, the solitary inventor, tinkering in his shop, has been over shadowed by task forces of scientists in laboratories and testing fields. In the same fashion, the free university, historically the fountainhead of free ideas and scientific discovery, has experienced a revolution in the conduct of research. Partly because of the huge costs involved, a government contract becomes virtually a substitute for intellectual curiosity. For every old blackboard there are now hundreds of new electronic computers. The prospect of domination of the nation’s scholars by Federal employment, project allocations, and the power of money is ever present and is gravely to be regarded.”

And what proportion of climate-research money, exactly, is from the state worldwide today?

To the extent that it reminds us of anything, the tone of the interview reminds us of Jonathan Haidt’s great line in his famous TED talk, recognizing that his audience was overwhelmingly secular liberal urban sophisticates, that once you understand the differences in liberal and conservative thought “you can understand why anybody would eat at Applebee’s, but not anybody that you know”. None of them mention Trump supporters but it’s pretty clear that they don’t know any.

Still, they do have a point that scientists, and anyone trying to think coherently including in conversation with others, “1. Acknowledge uncertainties within your beliefs./ 2. Be curious and humble about what you don’t know./ 3. Engage with others who hold different beliefs.”

The hard part is doing it. As all those climate alarmists who praise open discussion then pre-emptively block anyone who might criticize their views rather underline.

3 comments on “Saving the science from the scientists who say”

  1. The problem with science today is that it's usually very expensive, so anyone involved in it, particularly in academia, is utterly at the mercy of whoever controls the funding. Give me control of all funding sources and I will guarantee to have the scientific establishment solemnly declaring that the world is flat.

  2. Luddite groupthink is the elixir of the timid and ignorant. Society seems determined to die at their hands, starving and freezing while celebrating our own compliance.
    Where is Galileo when we need him?

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