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A Scientist Bellyaches in the New York Times–and David Berlinski Replies

Last Wednesday, physicist Adam Frank published a column in the New York Times entitled “Welcome to the Age of Denial.”  Frank’s complaint?  That since the middle of the last century, science has lost ground in American life.  ”In that era..,” Frank writes, “politicians were expected to support science financially but otherwise leave it alone….”

Over the weekend, I found myself discussing Frank’s article with the philosopher and mathematician David Berlinski, the author of many works, including Infinite Ascent:  A Short History of Mathematics.  (Here at Ricochet, David will also be known as Claire’s father.)  ”I read…[Frank's column],” David wrote, “with a sense of fascinated contempt.”

David’s thoughts on the piece proved so fascinating–and so wonderfully provocative–that I asked his permission to post them.  Note that I asked David how a layman should think about science:

How should a layman think about science? The question carries with it a suggestion that whatever thinking we laymen are doing, we are not doing it well. We need to do better if we are to appreciate science and various scientists more. Why we should appreciate them at all is a point never mentioned and a question never raised.

The New York Times op-ed to which you linked is almost a paradigm case in which complaints of this sort are aired, and aired always with a sense of self-pitying grievance. I read it with a sense of fascinated contempt. Can you imagine a distinguished attorney, one specializing in contracts & torts, say, making this sort of argument in print? Yet the law is, I dare say, far more important to human happiness and well-being than astrophysics, Frank’s speciality.

The age of denial indeed! What is so striking about all this is the absolute refusal of the scientific community ever — not even once — to examine its own behavior and especially the tendency of the scientific community both to an extravagant boastfulness and to a barely concealed eagerness to help itself to an ever larger portion of the national wealth. These people have become the robber barons of the 21st century and when they are not asking for more money they are busy annoying the rest of us with any number of absurd and inflated and very commonly deceitful claims about what they are doing.

berlinski_04.jpgClimate denial? Who knows? Not me, for sure. But what I do know is that a great many people have read and studied the East Anglia e-mails, and that as a result they do know, and know with certainty, that climate science is and has been in the hands of intellectual mediocrities and pious charlatans. Evolution denial? More of the same. Even as we are flogged by various loathsome propaganda organs toward an ever more perfect admiration for Darwinian theory, now said to explain everything from the painting of the Mona Lisa to the formation of the universe, anyone reading the research literature, which is neither inaccessible nor more intellectually challenging than Parcheesi, knows perfectly well that virtually nothing remains of that gaseous old theory and that almost everything in biology is unclear and so open to question, Darwin’s theory answering about as many questions as old-fashioned astrology, which is to say, no questions whatsoever.

 The scientific establishment, “eager to help itself to an ever-larger portion of the national wealth,” and whining all the way to the bank.  No one combines sheer intellectual command with a willingness to talk back like David Berlinski.

  1. Jeff

    Marvelous post!

    For a similar feeling of joy at the tipping of sacred cows of science, I recommend David Stove’s, Darwinian Fairytales: Selfish Genes, Errors of Heredity and Other Fables of Evolution.

    It’s so good, I predict an editor posting on the book within a week of this comment.

  2. KC Mulville

    “have manufactured doubt about fundamental issues in climate science that were decided scientifically decades ago.”

    Scientifically decided, decades ago.

    That about says it all. 

    If there’s anything that the history of science has taught us, it’s that no theory is the final word. The same scientists, those same decades ago, assured us of the coming ice age. Now they’re piqued that we don’t accept their conclusions – i.e., take their word for it?  Especially since the warming seems to have stopped about ten years ago?

    And you’re right, Peter, Berlinski is formidable.

  3. genferei

    There are well over 100 YouTube channels that have more subscribers than the New York Times.

    Just sayin’.

  4. Tim H.

    Speaking as a fellow astrophysicist, here are my thoughts:

    This is not a world the scientists I trained with would recognize.”  He cites statistics on just two opinions, belief in young-Earth creationism and worry over “climate change.”  In both cases, the worrisome change he cites is about equal to the margin of error.  So his premise (a world unrecognizable by the previous generation of scientists) is wrong.

    “…politicians were expected to support science financially but otherwise leave it alone.”  Translation:  ”Gimme money, no strings attached!”  Hah!  Well, I don’t want political manipulation of scientific results, either.  That’s bad. But (A), the people have a right to decide what kind of scientific work the government will spend their money on.  To claim otherwise is to support a kind of aristocracy for us scientists.  And (B), the threat of ideological biases (he cites Russia’s Lysenko, whose theory of acquired traits in evolution became a kind of Communist dogma, holding their research back) is already infecting some areas of research from within the scientific community.  The East Anglia emails showed how dogmatic some climatologists are.  How honestly does that community treat scientists who pursue other hypotheses?

  5. MMPadre

    Periodically, the news media publish barely-redacted press releases announcing a “breakthrough” in hydrogen fusion research, whereupon I cynically observe that it must be grant-renewal time.  Another fusion-power cynic (we’re as dumb as global-warming deniers, if not quite as evil) once observed that it is always 50 years away.

  6. Valiuth

    Well before we all go bashing the the scientific community I might take a stab at explaining why they feel so neglected. In the early 20th century we saw in the course of two generations man going from a world of candles and horses to one of automobiles, planes, and light bulbs. In three generations we had landed on the moon! All this drastic change was due in no small part to the scientific breakthroughs of the late 19ths century and early 20th century. People in the 1960′s not ironically believed in a future of space colonies and flying cars. In short our previous achievements left us optimistic about the future and science. 

    The last half of the 20th century while seeing many innovations also saw the real limits of of our abilities as many envisioned promises failed to materialize. Furthermore science itself became the justification not for our expanding prosperity, but rather self denial (over population,  global warming). Science used to tell us how things would be better. Now too many tell us how we are ruining the planet. No one likes a downer. 

  7. Tim H.

    “Narrowly defined, “creationism” was a minor current in American thinking…”  He then goes on to attack a supposed increase in young-Earth creationism, but it’s unclear if he’s defining it the same “narrow” way.  He might be using the fallacy of equivocation.

    Back in the good old days, “…the battles were fought using scientific evidence. Manufacturing doubt remained firmly off-limits.”  Unlike today, you see.  Back in the ’70s, when anti-nuclear activists were scaring people about the supposed dangers of even tiny levels of radiation, they at least took a hard line against those who would question the reliability of scientific studies.  ”No way!” they would say.  ”The scientific consensus is beyond doubt.  We must accept the certainty of what science tells us, and we will push our agenda in some other way.”

    Sorry; that was sarcastic.  He’s suffering from the normal tendency to view the past through rose-colored glasses.  The problem is that he’s unaware of his own failings this way.  He seems to think that as scientists, we’re purely cold, rational thinkers who never let emotions or biases cloud our judgement.

    He’s badly mistaken.

  8. Jeff
    Tim H.: 

    [...] The East Anglia emails showed how dogmatic some climatologists are.  How honestly does that community treat scientists who pursue other hypotheses?

    They treat them badly, and even try to wreck their careers. Government funding is the cause. If the global warming catastrophe hypothesis is shown to be false, funding and salaries for climate scientists will surely decrease. In some cases, we’re talking hundreds of thousands of dollars of annual income to these guys. They’ll do anything to keep skeptical inquiry out and their dogma in.

  9. BrentB67

     Frank writes, “politicians were expected to support science financially but otherwise leave it alone….”

    Without benefit of reading the entire article this statement strikes me as the most naïve thing ever said whether by scientist or anyone else.

  10. Peter Robinson
    C
    Tim H.: Speaking as a fellow astrophysicist…. · 24 minutes ago

    All I want to say, Tim H, is that it’s just marvelous to have you posting here.  Thanks.

  11. Tim H.

    The biggest problem with Frank’s article is that he mistakes the real expertise we scientists have in obtaining our results with a supposed expertise in telling everybody what we should do about those results.

    In the natural sciences, but especially in physics, we really are experts.  The amount of formal math and physics you need to have learned in order to understand and judge most physics papers requires graduate school.   So laymen usually won’t have a good view of the strengths and weaknesses of a physics research project.

    But he conflates this kind of expertise with the judgement of what to do with those results.  Let’s say it were true that there was man-made global warming, and that sea levels would rise x inches over a century.  Does the scientist get to create the laws to deal with that?  Not in a free country.  It’s a political judgement.  What, if anything, to do about it remains in the hands of the people.  

    He seems upset with this.

  12. Tim H.
    Peter Robinson

    Tim H.: Speaking as a fellow astrophysicist…. 

    All I want to say, Tim H, is that it’s just marvelous to have you posting here.  Thanks. 

    Thanks, Peter!  I’m printing this out and posting it above my desk.  It will be my appeal to authority from now on.

  13. PracticalMary
    The more interesting discussion in 2013 is why so many people hold onto both ideas (Evolution by far the most accepted, however) and are not more skeptical esp. in light of all of the revealed hoaxes and thuggish behavior in both areas- what is the payoff for them personally, but also for society/culture/politics?  I had an idea that someday the media line would be something like, ‘Evolution is just a theory’ as if 150+ years could just be wiped away and also our time will be looked backed on as the ‘Age of Evolution’ because of the twinning of the science with culture and religion. This probably won’t happen until another theory that is ‘palatable’ comes along answering the real need, as in my first paragraph. 
  14. Ralphie

    I wish he’d qualify for the Supreme Court. It reminds me of Scalia arguing that lawyers are overrated in being wise to decide a lot of things, and that too many are going in to law wasting a lot of talent that could be put to better use.

  15. Tim H.

    Valiuth, you’ve made an interesting point.  In the 19th through mid-20th centuries, the drastic changes in technology supported a philosophy of Modernism and an optimistic view of technological progress supported by science.  Many have pointed out an apparent lull in our progress in many fields over the past few decades, and that has put a depressing cloud over the heads of the scientists working in them, and it has probably seeped out farther into society.  

    Look at the achievements the Nobel Prize in physics has gone for over the years.  I used to know the names of the physics Nobel laureates, thanks to their portraits hanging on the wall at Rhodes College.  The guys at one end of the hallway, starting with 1901, were the famous ones even laymen know of.  It was the heroic age, when major changes happened quickly as quantum mechanics and relativity created “modern physics.”  By the mid-late 20th century, you got to names we knew only from this wall, and awards for incremental progress that was hard to describe even to physics majors.

    [cont'd...]

  16. Tim H.

    But today, we’re making the real progress in cosmology and astrophysics.  I think a generally optimistic view has prevailed among us in my field for many years, as the Hubble Space Telescope and its successors have opened up parts of the universe we simply couldn’t see before 1990, and we keep pushing farther and farther.  This week, my collaboration celebrates the final data we’ve taken with the Hubble for amazingly distant views of the early universe, and it’s thrilling to find out what we’ll be able to see, just by zooming in a picture.

    I wonder if there is a big difference in the “public attitude” of scientists in different fields: say, astronomy and general relativity (my wife’s field) versus “climate science” and other Malthusians.  Are the latter depressed all of the time?

    Then again, Frank is an astrophysicist.  Yet his complaints seem to have nothing to do with public attitudes about astronomy!

  17. Bryan G. Stephens
    Tim H.: Speaking as a fellow astrophysicist, here are my thoughts:

    “…politicians were expected to support science financially but otherwise leave it alone.”  Translation:  ”Gimme money, no strings attached!”  Hah!  Well, I don’t want political manipulation of scientific results, either.  That’s bad. But (A), the people have a right to decide what kindof scientific work the government will spend their money on.  To claim otherwise is to support a kind of aristocracy for us scientists.  And (B),the threat of ideological biases (he cites Russia’s Lysenko, whose theory of acquired traits in evolution became a kind of Communist dogma, holding their research back) is already infecting some areas of research from withinthe scientific community.  The East Anglia emails showed how dogmatic some climatologists are.  How honestly does that community treat scientists who pursue other hypotheses? · 39 minutes ago

    Speaking of Lysenko, I thought epigenetics was starting to show what happened to a individual in its life could effect its offspring.

  18. bernai

    Reading David Berlinski is akin to reading GK Chesterton.  It is something to be savored and not skimmed.   He is a joy to read and has a way of cutting the legs of his target right out from under them.

    “Why we should appreciate them at all is a point never mentioned and a question never raised.”

    That quote has made my day!

  19. Tim H.
    Bryan G. Stephens

    Speaking of Lysenko, I thought epigenetics was starting to show what happened to a individual in its life could effect its offspring.

    I think you’re right!  My wife’s teaching biophysics, and she mentioned something about this the other day.  Isn’t that funny, now?  

    It was still wrong to enforce a dogma of Lysenkoism on biologists, but it goes to show you that ideas that once seemed hilariously wrong (at least on one scale) can turn out, decades later, to be right.

    “The science is settled,” don’t forget.

  20. Valiuth

    Tim the irony for me as a biologist is of course that Biology has really been the breakthrough science of the last half of the 20th century. So much of what we know about life and how it works was discovered after the 1950′s. This has directly translated into drugs, therapy, and diagnostic tools. 

    The catch is that everyone thought science was going to cure all the social ills that plague humanity. It can’t of course, but much of the honor and respect science got was because of that belief.

    With respect to evolution I think it was never really that popular with people in the US, but in the past scientists in general didn’t advance it as justification for atheism either. By making it a central belief of that non-faith they bring it into direct conflict with certain theists. But this is the topic for another thread.