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.

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  1. Profile Photo Member
    @DuaneOyen
    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.

    …………….

    Tim, I didn’t see anything there that restricted his ire to Young Earth Creationism.  I inferred that his condescending words applied to anyone who believed in any kind of supreme being as a necessary First Cause.

    Just one more descendant of Vannevar Bush.

    • #31
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    @DavidWilliamson

    Most of the scientists I know are socialists –  err, I mean, progressives – therein lies the problemo.

    • #32
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    @Majestyk
    Tom Meyer: The thing I always find infuriating in these discussions is that I’m never quite certain as to what Dr. Berlinski believes to be true, as opposed to what he believes to be false (i.e., evolution).  It’s… well, frustrating to argue against someone whose interest in criticizing his opponents is equaled only by his lack of interest in articulating his own position.

    Yes.  His arguments simply amount to petty carping.  Because the advocates of a certain position aren’t in possession of perfect, unassailable knowledge of the absolutely elemental mechanism by which some process works he attacks them as being too confident that they won’t get sucked into a giant chasm with their next step.  Sophistry.

    • #33
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    @Majestyk
    BrentB67: Fred, is Dr. Berlinski saying that the same people labeled as climate deniers are the same ones labeled as evolution deniers? It may just be the way he addresses the question, but I am challenged to understand if he is dealing with these two items as though they are the same.

    There’s a lot to unpack here.

    They fall into two separate categories, and the Venn Diagrams overlap but are not concentric or mutually inclusive.

    On evolution there has been the hue and cry from religious conservatives for generations that Darwinian theory would destroy christianity (and society) as was put on shameful display in Ben Stein’s “Expelled.”  

    Needless to say, I don’t think that’s true.  While society hasn’t collapsed, neither has the theory of evolution been overturned, because a better theory hasn’t been posited, and it’s generally accepted as fact.  That makes it easier for people who deny this fact to be caricatured as being ludicrous, and if you can tar people who aren’t sanguine on Climate Change with the same brush as Evolution or Holocaust deniers you’ve successfully nullified them politically.

    • #34
  5. Profile Photo Contributor
    @GeorgeSavage

    A key problem with scientists, as with other men, is a temptation to overreach when playing to a crowd.  The theory of evolution explains some things well that can be directly observed, e.g., bacterial development of antibiotic resistance, and it comports with a fossil record showing species transitions over time.  Therefore, there is no God and the universe is a result of randomness in action.  The second law of thermodynamics?  Don’t ask or you are will be branded a religious kook, while the open-minded scientists propose an unobservable multiverse to plug the mathematical holes.

    The same goes with global warming.  The climate is changing.  Check.  Greenhouse gases are one factor and humans have a measurable influence on their production.  With you so far.  And…the world will be destroyed by Nature the day after tomorrow unless we repent of capitalism and individual liberty and embrace the global socialist project.  Umm, missing a few intermediate steps.  For starters, where is the data–not the computer model, the actual data?

    Uncertainty is a part of life, and some mysteries will remain for a long time to come, if not forever.  

    • #35
  6. Profile Photo Member
    @RyanM
    Peter Robinson

    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. · 6 hours ago

    Wait, Peter… didn’t Berlinski say that we Lawyers are far more important for the happiness of mankind?  And I’ve never even gotten a Ricochet mug!

    • #36
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    @Majestyk

    Surely George you know that the second law applies only to closed systems? This is one of those things that I was referring to which makes people on the right such easy targets: lack of basic knowledge of the subject matter and a cocksure attitude that this misunderstanding is a trump card – a feature, not a bug.

    • #37
  8. Profile Photo Member
    @RyanM
    BrentB67:

    Is there a culture/religion/scientific inconsistency in his discussion of ‘climate denial’ and ‘evolution denial’? 

    ugh… I’m late to the party here, but I was about to say:

    countdown until Berlisnki’s association w/ the Discovery Institute get him labeled a nutjob… 3…2…1…   The condescension at this site over “evolution denial” is astounding.

    I think the obvious point that he was making in connecting the two is that the science is not proven, but it is accepted to the point of ridiculing those who don’t agree, especially claiming that they could never understand… as evidenced by the fact that they don’t agree, which means they clearly do not understand.  I’ve been round and round on that.

    Majestyk says “evolution is now accepted because no alternative has ever been thrown out there.”  Well, therein lies the problem.  If that is the problem, “science” is a sorry state.  You propose a theory, AND set the parameters for what constitutes an “acceptable” alternative. 

    It’s simple.  In evolution and climate change, scientists cross this line from science to scientism.

    • #38
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    @Majestyk
    Ryan M

    Majestyk says “evolution is now accepted because no alternative has ever been thrown out there.”  Well, therein lies the problem.  If that is the problem, “science” is a sorry state.  You propose a theory, AND set the parameters for what constitutes an “acceptable” alternative. 

    It’s simple.  In evolution and climate change, scientists cross this line from science to scientism.

    If you’re referring to the epistemic closure surrounding climate science I agree with you.

    The trouble I have is with your assertion that new theories are somehow verboten.  I give you the phlogiston theory of heat and Newtonian gravity for instance.  Each of these theories were incomplete or incorrect somehow and were amended or overturned entirely.

    The trouble of course is that within the realm of science where there are measurable outcomes which can be observed after predictive theories are laid out, so bad theories infrequently survive contact with data.  In some sense, scientific theories are subjected to the most rigorous form of meritocracy possible.

    This is happening now, as we are seeing the so-called consensus being overturned regarding the predictive power of climate models which overestimate the sensitivity of the climate to CO2 concentrations.

    • #39
  10. Profile Photo Contributor
    @Majestyk
    Ryan M

    You propose a theory, AND set the parameters for what constitutes an “acceptable” alternative. 

    Acceptable alternatives have more accurate predictive power over systems than currently existing theses.

    The reason that the theory (I’ll call it a postulate) of evolution has survived contact with data is that it is the only reasonable means that we have for explaining what we find in the fossil record UNLESS you posit magic.

    Should a theory of biogenesis arise which is to Darwin as Einstein is to Newton which has similar predictive power to show how species change over time I’m sure there are a ton of evolutionary biologists who would LOVE to get the grant money from showing that such a thing were feasible.

    These complaints about funding ignore the fact that scientists who develop novel theories are frequently rewarded hugely for the originality of their ideas.

    • #40
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    @Valiuth

    Evolution doesn’t predict how things will change. Only that change happens. I think its general lack of predictiveness is one of the thing people dislike about it. 

    • #41
  12. Profile Photo Member
    @RyanM
    Majestyk

    Ryan M

    You propose a theory, AND set the parameters for what constitutes an “acceptable” alternative. 

    Acceptable alternatives have more accurate predictive power over systems than currently existing theses.

    The reason that the theory (I’ll call it a postulate) of evolution has survived contact with data is that it is the only reasonable means that we have for explaining what we find in the fossil record UNLESS you posit magic.

    Yes, and I do posit magic, but I call it “God.”  Data is consistent with both, and evolution has nothing in its corner to tip the scales, while God does have a great deal of philosophic thought in his.  I do not lament the idea that some should reject that alternative, but that those who don’t should be labeled crazy, unserious, fanatical, etc….  There is virtually no useful science that a belief in God, disbelief in evolution, would negate.  Yet, that religious adherence to a belief (in evolution, that is), is required to be taken in any way seriously.  That is my complaint.  I’m not trying to “put y’all back in pews,” to borrow a phrase from Uncle Joe.

    • #42
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    @FredCole
    Valiuth: Evolution doesn’t predict how things will change. Only that change happens. I think its general lack of predictiveness is one of the thing people dislike about it.  · 19 minutes ago

    Actually, you can’t use it as a crystal ball, but you can use it to predict we’ll find certain kind of animals or fossils that look a certain way.

    • #43
  14. Profile Photo Member
    @RyanM
    Valiuth: Evolution doesn’t predict how things will change. Only that change happens. I think its general lack of predictiveness is one of the thing people dislike about it.

    You miss the point.  Nobody denies that things change…. Evolution does not try to predict how things will change, but it does claim to know how they already did.  That is the problem. 

    Another problem is when evolution – or better put evolutionists – attempt to describe why things change.  They will tell you, with far greater certainty and far more condescension, what is most emphatically not why.

    • #44
  15. Profile Photo Member
    @JimmyCarter
    Valiuth:  …..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…..   · 8 hours ago

    They have “failed to materialize” only because the government has grown exponentially over those decades; interfering with innovation through taxes and regulations to name two.

    • #45
  16. Profile Photo Inactive
    @BrentB67

    Thanks for the thoughtful interaction. I think some things were left out of the discussion, but those horses have been beaten and laid to rest on many threads.

    • #46
  17. Profile Photo Member
    @
    Tom Meyer: The thing I always find infuriating in these discussions is that I’m never quite certain as to what Dr. Berlinski believes to be true, as opposed to what he believes to be false (i.e., evolution).  It’s… well, frustrating to argue against someone whose interest in criticizing his opponents is equaled only by his lack of interest in articulating his own position. · 4 hours ago

    You’ll never know what Berlinski actually thinks. He’s just a crank.

    • #47
  18. Profile Photo Member
    @MisterD
    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. · 8 hours ago

    Devil’s in the details. It was in the mechanisms, the cause and effect of how this happened that Lamarck and Lysenko failed. Epigenetics resembles them only on the thinnest surface.

    • #48
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    @BryanGStephens
    Mister D

    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. · 8 hours ago

    Devil’s in the details. It was in the mechanisms, the cause and effect of how this happened that Lamarck and Lysenko failed. Epigenetics resembles them only on the thinnest surface. · 10 hours ago

    Well, I do find it funny. However, the whole idea that things that do not effect your genes can be passed down is pretty different than what I was taught in school 20 years ago.

    I see it not as a dig on evolution, but a sign on how the understanding of biology has changed. The overall theory adapts.

    • #49
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    @MJBubba

    Re.:  epigenetics.   See  http://www.lewrockwell.com/2010/03/bill-sardi/the-garden-of-eden-and-epigenetics/

    This is an article by Bill Sardi with several links for further info.

    The Darwin Finches turn out to be an epigenetic phenomenon and not in any way evidence for Evolution.  The beaks of finch progeny change shape based on the diet of the finches.   After a couple of generations the beaks may revert based on the food sources.   In any event, no new species of finches have been identified on the Galapagos, and I believe one species was downgraded to variety status.  All the various finches are still bearing finches.

    Darwin’s finches are still prominently featured in every schoolbook though, as part of the indoctrination into the religion of Big Evolution that is part of progressive Big Education, with endorsements and blurbs supplied by scientists who are very proud of their scientific method, but who turn a blind eye to the rank dishonesty of the materials presented to students.

    • #50
  21. Profile Photo Member
    @JimmyCarter
    Valiuth: Evolution doesn’t predict how things will change. Only that change happens. I think its general lack of predictiveness is one of the thing people dislike about it.  · 1 hour ago

    Climatology predicts that things will change. Only that change doesn’t happen. I think its general predictiveness is one of  the thing people dislike about it.

    • #51
  22. Profile Photo Inactive
    @MJBubba
    BrentB67: Thanks for the thoughtful interaction. I think some things were left out of the discussion, but those horses have been beaten and laid to rest on many threads. 

    I can’t help thinking that you have me in mind.

    • #52
  23. Profile Photo Inactive
    @BrentB67

    MJB, not at all, just don’t have the energy or interest to litigate this again. Either someone believes or they don’t and if they don’t they will answer to someone else.

    • #53
  24. Profile Photo Contributor
    @Majestyk
    Ryan M

    You are an engineer.  You set out to solve a problem.  How do I cool Ryan’s homebrew in 100 degree weather without starting a fire on his solid-state-relay.  I trust you to answer that question, and it wouldn’t make a lick of difference to me whether you believed man evolved from apes or not.  Most scientists have specified areas of knowledge in that same manner, and most don’t rely in any way even on their being an answer to those theoretical issues.  Yet, they all demand that we accept their chosen answer if we are to be taken seriously.

    This sounds like a variation of Berlinski’s carp.  Because I’m an engineer and not a scientist (or not a specialist at least) that my opinion about purely theoretical matters is at best ill-informed.  Well, that pretty effectively eliminates most of the discussions here on Ricochet!

    The issue I have here is that this isn’t the case – most big scientific principles are able to be understood without a doctorate in that specialty. cont’d..

    • #54
  25. Profile Photo Member
    @RyanM
    BrentB67: MJB, not at all, just don’t have the energy or interest to litigate this again. Either someone believes or they don’t and if they don’t they will answer to someone else. · 47 minutes ago

    And if they don’t, they will call you a crank….

    • #55
  26. Profile Photo Contributor
    @Majestyk

    For instance, if you look out with your telescope at the night sky you’ll see myriad stars, galaxies, nebulae and planets – almost universally you see them moving away from the Earth’s relative position, and not just moving, but accelerating away from us.  It doesn’t take a degree in astrophysics to run the clock backwards to T=0 and determine that everything which is visible to us started out in the same location.

    Now, setting aside the human need for metaphysical certitude about ultimate first causes there is nothing, – I repeat – nothing that we can see which requires any leaps of faith in order to explain what occurred after T>0.

    To quote LaPlace, speaking to Bonaparte; “It works fine without that assumption,” referring to the existence of a Deity.

    On your previous assertion re: God and Magic.

    I’m glad that you’ve admitted this – but please consider what it is that you’re admitting:  I posit that the universe is the creation of the Intergalactic Federation, whose CEO is the Warlord Xenu.

    This is just as unverifiable as your claim of God and has the inconvenient problem that any fool can make the same claim.

    • #56
  27. Profile Photo Inactive
    @Valiuth
    Fred Cole

    Valiuth: Evolution doesn’t predict how things will change. Only that change happens. I think its general lack of predictiveness is one of the thing people dislike about it.  · 19 minutes ago

    Actually, you can’t use it as a crystal ball, but you can use it to predict we’ll find certain kind of animals or fossils that look a certain way. · 2 hours ago

    Any theory will make predictions about the existence of heretofore undiscovered facts (ie. new fossiles, DNA sequence homology, new particles etc.). What makes physics so satisfying is that it can mathematically describe the objects it studies predicting their future disposition. Therefore because we assume the laws of nature are immutable if we can predict a planets orbit in the future we can predict it in the past. 

    With respect to the climate when and if the models fail completely we will be able to ask for new theories. They are in the process of being falsified now. We can just give it time. 

    • #57
  28. Profile Photo Contributor
    @Majestyk
    Ryan M

    Nobody denies that things change…. Evolution does not try to predict how things will change, but it does claim to know how they already did. 

    Another problem is when evolution – or better put evolutionists – attempt to describe whythings change.  They will tell you, with far greater certainty and far more condescension, what is most emphatically not why.

    Well, so long as the hand of god is on the tiller of the ship of species and we can’t detect god then benighted scientists and engineers are doomed to seek fruitless materialist solutions to these troublesome questions.

    I have long ago conceded that from a purely metaphysical perspective I have no quibble with the notion of a Watchmaker God or a Multiverse or a “simulation universe” – they are morally equivalent in my mind and functionally the same as having no God – but none of these bear any resemblance to Allah or Yahweh.

    Even with our limited perceptions and puny tools the lack of evidence for these propositions ought to speak volumes – yet somehow, we are supposed to accept that there are even larger assumptions that we can safely make… even with those same limited perceptions and puny tools.

    • #58
  29. Profile Photo Inactive
    @BrianWatt

    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.

    Pure poppycock. Citations please for the scientists who claim that evolution explains the painting of the Mona Lisa or the formation of the universe. Someday, Peter you should have an evolutionary biologist of note respond to Berlinski’s silly assertions. You may want to start with Ken Miller. He’s a good Catholic who may have actually voted Republican in the last few cycles. You’d like him.

    • #59
  30. Profile Photo Member
    @RyanM

    @majestyk: I’m not saying that your opinion is ill- informed because you are only an engineer; what I’m saying is that out is no more inherently well informed than my opinion as a lawyer. I am not denying you’re powers of observation, only suggesting that you cannot deny mine by virtue of my not being an engineer. on the matter of evolution, we are on equal footing.

    • #60
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