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.