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

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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Members have made 121 comments.

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  1. Profile photo of KC Mulville Member

    “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.

    • #2
    • August 26, 2013 at 9:21 am
  2. Profile photo of genferei Member

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

    Just sayin’.

    • #3
    • August 26, 2013 at 9:34 am
  3. Profile photo of Tim H. Member

    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?

    • #4
    • August 26, 2013 at 9:35 am
  4. Profile photo of MMPadre Inactive

    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.

    • #5
    • August 26, 2013 at 9:35 am
  5. Profile photo of Valiuth Member

    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. 

    • #6
    • August 26, 2013 at 9:42 am
  6. Profile photo of Tim H. Member

    “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.

    • #7
    • August 26, 2013 at 9:45 am
  7. Profile photo of Jeff Y Inactive
    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.

    • #8
    • August 26, 2013 at 9:45 am
  8. Profile photo of BrentB67 Inactive

     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.

    • #9
    • August 26, 2013 at 9:56 am
  9. Profile photo of Peter Robinson Founder
    Peter Robinson Post author
    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.

    • #10
    • August 26, 2013 at 10:00 am
  10. Profile photo of Tim H. Member

    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.

    • #11
    • August 26, 2013 at 10:01 am
  11. Profile photo of Tim H. Member
    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.

    • #12
    • August 26, 2013 at 10:02 am
  12. Profile photo of Inactive
    Anonymous
    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. 
    • #13
    • August 26, 2013 at 10:07 am
  13. Profile photo of Ralphie Member

    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.

    • #14
    • August 26, 2013 at 10:12 am
  14. Profile photo of Tim H. Member

    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…]

    • #15
    • August 26, 2013 at 10:14 am
  15. Profile photo of Tim H. Member

    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!

    • #16
    • August 26, 2013 at 10:22 am
  16. Profile photo of Bryan G. Stephens Reagan
    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.

    • #17
    • August 26, 2013 at 10:24 am
  17. Profile photo of bernai Member

    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!

    • #18
    • August 26, 2013 at 10:28 am
  18. Profile photo of Tim H. Member
    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.

    • #19
    • August 26, 2013 at 10:34 am
  19. Profile photo of Valiuth Member

    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. 

    • #20
    • August 26, 2013 at 10:47 am
  20. Profile photo of Fred Cole Member

    Ugh.

    I’m trying to put together words to explain the frustration here.

    Adam Frank is right.

    The state of science and science education in is not worthy of a nation that leads the world in… everything.

    It’s very frustrating that it’s 2013 and we still have to argue about teaching [expletive] creationism in schools.

    • #21
    • August 26, 2013 at 10:48 am
  21. Profile photo of Majestyk Thatcher
    Fred Cole: Ugh.

    I’m trying to put together words to explain the frustration here.

    Adam Frank is right.

    The state of science and science education in is not worthy of a nation that leads the world in… everything.

    It’s very frustrating that it’s 2013 and we still have to argue about teaching [expletive] creationism in schools. · 5 minutes ago

    Agreed. It is ironic that the same parents who are allegedly so concerned about schools teaching the three “R’s” are the same parents who want deficient counter-knowledge foisted upon an unsuspecting population.

    Their true agenda shines through the moment you mention the word “Darwin.” What they really want is religious inculcation in the public schools.

    The education in mathematics and science that they piously claim to value is suddenly very much a secondary consideration if their dogmas are challenged.

    • #22
    • August 26, 2013 at 10:57 am
  22. Profile photo of Astonishing Inactive
    Peter Robinson . . . .Frank’s complaint [is that] . . . “politicians were expected to support science financially but otherwise leave it alone….”. . .

    Frank’s suggestion that politicians should fund science “but otherwise leave it alone” demonstrates obliviousness of the fact that science, qua science, is by definition amoral, and therefore incapable of making moral judgments about its own activities.

    This old saying sums up the moral incapacity of science:

    Scientists can tell you how to get to the moon, but can’t tell you whether you should go there.

    Because science (qua science) and scientists (qua scientists) cannot answer moral questions, ultimately science must be governed by limits imposed by other entities authorized to make moral judgments, viz, by political entities.

    Someone might argue that, although scientists (as scientists) cannot make moral judgments, scientists can remove their “scientist hats” and don “moralist hats” in ethics committees that decide moral questions about what scientists should be allowed to do. However, such committees, if not ultimately subject to external rules, are foxes guarding henhouses because scientists, being human, are biased toward permitting activities that advance their scientific interests.

    (Moreover, having focused their lives in an amoral pursuit, scientists are sometimes hubristically naive about moral questions.)

    • #23
    • August 26, 2013 at 11:08 am
  23. Profile photo of Rachel Lu Contributor

    One problem scientists have is that science has become a kind of religion for a certain breed of godless liberals. (If you require godless experts to tell you the meaning of life, scientists are your best bet these days.)

    It’s not necessarily the scientists’ fault if foolish people want to idolize them. But, being human, some of them enjoy the respect and notoriety, and allow themselves to be persuaded that they really are oracles of wisdom and that everyone should defer to them in every realm of life. Those ones make themselves extremely obnoxious at times, and religious people are absolutely right to suppose that *that* group of scientists is actively hostile to religious faith. Scientists love to cry about the incursions of the idiot faithful on their research and reputation, but very often it is the scientists who are the aggressors. 

    If they really wanted to put Young Earth Creationists and others in their place, the trick would be to establish, in a principled way, what their research does and does not demonstrate. But that would involve a seriously diminished status for the popular-guru scientists, so it won’t happen anytime soon.

    • #24
    • August 26, 2013 at 11:15 am
  24. Profile photo of Astonishing Inactive
    Valiuth: . . . everyone thought science was going to cure all the social ills that plague humanity. It can’t . . .

    Much of that misunderstanding arises from a belief that social ills will be cured by material prosperity. We mistakenly believed science would solve social ills by solving the problem of material need.

    Applied science operating in a free market has generated widespread material prosperity beyond every expectation. (My father, who grew up during the Depression–shoeless, without electricity and plumbing, starving–often remarks that the “poor” and “hungry” today have no idea of what it means to be poor and hungry.) 

    Even though material prosperity cannot eliminate social ills (and has perhaps made some worse), the enormous material success of applied science has deceived us into looking exclusively to science to solve all ills. The undeniable material successes of science has made us believe that “scientific truth” is the only truth. However, “scientific truth” (if such a thing exists) cannot by itself answer the moral questions that underlie our social ills. We have painted ourselves into a corner wherein we look almost exclusively to science (including oxymoronically named modern “social sciences”) to address moral problems that science was never capable of solving.

    • #25
    • August 27, 2013 at 1:07 am
  25. Profile photo of lakelylane Inactive

    thank you, thank you, thank you, etc. I can hurrah today and it feels so good. Love the article so beautifully ‘spot on’.

    • #26
    • August 27, 2013 at 1:34 am
  26. Profile photo of Fred Cole Member
    BrentB67: Question for Fred and Majestyk (and Peter also):

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

    You both, especially Majestyk, comment about these sorts of things regularly. Dr. Berlinski’s contrast of the two is interesting. What are your thoughts? · 40 minutes ago

    I’m not sure I get your meaning.

    • #27
    • August 27, 2013 at 1:34 am
  27. Profile photo of Tom Meyer, Ed. Editor

    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.

    • #28
    • August 27, 2013 at 2:25 am
  28. Profile photo of Tom Meyer, Ed. Editor

    Relatedly, was anyone else surprised to read John Farrell’s highly critical review in NR of Stephen Meyer’s new book?

    I was (pleasantly) shocked.

    • #29
    • August 27, 2013 at 2:28 am
  29. Profile photo of BrentB67 Inactive

    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.

    • #30
    • August 27, 2013 at 2:32 am
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