Whether there is a War on Science

Paul Krugman’s latest column is a species of the familiar lefty complaint that righties are anti-science.  His launching point is an interview in which Sen. Marco Rubio is asked how old earth is and says he doesn’t know, as he is not a scientist.  According to Krugman, Rubio’s “inability to acknowledge scientific evidence speaks of the anti-rational mindset that has taken over the GOP.”

Rational or anti-rational has nothing to do with it.  Rubio’s point is that he is not a scientist, and so hasn’t had occasion to systematically judge the evidence.  Over 90% of people, including over 90% of people who believe in a Republican “war on science,” do not form opinions on these matters by systematically examining the evidence, but by deciding what authorities to trust.*  There are “well-informed” people among these 90% who have glanced at evidence on culturally divisive matters, but this evidence comes pre-selected by entertainers they know are on their side, such Krugman.

***

How could it be otherwise?  I think certain things about DNA, atoms, the rate of acceleration of objects falling toward earth, etc., because authorities I consider reliable have informed me these things are, as best as anyone can tell, true.  You could also say I trust a process that has been institutionalized, known as Science, in which experimenters publish their results and others try to replicate them.  I don’t myself have to go and replicate experiments, because I know others are doing so.

So in part, I’m not relying on an appeal to authority of any person, but of a process I have evaluated rationally and decided it seems like it would work.  This is a process involving humans, and so is suspect.  You have to exercise discernment to distinguish cases where you’re getting mostly process from one’s where you’re getting a lot of human.  If I learned that a peer-reviewed study showed that people a pill has a certain side effect, or that smaller class sizes have a certain effect or lack of effect, I would take it with at least a grain of salt.  Everybody knows scientists are lazy, don’t check each other’s work very carefully, make assumptions that influence their results and so forth.  Yet this doesn’t prevent my being quite confident that things like equations governing the motion of planets, the wave-particle duality of light, cell splitting and the like are real, to the best of our current knowledge.

So this approach of trusting in a process can save us from the need for a pure appeal to authority.  It is not clear, however, that it can save Krugman’s argument.  Krugman and others like him never define terms like “rational,” “science” and “fact,” which they employ so freely.  They make no distinction between “scientific consensus” or opinion polls of scientists on the one hand, and Science itself on the other, science being a process whose very virtue is that it frees knowledge from the ever-present threat of intellectual consensus prejudice.

Not limiting the meaning of “science” allows them to treat any number of opinions as being as well-founded as Galileo’s discoveries, and their narrative of dogmatic, religious suppression of science allows them to tap into the mythic power of his martyrdom.  Not defining “fact” allows them to label opinions facts, while they also equivocate freely between right-wingers’ “war on science” and refusal to accept such “facts.”

Krugman starts with something that I don’t doubt is well-established, the age of earth, and by the end of the column is talking about a Congressional Research Service report on economic policies.  He wants us to associate the two.

***

In his “I am not a scientist” remarks, Rubio recognized science as the basis for determining earth’s age, but was unwilling to make a judgment between competing claims of what science says.**

How important is it to make such a judgment?  We sometimes ride airplanes on the assumption that certain laws of physics are true.  Actually, we don’t even know what these laws of physics are, let alone the evidence for them; we only assume that whatever they are, they can be taken as authoritative enough to justify getting on the airplane.  Similarly, we rely on medical researchers to know laws of biology.  All this happens through a Hayekian, I Pencil-like process, and rationalism, empiricism or any kind of conscious epistemology has humblingly little to do with it.  Once again we are trusting a process, and most people can’t even articulate their reasons for doing that.

Nevertheless, someone, somewhere, obviously has to know the relevant natural laws.  The age of the earth is not, however, a law of nature; it is an extrapolation of these laws back in time, combined with certain geological observations.  It is a discovery about what has happened in the past.  Krugman wonders how we can extract resources if schools have to give equal time to claims the earth is 6000 years old, or compete in biotechnology if biology classes cater to creationists, but the relevant question, as far as I can tell, is what laws of physics one expects to operate in the future, not extrapolations about their past operation.

***

If a science class actually teaches science, it has to start by treating scientific knowledge as questionable.  That includes evolution, heliocentrism, wave-particle duality of light, quantum physics***, etc.  Schools will have to tell kids how we know the things we know.  If they equip students to look at the evidence and draw sound conclusions, we don’t need to worry much that having them read challenges to these theories will corrupt and confuse the youth.

If a science class is just about teaching kids to take certain claims on authority, then of course a school might not want to legitimize a dissenting position with its authority by teaching multiple sides of an argument.  Yet kids are bound to discover the controversies when they get older, and will not be mentally equipped to handle them, and so will form opinions based only on which side of the culture war they identify with.

* One could, of course, take the position that the Bible says earth is 6000 years old, and this supercedes scientific evidence, which would be a kind of appeal to authority, but this is not what I am talking about.  I mean authorities on what the best science actually is.  Many, probably most young-earthers feel compelled to hedge their a priori bets (Bible supercedes science) with some claim for empirical support for their hypothesis.

** Elsewhere in the column, however, Krugman quotes Rubio calling the age of earth question “a dispute among theologians,” which contradicts Rubio’s implication here that it is a matter for science to settle.  The question is how far back we want to extrapolate the observable scientific laws.  Science can get us back to the Big Bang, but that’s about it.  It’s a question of when we think something happened arbitrarily to create the laws of physics, matter, energy, etc.  We don’t need to start with the Big Bang.  I might, for instance, believe the universe came into existence 12.7 seconds ago, but has operated under observable laws since then.  This seems wrong to me, for various pre-scientific reasons, as does the 6000-year-old earth.

*** Does God play dice with the universe?  Teach the controversy!

Advertisements

One thought on “Whether there is a War on Science

  1. Good post, Aaron. At the very least, even if any given science class or curriculum doesn’t want to present *all* the opposing views (let’s face it, there are some interpretations of how the mechanics of the world works which might be internally consistent, but would be so far out there that presenting them might be a waste of time), the curriculum really ought to include a section on the philosophy of western science so that there is at least an explicit understanding of how the philosophical framework and presuppositions lead to how the data is interpreted.
    -Marty

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s