• Subscribe to Crisis

  • The Humility of Science, the Arrogance of Scientists

    by Anthony Esolen

    According to Aristotle, the nature of investigation and the proofs we assert depend upon the object.  That is, we do not look for mathematical demonstration when the object of our study is not a mathematical object.  It is even a reduction to dissolve a simple inanimate thing, like a quartz crystal, into a mathematical model, as useful as that reduction may be for certain practical purposes.  That is because of the irreducible particularity of created being – that a crystal is not any crystal, but this one, both like all others and unlike, a unique manifestation of the crystalline essence.  If the particularity or thisness of an inanimate object escapes us, then all the more must the particularity of personal being transcend any generalizing analysis.  We are, as Hans Urs von Balthasar points out in The Truth of the World, far more than objects about whom true statements may be made.  We are ourselves the receivers and the proclaimers of truth; and in no two persons is the same truth made manifest in the same way.  Just as a moment of truth-receiving or truth-telling is unique and unrepeatable, since never again will a truth be shown in the world in quite the same way, so too the persons, the truth-bearers, are unique and irreplaceable.  There is simply no way a general statement can capture the fullness of the moment when John, a student of mine, comes to the awareness that goodness is independent of opinion, even his own opinion; when he gathers into his own subjective being, in his intensely personal way, a truth whose roots extend deep into the mystery of being itself.

    When I consider how my mind was spent, when I was young and full of foolish pride, on proving how all things were filled with numbers, the philosophical naivete of it all is now for me a most acute embarrassment.  Mathematics, and the sciences that employ mathematical tools, bring us to a fine field of truth, and we should be grateful for that truth.  Without it we could not live in the comfort that we have wrung from our domination of the natural world.  We would be bound in our travels to the legs of horses, or the winds at sea.  We could not fly.  And yet – to quote that young philosopher Francis Marion Tarwater in Flannery O’Connor’s story, “Buzzards can fly.”  A physicist can tell me how a winged object can stay in the air.  But he cannot, insofar as he is a physicist alone or even a biologist alone and not also a man like all other men, tell me about the beauty or the nobility of the buzzard, much less about the beauty or nobility of Francis Marion Tarwater.

    There are, in short, things that the natural sciences cannot do, all kinds of things indeed, and among them the most important things in life.  They can tell me how water flows through a pipe – more or less, for even that is subject to the mysterious indeterminacies of feedback loops and turbulence.  It is a fine thing to know how water flows through a pipe.  If I want to drain the sodden backyard, I would surely hire someone with knowledge of hydraulics.  It is a fine thing to know that the coal I hold in my hand, with the fern-fossil bravely imprinted upon it, is thousands of years old, and is of the same basic stuff as diamond.  And yet I cannot exhaust the coal by calculating the calories it will produce when it is burnt, nor can I tell, by consulting a geologist, whether I should buy that diamond and give it to my wife.

    We often hear that it is ignorant people who are “opposed to science,” because they oppose this or that thing that scientists wish to do, or because they withhold their assent to this or that proposition that scientists claim to have proved.  As to the latter, it surely is not a mark of foolishness to be circumspect about all grand claims.  I recall, in my own lifetime, a nice variety of scientific claims, such as that the world was going to suffer a new ice-age because of the albedo effect, caused by particulate matter in the atmosphere; that we were going to suffer terrible famines due to overpopulation; that fully twenty percent of the male population were homosexually oriented; that butter was bad for your health; that vitamin C could cure the common cold; that “cold fusion” had been achieved; that DDT would destroy all aviary life on the planet; and so forth.  The history of science is not a story of slowly and neatly accruing truth, but of periods of modest progress punctuated by tumults and revolutions, when everything we thought we knew is turned inside out, subject to dismissal or to radical reinterpretation.

    So, yes, scientists err.  But there’s more.  Scientists are human, just as we are.  They set up idols to worship.  They make unto themselves (or of themselves!) graven images.  They forget the Sabbath.  They dishonor their parents.  They kill and steal and fornicate.  They cheat, they slander, they detract, they deceive themselves.  They covet – indeed the whole scientific culture seems built upon a network of covetousness.  They fall victim to all of the deadly sins, especially pride, envy, and avarice.  Scientists gave us an innocent Einstein, a compromised Oppenheimer, and a monstrous Mengele.  Scientists have brought us great good, and, yes, some great evil.  Scientists, like every other group of people in the last misbegotten century, wore robes streaked with blood.  Scientists infected unsuspecting women in Central America with syphilis.  Scientists experimented upon black men at Tuskegee.  Scientists ignored the dangers of thalidomide.  Scientists falsified evidence in order to promote the legalization of abortion.  Scientists ignored the connections between artificial estrogen and cancer.  Scientists press on, now, for human cloning, not because it should be done, but because it can be done.  Scientists belittle forms of knowledge that do not fall within their purview; they are, as a group, no better read in the humanities, no more broadly educated in philosophy or theology, than, say, a comparable group of lawyers or politicians.

    Why, then, should I trust scientists, simply?  What great moral wisdom do they possess – or what great moral wisdom should we expect them to possess, when they are made much of, when their competition is notoriously vicious, and when they are encouraged to assume that theirs is the only knowledge possible, or worth possessing?  Is that fine preparation for a wise man?  I can readily concede them the virtues of industry and native intelligence, but what of those more profound virtues that make for a truly good human life?  What of the cardinal pagan virtues, temperance, courage, justice, and wisdom?  What of humility, kindness, innocence?  Why on earth should I grant a moral or political carte blanche to a group of people who already possess great prestige and influence and wealth?  Even when scientists are arguing about the facts of a matter – anthropogenic global warming, for instance – they are just as prone to intransigence, to partisanship, to passion and pride, as are farmers arguing for cheap silver coinage or industrialists arguing for a protective tariff.  It was Galileo the deeply flawed man, and not some fictional Galileo the Pure Searcher for Truth, who attempted to prove the geocentric system by half-deliberately misinterpreting the motion of the tides.

    For these reasons – the historical fact that scientists are no better or no worse as human beings than generals or judges or plantation owners, and that scientists themselves are often quite wrong – I believe it is absolutely necessary for civilians to oversee scientific research, not to intrude themselves into the small details of every experiment, but to set the broad parameters of what should be done and what should not be done, what does conduce to the common good and what does not.  I trust Patton to prosecute a war, but not to determine when a war ought to be fought.  I trust the judge to interpret the language of a law, not to write the law himself.  I agree with William F. Buckley, who famously quipped that he would prefer to be governed by the first hundred persons in the Cambridge telephone directory than by the faculty at Harvard.  I’ll adapt that preference thus: I would expect to find less moral wisdom among the harried and narrowly focused laboratory workers at any institute of science, than in the plumbers, carpenters, and janitors who construct and tend the room wherein the scientists work.

    I have no intent to demean scientists.  I wish merely to see them for what they are, and to see their work for what it is, and to protect the polity from placing too much trust in their unacknowledged priesthood.

    The views expressed by the authors and editorial staff are not necessarily the views of
    Sophia Institute, Holy Spirit College, or the Thomas More College of Liberal Arts.

    Subscribe to Crisis

    (It's Free)

    Go to Crisis homepage

    • Gavin

      I’m not sure what this article intends to communicate if it is not an attempt to demean scientists. The first three paragraphs are non sequiturs. More of Walt Whitman’s “When I Heard the Learned Astronomer.” Paragraph 4 talks about scientists making mistakes; paragraph 5 talks about scientists doing immoral things. All scientists? Some scientists? 90%? 10%? From these shallow and unsupported assertions, we move to paragraph 6 with its continued suggestions of moral turpitude on the part of scientists and obligatory cheap shot at Galileo. Paragraph 7 draws the illogical conclusion that scientists have less moral wisdom than “plumbers, carpenters, and janitors.” Why? Finally, the author claims he’s not really trying to demean scientists (really? he had me fooled for a minute) but is merely trying to protect the “polity” (like those artisans who are morally superior to scientists, but not apparently to him because these poor misguided people need his guidance) from, well, scientists.

      Let’s be honest here. Science is about understanding reality and truth. Science is a tremendous success story, and we owe much to scientists. These insinuations (or outright claims) that scientists are arrogant, morally indifferent elitists reflect more on the accuser than on scientists. I come from a family of research scientists. They work extremely hard and are unusually thoughtful and caring people. It’s very easy to condemn what one does not understand. It takes hard work and dedication to understand science. It’s very easy to caste aspersions on the characters of certain groups. If people could get past feeling inferior to scientists, perhaps they could better appreciate all the good that they do and how much they benefit from all that scientists have done over the ages.

      • Robert

        I believe this has struck a nerve with Gavin, who inadvertently provides more substance to the truth found in the article. As an astronomer I would say Mr. Esolen was too easy on Galileo; but then the topic of the article wasn’t an in depth examination of the wrongs committed by Galileo (which popular history has indeed whitewashed over.) To brush off what was said about Galileo, calling it a cheap shot speaks a hint of, well, a fear of what you don’t understand. This fear has brought out the knee-jerk reaction found in your posts here. You certainly didn’t understand the article at the bare minimum.

        As a scientist, I would say quite a large percentage of scientists ourselves today do not understand much of the philosophy of science (even the ‘scientific method’ itself is a matter of philosophy), let alone right ethics and morality.

    • WSquared

      Gavin, you miss the point of the article. All that Professor Esolen is trying to say is that Science, like all other forms of knowledge, have certain limits, simply because they all ask different questions. It therefore behooves all of us who are practitioners of those respective disciplines to have some humility by respecting those very real limits (and thus boundaries). Professor Esolen is not doubting that Science is a success story; he merely points out that scientists are human, just like the rest of us, and just like the rest of us, are capable of doing great evil when they have no respect for limits. Hence the reason why he can tell the difference between Einstein and Mengele, and why he sounds a note of caution to us all– just because you *can* do something, that does not necessarily mean that you *should*. Have you never read Frankenstein?

      • Gavin

        So why doesn’t he worry about english teachers being human and flawed? Why is he attacking a particular category of people? People fear what they don’t understand. He comes across as being resentful of the esteem scientists enjoy.

        • WSquared

          Because the article isn’t about English professors. And stating that History professors, English professors, Classics professors, etc. etc. etc. are flawed would be stating the obvious.

          I am an historian with a Math and Science background. I respect Science and scientists, and saw no “attack” in Professor Esolen’s piece, merely a call to humility for us all (and one that, having seen arrogance on both sides of the Sciences-and-Humanities coin in academia, I’d say is long overdue).

        • Nick Palmer

          Gavin, As WSquared notes, Prof. Esolen has defined a circumscribed topic, scientists and their hubris. Not “life, the universe, and everything.”

          Take a look at George Sim Johnston’s concurrent Crisis piece, “Why Catholics Like Einstein” to get another angle on this issue.

          • Gavin

            It seems to me more about the “conservatives hate science” angle, which is really about a certain type of conservative hating reality. I don’t see how the post can be construed as not demeaning scientists and their work.

            • Nick Palmer

              Gavin, thank for exposing your agenda. So it’s “conservatives” that are your target? Give me a moment while I consult pigeon entrails for how to respond to this substance-filled critique…

              Can you point out the spot in Prof. Esolen’s piece in which he “demeans” science, rather than merely suggesting that science has an appropriate and useful place, yet does not encompass the entirety of human experience nor morality? If I suggest that a screwdriver is great for installing and removing screws, but of little use when composing a symphony, have I “demeaned” the screwdriver? Or demeaned carpenters?

            • meg

              Gavin – if I reject cloning it doesn’t make me a hater of reality. You’re making Anthony Esolen’s point for him: what scientists create becomes, in the mind of many, the new default, as you call it, reality. This is what he is objecting to – they have an undue level of influence in relation to what they are qualified to do. They have no credentials in philosophy, theology etc. yet what they create can and has caused terrible moral conundrums for human society in general and Catholics in particular. The writer simply calls for a level of objectivity in regards to scientific advances, not a blind acceptance of this progress as some sort of unstoppable inevitability.

    • Dan

      Gavin, this essay speaks to a point that arose when the Obama administration decided to compel religious institutions to include contraception in health insurance coverage – that because scientists have decided contraception is good, all must consent, conscience and constitution be damned.

      In other words, there is more to that issue than what President Obama and Kathleen Sebelius have determined after being counseled by scientists. A scientist says the pill is a good thing on balance because it has this physical effect or that one. Fine. But many of us contend that moral wreckage has flowed from the contraception culture, so the scientist’s determination is not the end of the story, and Kathleen Sebelius should not declare it to be.

      Science and its practitioners are not the be all and end all of human endeavor.

    • Tony Esolen

      I am asking people to stop assuming that scientists are immaculate Benefactors of Mankind, and that everything that scientists seek to do ought to be done. I don’t mean to demean them, but to see them in the light of truths and human goods that transcend them. In particular, I am weary of having to hear that the only form of knowledge is that which can be extracted from a controlled experiment. That principle is quite simply wrong, and to assume it is to will oneself into a dangerous combination of ignorance of the truths that matter most, and scientism.

      I assure you that I have long written about the sins of English teachers, which are also multitudinous.

      • Nick Palmer

        Prof. E: say it isn’t so!

    • Sarto

      There have been some pretty good studies done on the flawed arrogance of “common sense,” which can be completely mistaken.

      I doubt if Mr. Buckley would have chosen the first one hundred people in the Cambridge phone book to run his magazine. And I also doubt if Professor Esalon would ask the plumber and the carpenter to critique his class.

    • Doug

      Thank you Prof. Esolen. I concur strongly with your main point. As a scientist of 30 years it is my observation that science gets itself into trouble out of a lack of humility. More specifically, when we believe we know more than we have actually learned and then act on those assumptions (or get society to move in a certain direction based on what we think we know). It is often an error of over-simplified extrapolation (viz. population bomb, chemical/pesticide envirotoxicity, expert dietary trends, global warming fits here as well). Honest science acknowldges that it possesses a narrow vision – limited by its tools to knowing the natural which it has measured. Science can not measure and hence can not speak about what is supernatural in a man, in the world, or above the world; love and apathy, virtue, tenderness, greed…
      In college I wanted only facts – science and math were beautiful, those who studied liberal arts were idiots in my eyes. There are several generations of those like me who learned much about science and nothing of the deepest truths about Man. I have since discovered that philosophy is also beautiful.

    • Tony Esolen

      Sarto, I believe that Buckley was making two points. They are specific to the subject of politics. The first derives from Aristotle, who said that people under the age of 40 should not study politics. What he meant was that politics requires long experience with human nature, which young people cannot possibly possess. The artificial separation of the Harvard faculty from the common laborer or farmer or housewife or whatnot makes them analogous to the youth in Aristotle’s dictum. The second point is a moral one, which is to say that humility — especially the willingness to learn from tradition — is more likely to be found in the person picked at random than in the Harvard faculty. There are some ideas too absurd for anyone but an academic to believe. I know I’m speaking against my own profession here.

      Of course Buckley wouldn’t have let the plumber edit his magazine, because editing a magazine requires a specific and identifiable skill. For the same reason he wouldn’t have hired the plumber to fix his sailboat. But politics is not analogous to those professions.

      Finally: I believe that tools make good servants but bad masters. I want technology to serve the human good, and not the human good to yield to technology. I don’t want to live in a technocracy. When scientists stop speaking as if controlled experiments were the sole or even the highest source of knowledge, and when they stop behaving as if anyone who criticizes their eagerness to do something merely because it can be done is “anti-science” or a lunatic, then I’ll rest a great deal easier…

    • Sarto

      Actually, professor Esalon, I agree with you 100% about scientism, and heaven knows I have been in academia enough to see the arrogance of the faculty–especially, God help us, the English Department, where the turf battles left the dead in piles.

      But I think Buckley never did what was my daily routine in the several places where I was pastor of a small country parish. Always, there was the small cafe or restaurant where the self-appointed sages of the town sat around what I used to call “the power table.”

      I usually arrived for breakfast after Mass while the first wave was sitting at table. In my part of the world, this means a couple of 50+ small business owners, some old farmers, and some old retired guys. Depending on the location of my parish, the farmers were replaced by old loggers.

      The subject was invariably politics. Everything was the fault of guvmint, and if the @#$%^ would only do this or only do that, the world was sure to be a better place.

      It was often the most incredible collection of misperception and misinformation imagineable. Now those are the “sages” Buckley never heard because he never even knew that such a world exists. But there they are, all over the rural areas of the East, all over the Midwest, and all over the West. They are the ones who just voted in Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina.

      Mitt with his 25 million per anum and Santorum with his million per anum dropped in wearing Wranglers and a casual shirt, but they were like astronauts on the moon.

      Their “common sense” is often amazingly stupid. I would go over and greet the bunch and they would say hello and go back to solving the problems of the world. And I loved those people, the salt of the earth. But I had no illusions that, in their very limited experience of life on Planet Earth, they were really the fount of wisdom they are so often made out to be.

      • jpaYMCA

        Sarto, first I hope you’re not a Catholic priest, bc they’re supposed to know Latin, and the difference between “per anum” and “per annum” is quite distinct (look it up: I won’t write it here!)
        Finally, you’re still talking around, above and below the article – not addressing what Buckley and Esolen said: the common man, complete with his often-faulty common sense, would do a better job at politics than the Harvard faculty for several reasons, which Esolen has already explained re Aristotle (and even recent American history would support this), none of which you’ve attacked directly. You can call Iowans, South Carolinians and those from NH “misinformed” or worse, but they did what the US currently stipulates for elections: they voted. A few probably voted who come from towns/cities and are not rural dwellers.
        Also, Esolen did not explicate Aristotle’s preference for the “professional wise-man”, who would also be the best politician (or in the plural in the slightly deficient “aristocracy” of the Politics). I’m sure you know this already, but it bears repeating: the third group was of a republic of “kolonoi”; towards the bottom is the oligarchy (think Harvard faculty, at least in recent memory) or tyranny, e.g., gloriose regnans Obama.

        • Sarto

          Woops! And I don’t even want to speculate aboutthe difference.

          As I said up there somewhere, I basically agree with Professor Esalon. But I always was impatient with Buckley, because he radiated his own smug feelings of pompous omniscience, if you ever followed him on TV. It took a dictionary to listen to him for ten minutes. His appeal to the common sense of the common man seemed so affected I laughed out loud the first time I heard him say it.

          And I am still unconvinced about the common sense of the common man, especially with the tools we have developed to manipulate public opinion.

          Buckley aspired to be, and surely was, one of the “professional wise-men.” But the present occupants of that title–the Pundits–are far below him. And then, back to the common man, those common men on the right seem to have given that high honor to Rush and Sean. And this is one more reason why I am not enamored with their wisdom.

    • Gavin

      Tony Esolen writes, “I don’t mean to demean them.”

      That would be a little more plausible if they weren’t described as having “less moral wisdom” than janitors (why would that be?) and the title of the piece didn’t specifically mention their arrogance. Personally I don’t think scientists get enough respect, probably because most people don’t understand their work (which doesn’t stop said people from forming deeply-held convictions about whether or not the scientists are correct.) Several of my relatives are research scientists, and I can say from personal experience that they work too hard and have too many interests to have time for self-absorption and self-congratulation. As for lack of wisdom, I don’t see that either. They’re an idealistic, and thoughtful bunch. If there is any group that does not need oversight from “the wise” (like … janitors?), it would be scientists. The cycle of the scientific process is self-purifying.

    • Cord Hamrick

      Scientists of a certain kind and under certain circumstances receive a kind of respect and deference which exceeds their ability to live up to it.

      What kind? Those with a knack for popularizing science or for public speaking, mostly.

      Under what circumstances? Usually it involves the fields in which they’re working becoming plausibly relevant to public policy or producing findings plausibly relevant to cultural dividing-lines in society (race, religion, politics).

      The consequence is as it would be for any other fallible human being placed on a pedestal: A tendency to abuse the privilege, to get full of one’s self, to pronounce on topics outside of one’s expertise.

      An uncontroversial example is Stephen Hawking. He is of course a quite good physicist, possibly among the top 5% in his field. No Witten, really, but still quite good. And were it not for his disease, he would be known as that: A pretty good physicist. Because his disease draws attention and makes for a good story, he is in a position to sell more books than the average quite good physicist.

      But in those books he steps outside his expertise into areas where he is apt to say things as grossly, laughably erroneous as something Paris Hilton might say about astrophysics.

      A classic is where he asserts that there is no need for a God to be involved in creation because, provided that the laws of physics are in place, “all things” can spontaneously come into being “out of nothing.” A first-year philosophy student might not detect the glaring errors — foremost being that the laws of physics are, themselves, things, contingent things, with properties that do not explain themselves, and thus are in every bit as much need of explanation from some transcendent first cause as the material universe that they are being used to explain.

      Hawking’s explanation does not explain, but only backs the lack of explanation up by a single step: An Ungod of the Gaps, if you will. A first-year philosophy student might not detect that; but a second-year certainly would, and the first-year who missed it might not make it to the second year.

      Why does Hawking make the blunder of speaking with such conviction about a topic with which he ought to realize that he has only a nodding acquaintance? His circumstances have caused others to credit his opinions with authority beyond that which he has strictly earned.

      The East Anglia CRU and their associates (Michael Mann et alia) is another example: Climategate 1.0 and 2.0, the scandal of Mann’s debunked “hockey stick” chart, the HARRY READ ME.txt file: Here we have scientists who started out honest, achieved a kind of celebrity when what was once an obscure field received a lot of public policy attention, and devolved into spin-doctors for a cause that required them to make claims beyond their expertise or possible knowledge, which they then had to scramble to cover for when a few other folks had the temerity to ask probing questions about their methods and data.

      Does it mean scientists are bad? Of course not. Had anyone else been suddenly promoted beyond their level of competence and lost their heads, the same thing might have happened. There but for the grace of God go we.

      But in an age full of uncertainty, folks like to have information they feel is reliable. Our irreligious age makes the oddly religious assertion that the scientific method produces the only such information available. As a consequence, folks place trust in scientists; when a scientist becomes a celebrity, the trust outweighs his capacity to carry it. Thus the occasional meteoric rise, and the corresponding Luciferian fall.

      • Nick Palmer

        Well stated Cord. I’ll let Prof. Thomas Sowell toss out a few replies to Gavin’s anecdotally motivated post:

        “Virtually no idea is too ridiculous to be accepted, even by very intelligent and highly educated people, if it provides a way for them to feel special and important. Some confuse that feeling with idealism.”

        “People who are very aware that they have more knowledge than the average person are often very unaware that they do not have one-tenth of the knowledge of all of the average persons put together. In this situation, for the intelligentsia to impose their notions on ordinary people is essentially to impose ignorance on knowledge.”

        “The economic disasters of socialism and communism come from assuming a blanket superiority of those who want to run a whole economy.”

        Woven through Gavin’s post, and explicit in one of them, is his, shall we say, disdain for a group he generalizes as “conservatives.” He does an interesting do-si-do in his last post equating his neatly defined conservative class with some caricatures from Deliverance, then holds them up against his Olympian scientist friends.

        I am a chemical engineer by early training, went to a very science-and-engineering school (RPI), and have known hundreds of scientists, dozens quite well. They’re human, with all the human virtues and failings. They are, however, by virtue of their deep knowledge in very narrow ravines, liable to overestimate their ability to opine wisely outside their field of expertise. They are also, as a rule, overconfident of the generalizability of what they believe to be the “scientific method.” Sadly, as most of them (yes, a generalization, but true nonetheless) have never studied the first thing about philosophy, even philosophy of science, know little of what they speak.

    • MMC

      “When scientists stop speaking as if controlled experiments were the sole or even the highest source of knowledge, and when they stop behaving as if anyone who criticizes their eagerness to do something merely because it can be done is “anti-science” or a lunatic”

      Dang. You nailed it. People often forget that nagging word “theory” that accompanies proclaimed fact i.e. the Theory of Evolution, Theory of Relativity, or the Big Bang Theory. All just theory folks. And I’d bet you it will all be debunked in twenty years by new so-called theories.

      I agree that science has taken the mantle of a god in our techno crazy age…speaking as the only source of truth…which is ridiculous. I read the other day about archeologists finding supposed tools of man almost 40,000 years old…anvils and such. Wikipedia used it as a reference. But if you take the time to read and research, they only found a couple of pieces of charcoal that were carbon dated to that date. The rest was dated back only a few thousand years. Did they use Carbon 14 dating to ascertain the info? Carbon 14 which is highly unreliable due to many factors?

      Why are we letting science take away the mantle of Truth when it only possibly explains only a tiny fraction of our existence? Yes, people who are in the science field are blessed with gifts to learn about some of God’s creation. But let us remember that it was God who gave them those gifts…to serve Him and His purposes…not to create ourselves as the new Baal.

      • Michael PS

        Some philosophers of science have come tot he conclusion that the objective features of a phenomenon so little constrain the ways it is classified and theorized that these features can be disregarded in trying to understand why a particular classification system or scientific theory has been adopted.

        There is also the well-known “Max Planck Effect” – New paradigms replace old ones, not when the supporters of the old paradigm are convinced, but when they die out

      • Cord Hamrick

        MMC:

        I agree with what you said just now, up to a point.

        But will you please be cautious in pressing on how you characterize the word “theory?”

        I think a lot of folks who work outside the sciences misunderstand how science uses the word “theory,” and confuse it with the word “hypothesis.”

        The scientific method, as you know, offers a testable hypothesis and then devises openly reviewable and repeatable experiments attempting to disprove that hypothesis. If an experiment repeatably produces results incompatible with the hypothesis, it is chucked out or at least revised to be compatible with the new data.

        This is not quite the same thing as the conventional scientific use of the word “theory.”

        A theory is more than just a hypothesis which might be overthrown at any moment. In science, a hypothesis will eventually reach the status of a theory if:

        1. A wide variety of repeated experiments have failed to overthrow it, so consistently, for so long, that scientists are having great difficulty coming up with any new tests to devise against it, and increasingly consider the attempt to do so a quixotic waste of time; and,

        2. The hypothesis not only powerfully explains what it originally was intended to explain and successfully predicts what it was originally intended to predict, but is now serving as a fundamental framework for layers of new hypotheses and experiments, which are all producing predictions and explanations which not only do not contradict the original hypothesis, but bid fair to become fundamental frameworks in and of themselves.

        When a hypothesis reaches that level, it begins to be called a Theory. And of course there’s generally a period of transition in which some folk still claim it’s merely a hypothesis, but other proponents argue that it deserves to be called a Theory.

        So you see while it is common for the non-scientist to would use the phrase “merely a theory” in colloquial speech; for the scientist, that phrase is self-contradictory. For the scientist, there’s nothing mere about a thing which, after decades of reconfirmation, has allowed us to make, and make sense of, hundreds of new, experimentally verifiable discoveries merely by assuming it to be true. To call something a “Theory” is to call it something pretty powerful and special.

        Anyhow, I wanted to point out that, if your audience is a scientist who habitually makes this kind of distinction between hypothesis and theory, then saying “X is merely a Theory” gives an impression of confusion and doesn’t advance the argument.

    • Nick Palmer

      One thing no one has commented on is how both the current president and semi-leading Republican contender, Mitt Romney, fall victim to the hubris described by Prof. Esolen.

      President Obama, progressive to the core, sails past Hawking’s folly with his own mechanistic view of society. And, he is just the man smart enough to get right what so many others have failed at. No actual examples of government stimulus “curing” a recession, no matter how much money is committed? They just weren’t as smart as I and my band of technocrats!

      And Romney, too, with his Bain Capital and consulting successes. He’s the ultimate conservative tinkerer. Yeah, he believes in free markets, sorta… But, then you bring in the Harvard/Stanford/Chicago/Wharton brainiacs to get the fine-tuning right. What he misses are at least two big problems. One, venture capital and its near relatives operate on a batting-average model. You get some right, you get some wrong. On average, by (1) picking the right targets that fit with your firm’s (2) specific types of business expertise you get more right that wrong, make a lot of money for you and your investors.

      The US and world economies, however, are orders of magnitude more complex than even the most complex global business, and the levers of control are far more diffuse. There is no de facto CEO, and fiat power rarely prevails.

      Nonetheless, Romney’s technocratic/scientific hubris is likely to be far less dangerous than President Obama’s. At least Mr. Romney appears to lack the messianic self-image delusion so obvious in President “I.”

    • Gavin

      It’s very obvious, in spite of the author’s protestations, that this article was written to demean scientists. It is equally obvious that one who demeans another must have an agenda. In this case, the agenda is the old “religion versus science” discussion, better expressed as the “ideology versus reality” discussion, since true science cannot be at odds with religion if God truly created the universe and the laws of science. The author reveals his hand by bringing up Galileo and, of course, global warming. What he should specify, if he wants to make the article more objective, is that science can be hijacked by ideology. Ideologues don’t necessarily understand science and will shoot the messenger if they don’t like what science tells them, hence the attacks on Galileo and climate scientists. Ideologues are much more likely to be arrogant than scientists because the former deal in ego and persuasion while the ego of the latter is constrained and even disciplined by factors outside him- or her-self — facts and logic. I don’t see people “assuming that scientists are immaculate Benefactors of Mankind.” Instead I see a great deal of good science being publicly dismissed and a fair amount of suspicion of “mad scientists.” Most of this is because the vast majority of people get their “scientific information” from the media rather than from the horse’s mouth. I have at least a dozen members of my extended family who are published research scientists. Much of the talk over Christmas dinner was over the complete disconnect between public perception and the real deal. It’s not arrogant to try to inform the public of what has been discovered through a laborious and disciplined process. Truth-telling can never be arrogant. It is extremely arrogant to dismiss and condemn what one has not bothered to study in depth.

    • Nick Palmer

      Gavin, most of us can, at best, study only a few things in depth. It is the work of a lifetime. The truth is, cast stones at the media and “hicks” as you will, that too many prominent scientists overstep the bounds of science to make proclamations directly at odds with the humility that you express as, “true science cannot be at odds with religion.” Please explain Hawking? What is the problem with Prof. Esolen’s description of the Galileo imbroglio? Cut with your vague references, what do you claim his, or my, “agenda” to be? As for global warming, I hope you read today’s Wall St. Journal (http://tinyurl.com/7sl9dlh) — prominent scientists abusing their authority to make ideological and financial points.

      I guess that I just don’t get where you’re coming from, aside from bashing what you call “conservatives.” What is Prof. Esolen’s “agenda”? Do you contend that a man cannot critique another without being “arrogant.” If so, in the same fashion that skepticism is self-defeating, your labels rebound on you.

      Check with your coterie of scientist buddies: the plural of “anecdote” is not “data.” The point in the article is that too many scientists go beyond the proper scope of their science to make grand proclamations about things like the existence of God, the coming doom of global warming, social Darwinism, and countless other things. I, too, know many scientists. I won’t debate which of us knows more. They are generally less well informed about things political than the average well-educated person BECAUSE their professions demand so much of their focus. And, yes, they are prone to overgeneralize from their own fields. Metaphors can be helpful, but are rarely exact.

      As yet you have failed to engage a single of Prof. Esolen’s arguments. Your ad hominem remains ad hominem.

    • Gavin

      Tony Esolen’s article was an attack on the supposed ethics, competence, and arrogance of scientists. It was undoubtedly an ad hominem attack on a category of people, whom I defended because I admire them. If that means I am being ad hominem too, then I am proud to be so. It is clearly hypocritical to object to the defense but not the attack. At your suggestion, I did read the WSJ article, which is obviously ideological and not scientific. I’ve heard all about Ivar Giaever, who, like most scientists extolled in these ideological and opinionated pieces, is in his 80s and not a climate scientist. In any case, his objection is a philosophical one, not a scientific one. There are a very small number of signatories to the piece, most of them much better known for their contrarian views and books than their publications in peer-reviewed papers. Further, the article is extremely imprecise and makes unsupported insinuations. Some of it is factually incorrect. Chris de Freitas, as an editor, allowed his friends’ articles to be published without peer review, meaning many of them were full of embarrassing errors that cost his paper a great deal of credibility. The article implies some vast conspiracy theory behind the science, which is laughable. You complain about “prominent scientists abusing their authority to make ideological and financial points.” How about “prominent editors” doing the same? You can’t call this tacky little piece in the WSJ science. If you take it seriously as a valid attack on science, you’ve been bamboozled by the writer’s ideology. I understand how you’ve been brainwashed to be suspicious of scientists, but maybe you need to be a little less naive about truly clueless non-scientists.

      • Nick Palmer

        You’ve got me. An slander for every point. All of your “arguments” consist of appeals to authority, name calling, and anecdotes from your flock of scientists. How’d you like Climategate. Were those “reputable” scientists? No one put words into their mouths.

        Prof. Esolen made an argument. You refuse. Perhaps some deep wisdom by example would help: http://tinyurl.com/6q2dhb.

        • Gavin

          @Nick Palmer, you’re not being logical, and you’re insisting that you be allowed to play be a special set of rules. If you cannot see that Esolen’s article and your own attacks on scientists (and on me, not that I mind) are ad hominem, some of them by proxy through the WSJ opinion piece, you’re not going to get any further. If you rely only on the WSJ and Tony Esolen’s article to form your opinions about science and scientists, rather than at least trying to study the science, then you’re the ideal prey for those who would shape your thinking. That’s OK, most people are, but I wish they wouldn’t blame the scientific community for what some in the media are trying to do, viz. make arrogant pronouncements about things they don’t understand. That is the irony of the claim of arrogance on the part of scientists. How much arrogance does it take to reject their work when you don’t understand it and/or don’t like the results?

          • Nick Palmer

            You win. I’ll rely on your scientist friends and dismissal of a scientist because he’s 80 years old. Thanks for the schooling!

            • Gavin

              @Nick Palmer, what I think you should be dismissing is opinionated writing by people who are more interested in pushing an agenda than in communicating truth. Peer review is what makes science self-cleansing. A lot of people aren’t comfortable with that level of precision, and media articles are much easier to understand. I don’t mean to be ageist about the contrarian geriatrics. It’s just that people who have retired are usually not the ones who are going to mount a realistic challenge and publish. Sounding off about how you feel about science and scientists just doesn’t have any bearing on science, but it’s as close as a lot of people get.

              • Robert

                Too bad Gavin has yet to understand what the article was about. This isn’t the first time I’ve seen someone pop into comment boards and unwittingly provide substance to an article they’re supposedly trying to debunk.

                • Gavin

                  Oh, I understand the article. I just disagree with the main points and dislike the tone.

              • Nick Palmer

                Gavin, perhaps I wasn’t clear. I haven’t read beyond your “@Nick.” I simply haven’t the time or patience. The dialog with you failed the two basic reasons I engage on IC — to learn and to enjoy. This back-and-forth provided me with neither, especially no fun. The problem is mine, not yours. I will neither read nor respond to any posting of yours on IC, which is my position with respect to a few other posters here, too. I found that our “dialog” led to your occupying far too much space in my head, rent-free.

                In my spiritual life I endeavor to live by the Serenity Prayer, and my decision not to engage with you allows me to exercise the prayer’s first and third requests of God. Again, and quite seriously, the problem is mine, not yours. Your best wishes will remain in my prayers, and I wish nothing but good for you. And, good for me involves choosing where to invest my time and self.

                And, it will save you from spending your time responding to any of my posts, unless you choose to do so for the edification of others.

                • Gavin

                  That’s OK, Nick. I completely understand. Thank you for your kind remarks. I like the Serenity Prayer too. I only responded to you because I think (without going back) that you addressed my directly first, but that’s OK. I wish you all the best too.

    • Alecto

      It isn’t so much that scientists are or are not Benefactors of Mankind. Scientists and researchers search for objective truth. So do philosophers. So do theologians. So do most people. Scientists have a toolbox that is distinct from the philosopher’s or the theologian’s. I do not hold scientists in any higher or lower esteem than I hold my mechanic (who is extremely useful to many) and my priest (indispensible).

      Moreover, I do not find that scientists are half as useful to mankind as those who apply the science, i.e., engineers, it’s the engineer who deserves the title “Benefactor of Mankind”. Being able to apply research is, of course, a gift from God. Show me civilization, and I’ll show you a road, a well-designed sewage treatment plant, or heck even the VPP suspension on my Santa Cruz Blur which is practical and a thing of joy and beauty. LOL.

      Then, there are the practitioners of the dismal science, economics, which has truly brought us prolonged deficit spending followed by hyperinflation, which leads to war, starvation and mass suffering. Perhaps Keynesianism is really the science of Satan?

      • Gavin

        Alecto writes, “Moreover, I do not find that scientists are half as useful to mankind as those who apply the science, i.e., engineers, it’s the engineer who deserves the title ‘Benefactor of Mankind’.”

        In terms of delivering the product to the end user, I see scientists and engineers as equal members of the same team. The technology wouldn’t be there without the science, and the benefit to the end user would not be there without the engineer.

    • Steve Hansmann/East Central Minnesota

      You can tell the author is an English professor, (I have no problem with that, my oldest son has a degree in English), but he understands nothing of science, and I would bet even odds he’s never met a scientist, let alone known one. I know foresters, entomologists, fishery and wildlife bioligists, analytical chemists, ecologists, limnologists and nursing researchers, most of them very well. None are arrogant, none have an ideological axe to grind.
      The corollary to this person’s beliefs must be that we accept, and trust, preachers, to believe, as
      Twain so famously put it, “believe in what you know ain’t so”. Sorry, reality trumps vain imaginings and magical thinking each and every time.

    • Carl

      Tony Esolen wrote, “I am asking people to stop assuming that scientists are immaculate Benefactors of Mankind, and that everything that scientists seek to do ought to be done.”

      I’m asking, who are these alleged “people” with the absurd assumptions? Because to me, it reads like asking strawmen to stop doing absurd things. Here is hoping you have control over your strawmen.

    • Gavin

      Carl, you make a good point.

      One reason I got involved with this discussion is that more people seem to get their “science” from media articles that are equivalent to National Enquirer stories. Many of them, while breathlessly hailed as overturning previous scientific understanding, are full of errors, yet they suggest that scientists are bumbling idiots. Given the number of scientists in my family, I get defensive. It’s not that hard to get one’s information from reliable sources. Even Scientific American is a reasonable source.