In 1651, Englishman Thomas Hobbes described the lives of men in the “State of Nature” as ”solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” The lives of most people in his own time were not much better.
That’s hardly the case today. The average lifespan in England has risen from 35 years to 77; in some countries most people live past 80. The average real income has risen 40 or 50 times since Hobbes was alive, and for many people in the industrialized world, life is a series of pleasures interspersed by relatively brief periods of enjoyable, meaningful work. The poor in the U.S. today often live better than the nobility of old.
To what magic do we owe this bountiful transformation of material existence? To no magic at all, but to a way of thinking that prizes the objective inquiry of the truth—supported by a verifiable methodology, science—above all else, save God (and for many, not even God).
Yet, today, after reaching remarkable affluence and technical proficiency, we are faced with a severe degradation of science and the fundamental principles of objective inquiry.
While the idea that science itself is being threatened might be scoffed at as a paranoid fantasy by some, such doubters have likely not been paying attention to intellectual trends in the Ivory Tower. The humanities and social sciences are already in much more advanced states of degradation than the physical sciences. Many academic departments have given themselves over to such nonsensical schools of thought as post-modernism, critical theory, and deconstruction.
Science’s empirical bent makes it more resistant to such attacks than the liberal arts have been. Still, it is endangered by a wide variety of self-serving interest groups who reject objective inquiry because its methods frequently fail to produce politically desired results.
One person drawing attention to the threat to our fundamental ways of thinking is John Droz, Jr. Droz is a retired physicist who lives in Morehead City near the North Carolina coast. He has crisscrossed North Carolina and the Mid-Atlantic region trying to get his message out, including speaking at the N.C. Capitol in February. The centerpiece of that message is a 250-slide PowerPoint presentation that shows the growing and varied drive to separate scientific authority from the strict devotion to facts, logic, and method that give it that authority in the first place. Droz’s presentation cites well-known example after example in which accepted standards of proof are cast aside to reach predetermined political ends.
These examples include using selective data to falsely give the impression that polar ice caps are ominously shrinking, overstating the amount that sea levels are expected to rise, and promoting “green” energy sources such as wind power by avoiding mention of their harmful affects on man and the environment.
Foremost among the special interests perverting science’s objectivity is the environmental movement; its elevation to a position of intellectual dominance, especially in academia, has shifted the assault on science into high gear. Droz is hardly unconcerned about the environment; he is a retired physicist who has spent many years as an environmental activist, including membership in the Sierra Club. Clearly, it is not protection of the environment that bothers him, but the subordination of proper method to political ends by environmentalist extremists that has caused him to step up to the soapbox.
One of the most disturbing elements of environmentalism Droz describes is that the movement has adopted the trappings of a religion to forward an unscientific agenda. Unlike theological religions, it does not merely coexist with science, with each taking precedence in their separate spheres. Instead, it seeks to undermine science, replacing facts with faith in the environmental credo that mankind’s activities threaten the earth and must be curtailed or stopped.
Indeed, at times the environmental movement appears to be anti-human. Whereas once true experimental science was primarily used to improve man’s existence, today the environmental creed seeks to impose limits on mankind’s activity for the good of the planet—as defined by environmentalist dogma and including population control.
One obvious abuse of the scientific process is the manner in which global-warming advocates have substituted consensus for verifiable proof. Many environmentalists insist that the issue is “settled” because large numbers of scientists agree with them.
But that proves nothing. As the late science novelist Michel Crichton said in a 2003 speech: “Let’s be clear: the work of science has nothing whatever to do with consensus. Consensus is the business of politics. Science requires only one investigator who happens to be right, which means that he or she has results that are verifiable.”
“The greatest scientists in history,” Crichton observed, “are great precisely because they broke with the consensus.”
However, the environmental movement’s insistence that consensus equals truth is hardly the only source of the assault on science. Method is being eroded in general by a wide variety of techniques and false assumptions, many of them developed in the academy for specific purposes but now used improperly as standards of proof.
For instance, closely related to consensus is the academy’s blind acceptance of “peer review” as the final word on a study’s value. Peer review is most useful when a scientist proposes a new hypothesis and seeks the advice of other experts about how to proceed further. Otherwise, it is simply the opinions of other scientists about the acceptability of a proposed hypothesis, not its validity. Even if all other scientists agree with a hypothesis that does not prove it. Droz cites Richard Horton, the editor of The Lancet, a London-based medical journal:
We portray peer review to the public as a quasi-sacred process that helps to make science our most objective truth teller. But we know that the system of peer review is biased, unjust, unaccountable, incomplete, easily fixed, often insulting, usually ignorant, occasionally foolish, and frequently wrong.
Peer review’s shortcomings were once exposed by the editors of the British Medical Journal, who deliberately inserted eight errors into an unpublished paper. The 221 scientists who reviewed the paper found an average of just two errors. Nobody found more than five and 16 percent of the peer reviewers found none.
So much is riding on peer review other than the search for truth, mainly job concerns. As Droz points out, there are many reasons for scientists to forsake objective inquiry: career advancement and job security, peer pressure, personal agenda, and submission to “groupthink.”
Computer modeling—now a “must” knowledge for Ph.D. candidates in the sciences and social sciences—also is incorrectly used as a substitute for empirical proof. Even the best models are merely the researcher’s interpretation of the physical world, so they cannot predict the future with certainty. One glaring example of this was the 2008 stock market collapse, largely caused by over-reliance on sophisticated computer models created by experts.
Perhaps the most aggressive and outlandish attacks against science are attempts to inject value-driven methods into traditional science. Two academics at British universities, Silvio Funtowicz and Jerome Ravetz, came up with the concept of “post-normal science,” a decision-making tool for situations when “facts are uncertain, values are in dispute, stakes are high, and decisions are urgent.” That is not the realm of science, but of politics. After all, who is to decide whether decisions are so “urgent” that they must be made even when “facts are uncertain?”
Another ruse for promoting political agendas under the guise of using science is the “precautionary principle.” That principle is summarized as “[W]hen an activity raises threats of harm to human health or the environment, precautionary measures should be taken even if some cause and effect relationships are not fully established scientifically.” On the surface, this almost sounds reasonable, yet it is really just another deception to insert subjective values into the scientific process.
Droz’s PowerPoint presentation calls attention to many other ways that the scientific method is being eroded, including the confusion of correlation with causation, selective use of data, using probability to imply certainty, attacking problems with engineering (the “how-to”) when science (the “whether-to”) is more appropriate. Especially applicable to the climate change controversy is the reversal of responsibility from the scientist(s) claiming a theory to prove his hypothesis to demanding that his critics disprove it.
Another facet of the attack on science is that it does not just affect high-level policy decisions, but is undermining the general population’s ability to reason. Schools are no longer instilling the healthy skepticism that is at the heart of objective inquiry—children are taught to accept simplistic answers provided by the environmental movement instead of being taught to formulate hypotheses and test them.
Where reason is absent, falsehoods can fill the void. Droz cites Vladimir Lenin, the founder of the Soviet Union, “’A lie told often enough becomes the truth… Give me four years to teach the children and the seed I have sown will never be uprooted.’”
In the absence of healthy skepticism, more people are easily led to believe that the most serious threats to humanity, such as diseases, are secondary to the perceived threats of global warming. As Droz points out, diseases cause 51.8 million deaths worldwide annually, while extreme weather—inaccurately cited as proof of impending environmental disasters—kills only 20,000. Even vitamin deficiencies cause 1.4 million deaths per year.
If the trends described by Droz continue, it is just a matter of time before the academy is completely corrupted. It is not hard to imagine, with politicians and academic administrators determining which facts scientists are to prove and which they are deny. After all, that was much the state of affairs in the Middle Ages, when philosophers from William of Ockham to Galileo were threatened by authorities for challenging established views. It was also the rule in the totalitarian regimes of the 20th century. There is no reason why we won’t return to such intentional blindness, unless science and objectivity are successfully defended against its enemies.
Editor’s note: This article was based upon an op-ed that appeared in the Washington Times on April 8.