Science in the Unmaking

It is a little-known fact that there are many kinds of science, and thus “scientists”; not the one kind presented in the myth-making tabloid media, or by some parading scientists themselves.

Perhaps gentle reader has heard this before: that in physics we are in quite a different universe from that which is occupied by sociology. Even from there, it is another lethal plunge to, say, “women’s studies,” whose adepts claim to be scientific, too.

Whereas, no educated mathematician would claim that his subject is a science. It is detached from worldly things entirely, even dangerously. Lighter even than the aether, it floats above the sub-lunary to the pure empyrean, even beyond the stars. Mathematicians do not even wear lab-coats, except for photo-calls during fundraising campaigns. (I saw an example of this the other day.)

Everyone needs funding, of course, to do what has no commercial value. I have no objection to donations towards Large Hadron Colliders or other billion-dollar playthings. They cost what they cost, and as Christmas approaches we remember that the kids can’t afford to pay for such things themselves.

I only object when some guvmint takes MY money, to pay for HIS kids, as it were. And when he claims it is urgently needed for the advance of, exempli gratia, Climate Science, which I know to be a comprehensive fraud, I think they are pushing it.

The prestige of “science” is such that it weathers one scandal after another. Almost any obtuse human activity that would have been dismissed by our ancestors as work-avoiding idleness, and by the better informed as mad, can be repackaged as a “science” with an augmentation of dignity. And there are, by now, so many kinds of “science” that the observer, trying to sort them out, must lapse into bewilderment.

There is junk science, wherein endless experiments are conducted to prove things that were perfectly obvious to start with.

There is pseudo-science, wherein something not obvious, but obviously fruitcake, is studied as if anything could come of it.

There is pathological science, wherein the researchers refuse to give up, even after the nonsense they are espousing has proved chimerical, because they want the unavailable result so badly. (Example, the search for extraterrestrial life.)

There is cargo-cult science, in which relations between cause and effect have been too casually assumed, and an immense research establishment built on top, like the bamboo runways and control towers of the South Sea islanders. (Most medical research is like this.)

There is fraudulent science, already mentioned, wherein the search is chiefly for misleading anecdotes to scare people into paying more taxes, until they aren’t scared anymore, put on yellow vests, and riot in the streets of Paris.

There is zombie science (example neo-Darwinism), in which a theory devised in the age of phrenology is kept alive by academic solidarity alone, and no stake through the heart can kill it.

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And then there are statistics, which make this list hard to exhaust.

The half-dozen kinds of science I named, which will account I think for 90 percent of the world’s scientific activity, excludes the 9 percent or so of genuinely scientific enterprises, which would be of value were they not conducted in a slovenly way.

Richard Feynman once looked into rat-running experiments, common in the 1960s, in which “scientists” with rat-like behaviorist assumptions made rats run through labyrinths with little doors, in search of treats. The rats would keep running through the wrong doors – the ones behind which the treats had been concealed the last time. Everything plausible was done to prevent them from guessing which door was which, but rats (who are conservative) kept finding the same wrong ones. How did they do it?

One abnormally smart researcher guessed. No matter how indistinguishable you make the doors – to the point of blocking all light out – the rats recall the route from the patter of their little feet. They can “hear” their way like bats.

Isn’t science marvelous, gentle reader will exclaim, until he reads the rest of the story. The researcher in question published his discovery, insisting that all future rat-runs be laid in sand. But after a careful examination of the literature, Feynman found that this paper was never later referenced, and to the time of his writing, all rat-runs were still defectively made.

Therefore ALL the rat-run literature was worthless.

My reference was to his famous commencement address at Caltech, anno 1974, which apparently few people have read. It was an appeal to graduates to master their disciplines and stop fooling, especially themselves.

He demanded a standard of honesty in science that is seldom obtained: in which the claims in every paper are so rigorously qualified, and experimental mistakes so freely confessed, that another observer can reproduce a result, precisely not approximately.

While empirical science is quite distinct from moral philosophy, it is a theatre in which moral principles are constantly at work, starting with detachment from one’s own ego, and extending all the way to fundraising techniques. For not only should one not fool oneself, one must desist from fooling others into the bargain.

Or if I may put this another way – and this is my column, so there is little to stop me – empirical science is a religious discipline.

It need not necessarily be Christian, for once we had established “modern science” in the medieval West, it was open to all comers. But it requires more than the belief, or faith, that reality will prove intelligible (founded upon the Judaeo-Christian insight that God is reasonable and just). It requires humility in the face of the Creation, patience and all the cardinal virtues, to an exacting degree.

We are being unmade, by the loss of our religion. And this is why rogue science has become not only possible, but inevitable in the world around us, and we are on a path to “scientific” self-destruction.

 

*Image: The Dead Alchemist by Elihu Vedder, 1868 [Brooklyn Museum]

David Warren

David Warren

David Warren is a former editor of the Idler magazine and columnist in Canadian newspapers. He has extensive experience in the Near and Far East. His blog, Essays in Idleness, is now to be found at: davidwarrenonline.com.