Scientism’s Skeptics
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“Science as a Delphic oracle exists only in the popular imagination and the silent assumptions of certain scientists. At any given time there are only searchers who agree or disagree.” – Jacques Barzun

Scientism is the quasi-religious devotion to the idea, but not the content, of science. Like all things ersatz, it is meant for the naïve.

I came across an almost touching display of incredulity in the Washington Post last week from a blogger who couldn’t believe that The Way of Science could ever lead to error and misery.

The issue was Bret Stephens’ first column since moving from the Wall Street Journal to the New York Times, a witty bit of climate skepticism that provoked a frenzy of subscription-canceling.

“Claiming total certainty about the science traduces the spirit of science,” Stephens wrote.

Like the Times readers, Wemple just couldn’t even with that. He demanded answers from a Times editor.

“Your columnist makes this very erudite observation,” he wrote sarcastically. “‘Ordinary citizens… know — as all environmentalists should — that history is littered with the human wreckage of scientific errors married to political power.’ Could we have some such examples?”

Could we have some examples of that? Is it even possible for a scientific political program to go wrong?

That sounds like something Auguste Comte would have pondered as he announced the dawn of the positivist stage of mankind, having carefully demarcated the close of the metaphysical stage a week prior. But it’s an awfully benighted thing to ask two centuries into the empirical project.

Should we start with Fukushima or Chernobyl? Kim Jong Un and his toys? Transgenderism? The Tuskegee syphilis study? The modern regulatory state?

Maybe we should start with our government’s grievously misguided campaign against fat and cholesterol, which has taken a heavy human toll, though “wreckage” might be a bit strong. Experts now say that the underlying studies were based on observed correlations rather than experiments according to the scientific method. Of course, the same is true of climate science.

Then there’s eugenics, the natal philosophy of modern progressivism. That caused more than 60,000 forced sterilizations in the United States and many times that in Nazi Germany, where it led to far greater horrors.

So why is Wemple so baffled by the idea that science could ever lead to error? The climate change debate has confused the modern left about what science is. It’s the thing that’s always right, right?

But the new thing isn’t the idea of applying science to practical politics; it’s the idea of infallibility.

The Enlightenment thinkers who founded our system would have considered it to be in accord with Newtonian laws of nature. John Adams compared a system of checks and balances to the principle of mechanical equilibrium. The working assumption, though, is that error was inevitable.

The Industrial Revolution, the practical application of those mechanistic principles, was facilitated by the policy of the British government — clear property rights, low taxes, workhouses, the Poor Laws, etc. In the eyes of the warmists, wasn’t this the original sin, the error made policy?

Back then, natural sciences weren’t considered as separate from political philosophy or practical mechanics. It was Malthus writing on the Poor Laws, famously, that gave Darwin his inspiration for the theory of natural selection. In a letter to Engels, Marx called On the Origin of Species “the book which contains the basis in natural history for our view.”

Marx and Darwin dominated the latter half of the 19th century with their revolutionary scientific theories explaining development through purely mechanistic means. There was no need of God or any teleology at all, in the struggle of the species or the struggle of the classes. The materialism of Marx and Engels’s “scientific socialism” is the same view that the fashionable thinker Stephen Pinker expresses when he derides the idea that the mind is anything more than gray matter as “spiritualism, pseudoscience, and science-fiction kitsch.”

Scientific socialism led to purges and terrors, of course, but even if one considers science blameless there, one can’t ignore the Great Leap Forward. Thirty million killed by a scientific modernization project.

Darwinism led to Social Darwinism. As the paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould has written, after 1859, “subsequent arguments for slavery, colonialism, racial differences, class struggles, and sex roles would go forth primarily under the banner of science.”

Most of those arguments have been banished, but were they ever less scientific than Darwin’s own work? After all, Darwin didn’t use the scientific method, either, and worried that his work was “grievously hypothetical.”

When you’re working outside of falsifiable propositions, what qualifies a work as science rather than speculation? William James, along with Freud, is responsible for how we settled on perceiving science as separate from other forms of inquiry. He thought science should concern itself with descriptions, with patterns and correlations, and that explanations of underlying causes were inevitably metaphysical.

The final answers might have to wait for centuries, he wrote; “meanwhile, the best mark of health that a science can show is this unfinished-seeming front.”

If any issue in science were settled, surely it would be Darwin’s explanation for the mechanism of evolution, which vanquished the version offered by Jean-Baptiste Lamarck.

We all remember that one from high school biology, right? Giraffes don’t get taller by stretching their necks and passing that trait on to their progeny; they pass on traits through immutable genetic code. Everyone knows Lamarck got that dead wrong.

Only now, like Owen Wilson’s contra-historical novelist in The Royal Tennenbaums, here come the epigeneticists supposing… maybe he didn’t.

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