Sunday, March 23, 2014

The End of Science

The reemergence of Cosmos could not have come at a better time, not because it has something to teach us about science, but because are living in Sagan's world where real science is harder than ever to come by.

Carl Sagan was the country's leading practitioner of the mythologization of science, transforming a
process into a philosophy, substituting political agendas for inquiry and arrogance for research. Sagan was often wrong, but it didn't matter because his errors were scientific, rather than ideological or theological. He could be wrong as many times as he wanted, as long as he wasn't wrong politically..

Science has been thoroughly Saganized. The vast majority of research papers are wrong, their results cannot be replicated. The researchers writing them often don't even understand what they're doing wrong and don't care. Research is increasingly indistinguishable from politics. Studies are framed in ways that prove a political premise, whether it's that the world will end without a carbon tax or that racism causes obesity. If they prove the premise, the research is useful to the progressive non-profits and politicians who always claim to have science in their corner. If it doesn't, then it isn't funded.

"Science" has been reduced to an absolute form of authority that is always correct. The Saganists envision science as a battle between superstition and truth, but what distinguished science from superstition was the ability to throw out wrong conclusions based on testing. Without the scientific method, science is just another philosophy where anything can be proven if you manipulate the terminology so that the target is drawn around the arrow. Add statistical games and nothing means anything.

This form of science measures itself not against the universe, but against the intellectual bubble inhabited by those who share the same worldview or those who live under their control. It's not a bold exploration of the cosmos, but a timid repetition of cliches. The debates are as microscopic as this miniature pocket universe. Discoveries are accidental and often misinterpreted to fit within dogma.  Progress is not defined not by the transcendence of what is known, but by its blinkered reaffirmation.

This isn't science or even scientism because it has little basis in the scientific method. Like all progressive authority, it now derives its credentials from membership in an expert class and advocacy on behalf of a victim class. Global Warming research covers both quotas. On the one hand everyone ought to shut up and listen to the scientists, as long as their message conforms politically, and on the other hand everyone ought to shut up and listen to the victims of Global Warming. Connect the two and you have the basis of progressive authority.

The mythologization of science isn't new. Its chosen hero, "The Man Who Was Right When Everyone Was Wrong", defying ignorance and superstition with the torch of knowledge is an old archetype. But the mythologization of science has outlived the rationality that once gave this figure meaning. The Men Who Are Always Right aren't right anymore because they use the scientific method, but because they use science as a priesthood to prove the rightness of progressive policies.

In the collective language of the progressive internet, science has become an absolute. Science proves everything. "Because Science." "15 Ways Science Shows You're Stupid". "How You Can Be Smarter With Science". But this vision of science as an absolute, a post-modern abstract oracle, is less true than it ever was. Science is a state of uncertainty. Researchers discover new things by questioning what they know. A theory is another stop on a journey, not an ideological safe harbor.

The animistic spirit of science, the technocratic muse of a secular age, is superstition wrapped in a lab coat. The worship of the expert class is no more credible for PhD's than it is for witch doctors. It's a sure way to convince the worshiped to swap out their old risky methods for an air of omnipotence.

Science works as a process that utilizes a set of tools. It does not innately confer superiority on anyone. A scientist who does not utilize the scientific method is as much use as a carpenter who cannot make chairs or a plumber who cannot fix toilets. A science that exists as a fixed absolute, whose premises are not to be questioned, whose data is not to be examined and whose conclusions are not to be debated, is a pile of wood or a leaky toilet. Not the conclusion of a process, but its absence.

It isn't science that gives a thing legitimacy, but the processes of thinking and testing that do. The only authority worth mentioning is also worth questioning. That is as true of science as it is of government. An authority that answers to itself, that derives its power not from an open system, but from a closed system is a tyranny and prone to a failure-denial cycle in which each failure is then covered up by greater abuses of power until the resulting disaster can no longer be covered up.

The science of the "Science is settled" crowd isn't an open system of skeptical inquiry, but a closed system of centralized authority funded and controlled by special interests, beholden to political agendas and intolerant of dissent. It has the same relationship to science that the various People's Democracies had to democracy.

The response of the science settlers to the serious questions that have been raised about their unscientific advocacy has been to demand a more closed system, to hide more data, to urge newspapers to stop printing letters from anyone who questions Global Warming and to even propose the imprisonment of Warming critics.

This isn't the confident attitude of a field that believes it has the facts on its side.It's the authoritarian response of panicked overlords who have become too comfortable with their routine of morning show alarmist appearances and the rushing flow of grant money paid to stave off the apocalypse.

Bad science often pays better than good science. There's more money in unveiling an invalid research study that is sure to show up in 200 newspapers tomorrow and start a a new diet craze the day after than a methodically researched piece of work that demonstrates that staying healthy is a matter of hard work and other elements that are outside an individual's control.

There's more money in predicting an apocalypse that can only be stopped with trendy progressive policies than the recognition that environmental debates are complex and often come down to a tug of war between competing interests. Reality doesn't pay. Politicized and prostituted science does.

The mythologization of science, like the cowboy movie, always had a loose relationship to reality, but still derived from it, dressing up reality, rather than entirely displacing. It has now become the idealization of a murdered ideal by the people who murdered it.

Science has become a substitute religion for secularists who imagine that they are more intelligent than religious people because they are more skeptical, when in reality the things that they are skeptical about are the ones that don't touch on their own unexamined and unquestioned beliefs.

Like the old joke about the Communist who boasts that like the American he too can shout, "America is worthless!", challenging someone else's dogma is not skepticism, it's antagonism. This attitude has leaked into the scientific community which eagerly rushed out to condemn opponents of vaccination, but has much less to say about the pervasive culture of fraud in medical research.

The Cosmos crowd have always been eager to mock televangelists predicting the end of the world, but have little to say about Sagan's equally bogus predictions about the end of the world. They made science into a culture filled with 'awe and wonder'  as if the universe were their own private church, while jettisoning the rational inquiry and reasoned debate.

There is nothing to cheer about the return of Cosmos. It's not science, instead it's more of the popularized punditry that distorts science into an absolute dogma with a cynical agenda.


Anonymous said...

Excellent article. Sadly, the politization of science is nothing new. I know someone who told me about a study he did about 25 years ago that he couldn't get published because the result was politically unacceptible. He told me that the study found that the only statistically significant correlation to the number of visits of drunks and drug abuser visits to the emergency department was the release of welfare checks.

Anonymous said...

I think that the same personality type who turns science into dogma is the exact same type who behabed similarly during the Catholic inquisition - anything the "priesthood" says is sacrosanct dogma and disagreement is not allowed.

Anonymous said...

"Good Morning America
How Are You?"
Say don't you know me?

Bruce of Newcastle said...

Daniel - What you should have done is used "government science" where you use the word "science".

The problem is the government supported scientific establishment has been heavily colonised by risk adverse progressives, as has most of the public sector.

In industry the story is quite different (I am have worked in industry based R&D for 25 years). There there is no 'publish or perish'. There is no interest in how many papers you regurgitate, just whether what you do works. Political views are diverse amongst industry based scientists because the tribalists tend not to be the top guns, so when the rationalisation comes during a recession they don't survive the cuts.

But then they get jobs in universities where they are unsackable so long as they play the tribal game.

So my recommendation is to eliminate government supported science, except as contracts to private sector providers where payment can be by results.

Otherwise what you say is quite true.

RxPC said...

Though I agree with your assertion that science has become, for some people, a secular religion, and a political bludgeon, I think it is wrong to condemn popular science programs like Cosmos as a root cause. Or even to condemn Carl Sagan as it's high priest. Granted, he had an ego the size of Saturn, and it only got worse after Cosmos aired. But he allowed people who did not have a physicist's grasp of mathematics to glimpse some of the amazing features of our solar system and galaxy. I don't think it's the presentation or the presenter that is really at fault. I think it's the viewer and the reader. We no longer know how to critically evaluate what we watch and read. We don't know how to distinguish junk science from real science. And we don't know how to make decisions without a "science" to back it up. Like someone who looks at their GPS to tell if they are driving on the road, we can't decide what to eat if some study doesn't tell us whether we should or not. Bottom line is, I like science programming. But it needs to be taken with an ounce of skepticism.

Anonymous said...

My high school English composition teacher would have burst a blood vessel, reading this article ... so many great ideas, most of which are horribly mangled by run-on sentences, bad grammer, confusing punctuation, and (most notably) trying to cram too many ideas into one sentence. Another beautiful oration cut down by a poor delivery ... I could just cry.

Anonymous said...

James Taber said...

To be fair to Drs. Sagan and Tyson if they get kids to watch something other than the gutter trash commonly found on TV, if it teaches them to ask questions, and gets them interested in STEM careers, than their "scien-tainment" shows have served a purpose. Now the parents have to do their jobs and teach the children to question even the popular answers.

James Taber said...

It sounds like science is in need of its own reformation.

Empress Trudy said...

A careful reading of Kuhn's "The Structure of Scientific Revolutions" reveals the same pointed reference that 'discovery' of new science is often burdened by political and social demands which can lead them down blind alleys.

JD Levengood said...

Great post on scientists as a priestly caste. When I started my Ph.D. program over a decade ago I felt that many of my fellow students saw the degree not as something they were supposed to earn, but something they were to be given solely because of who they were.

As I've learned, the awarding of Ph.D. degrees in science isn't as stringent as many might like to make it out to be. Earning a degree involves nothing more than winning over the small number of professors you've selected for your committee. They don't read your thesis, they often don't know much about your research outside of a couple meetings you have with them, so they pass you mostly on whether or not they get a sense you know what you're talking about. That's really the best case scenario. Sometimes they'll pass someone because no one wants to deal with them anymore and graduating them is the easiest way to get rid of them.

We need to remember with science its the results that are supposed to matter, not what a self-selected group of people believe.

Anonymous said...

Quoting the "90% of science papers are wrong" is a clear and blatant straw man. These papers relate to medical papers and not science at large. Science is a HUGE field, and just posting research done on fringe for profit medical research as "proof" of most of science being wrong is simply dishonest. If your going to point out flaws, then you better damn well be close to perfect yourself. Being sloppy like that calls the whole post into question as to whether its an honest assessment or just an ideological pissing match.

Anonymous said...

""Good Morning America
How Are You?"
Say don't you know me?


Singing goodbye America. I love you


Anonymous said...

Also, to give a little more background to that linked paper about invalid published results: medical and psychology fields primarily use analytical methods that map trends in large data sets. Basically this system requires that you have no knowledge of how a system works. All your really looking for is trends in the data, eg you have a large control and test populations, and you look to see if there is correlation in the data between treatment and results. Normally in research fields more concrete like physics these methods are used as a first place to start when you don't know how the process works, but want to screen large data sets for trends and a place to start your research. Since biological and psychological processes are poorly understood, drug companies typically rely on only the data analysis to see if a treatment is effective. In other words, rather than use it as a stepping stone, its used as a means to an end by itself. If you read the research articles from the medical and pharmaceutical fields, they readily acknowledge this fact in the study, and sometimes the correlation claimed is not that strong. When profit is at stake, often weaker correlations are used as proof of efficacy of treatment. The vast majority of other scientific fields do not work like this. A clear analysis showing how the process works is required, and seldom are analytical methods used alone.

Maybe a bit anal, but its a pet-peeve of mine to see commentaries on subjects without a basic understanding of the subject matter. Just saying...

R7 Rocket said...

Want to see a real science show? Watch the Mythbusters. That's the only current show that actually shows science. Take a claim and put it to the test.

Daniel Greenfield @ the Sultan Knish blog said...

It's an issue beyond medical research as well.

Bob said...

Perfect. Your line about "the idealization of a murdered ideal by the people who murdered it" rocked me.

It's rare for me to run across any mistakes in your work but there are some typos that should be cleaned up : "failures then" should be "failure is then"; "have responded" should be "response"; and "anew diet crazy" should be "new diet craze".

Keep up the great writing of approximately six people as near as I can tell ;)

Daniel Greenfield @ the Sultan Knish blog said...

thanks, at least five

Shibes Meadow said...

Grammar. It's spelled "grammar", O learned one.

Anonymous said...

The 'media lite' crowd all think history began the day they were born..Apparently they were absent from their high schools, or was it grade school ? during discussions of historical eras of 'climate change.'
And who among us has not listened to commercials for the latest pill that lists so many side effects including death, and thought they might prefer the disease ?
The advantage to getting older, if one can call it that, is that some of us remember polio as the scourge of our childhoods, along with all the other childhood diseases.
We also heard about relatives who had to go to care facilities out West for TB treatment, never to return.
So while there have been great advances in medicine, even those are mostly the result of trial and error, and persistence..
Lately, we frown on perfectly good words like 'bossy, queer, and gay', let's start banning the phrase 'settled science' too.
Man's quest to understand himself and his surroundings will go on as long as we draw breath, and that quest should not be considered 'settled', as it is what gives us hope and achievement.
Any real scientist believes that answering one question usually just leads to more questions, let's hope that will always be the case.

Timothy said...

'Science' is a religion for the young, arrogant atheist addicted to technology. It is a shame they can not see the irony in their latest, favorite phrase that's making the rounds of the Internet: "Science, Bitches!"

The corruption of the medium extends to the corruption of the word itself. In the 60s through the 80s a "nerd" or a even (non chicken biting) "geek" brought up visions of book smart, but socially inept, introverts engaged in scientific endeavors.

Now, perhaps with the complete failure of the education system, it is merely someone that likes comics, video games, television shows, movies, music and books that merely hint about science, fantasy, or technology. The nerds of the 70s BUILT something! The nerds of this generation mostly consume like the Pakleds in season 2 (episode 17) of Star Trek: The Next Generation, titled "Samaritan Snare". (sorry)

I'm sorry, but dressing up as your favorite character from Halo 3, watching The Big Bang Theory and posting a meme based on what Neil Degrasse Tyson said on Bill Maher's show does not make you a true nerd, or a lover, or someone who "groks" science.

This is a new, ironic "science": A religion where the 'priests' (scientists) abandon the "scripture" and "commandments", i.e., tradition, and replace it with humanism/agenda driven politics. And it's churchgoers are just as uneducated, ignorant, and closed minded as they claim "non believers" (Christians) to be.

pst314 said...

FYI that "sexiest astrophysicist alive" cover: Google reveals that "The Alcalde, founded in 1913 and pronounced 'all-call-day,' is the alumni magazine of The University of Texas."

It's pretty bad when academia's official publications go all "presidential kneepads" for pop-culture, culture-of-personality BS.

Bob said...

BTW, I forgot to mention as high praise that this piece caused me to remember Richard Feynman's definition of science which I believe is quite apropos: "Science is the belief in the ignorance of experts."

I wonder why Feynman seems to be down the memory hole along with Eric Blair himself these days ... not ;)

pst314 said...

Carl Sagan was famous and admired by many non-scientists for his popularizations of science. But he was not all that highly regarded by his fellow scientists, who regarded his actual scientific work as somewhat mediocre: He developed a bit of a reputation for carelessness, as illustrated by his reckless global cooling/killer asteroid/nuclear winter theory which he pushed relentlessly. He also made numerous careless mistakes when debunking Velikovsky (he of the crackpot book Worlds in Collision.)

RDitt said...

If you'll permit a digression, I can pinpoint the exact point at which I saw the Sagans of the world go wrong and it wasn't necessarily the nuclear winter thing.

When I was a kid growing up in the 70's, pseudo-science was taken far too seriously. There were countless books and TV shows (look up In Search Of) and movies about UFOs and alien abductions and ESP and astrology and ancient astronauts and the Bermuda Triangle and all sorts of other crazy stuff that's since fallen by the wayside. Sagan and his likeminded buddies were instrumental in debunking all of this stuff and they did us all a positive service in doing so as we seem less susceptible to the worst of that stuff today.

In the 80s though, I remember a book was published about Margaret Mead. Mead was the American anthropologist who travelled to Samoa and got the girls there to tell her a bunch of dirty stories about their free-loving ways so Mead could go back to the U.S. and tell us all about what a bunch of uptight prudes we were. Long story short, there is a lot of reason to believe that the girls in Samoa were just making things up to make Mead happy by telling her what she wanted to hear. When all of this broke, the skeptics of the Sagan school circled the wagons and devoted all of their energy to defending Mead. There was no learned on the one hand and on the other hand discussion. Mead's work was the very pinnicle of scientific endeavor and that was that. The fact that her work was most probably the result of a big hoax was less important than the fact the hoax was partly responsible for sparking the so-called sexual revolution. That was the point for me at which it was obvious that the popularizers of science had become completely political.

DenisO said...

"...There is nothing to cheer about the return of Cosmos. It's not science, instead it's more of the popularized punditry that distorts science into an absolute dogma with a cynical agenda."
I cheered it, as I recall the arrogance of Carl Sagan, and his endless nonsense theories recounted by pst314. Mike Tyson, err. I mean Neil D. Tyson, made one remark, last night, about the Earth being destroyed by man-made climate change, and that offended me. Then again, his gig as spokesman and narrator for the new Cosmos is a rich job, and he had a duty to genuflect to the "progressives" who control National Geographic and pay his salary. Other than that, I have found the science of the many new Cosmos shows I've seen, on the Science channel, to be fair representations of proven science. He didn't acknowledge or deny a G_d, and that was proper. I have seen his lectures to kids at the N.Y. Museum of Nat. History, I believe, and he makes science fun. That is a big change from the distasteful science presentations I endured more than half a century ago, and for that reason, I will give him the benefit of the doubt.
I remember being laughed at by the professor when I suggested that the continents looked like they fit together some time in the past.
We can be thankful that scientists are no longer burned at the stake for heresy, where no other theories were entertained, from the 12th thru the 18th Centuries. Until robots are given the job of deciding what is truth in science, we will be subject to whatever political power prevails. America, and most of the West, is governed by "captured regulators" who are primarily influenced by cash. Name an Agency that isn't.
While you're at it, tell us what part of Cosmos's science is bogus.

Anonymous said...

What a load of drivel. You think that because Neil DeGrasse Tyson is a popular educator and is frequently on television, he is somehow less of a scientist or is less qualified? Take a look at his CV and his contributions to astrophysics.

The 'Saganization' of science? You should stick to what you do best, write long winded pontifications on geopolitics, and leave science to people who actually do this for a living.

Siobhra DeWar said...

I have known this for a long time. The thing that first gave it away was when I noticed almost every "Science" report for or against something ended with "More study will be needed". I think that is Scientists talk for "If you like my results I can give you more if you give me more funds".

Unknown said...

Completely agree

Anonymous said...

Eric Voegelin discussed the problem in "The New Science of Politics" circa 1952. He identified the corruption in science, a displacement of theoretical relevance as the basis for research by the scientific method. All facts are not equal, the corruption occurs in the claim that using the method is lone justification for any meaningless or frivolous research.

So performing studies on what direction alpha particle electrons spin over platinum shielding is very interesting to my pal who's a physicist, it has little value or meaning to the public forced to pay for it.

Research cannot be validated by merely procedural means. The denial of substantive justification mirrors modern liberal theology which also reduces everything to process. It is as he presciently stated over sixty years ago, the new truths would become Koranic - beyond questioning and inquiry.

On a more amusing note, recommend everyone watch "When Worlds Collide" - 1951. Good production values, but the plot line is world destruction and the only people who merit survival are guess who - scientists. Even the the guy who payed for the rocket didn't deserve to get on board, no cripples in the new world... You'll have a good chuckle at the pretentiousness of it.

Anonymous said...


Joan of Argghh! said...

But... but.. Jodie Foster... made a movie...

Anonymous said...

I disagree. I'm in the sciences, and everyone I work with knows *what* we're doing, why we're doing it, what it means. We also usually have pretty good ideas why we've screwed up when we did.

You're a conservative journalist. What the hell's YOUR qualification to criticize Sagan or anyone else? ...Really, you don't even know enough to understand what they're working on, let alone how to evaluate it. I'm not saying that so much to be mean, so much as a statement of fact.

If you want to say "Scientists don't communicate their results to the general public effectively", that I'd give you.

Johnny said...

The social sciences became widely politicized in the 1970’s. Perhaps it would have happened regardless, but it got a major push from Vietnam and the anti war movement. The desire to be relevant to current social trends pushed science away from careful observation and fact seeking, to an effort to impact policy. That is, it became a publicly funded political movement.

To become effective in the pursuit of policy, the material presented to students had to be slanted toward whatever the social policy agenda was at the time. Unless there was common agreement or a willingness to pretend there was common agreement, the social agenda could not be pushed into the public square as ‘settled science’. And so all the ducks that we call scientists had to get in a row and go along with whatever the current hokum was.

There is still a certain amount of real science going on, but presenting it interferes with doctrine so you never hear of it. And apparently it is not all that important because it no longer has impact and it has not been missed. We are approaching fifty years in the corruption of the social sciences, and in the lay class nobody even notices.

The current accomplishment of the more radical element of science is the expanding corruption in the physical sciences. We know that because of global warming movement. Fudged data, false consensus, and slander directed at anyone who objects is now the norm in what still gets called science. Those who want to get funding had better get with the program and become agreeable propagandists for the cause.

(With regard to Margaret Mead, her Samoan observations fit in so will with Freudian theory that they were obviously biased either accidentally or deliberately. Too good a fit is usually a sign of fudged data or biased observations.)

Anonymous said...

I usually enjoy your writing. This time, however, you were reaching for the cosmos - you didn't quite make it.

John Eichholtz said...

Hey, my fellow Sultan here is my satire on "Climate Change."

Fiftyville said...

Is it time for Lysenkoism again?

Anonymous said...

An excellent audio book on this topic:

Anonymous said...

EXACTLY. Excellent point.

Anonymous said...

Right. It's about the statistics of the situation at hand. And as the commenter above points out, certain fields and situations involving statistics are more prone to the type of issue that Ioannidis documents than other fields are. One can't assume that it applies to all of science - not by a long shot.

K S McPhail said...

"You're a conservative journalist. What the hell's YOUR qualification to criticize Sagan or anyone else? ...Really, you don't even know enough to understand what they're working on, let alone how to evaluate it. I'm not saying that so much to be mean, so much as a statement of fact."

Well, it seems that attitude demonstrates the point quite nicely . . .

Anonymous said...

The biggest culprits have been the various academies of science, led by The Royal Society.

amorgan said...

A large portion of your argument rests on the two articles you cite towards the beginning of the article, but both are only about research in medicine. You neglect to include such examples from other fields, including geology, biology, chemistry, and astrophysics. Do these disciplines have the same issues? Or is your entire article rubbish? I suspect the latter.

Anonymous said...

“Arguments from authority carry little weight – authorities have made mistakes in the past. They will do so again in the future. Perhaps a better way to say it is that in science there are no authorities; at most, there are experts.”

Carl Sagan

Anonymous said...

In the Book Of Job we read...
"7. He [G-d] stretches out the north over chaos; He suspends the earth on nothing."
Sagan's "Pale Blue Dot" illustrates that very clearly.
In Psalms, Chapter 8, v5, we read...
"what is man that You should remember him, and the son of man that You should be mindful of him?"
But Sagan says, in effect...
"What is G-d that I, Carl Sagan, should be mindful of him?"

No thanks, Carl. I'll take the wisdom and humility of the ancient Sages over your arrogant ignorance any day.

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