Saturday, January 17, 2015

War on Science

A column by Greg Satell at Forbes is remarkable for the degree of misunderstanding it reveals.

His ostensible purpose is to explain how the "war on science" hurts us all, but what does he mean by a "war on science"? He seems to be saying that there are just too many people out here in the boondocks who are unwilling to accept pronouncements from scientists if they're not supported by empirical data. In other words, there are too many people who are holding scientists to the standards that scientists claim make science different from other pursuits. Satell seems to find this skepticism among the laity unsettling. He writes this:
The work of scientists, when properly done, is reproducible and testable and that makes all the difference....

One of the great debates that politicians seek to devoid [sic] by touting their lack of scientific credentials is the one between Darwin’s theory of natural selection and intelligent design. Many people in the US, more than 40% in fact, believe in some form of creationism and want it taught in schools.

At first glance, they would seem to have a point. After all, no one actually saw humans evolve, so who’s to say that Darwin’s theory is true and creationism is false? Why, in the interest of academic inquiry, shouldn’t both be included in state curricula?

The reason is that Darwin’s theory is science — a subject taught in public schools — while intelligent design is a matter of faith, which is not. Darwin’s theory produces testable hypotheses that can be falsified through experiment. Creationism does not. It is a matter of belief, not a subject for investigation.
By "Darwin's theory" Satell presumably means the Neo-Darwinian view of molecules to man evolution driven by natural selection and random mutation. If he thinks that this theory is testable and falsifiable through experiment then he's unfamiliar with what many of its most devoted supporters have said about it. Here are a couple of examples:
Evolution is unproved and unprovable. We believe it because the the only alternative, special creation, is unthinkable. Sir Arthur Keith, physical anthropologist and head of the Anatomy Department at London Hospital.
Geneticist Richard Lewontin, speaking about evolution, said that:
Our willingness to accept scientific claims that are against common sense is the key to an understanding of the real struggle between science and the supernatural. We take the side of science in spite of the patent absurdity of some of its constructs, in spite of its failure to fulfill many of its extravagant promises of health and life, in spite of the tolerance of the scientific community for unsubstantiated just-so stories, because we have a prior commitment, a commitment to materialism.

It is not that the methods and institutions of science somehow compel us to accept a material explanation of the phenomenal world, but, on the contrary, that we are forced by our a priori adherence to material causes to create an apparatus of investigation and a set of concepts that produce material explanations, no matter how counter-intuitive, no matter how mystifying to the uninitiated. Moreover, that materialism is absolute, for we cannot allow a Divine Foot in the door.
D.M.S. Watson, chair of evolution at the University of London, said that he believed in evolution, "not because it can be proved by logically coherent evidence to be true, but because the only alternative, special creation, is clearly incredible."

In other words, the conflict is not between science and something else - there's no more a "war" on science than there is a "war" on women - but there is a conflict between two metaphysical understandings of reality. Materialists, as we saw above, often accept Darwinism, not because it's "reproducible and testable," as Satell claims a scientific hypothesis must be, but because materialism demands that any explanation for life exclude any non-physical entities. Those whose metaphysics permits or includes such entities (God, for example) are skeptical of any rival metaphysical theory that's advanced under the flag of science. It's not the science they oppose, it's the metaphysics, the religious assumptions that are smuggled in under the scientific banner.

Mr. Satell would do well to understand that there's a big difference.