The Dispute over Global Warming: Americans and the Scientific “Priesthood”

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Mean surface temperature change for the period...

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The late philosopher Paul Feyerabend once said that the United States should separate science and state (and the rest of society) just as the U. S. (so he claims) separates church and state. He argues that scientists have become the new priesthood, analogous to religious priesthood, who establish orthodoxy and punish heresy. To Feyerabend, this setting of boundaries marks not only censorship of controversial ideas, but also persecution of those who deviate from established scientific “orthodoxy.” He calls for a pluralism in education that allows all points of view, “scientific” and nonscientific, to be taught so that individuals can make up their own minds about the nature of reality.

Most scientists who study climate believe that the current upward trend in average global temperature is due to human pollution of the atmosphere with gases that promote the “greenhouse effect.” This effect, which has made the planet Venus a hellhole with a constant temperature of around 800 degrees F., traps heat inside the atmosphere so that it cannot radiate into space. These scientists claim that unless limitations are placed on the emission of greenhouse gases, the climate will continue to warm, raising water levels worldwide and having perhaps devastating effects on weather patterns.

There are a minority of scientists who oppose this theory. While few would deny global warming all together, some believe such warming is due to normal climate variation rather than due to human activity. This issue, of course, has become a political hot potato, with supporters of man-made global warming accusing opponents of ignoring science and supporting policies that damage the environment and opponents claiming that supporters of man-made global warming are socialists who use it as an excuse for greater government intervention in business.

Americans themselves are divided over man-made global warming. Why? Why would many Americans ignore the majority of scientists and not accept man-made global warming as a fact.

One reason is the moralistic tone of scientists. Scientists have placed themselves in the role of the “new priesthood” who set standards of how humans ought to behave. So scientists appear in interviews telling people what to eat, which light bulbs to use, which spray cans to avoid, how much water to use, and they imply that those who do not go along with their recommendations are either unintelligent or morally suspect. Americans who still have a libertarian streak resent this moralism. It reminds some Americans of the Fundamentalist preachers in their childhood churches.

Plus, the new priesthood has misled the public in the past. The eugenics movement of the first three decades of the 20th century was supported by many of the most esteemed scientists in the U. S. Thousands of mentally handicapped and mentally ill individuals were sterilized. Racist scientists supported the infamous Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment, in which black males with syphilis were observed, but not treated, for their disease. This program was only halted in 1972. Thus, scientists are no more infallible than a religious priest or minister.

Scientists often whine about Americans who are hostile to their claims. They ought to look at themselves in the mirror, tone down their arrogance, moralism, and preachiness, and use an evidence-based approach in making a case to the public. Instead of excommunicating dissident scientists, they should openly debate them in the “public square” so that people can hear both sides of an issue. Let’s have supporters and opponents of man-made global warming have public debates. Bring both sides to conferences and have them engage in scholarly debate in those settings. If the scientific establishment continues to be arrogant, it will continue to be ignored by a good number of the American people, including on the issue of man-made global warming. And the scientific establishment will be getting exactly what it deserves.

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The Arrogance of Scientism

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The late American philosopher Paul Feyerabend once said that scientists were arrogant and need to be put in their place. I agree–with one caveat–I would say “many scientists” instead of “scientists.” Universal affirmative claims are very hard to justify.

No one would deny, outside of nutty postmodern relativists, that science has contributed greatly to our knowledge of the natural world. Science has also given us the wonders of modern technology, from electric lights to super-fast computers and the Internet. Science has also given us the atom and hydrogen bombs and other weapons of mass destruction, but even those terrible inventions reflected the knowledge physicists had gained about the atomic and subatomic worlds. Aside from the ethics of technology, then, what is the problem with many scientists?

The problem, especially in the United States and to a lesser extent in the United Kingdom, is that many scientists accept the doctrine of scientism. Scientism is the view that science is the only reliable source of knowledge about the world. So introductory science textbooks often downplay alternate sources of knowledge (although in my experiences there is a welcome improvement in this area) and portray scientists almost as a “new priesthood” (Feyerabend has made the same point). The claims of philosophy, theology, art, and literature to give us insight into the way the world words are dismissed, and only those who follow the “scientific method” can, it is claimed, gain knowledge of the world.

There are a number of flaws in the philosophy of scientism. First, the idea that there is only one effective scientific method is a myth. A study of the history of science reveals different methods at work, from primarily inductive methods before Newton, to primarily deductive methods after Newton, to experimental methods, to field study methods (used in anthropology and to some extent in sociology). The naive method of (1) collecting facts, (2) noting relations between those facts, (3) forming a hypothesis, (4) testing the hypothesis by a well-designed experiment(s), resulting in (5) either a confirmation or disconfirmation of the hypothesis is inaccurate in its very first claim. No scientist collects facts without some idea of what he is looking for. Usually a scientist already has a theory in mind he wants to test in order to know what facts to find. Any idiot can sit down and write thousands of facts about trees; but a scientist needs more than a collection of “bare” facts. And there are no “bare facts”–all facts are theory-laden; thus, if I identify an object as a “table,” I must have at least implicitly some low-level theory of what a table is in order to be able to identify it. This does not imply that there is no such thing as “facts” or that facts are arbitrary. The real world does constrain our selection of facts–and theories. But there is no sharp separation between theory and facts.

Those who espouse scientism frequently claim that empirical testability is what makes scientific knowledge the only valid form of knowledge. But what about string theory, which cannot be tested by current technology–the ability to adequately test high-level theories in physics, especially Grand Unified Theories, may be centuries away. How, then, do physicists decide between theories? They usually appeal to “epistemic values” such as simplicity, elegance, and beauty to make their decision.

But if someone who espouses the philosophy of scientism sticks to his guns and says that only scientific claims are empirically testable, what about his claim that science is the only reliable source of knowledge? Is that a scientific claim? Or, rather, is it a philosophical claim that has to be justified or refuted by the tools of philosophy? It is the latter; scientists are free to make philosophical claims as long as they admit they are such; but they have no right to call them scientific claims. In any case, philosophy does appeal to both experience and reason in its attempt to answer questions. Even theology, though authority-based to some extent, can appeal to experience and reason in order to better understand its faith commitments. To deny these fields their claim to give insight into the world without argument is an arrogant claim–and scientists who espouse scientism are arrogant–and wrong.