The Limits of Science

Tom Finnerty14 Apr, 2020 5 Min Read
Ask me about politics and religion, too.

John O'Sullivan's excellent weekend column examined the work of Richard Horton, editor-in-chief of the British medical journal The Lancet, and his tendency to expand the scope of his publication in order to pronounce on topics which are decidedly beyond its remit as a journal of medicine:

[Horton] argues that doctors as doctors have a professional obligation to become political activists and to engage in civil disobedience when they think that a political issue has bad medical consequences for their patients—or indeed for any doctor’s patients. His editorials have made The Lancet notorious for the range of topics, including directly political topics—inequality, for instance, or Iraq war casualties -- which they pronounce to be medical issues for which they have their favorite prescriptions ready. And on no topic has he been more fervent, more frequent, or more “authoritarian” than on climate change.

Horton's editorials in The Lancet have adopted the “worst case” scenarios of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) to argue that the “climate emergency” is “one of the greatest threats to the health of humanity today” and poses “an acute danger to human and natural systems” (my italics.)  He has called on other professional journals to become “activist” (i.e., to take sides in controversial issues) as The Lancet has done -- for instance, it publishes an annual report on health and climate change that diagnoses a pandemic of climate emergencies which, however, can be cured every time by the same anti-capitalist remedy.

And he has used the journal to call on health workers to join in Extinction Rebellion’s civil disobedience protest against government inaction on the emergency last October which led to scattered acts of disruption—occupying banks, cancelling flights, and blocking bridges, roads, and traffic that included (ironically) an ambulance—by usually small groups of protesters in major Western cities.

What's disturbing to me is that we are so used to people with lots of impressive-looking letters after their names (Horton's alphabet soup, according to his Wikipedia page, is "FRCP FMedSci") speaking authoritatively on every subject under the sun that we hardly roll our eyes at the above any more. What, a few decades ago, we would have considered inappropriate -- that is, the editor of a medical journal making claims about foreign and domestic policy on the grounds that they have some imagined health component -- is now unfortunately commonplace.

Why is that? Well, first of all it is because we listen to them. When Stephan Hawking or (heaven help us) Neil DeGrasse Tyson wander away from physics and start talking about history, philosophy, art, or, really, anything else, we (well, many of us) sit and listen instead of bolting for the exit. But why do we let them? It is, ultimately, because we have, by and large, accepted science as as a method for determining the meaning of all things -- something like a religion -- which is decidedly not how true science understands itself.

Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry of the Ethics and Public Policy Center wrote an important article awhile back examining our societal misunderstanding of science:

Everybody [says]... [s]cience says this, science says that. You must vote for me because science. You must buy this because science. You must hate the folks over there because science. Look, science is really important. And yet, who among us can easily provide a clear definition of the word "science" that matches the way people employ the term in everyday life?

So let me explain what science actually is. Science is the process through which we derive reliable predictive rules through controlled experimentation. That's the science that gives us airplanes and flu vaccines and the Internet. But what almost everyone means when he or she says "science" is something different.

He explains that the great insight of the Scientific Revolution was that the claims of science are necessarily limited by our ability to experiment and test our conclusions.

What distinguishes modern science from other forms of knowledge such as philosophy is that it explicitly forsakes abstract reasoning about the ultimate causes of things and instead tests empirical theories through controlled investigation. Science is not the pursuit of capital-T Truth. It's a form of engineering — of trial by error. Scientific knowledge is not "true" knowledge, since it is knowledge about only specific empirical propositions — which is always, at least in theory, subject to further disproof by further experiment.

This is radically different from the more popular meaning of 'science', which is often meant to convey a mental image of superior beings "wearing lab coats and/or doing fancy math that nobody else understands." Gobry argues that, for most people:

The reason capital-S Science gives us airplanes and flu vaccines is not because it is an incremental engineering process but because scientists are really smart people. [Italics are mine].

This is why various academic disciplines, the so-called soft sciences -- psychology, sociology, anthropology, etc. -- feel that they need to clothe themselves in the veneer of science. The practitioners of these disciplines want everyone to know that they are very smart people too, even if they did get a 'D' in Organic Chemistry! So if they do important sounding studies (even ones whose results are irreplicable), illustrate their points with lots of graphs, and wear lab coats, people will taken them seriously. (This tendency even infects the humanities, by the way. I've always liked a comment of the mid-20th century poet and politician Charles Wilbert Snow who, explaining his decision not to seek a doctorate, said that the Ph.D. was "a German invention designed to turn an art into a science.")

Gobry goes on to point out that:

This is how you get people asserting that "science" commands this or that public policy decision, even though with very few exceptions, almost none of the policy options we as a polity have, have been tested through experiment (or can be). People think that a study that uses statistical wizardry to show correlations between two things is "scientific" because it uses high school math and was done by someone in a university building, except that, correctly speaking, it is not. While it is a fact that increased carbon dioxide in the atmosphere leads, all else equal, to higher atmospheric temperatures, the idea that we can predict the impact of global warming — and anti-global warming policies! — 100 years from now is sheer lunacy. But because it is done using math by people with tenure, we are told it is "science" even though by definition it is impossible to run an experiment on the year 2114.

In many ways, the scientific revolution began as a call for epistemic humility: It is difficult to truly know things about the inner workings of the universe. What methods can we use to accurately demonstrate the few things which we have definitely uncovered? The almost unimaginable success of this project and the tremendous innovation which came after it is likely why we came to hold scientists in such high regard and, ironically, why we have drifted from its basic insight.

Consequently, we are left with men of science like Horton pushing public policy proposals because science is just, well, smart people being smart, and why wouldn't we listen to smart people? Appeals to a supposed "scientific consensus" on something like climate change (and scientists preferred responses to it) is just taking this a step further: Lots of really smart people think this. You want people to think you're smart, right? It is important we realize that these appeals take us beyond the strictures of science into something else entirely.

Be afraid. Be very afraid.

Tom Finnerty writes from New England and Ontario.

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