Friday, October 29, 2021

The end of science

Dear M,

Rebecca West writes, in The New Meaning of Treason, that a lot of our scientists during World War 2 were communists.  There are several reasons this is important, but the first is that they immediately leaked our research on atomic bombs to Stalin.  

They honestly believed in a "global scientific community" -- that science knew no political boundaries, and that the world would be better if scientists shared all their information with each other.  Somehow this would usher in an age of peace and plenty, and scientific know-how would mean food for the poor and an end to oppression.  So they gave the bomb to the Soviets.  To the people who used technology to keep millions in chains and torture them and starve them to death.  These days American scientists are doing the same thing, helping abusive husbands track their wives in Saudi Arabia, and helping the Chinese develop social surveillance systems and biological weapons.  The scientists tell you how to do something and fail to understand or care why we shouldn't do it.  Or maybe it's the money.

If this proves anything, it's that people who are taught to analyze physics can be really bad at reading people.  They can theorize about matter and totally miss the substance of a movement.  People say we need a more "scientific" outlook on the world and they're right.  We need to teach our kids to be skeptical, and systematic, and logical.  What we don't need for this world to be a better place is for more kids to become professional chemists.  We need more chemists to pick up The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.

You would expect a person with a "scientific" mindset to look for information, and to share it -- even a pie-in-the-sky communist.  But the new fan of "science" doesn't trust the public with information, and so far as he can, when it doesn't fit his goals, he buries it.  When he says "trust the science" he means "trust the scientists" -- a group of people whose research he many times can't see*, hasn't read, and can't explain, whose funders he doesn't know, and whose political and social goals he hasn't been told.  It's gotten so bad that OSHA, the branch of our government tasked with keeping workers safe, is no longer requiring businesses to report adverse reactions to the vaccine -- for the reason that (I quote), "OSHA does not wish to have any appearance of discouraging workers from receiving COVID-19 vaccination."  I don't know which scientists to trust, but I know who to not trust, and that is the person who refuses information and hides it.  

A "correct" authority
A scientific mindset should be a machine and a method**.  It should mean that you know what facts you know and what you don't know, that you're open to new facts and factoring them in, and that the most important thing isn't feeling right, but heading in the right direction.  What being "pro-science" actually means today is that you have the "right" facts.  Not that you're good at sifting, but that you're good at accepting -- and that you have the "correct" scientists as authorities.  

Today we see this in effect.  Medical professionals -- the people who are specifically trained to deal with diseases and keep them from spreading -- are being fired en masse because they don't trust the medicine they're being offered.  Who's firing them?  Not scientists or doctors, but medical capitalists and other administrators who believe some doctors over others.  In another instance, NBC reported that scientists were fighting scientists -- about whether vaccines were better than natural immunity.  I was told by a pro-vaccine commenter to educate myself.  I asked "by which scientists?" and got no answer. 

I doubt we could have avoided this.  The outcome of all development is specialization.  The outcome of all specialization is the recognition of ignorance -- the fact that we have bodies of information out there that the general public won't and can't know, and that power structures have to develop around them.  Thus whoever has the best press and the badge of authority will be considered the best "scientist."  And in an age of social media, whoever's opinions will be shut out will effectively be the "non-scientific."   

A reign of scientists is thus an age of authoritarianism.  Not necessarily of peace and plenty, but of self-assured lab-coats pressing expensive panaceas, and government lab-rats using violence to back them.  Quack medicines and programs will be pushed and swallowed.  The media and social media will shut out the opposition -- the group from which all scientific progress comes.  Smug women too stupid and hysterical for critical thinking will shout down dissenting researchers and doctors.  Those who stand with the opposition lose their jobs when public policy or public "safety" are at stake.  Will science prevail in an atmosphere like this?  Yes -- the science of controlling the masses, and of keeping the scientifically-minded quiet.  

We're in the beginning stages of scientific and social tyranny.  Others have already passed through the late stages -- and the scientific outcome they got was Chernobyl.



*I said above that most "believers in science" haven't read the journals and can't know what's in them, but The Atlantic says the truth is even worse.  In an article titled Scientific Publishing is a Joke, they wrote,

'Many papers serve no purpose, advance no agenda, may not be correct, make no sense, and are poorly read. But they are required for promotion.' The scholarly literature in many fields is riddled with extraneous work; indeed, I’ve always been intrigued by the idea that this sorry outcome was more or less inevitable, given the incentives at play. 

Take a bunch of clever, ambitious people and tell them to get as many papers published as possible while still technically passing muster through peer review … and what do you think is going to happen? Of course the system gets gamed: The results from one experiment get sliced up into a dozen papers, statistics are massaged to produce more interesting results, and conclusions become exaggerated. The most prolific authors have found a way to publish more than one scientific paper a week. Those who can’t keep up might hire a paper mill to do (or fake) the work on their behalf. In medicine, at least, the urgency of COVID-19 only made it easier to publish a lot of articles very quickly. [...] A staggering 200,000 COVID-19 papers have already been published, of which just a tiny proportion will ever be read or put into practice [emphasis mine]. 

The "scientific community" isn't just inscrutable.  It's apparently full of blowhards.  Their purpose many times isn't to teach you or probably anyone you know how the world works.  You aren't their fan club or their employer, and many times you don't even know who they are.  Thus their job is to toot their own horns, wowing journal editors and patting each other on the back for making a big show -- a Kabuki theater of neither useful ideas nor new theories, but of how many times their names can appear in things the public won't and can't read.   

The question, then, is who are they publishing for?  And furthermore, why do we trust them?    

**The finest book I've ever read about the scientific mindset is Francis Bacon's The New Organon -- not a science manual, but a musing on how many ways the mind can go wrong, and what we have to do to avoid it.     

He writes, in 1620,

The human understanding is no dry light, but receives an infusion from the will and affections; whence proceed sciences which may be called “sciences as one would.” For what a man had rather were true he more readily believes. Therefore he rejects difficult things from impatience of research; sober things, because they narrow hope; the deeper things of nature, from superstition; the light of experience, from arrogance and pride, lest his mind should seem to be occupied with things mean and transitory; things not commonly believed, out of deference to the opinion of the vulgar. Numberless, in short, are the ways, and sometimes imperceptible, in which the affections color and infect the understanding.


let every student of nature take this as a rule: that whatever his mind seizes and dwells upon with peculiar satisfaction is to be held in suspicion.

--words that ought to be taken more seriously in a so-called "age of science."

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  1. One of your better on target essays. Follow the science is a pied piper story only the rats are in charge.

  2. Great essay, J. It reminds me of the spoof-papers published back in 2018 by 3 academics who set out to prove that if it fits the narrative, it will be accepted... no matter how outrageous the proposal.
    "What an Audacious Hoax Reveals About Academia:
    Three scholars wrote 20 fake papers using fashionable jargon to argue for ridiculous conclusions.... Their success rate was remarkable." (The Atlantic, Oct. 2018)