“You can give respectability to mythology if you couch
your myth in sufficiently academic language.”
—Dr. R.C. Sproul
Who in twenty-first century America would say that “science … our one source of objective knowledge, is in deep trouble” because “much of [the] supposed knowledge” it brings us “is turning out to be contestable, unreliable, unusable, or flat-out wrong”?
Obviously an anti-intellectual, benighted holdover from the Dark Ages. Right?
Wrong. It’s Dr. Daniel Sarewitz, co-editor of Issues in Science and Technology, a regular columnist for the journal Nature, professor of science and society at Arizona State University’s School for the Future of Innovation and Society, and co-director of the university’s Consortium for Science, Policy, and Outcomes.
Sarewitz’s remarkable, 27-page article in The New Atlantis (Spring/Summer 2016) analyzes the condition of science today and finds it filled with faulty research methods, flawed, hidden, and sometimes fabricated data, bias, and demonstrably false outcomes. He offers steps to correct its trajectory, informed by two contrasting approaches to science: (1) a pragmatic, objective-oriented science, and (2) a self-directed science, with scientists “working on subjects of their own choice, in the manner dictated by their curiosity for exploration of the unknown,” what Dr. Sarewitz terms “a bald-faced but beautiful lie.” His insights are remarkable, but his recommendations warrant some elaboration.
Sarewitz begins by citing prime examples of pragmatic, results-oriented science, such as science and technology development under the direction of the Department of Defense, whose aim in the 1950s and 60s was to develop systems to solve national defense needs. Later he gives other examples of scientists, as well as activists, motivated by need, who broke free from the institutionalized science establishment to pursue specific objectives, such as in cancer research.
In contrast, the author characterizes self-directed, academic science as bogged down by pressures to obtain research money and publish, encumbered by institutional and peer science inertia (so-called “consensus science”). He describes a bloated, oversupplied academic science establishment churning out mountains of impractical, undirected or misdirected research findings, often not reproducible. This dilemma is exacerbated, according to Sarewitz, by the advent of “big data,” the flood of information and data acquired simply because it can be, rather than because it serves a need. With this comes a concomitant loss of wisdom and discernment in planning experiments and interpreting results. A final factor muddying the waters of science is what he terms “trans-science,” questions “which cannot be answered by science” regarding phenomena that “are variable, imprecise, uncertain—and thus always potentially subject to interpretation and debate.” Trans-science further opens the door to agenda-driven, biased research and the misuse of research findings as “click bait” to justify activist or fringe causes.
Particularly vulnerable to trans-science, says Sarewitz, are the natural and applied sciences and the soft sciences. Whether research focuses on the complexities of the human body and disease processes or the vast, multivariate natural environment—both subjects of massive public research funding—Sarewitz describes at length the pitfalls of this trans-science: “But much of this supposed knowledge is turning out to be contestable, unreliable, unusable, or flat-out wrong. From metastatic cancer to climate change to growth economics to dietary standards, science that is supposed to yield clarity and solutions is in many instances leading instead to contradiction, controversy, and confusion. … well-defended by walls of hype, myth, and denial.” In other words, the critical linkage between the climate change question and topics of biomedical research is that science is trying to answer questions about astoundingly complex, multivariate systems, influenced by factors that vary hugely, often by many orders of magnitude.
Put simply, science is trying to definitively characterize practically unknowable or unpredictable systems. A proper immediate response for activists, skeptics, and everyone else, should be humility and the abandonment of arrogance. Where that proper balance is absent, researchers, politicians, activists, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), pseudo-science journalists, and advertisers often flood the public with “snake oil” claims.
Sarewitz provides stark observations about the consequences of researchers’ attempting to address trans-science questions. Because of trans-science’s ambiguity, scientists must “come up with useful ways to characterize the things they study, like … global average atmospheric temperature to assess climate change.” However, these come at “the cost of being at best only an approximation of the complex reality.” Sometimes in science, the simplest, most elegant solutions can approximate a system to identify some fundamental relationships. However, these seldom have truly predictive value. To move from there to accurate future predictions is a major leap. As a result, Sarewitz states, “scientists have … generally sought not to distinguish trans-science from science but to try—through what amounts to a modern sort of alchemy—to transmute trans-science into science. In fact, the great thing about trans-science is that you can keep on doing research; you can … create ‘the sense that we’re gaining knowledge when we’re not gaining knowledge,’ without getting any closer to a final or useful answer.” In climate-change research, for example, the estimated range of climate sensitivity to greenhouse gases (1.5–4.5°C) has not changed after 38 years of research and $10s of billions in research funding.
Sarewitz asserts that “Sometimes the problem is not that it is hard to come up with facts, but that it is all too easy. This is why science almost never provides a solution to politically controversial issues.” One of his examples is the search for a site and design for a high level radioactive waste repository. The nuclear industry was taxed to fund the effort, which led to 24 years and $12 billion of research. Within sight of licensing and startup of the Yucca Mountain facility in Nevada, the Obama administration, in its first months in office, shut it down with the stroke of a pen, purely as a political favor to Senator Harry Reid of Nevada. The administration has since had the gall to claim that it bases its climate policies on “the science.” Far more rigorous, focused science arguably went into Yucca Mountain, a mere 1400 acres (2 mi2), than into global (90 million times larger) climate science. Yet the administration eschews the one and embraces the other.
What is Sarewitz’s proposed solution? His model juxtaposes pragmatic, results-oriented, real-world science versus self-guided, independent science. At risk of oversimplifying his solution, the author concludes that the former is the best model, where science must be made accountable through direct engagement with the real world.
However, his ideal of goal-driven research forgets that the goal can be wrong. Goals are not valueless or amoral propositions. Capturing several of his lines of thought, then, possibly a better construct would be science that (1) has value in the real world, (2) can be validated or verified by untortured, real-world data, and (3) honestly recognizes and admits the limits imposed on research by granting entities or outside influences. Any of these can damage, sway, or invalidate research.
I cannot conclude without addressing Sarewitz’s citation of President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s farewell address. He uses it to segue into his laudatory discussion of DOD-directed, results-oriented research, but he misses Eisenhower’s more important points. Famously known for its warning about what Eisenhower called the “military-industrial complex,” the speech opened and closed with prayer. Eisenhower described America as “a free and religious people,” and these were not religious platitudes. Eisenhower was an unabashed believer in Jesus Christ as his Lord and Savior, and he viewed the Christian faith widespread among Americans, and God’s principles in His Word, as indispensable in discerning a right course for the nation. From that worldview, particularly with its doctrine of universal human sin, he cautioned vigilance and balance through wise statesmanship and warned of the dangers both of science dominated by government and of government dominated by scientists. That Biblical worldview guided the establishment of our form of government, recognizing the reality that, left unchecked, fallen humans would inexorably drive the newly wrought republic toward destruction.
Unfortunately, Sarewitz’s solution is a return to scientific humanism, encapsulated in his closing statement: “Only through direct engagement with the real world can science free itself to rediscover the path toward truth.” He embraces the Enlightenment and modernist ideation of humanistic scientific reason that underpinned the rise and success of modern science and technology and presupposed that scientists would be objective and honest, or at least that the system would detect and root out ineptitude or outright dishonesty. He envisions a renewed modern science metanarrative in an era when skeptical, postmodern philosophy, art, music, psychology, and popular culture reject such metanarratives.
So the real “lie,” or at least a second and important one, is that this ideal of the efficacy and near inerrancy of human reason is betrayed when real-world science is practiced by, as the Bible would say, fallen, depraved men and women who are often biased and agenda-driven. Trans-science, as Sarewitz uses the term, represents the realization that human reason can also be manipulative and destructive, especially when it produces totalizing ideologies (e.g. communism, Nazism, colonialism, global warmism, sustainablism, etc.) that characterize the modern and postmodern era. Indeed, this power is still being used to marginalize and oppress others individually and systemically—witness the climate alarmism industry’s ad hominem attacks against any who challenge its orthodoxy, labeling skeptics as deniers, and the recent politically-motivated attacks on ExxonMobil and climate realists by an unholy alliance of states’ attorneys general, Al Gore, and environmentalist NGOs.
To summarize, today is an era that one in the academic world might call the “journalistic phase” of science. Journalistic sensationalism, which has little or nothing to do with sober scholarship, is becoming pervasive in science and science communications, especially insidious when presented using computer-generated virtual realities. Therefore, we must remember that science, particularly Sarewitz’s trans-science, is often biased and agenda driven and therefore cannot claim to be the final arbiter of what we know.
Allow me to close with a bit of advice, whether you are a youth, a Millennial, or an older adult trying to navigate the minefield of the Internet, social media, or traditional means of communicating scientific thoughts and ideas. In two words, use discernment.
“But if any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask of God,
who gives to all generously and without reproach,
and it will be given to him.”—James 1:5
How can one discern the truth? Whoever you are, scientist, professional, tradesperson, or layperson, use your education, training and life experience to conduct your own research and analysis, digging deeper and not taking popular “truisms” at face value. Ask:
- Does It Fit Reality? – The key test of truth is correspondence to reality, except that it is often difficult to reliably discern what reality is.
- Could the Current or Popular Science Be Wrong? – Remember, “science” does not equal “reality,” with many past examples where “common scientific knowledge” was proven wrong.
- Am I Being Psychologically Manipulated Using Fear and Conformity? – To break the barriers, be patient, become comfortable with failure, test assumptions, and act to counteract fear.
- Is This Science or Science-Fiction? – In the age of virtual reality, the lines between art and real life are blurred. Examples include sensationalist weather reporting and, recently, NASA coverage of the Jupiter probe, where more computer animations were presented than actual photos.
- Is the Author or Speaker Using Misdirection and Sleight of Hand? – Any single piece of research seldom yields breakthrough findings. Ask what the work really says and does not say. Carefully observe the uncertainties and limitations, being especially wary of flashy headlines like “new clues to the origin of ___,” “unlocking the mystery of ____,” “global warming linked to ____,” or a “new study shows ____?”
- Should I Doubt the Hyperbole? – The use of extreme descriptors like unprecedented, unmitigated, permanent, catastrophic, crisis, destruction, never before, highest, lowest is often a sign that the information being presented is flawed or overstated.
- Are the False Prophets Moving the Goalposts? – Scientists, economists, politicians and others who dare to predict the future are almost never right. A common ploy of the environmental false prophet is to change the subject, ignore failed predictions, or “move the goalposts” (e.g., 5 years become 10, then 20, then 50 or 100). In Old Testament times, false prophets were not tolerated, to put it mildly.
- Do I Detect Logical Fallacies? – Promoters/advocates/activists often employ logical fallacies, singly or as multiple fallacies, to influence debate. Learn the art of logic and how to spot logical fallacies.
- Is This a Broad Brush Statement? – Statements are often generalized to the point that they lose nuance and have little practical meaning, a flaw of so-called “consensus science.” Most such statements have a skin of truth, but they hide an effort to deceive, a common ploy of activists, environmental NGOs, politicians, governmental agencies, and major scientific or trade organizations.
- Is There the Charge of Being “Anti-Science?” – The label “anti-science” (or anti-intellectual) is a pejorative. One making such assertions usually means that science is only to be accepted when it aligns with that person’s geopolitical views and is to be rejected when it doesn’t. A person can even be labeled pro-science and anti-science simultaneously.
- Is the Source Spin-Doctoring the Information Being Presented? – On almost any topic, Internet searches yield lists of advocacy websites, pro or con. Unless well-conceived and moderated, they are seldom reliable and should be largely avoided. Advocacy and activism are big business with an agenda of selling, not products, but ideas. You can learn a lot by examining the “ABOUT” pages, including the organization’s boards of directors, advisors, and funding sources.
- Is This an Abusive Blog? – The “blogosphere” is rife with baseless opinion, rants, vulgarity, character attacks, and trolls whose goal is to detract or distract from the discussion. Except for well-moderated sites, try to avoid blogs and comments sections altogether.
- Has a Position Statement Been Tainted? – Because of the politicization of science and the activist strategy of going to the top to infiltrate or target the leadership of universities, professional societies and trade organizations, be very skeptical of organizational position statements. These are often contrary to the views of the organizations’ rank and file members.
- Is the Law of Unintended Consequences at Work? – “Systems thinking” (the pride of the sustainability movement) is based on flawed science and can lead to unintended consequences. Pummel every grand idea/plan with tough questions. Ask what might go wrong.
- Is the Glass Half-Empty or Half-Full? – Ask what is good about an allegedly detrimental condition or change, not just what is bad about it. Activists love to list a parade of horribles. Beware of anyone who takes this half-empty (or all empty) approach. For each supposed negative effect (presuming that something bad is even occurring), recognize that some benefits will often also accrue, maybe even outweighing the supposed negatives. In climate, warm is good, and CO2 is plant food.
- Who is Speaking, the Activists or the Professionals? – Finally, be patient. Even in the information age, change or improvement is a long, slow road. Public noisemakers rarely represent the views of the seasoned professionals who quietly persevere to do the real work at hand.