The Erasmus path in science

Gene ExpressionBy Razib KhanJun 21, 2012 5:44 AM


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I just received a copy of Science Left Behind: Feel-Good Fallacies and the Rise of the Anti-Scientific Left. As I now have some marginal time I'll probably be reviewing it in concert with the The Republican Brain: The Science of Why They Deny Science--and Reality, in the near future. Of all the intellectual activities in my life my striving toward a better appreciation of the shape of reality which science outlines for us has always been of the first rank. I had a "STEM" orientation before I even knew what that stood for. But I part from the culture of science as it is in that my politics are not with sympathy with the Left. In most cases this is not relevant, but it does loom relatively large in the number of instances where normative considerations conflict with scientific possibilities. I have expressed my frustration with this in the past. In general I believe that most scientists are less open to genetic dispositions in behavior than they would otherwise be because genetic dispositions seem rather unsavory on normative grounds (that is, the Zeitgeist of Left-liberalism in the West holds genetic dispositions in bad odor). A smaller set within science take their normative frameworks to such heart that they transform science into a political agenda (see The Dialectical Biologist). As I have argued before to me a boundary condition in regards to this issue is the domain of sex differences. Though I think details are still to be worked out, the extreme negative reaction of some to any possibility of sex differences rooted in biological differences is clearly normative in its basis. I can understand having a discussion as to whether male or female aptitudes in mathematics at the tail of the distribution may differ, but I have a hard time taking seriously anyone who expresses extreme skepticism at the possibility of greater innate male aggressiveness expressed in physical conflict. My own personal sentiment is probably to class those who are very skeptical of greater innate male aggressiveness as no different from what is fashionably termed "denialism" (and the reality is of course that there is a school of "difference feminism" which accepts these biological differences wholeheartedly, though generally for the purpose of casting males in a negative light). But this post isn't about that particular issue. Rather, it's about conservative distrust of science. At the Moving Secularism Forward conference Ron Bailey repeatedly had to remind the audience that it is problematic when one elides the distinction between the normative and the positive. Because scientists are overwhelmingly Left-liberal, this dichotomy can subconsciously melt away. This engenders some natural hostility and anger from conservatives. The priests and practitioners of science are working for the "other team." Sometimes this takes the form of the rejection of science itself on the Right. The doyen of modern neo-Creationists, Phillip E. Johnson, has made recourse to "critical theory" in his attack on the pretense toward objectivity of modern science. More crassly some have accused science of being a fundamentally corrupt enterprise, as the scientific community sells ideologically informed opinion as fact. As I have indicated above I think in some of these areas such criticisms are warranted. Especially when it comes to a science with impacts upon humanity the ideological pressures can be strong. The back-story for the 1951 UNESCO statement on the "Race Question" is as much cultural as it scientific. Like the economist's H. economicus moderns, with Left-liberals almost universally, accede to the proposition that all human populations are not just equal in moral worth and in legal terms, but that they are equal in all their fundamental psychological characteristics. I do not think that the latter is a proved assertion. Rather, it is a strong commitment, and a reflection of underlying sentiments. Science is a human enterprise. The relativists are right on that. But the difference between science and literary criticism is that science studies what is out there, not just what is within. The mind may play tricks, but the real world does not. About three hundred years ago the basic fundamentals of what become science coalesced, and produced a cultural system of knowledge production which has been without historical parallel. But the system itself is made of humans, and so exhibits many of the faults of humans. A great deal of science has been wrong in the past. A great deal of science will be wrong in the future. And a great deal of science which we accept as orthodoxy will be found to be wrong in the future. There are very strong grounds by which skeptics of the power of science can launch their broadsides. Because of the weaknesses of science past and present these denialists operationally or explicitly would like to take down the enterprise of science in a form we'd recognize it. Intelligent Design advocates want to ditch methodological naturalism. There have been efforts at Marxist science, whatever that is (I thought Marxism was science?). And some identity politics types have attempted to reconstruct science on their own lines or preferences (some Muslims do this also). Where all the critics go wrong is that you can't judge science in a vacuum. It may be an imperfect system, but it's far more perfect than any of the alternatives. The reality of science is not that it is telling us the truth, but that it is telling us more truth than we would otherwise know. The noisy and messy production of "random walking" toward truth isn't pretty, obviously. Not only is there the fact that science is hard, and nature uncooperative, but the world of science is riddled with time-servers and incompetents. The last is true of any human enterprise. In the past I have made an analogy between science and the Roman Catholic Church, despite the discomfort of some readers. I go back to that now. The Catholic Church of the years during which Erasmus flourished was quite corrupt. It is upon this fertile ground that the printing press added some combustible fuel. But despite his influence upon them Erasmus could never be convinced by the Reformers to leave the Church. Why? Erasmus was a critic of the Church, but he also perceived in it a superior product to what Protestantism had on offer. At any given moment science is rather like the Catholic Church, riddled with falsehood. But it is the best we have, and we should attempt to work within its institutional framework, rather tearing it apart limb from limb. That was Erasmus' position. He may have been a critic, but ultimately he thought the institution could be genuinely reformed. The struggle never ends, but we can't see any returns if we give up immediately.

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