Tuesday, November 27, 2012

"A vast conspiracy of scientists"? Well, it depends.

It is now often said by our nation's ostriches, that is, those afraid of the real world who want to live in  Disneyland, that disturbing ideas such as evolution and climate change are just a vast conspiracy of scientists.  Since this is almost exclusively the territory of 'conservatives,' scientists and liberals have a field day ridiculing them.  And, generally, the ridicule is muted relative to what it perhaps should be.

The idea that science is making all of this up for some dark conspiratorial reason resembles the idea that the Elders of Zion, in some vast but deeply secret conspiracy, controls the world and keeps the wealth in the hands of Jews, or various similar theories about the Masons, that have been around for a long time.

Anyone can make up a conspiracy theory, since they are inherently unprovable.  If they could be exposed, they could be dealt with, after all.  Secrecy makes alleging them unfalsifiable.  That comforts those who want to live in the real world, and get votes, so long as the real world is what they think their potential voters want--or so long as the real world is a cotton-candy land.  Religions, of course, sometimes promise such a place in the afterlife, but based on dogma that challenges the facts of this one.

Those with their minds open know that this conspiracy theory is just plan false.  The 'conservatives' who proffer it are either so ignorant as perhaps should be institutionalized for everyone's safety, or are immoral demagogues playing the fear card to get votes to advance their own personal careers and those with whom they conspire(!) for power and all that goes with it.

In fact, there is no mechanism by which this sort of quiet, unobservable agreement to hoodwink the world to a false doctrine, as if orchestrated by the devil, could take place in science.  And why would it?  Even we can't say that this is because it's good for getting grants, no matter how greedy science is.  That's because any sound theory would get grants.  If it weren't 'evolution', we would still have to explain the panoply of complex living organisms, or the dynamics of the atmosphere.  We would be just as greedy and materialistic, no matter the theory, because we have our egos, our jobs to protect, the equipment-makers and students and technicians who depend on science, and the journals who churn out our results to avid reporters to exaggerate for their own livelihood needs.

And yet....

On the other hand
But we do find something interesting and relevant now, and in the entire history of science.  In any era, and any science, there is an accepted view--call it a 'paradigm' or a 'theory' or whatever else.  Scientists share this view as a rule.  We're taught it in school, we structure our research around it, to show things it predicts or that are consistent with it.  The grant and publication system are fitted to it.  Textbooks codify it.  It is, in a rather real sense, a dogma.

It is a dogma because we usually ostracize or ridicule dissenters from it.  We question their ability, sincerity, or even sanity.  Curmudgeonly dissenters, especially those offering some new general theory, are always around.  But they are a threat to orthodoxy just as dissenters are to any tribal identity.  Mostly they are wrong, perhaps, or even on the whacky fringe.  But history shows that some of them have been right, and their ideas are adopted as the new working theory of their age.

It has this attribute in another sense as well.  No one scientist can know all the evidence.  We can try to understand the literature, but we can't re-do everyone's experiments.  We must rely on, yes, faith that what is reported is essentially truthfully reported.  We don't take publications as unchallengeably perfect but we do rely on their honesty.  In that sense, the theories we agree to are those reported in this literature, and we agree for that reason and because the theory fits the data that we do actually and directly know about.  But there is that element of faith--and it's not a 'conspiracy'.

So, in a sense, science does have some of the traits that could be seen, by outsiders whose views or desires are threatened by the theory du jour, as conspiracies.  After all, to them all the scientists in power somehow seem to hold to the same view!  How else could that happen, if they aren't agreeing surreptitiously, by some back-room meeting, on what to say?

Of course that is not what happens, but the thought control that the system does impose, has some of the characteristics of a 'conspiracy', the kind of in-group handshake you have to know to be a member of the group.

The difference, which is of course profound, is that the 'conspiracy' of science is vulnerable to the actual facts of the world.  Eventually, if those facts just don't fit the theory of the day, a new theory will arise.  It may have to overcome what can seem like conspiratorial resistance but unlike what is alleged by the conservative movement (a conspiracy itself?), science is in fact done mainly out in the open, for all to see or replicate if they can or want to.

Science may be a dogma to a substantial extent, despite its pious denials to the contrary, but it isn't a secret conspiracy and it does, even if too slowly, have to fit the facts of the world.

Evolution and climate change are based on current theoretical frameworks of science.  They are often held or invoked by scientists who don't know, or don't think about, enough facts to be as critical of elements of the sciences as perhaps they should.  After all, no science now or ever completely explains everything perfectly.

One just has to talk to the ordinary citizen who is not involved in science, to see how often and how utterly uninformed they are (this is separate from the astounding fact that apparently nearly  half the US population doesn't 'believe' in evolution).  This is an awful failure of our educational system.  One would like to say that we need to have scientists spend much more time educating the public.  Unfortunately, that could lead to a lot of dogma being purveyed, given the sometimes nearly ideological or cardboard view many even professional scientists have of 'evolution', a subject on which we expound regularly.

In any case, scientists should be as careful as we can not to be exclusionary in the way other dogmas are, and to own up willingly to our limitations and to aspects of our science where doubt is really in order.  Our posts routinely criticize the excesses and dogmas that we personally think are too influential these days, and we try to explain why we think as we do.

But areas not yet understood and even the role of dogma in science notwithstanding, the notion that science is a conspiracy in the way that the 'conservatives' allege is a complete fantasy.  Based on the evidence currently available, evolution happened.  Based on the evidence currently available, the earth's climate is warming.  Based on the evidence currently available, human activities are an important contributor.

And, sadly, based on all the evidence, Disneyland is just a theme park.

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