The surprising powerlessness of scientists in a culture war

(Expanded from a comment on the most recent post)

The modern world is supposedly built around a scientific view of the world.  If so, that would make scientists our official prophets.  (Some say “priests”, but the role of the scientist is more analogous to that of the prophet than that of the priest.)  One would think that, to capture the culture, having scientists on one’s side would be among the most valuable possible assets.  But that’s really not the case.

Don’t get me wrong.  Having scientists from one’s group is a good thing because science is worth doing:  the truths it reveals are worth knowing, and the discipline it teaches is worth having.  The attempt to use science in a culture war only corrupts it and produces pseudoscience.  Just as a man cannot decide to learn Stoic detachment for the purpose of financial gain, scientific truth is one of those goods that can only be pursued successfully if done so for its own sake. As Bertrand Russell said about philosophy, science will answer only its own distinctive questions.  However, scientists can do very little on their own to help dominate a culture.  Having most scientists on one’s side is an effect of winning a culture war rather than a cause.

Consider

1) One certainly hopes that scientific discoveries do not depend on the prior beliefs of researchers. Therefore, stuffing sympathetic personnel into a field shouldn’t affect its conclusions.  (If it does, it’s not real science.)  A person with different loyalties might indeed investigate different questions.  Religious/political demographics probably do affect research programs in the social sciences, but I doubt they are of much relevance to the real sciences.  (Yes, I’m letting my prejudices show.)

2) Nor do scientists get a privileged role in interpreting their own discoveries. Nobody cared that Kepler took his model of the solar system to be itself a model of the Trinity.
Fermat, Leibniz, Maupertuis, and Euler all thought the principle of least action is a sign of God’s perfection. Eighteenth century French atheists claimed to base their worldview on Newtonian physics but took no interest in Newton’s own wacky Arian millenarianism. Descartes thought his physics had demolished 17th century materialism (his mechanical philosophy devised to emphasize how distinct are mental phenomena), just as Heisenberg thought his physics had demolished 19th century materialism (by overthrowing its epistemology), and Lemaitre thought he had destroyed the materialists’ eternal universe.  Maxwell used the indistinguishability of elementary particles (atoms, for him) to advance a novel design argument.

Today, the fact that many scientists thought their discoveries were irrelevant to–or perhaps even supportive of–Christianity is regarded as a historical curiosity. The narrative imposed on the history of science since Copernicus is of the great liberation from Christian superstition. This narrative comes largely from French men of letters rather than scientists themselves; the latter having been converted to it not earlier than the late nineteenth century.

By the way, this is one reason I find seventeenth century natural philosophers so fascinating.  It’s not that their beliefs about the meaning of their work were necessarily truer than the later Enlightenment and contemporary views, but that they could be so different, showing how much one’s metaphysical and historical presuppositions color how one does something so apparently nonpartisan as interpret scientific theories.

3) In any case, the philosophical interpretation of scientific theories is I think much more difficult than most people realize. Those who think it’s easy to read ontology out of physics or biology are most often reading their presuppositions into it. After nearly a century, many physicists are not shy in saying that we still don’t really understand quantum mechanics, even though it’s straightforward to use, most likely because some unacknowledged metaphysical prejudice is still being worked out of our system. As another example, that parts are ontologically prior to their wholes is an assumption which detailed scientific study of cells, atoms, etc can neither confirm nor disprove.  Plato and Aristotle believed wholes to be ontologically prior, while I find the whole idea of ontological priority suspect.

4) Non-westerners encountered Western science, mores, and overwhelming technological supremacy all at once, and it was natural that they would sometimes regard them as a single package, but for Westerners it is different.  Roughly our history is as follows.  In the seventeenth century, Christians of various stripes carried out the scientific revolution.  In the eighteenth century, atheists and deists used the success of science as an argument against Christianity.  In the nineteenth century, science continued to advance, and with the Industrial Revolution, the new knowledge was now changing people’s material lives in obvious ways.  Among the ranks of scientists and inventors, there was still a large diversity–Christians to atheists and everything in between.  Only in the twentieth century did science clearly come to be dominated by atheists and Jews, long after some other fields had so aligned.  So the West has seen science change hands and is less liable to see it as the unique genius of some faction.  Being an atheist doesn’t automatically make one more “scientific” than Pascal or Maxwell.

5) Persecuting scientists doesn’t hurt one’s reputation unless one is already weak.  The Left paid no price for the murder of Lavoisier or for interfering with genetics research in 20th century Russia and 21st century America.  The weapon of getting to tar people as “anti-science” is not one that scientists themselves control.  To be clear, I’m not recommending anyone persecute scientists, just pointing out a sad fact that one can get away with it if one’s social standing is strong.  The example of Soviet science shows that one can even remain world-class in some fields (Soviet mathematics was top-rate, and of course they got most of the “firsts” in the space race) while descending into crackpottery in others.

8 Responses

  1. They’re props not power players. It’s never about what it’s about and what it’s always about is power with the left. There are no rules other than “we win, you lose”. Everything else is a dodge with them, because naked sociopathy doesn’t really sell.

  2. If you wish to burn today’s “scientists” at the stake, I’ll bring wood. Real science is dead and gone; sometime after 1945 leftism killed science and started wearing it as a skin suit. Scientists are priests in white lab coats who piously declare that sex is mutable, sexual desire is immutable, and we have ten years to give them absolute power lest the world become uninhabitable.

  3. @Dave:

    But you are powerless to bring this about and I will not hesitate to rub you nose in your powerlessness. In fact I will laugh right in your face.

    Science says things you don’t like and there isn’t a d*mn thing you can do about it.

  4. @Bonald:

    Way to miss the point by 1e9 LY (if not a parallel universe).

    The reason scientists are useful in a culture war is not because the knowledge gained through science is of direct use in that war. I’ll happily concede that point right from the start. Culture wars aren’t won or lost because of GR or QED.

    It’s because that knowledge is beneficial to humanity in general. It’s because to win a culture war, which is war of ideas and memes, you need to convince that your culture will benefit humanity in general, and the individual in particular, more than the opponent.

    Only a few anti-intellectual wackos are going to accept that scientists are pointy-headed weirdos wearing lab coats who will destroy the world. Most people accept that science produces benefits for humanity. And rightly so.

    And so, you need to be seen as supporting science, which won’t happen if all scientists are playing for the other team. You may claim that you support science but not scientists, but that just simply won’t play in a culture war.

    And (I must give you credit for this) you see where scholasticism has gone astray a little bit: it constantly deals in abstractions but to win a culture war you’ve got to get down to the nitty-gritty and deal with concrete reality.

  5. @Bonald: Like Dave – I regard real science as long dead – but you already know what I think.

    Try reading John Ziman’s Real Science (2000), who first crytallised the fact for me – he was an eminent physicist (FRS), so you might believe him! He wrote several books on the way science is done, its micro-sociology; but he also experienced the transformation in his own life. He memorably encapsulates the change in a description of two typical days in the life of a scientist then (c.1950s) and now (late 1990s).

    excerpt: http://catdir.loc.gov/catdir/samples/cam032/99038905.pdf

    I met Ziman a couple of times, and he was on the editorial board of Medical Hypotheses when I was editor.

    The death of science was its replacement by generic bureaucracy. e.g. qua scientist you work in an engineering-type bureaucracy, heavily linked to other major bureaucracies in education, government, the media, perhaps the military… All so interlinked as to make one big global bureaucracy, ultimately controlled by an Establishment.

    This transformation first became publicly apparent in the persecution of Jensen, and then Eysenck, for their work on IQ and Race (because it conflicted with teh goals of teh Global Establishment). That wasn’t the beginning, nor was the process of subversion and replacement (all-but-)completed immediately – but it was the tipping point in the balance of power between real and pseudo-science.

  6. Science and scientists aren’t the ones driving the sex is mutable nonsense, although submitting to our cultural masters is even more degrading for scientists. It’s no surprise. If they can bring down James Watson, they can bring down any of us. But it’s still depressing.

  7. “But you are powerless to bring this about and I will not hesitate to rub your nose in your powerlessness. In fact I will laugh right in your face.”

    That’s exactly the attitude that will lead to “scientists” being hanged, guillotined, drawn & quartered, etc. You take away our cars, you expect us to live in high-rise anthills (cf. Agenda 21), you force our pensioners to choose between food and heat — you are the “omnipotent moral busybodies” that C.S. Lewis warned us about.

  8. “Science says things you don’t like and there isn’t a d*mn thing you can do about it.”

    Typical leftiat BS. Nobody here has any problem with any science fact (although, as said here, science has been corrupted).

    It’s leftists who have a problem with science: differences between sexes, between races, inherability of IQ and so on and so forth

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