Thursday, October 25, 2012

Quaking In Their Boots

“Convictions in quake trial rattle scientific community.” As well they might. Seven Italian “scientists or geological and disaster experts” were sentenced to six years in prison for failing to warn residents of a quake that struck the L'Aquila area in 2009. And of course it's absurd, and of course it shows a gross misunderstanding of how science works and what its capabilities are. And the scientific community at large is right to be upset, because if people can be convicted of “not” doing, or saying, the right thing at the right time, then there is no limit. Think, even, about weathermen in the U.S. who fail to properly warn people as to the exact path and destructive potential of hurricanes and tornadoes – not to mention blizzards, floods, and our own occasional earthquakes. That cheery guy with the good hair who comes on at 11 PM could be in the slammer tomorrow, according to this precedent.

However – and it pains me to point this out, having a scientific background myself – it's also true that scientists bring this sort of thing on themselves, on occasion. How? Well, by simply making pronouncements from on high... presenting theories and models as fact... and being highly intolerant of opposing viewpoints. This becomes especially egregious in areas that are politically fraught – the way “global warming” is at present. We get this imperceptible (until it's too late) shift from “pure science” to a form of faith or dogmatism – not necessitated by the data, or even by reasonable interpretations of the data, but based on pre-existing biases and prejudices on the part of the scientists, as well as by political necessity and material inducements (jobs, grants, publications, awards, esteem, etc.). Scientists are human, after all – with all the foibles and weaknesses that implies... and although one would think they would be the last people on earth to “sell out”, occasionally they do – but they're not required to wear a special head rag, or carry a flag, that says “sold out”. They just keep on lecturing at the same universities, working at the same research firms, getting the same government grants, publishing in the same journals, as everyone else – unless they're caught doing something that is considered in poor taste, like plagiarism. And in fact, most of the time they don't even realize that they've sold out. It's not like a boxer throwing a fight. They just drift along, following a path of less (if not least) resistance, until they find themselves defending the indefensible. But by then it's too late. It's like a shoplifter taking the stolen goods back to the store; better to just lay low, hold onto the stuff, and hope you didn't get caught on tape. 

Not only that, but there is a definite “clubby” atmosphere in science, and each specialty has its leading lights... and as long as they all agree as to which basic premises are correct, few in the field are going to stand up and protest – and those who do will be treated to the kind of shunning that only the scientific community can pull off. (I should add that this sort of thing is not confined to science per se, but also happens in medicine and engineering. Yes, engineering – as witness many of the controversies about the 9/11 attacks.)

But here's what's interesting. Every once in a while something comes along – a theory, a model, a discovery – that causes what is known as a “paradigm shift”. At that point, the entire community (in whatever the field happens to be) “converts”, pretty much en masse (with a few hold-outs, as one might expect). No embarrassment, no humiliation, no apologies for the former dogmatism and persecution... just (if anything) an “oops” and a “never mind”. And then the new orthodoxy becomes the basis for a new dogmatism, and on we go, with scarcely a bump. You can see this in the history of virtually any field of science or medicine.

And of course, there is nothing wrong with “changing your mind” in science. In fact, that's the whole essence of the enterprise. You gather data as best you can with the tools you have, analyze the data, develop theories, and put the whole thing out there for perusal and comment – and hopefully affirmation – by the community. Ideas get proposed, batted around, shot down... and the ones that show durability are the ones considered correct. Correct, but not “true” in the absolute sense. Everything in science is tentative. It's all based on what we know right now. It could all be disproved – and, in fact, it's the ability to be disproved that is one of the essential qualities of any scientific idea or theory. If it can't be disproved (or if it's not allowed to be), then it comes under the heading of faith, and no longer belongs in the scientific realm. (So right away, you're going to say, “Oh yeah, kind of like evolution.” Exactly.)

I have absolutely no problem with science doing what it's supposed to do. Where I get uneasy is when it starts doing things it's not supposed to do – thereby violating its implied mandate. To whom do we look for facts and insights about the material world? Hopefully, the most objective and least prejudiced people around... and if they turn out to be otherwise, then the salt has lost its savor, has it not? If everything sooner or later becomes political (the ideal world for liberals), then fad, fancy, impulse, delusion, and mob psychology rule and there is no recourse to anything objective, substantial, grounded, and – dare I say – eternal. Those who worship this thing they call “reason” will never admit how frequently, and how badly, “reason” is abused. But as long as it keeps the label, all is well. 

In another sense it reminds me of what happens with presidents. As long as things are going well, they're perfectly willing to take credit for everything. But the minute things turn sour, they head for the tall grass, muttering things like “out of our control”, “something we inherited”, etc. Sound familiar? So yeah, the president is all-powerful and all-knowing when prosperity reigns, but an innocent and helpless victim when times are hard. Sorry, no sale. Either he's always in control or he's never in control – and I nominate the latter, as you know. The rest is smoke and mirrors... illusion and propaganda.

So to get back to our quaking Italians – I'm sure they felt “large and in charge” when things went according to their predictions, the same way a Gypsy fortune teller is going to be right at least some of the time, based on sheer probability. And actually, their record is probably better than that of the average Gypsy – oops, I mean “Roma”. (And BTW, what do they call Roma who live in Rome? Oh, never mind.) But when things go wrong, and they are hauled into court, all they can do is sputter about the ignorance of the prosecutors and of ordinary people, etc. And further, that if this is the way things are going to be, then we'll just go on strike and quit making predictions. What would be better is if their predictions were couched in more (appropriately) tentative, probabilistic terms, and if the laypeople were educated enough to appreciate that fact (good luck with that one). But again, all most people know about science is (1) its obvious successes and (2) its truth claims. So the obvious successes are used, to some extent, to bolster the truth claims – as if being right about Thing A meant that you were automatically right about Thing B – clearly an unscientific assumption.

So where, in our time, can we find the most dogmatic, “faith-based” pockets within the world of science? Darwinism/evolution comes immediately to mind – and when's the last time any pro-Darwin person referred to the “theory” of evolution? No, it is always presented as fact – as a “just-so story” which verges dangerously on myth or fairy tales. You take the basic data – which are quite scanty compared to what they are trying to prove – and extrapolate a whole world, both past and present. And none of it is rock-solid, you'll notice. We're constantly subjected to a parade of dinosaurs and other creatures... primates... “pre-humans”... “early man”... cave men of various types... and told that this is the way it is (or was), and curs'd be he who sayeth otherwise. But then – shazam! -- somebody finds some bone fragments, the cast of characters changes, and a new array of just-so stories is trotted out. (Personally, I really miss the brontosaurus. Don't you? But on the other hand, it is kind of cool to think I might have some Neanderthal blood.)

Evolution is the most obvious case, and there's a vast literature detailing all that is wrong with the theory – fatal to it, in fact. And this is before we even start talking about intelligent design, to say nothing of creationism. Even on its own terms, evolution is in deep trouble as the necessary and sufficient explanation for the origin, descent, and diversity of species, including man. The problem the evolutionists have is that there is no Plan B – either you accept the theory and all of its implications (and limitations) intact, or you are cast into the outer darkness and pronounced non-scientific and “superstitious”. Now... where there is no Plan B, much less a middle ground, that in itself should be a source of doubt. An honest scientist, if Plan A doesn't work out but there is not yet a Plan B, is content to keep investigating and wait for a new discovery – for a new structure, schema, or matrix to emerge out of the data. But not the evolutionists, no siree – it's their way or the highway.

Another area, and one where the corrupting, corroding nature of politics is particularly evident, is "global warming”. Questions that should be asked (by our government officials, for example) are seldom, if ever, asked. Instead, it becomes a matter of faith – for both sides, but especially for the “pro” side. I mean... it's perfectly possible that the global warming advocates are right, but have they proven it? On all counts, and at every step in the alleged sequence of events? My impression is that they haven't. The feeling one usually gets from the discussion and alarmism is that it's happening because it has to be happening – according to our pre-conceived notions (many of which have a moral/ethical/philosophical base). And the opposition says that it's not happening because it can't be happening, according to their pre-conceived notions. And thus what should have been a scientific inquiry and discussion turns into a religious war. And sure enough, we now even have proposals that “global warming deniers” be trotted off to jail; the Puritans of old could have done no better. 

Want another example? The “Big Bang” Theory was pretty much a settled affair until Stephen Hawking et al. realized that it had some pretty strong implications for a Creator. (Claims that it “just happened”, and accompanying claims that “we're here because we're here, and for no other reason”, AKA the anthropic principle, were at least recognized as being thin gruel.) So now we're treated to a different sort of parade – bubble universes, string theory, etc. -- all designed to escape from the Hound of Heaven. It's all quite fascinating, I admit... but when it starts to verge on sci-fi for no other apparent reason than to keep religion out of the picture, I start to lose interest. Today's bubble universes and string theory could be tomorrow's Piltdown Man. 

It is so much more relaxing to just be a believer, and to appreciate science for what it actually can do, and has done, and not get tied in knots over what we wish it could do but can't. Images from the Hubble telescope only serve to increase my faith – as does information about genetics, sub-atomic particles, and so on. It is such a waste when science and religion are constantly pitted against each other – mostly by scientists, but also by some Christians. Numbered among those who knew better is St. Thomas Aquinas, and I prefer his point of view to any of the divisiveness floating around these days.

But, come to think of it, as long as some people insist on treating science as a religion, there are bound to be conflicts between it and the real thing, since they will be fighting over the same territory. And as for the quaking Italians, I hope they receive a full pardon after having dutifully eaten a portion of humble pie.

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