When the Science Goes Away 7 - Burning Science at the Stake

Modern "science" has become a religion, with the same response to heretics.

Legendary science explainer Carl Sagan believed that scientific knowledge would push back the darkness of superstition and combat the demons who promoted them.  He never realized just how much profit would be found in exaggerating the covid pandemic or in promoting energy sources that cost three to six times what fossil-derived energy costs.

In our previous article, we discussed the vast sums going to scammers who promote highly-subsidized and unreliable renewable energy sources on the basis of the utterly unscientific global cooling, global warming, climate change movement.  Would that were the worst of it!  Unfortunately, Dr. Sagan's optimistic view of the future has collided with the realities of fallen, selfish, downright evil human nature.

Why Sagan Was Wrong

The first article in this series introduced Carl Sagan's best-selling book The Demon-Haunted World which discussed many forms of bad science.  One of his memorable points came on p 25, "Science is more than a body of knowledge, it is a way of thinking.  I have a foreboding ... when the [American] people have lost the ability to set their own agendas or knowledgeably question those in authority; ... we slide, almost without noticing, back into superstition and darkness."

Prof. Sagan likened fake science to demons manipulating the gullible and thought of science as a candle in the darkness of superstition, seances, alien abduction, and other forms of fakery.  He was confident, however, that as more and more people learned how to think scientifically, superstition and even mainstream religions would fade away, leaving us in an age of science-driven enlightenment.

As it turns out, he was wrong for several reasons in addition to the profit-driven fakery around covid and climate which we've discussed.

Religion Isn't Going Away

First, religion isn't going away as Prof. Sagan predicted.  GetPocket published "Why Religion Is Not Going Away and Science Will Not Destroy It" which asserts that "Social scientists predicted that belief in the supernatural would drift away as modern science advanced. They were wrong."

An assumption lay at the core of the social sciences, either presuming or sometimes predicting that all cultures would eventually converge on something roughly approximating secular, Western, liberal democracy. Then something closer to the opposite happened.

Not only has secularism failed to continue its steady global march but countries as varied as Iran, India, Israel, Algeria and Turkey have either had their secular governments replaced by religious ones, or have seen the rise of influential religious nationalist movements. Secularisation, as predicted by the social sciences, has failed.

To summarize, secularists believed that science would be a secularizing force.  They saw "god" as being used to explain what we didn't understand; people filled in gaps in scientific theory by saying that "god" did this or that.  This "god of the gaps" would shrink away as we learned more and more about how the universe worked, leaving no gaps for "god" to hide in.

In India and in Turkey, secularists tried to take religion out of society, proclaiming the wonders of a new scientific age.  This didn't work. On the contrary, militant Hindu nationalists and militant Muslims have rejected secularism.  Indeed, secularists associating science with secularism has greatly reduced scientific credibility just as lying about climate and covid has reduced scientific credibility in Europe and America.

For example, Ataturk insisted that evolution be taught in Turkish schools to reduce religious fervor over time.  Religionists associated evolution with secular materialism - understandably enough - and evolution was recently removed from the Turkish school curriculum.  Science was declared guilty by association with a lack of morality brought about by secularism.

Similarly, in the United States, religious people associate "science" with a loss of morality and ridicule "science falsely so-called."

Religion is not going away any time soon, and science will not destroy it. If anything, it is science that is subject to increasing threats to its authority and social legitimacy.

It isn't always the fault of scientists when unscrupulous politicians or other fraudsters lie about what "science says" or promise to "follow the science" where it doesn't really lead, but few people can tell the difference.  When things don't turn out as fraudsters promised, "science" tends to take the blame.

Professional Jealousy

This is another factor holding back scientific progress - scientists can be extraordinarily petty and hidebound, just like non-scientists.  Fancy that!  The Guardian tells us of a scientific disagreement that nearly cost an eventual Nobel prizewinner his career.

To stand your ground in the face of relentless criticism from a double Nobel prize-winning scientist takes a lot of guts. For engineer and materials scientist Dan Shechtman, however, years of self-belief in the face of the eminent Linus Pauling's criticisms led him to the ultimate accolade: his own Nobel prize.

Dr. Shechtman won the 2011 Nobel prize in chemistry for discovering a seemingly impossible crystal structures in metal alloys.  What he saw through his electron microscope was so far outside "settled science" that it took two years to get his paper published.  At that point, he says, "all hell broke loose."

Having been the only person to have won two unshared Nobel prizes, one for chemistry in 1954 and one for peace in 1962, Dr. Linus Pauling was one of the best-known scientists of his time.  His work had led to major advantages in X-ray crystallography which was precisely how Dan Shechtman happened to see his "impossible" crystals.  Dr. Pauling became convinced that Dr. Shechtman had made an elementary mistake and said so loudly and at great length.

At first, scientists assumed that Shechtman had misused his instruments, the same fate that befell the first astronomers who accused Mercury of misbehaving.  The head of his laboratory came to him and said,

'Danny, you are a disgrace to my group. I cannot be with you in the same group.' So I left the group and found another group that adopted a scientific orphan.

Cancel culture is everywhere!

We pointed out that the crazier a theory is, the longer it takes to confirm, but not when it's both interesting and easy to check.  Fortunately, his experiment was simple to replicate and scientists all over the world confirmed it.  In 1992, the International Union of Crystallography agreed that quasi-periodic materials exist and altered its definition of "crystal" from "a substance in which the constituent atoms, molecules or ions are packed in a regularly ordered, repeating three-dimensional pattern" to the broader "any solid having an essentially discrete diffraction diagram."

His rewriting the fundamental definition of "crystal" led to his Nobel prize and would have ended the story except that Dr. Pauling declared war on his "nonsensical idea."

"Everything he did was wrong and wrong and wrong and wrong; eventually, he couldn't publish his papers and they were rejected before they were published," says Shechtman. "But he was very insistent, was very sure of himself when he spoke; he was a flamboyant speaker."

Any idea that clashes with "settled science" is going to be seen as a mortal threat by elderly scientists whose careers were based on what has become settled in their own minds.  The fact that science has become so dependent on government grants which are administered by those same elderly scientists makes it risky for would-be Einsteins to challenge the establishment.

Such battles damage scientific credibility, and slowing progress makes taxpayers wonder why we're spending so much money on science for so little visible return.

Science Has Become Very Hard

The third problem with spreading scientific thinking is that advancing science has become increasingly difficult.  The immense investment required to get to the point of being able to do new science makes scientists turn very conservative.

After Sir Isaac showed that gravity worked as 1/R2, any reasonably advanced high school math or physics class could cover Newtonian mechanics, Kepler's laws, and much more in a single term.  We now have so much more scientific material available that it takes a lot longer to get to the point where a student can understand, say, quantum mechanics.  Prof. Sagan wrote:

Imagine you seriously want to understand what quantum mechanics is about.  There is a mathematical underpinning that you first acquire, mastery of each mathematical subdiscipline leading you to the threshold of the next.  In turn you must learn arithmetic, Euclidian geometry, high school algebra, differential and integral calculus, ordinary and partial differential equations, Vector calculus, certain special functions of mathematical physics, matrix algebra. and group theory. 

For most physics students this might occupy them from, say, 3rd grade to early graduate school - roughly fifteen years. Such a course of study does not actually involve learning any quantum mechanics, but merely establishing the mathematical framework required to approach it deeply. ...

These mathematical complexities are compounded by the fact that quantum theory is so resolutely counterintuitive. Common sense is almost useless in approaching it. "It's no good" Richard Feynman once said, "asking why it is that way. No one knows why it is that way. That's just the way it is."

    The Demon-Haunted World, Carl Sagan, p 249

Suppose a student spends 15 years getting ready to study quantum mechanics and several more years studying it.  Having invested a lifetime getting ready to work with quantum mechanics and knowing full well that the only way to participate is to work with a senior who has been able to persuade the government to grant research funding, such a student is going to be careful not to antagonize the power structure.

As better data made it more and more evident that Mercury was misbehaving so badly that astronomers had to admit they no longer understood Newtonian mechanics, "How to Make Sense of Quantum Physics" argues that scientists no longer understand quantum physics either, an assertion that is not going down well with senior practitioners in the field who control the funding.  The rebels assert:

We still don't know what dark matter is, we still have not resolved the disagreement between Einstein's theory of gravity and the standard model of particle physics, and we still do not understand how measurements work in quantum mechanics.

This sounds very much like the problem astronomers faced when Mercury didn't perform according to their theories, or the problems warmists face when climate doesn't follow their "scientific consensus":

That's because the problem with quantum mechanics is not one of interpretation. The problem is that all existing interpretations of quantum mechanics have internal contradictions and those can only be resolved by a better theory. Quantum mechanics cannot be how nature works on the most fundamental level; we have to move beyond it.  [emphasis added]

That is what happened when spacetime warped by the sun's gravity explained Mercury's orbit.  Conventional astronomical theories couldn't make Mercury behave.  Einstein's spacetime came from outside the astronomical community.  It was a new theory that resolved contradictions that better data had uncovered.

So it may be with "Superdeterminism", which was discarded decades ago for philosophical reasons.  "[Superdeterminism has] never even been experimentally tested because that would require a different type of experiment than what physicists have done so far."

But because of the historical legacy, researchers who have worked on or presently work on Superdeterminism have been either ignored or ridiculed. ...

If anything is mind-boggling about quantum mechanics, it's that physicists have almost entirely ignored the most obvious way to solve its problems.

This situation would be like the astronomers who measured the 1919 eclipse refusing to take a picture to test Einstein's theory.  Shades of Dr. Pauling ridiculing Dan Shechtman!  As Arthur C. Clarke put it:

If an elderly but distinguished scientist says that something is possible, he is almost certainly right; but if he says that it is impossible, he is very probably wrong.

Recap

We spoke of science as the process of guessing, predicting from the new hypothesis, collecting data to verify the predictions, and discarding the theory if the data don't fit.  Brahe believed that planets went around the earth and collected data to prove his hypothesis.  He hired Kepler to analyze the data.  Kepler believed the planets circled the sun, tried to fit Brahe's data to that idea, and found discrepancies.  Instead of persisting, he modified his theory, fit the data to elliptical orbits, and published.  Collecting data and making sense of it is a fundamental part of the scientific process.

Newton analyzed Kepler's explanations of Brahe's data and decided that gravity operated as 1/R2.  Figuring out a neat explanation for observed phenomena and suggesting further lines of investigation could be called the puzzle-solving phase of science.  Newton's work led to the paradigm which explained how the solar system worked and came to be called "Newtonian mechanics."

Generations of astronomers collected data about every visible pebble in the solar system and confirmed Newton's predictions every time until instruments got accurate enough to find discrepancies in Mercury's orbit.  This anomaly got worse and worse until Newtonian mechanics suffered a crisis.  Einstein explained Mercury's orbit by proposing warped space-time which predicted light bending around the sun which was confirmed during the 1919 eclipse.  Confirmation made him a genius and established spacetime as a new paradigm; he'd have been just another crackpot if the data had disagreed with him.

We now know that Newton was wrong - gravity isn't a simple 1/R2, reality is a lot more complicated than that.  Why do we still honor him?  The main reason is that Newton's laws are understandable.  A diligent high school student can be taught Newtonian mechanics in one semester of a decent advanced physics or math class.  There are very few high school students who could learn enough to understand Einstein's space time calculations but this is typical of science.  Data are collected which lead to an explanation which becomes the accepted paradigm.  Anomalies build up as new data are collected.  Eventually a crisis arrives because the old paradigm doesn't work anymore.  Someone develops a new theory which, if it is confirmed by new data, becomes the new paradigm. 

The other reason to honor Sir Isaac is that when we're as far from the sun as the earth, space-time warping doesn't affect human activity enough to make a difference.  Newton's laws are "close enough for government work," as the saying goes, and his paradigm is a lot simpler to calculate than Einstein's.  If we ever colonize Mercury, we may need smartphone apps to calculate space-time warp as it affects our daily lives.

Note the absolute necessity of being able to repeat the experiment.  As telescopes improved, data collected about every moon orbiting Mars, Jupiter or Saturn confirmed Newton's theories, until the data no longer did.  Newton's laws weren't really true - they didn't account for space-time warp - but it took much better telescopes and more accurate clocks to see the differences.  A new theory was needed to account for better data which led to the spacetime paradigm.

We have no idea which of our cherished "scientific facts" will survive the test of better data.  The universe is more complex than we can imagine at our current state of knowledge.  Whenever we find an inexplicable dataset and treat it honestly, we learn more.  Our successors will build on that to understand yet more, and so on.  If we fudge the data as powerfully as Stalin, Lysenk, and our warmists, we can retard progress for generations.  If we declare certain areas of studies as out of bounds for reasons of Political Correctness, we may fall off a cliff because certain critical information wasn't examined at all.

The Vietnam war showed how easily an extremely intelligent man could be led astray by the seductive lure of numbers lined up in neat rows and columns because he couldn't distinguish between accurate numbers and bogus numbers.  If there's one takeaway, be aware that anyone who says "the science is settled" is either an ignoramus or is scheming to pick your pocket, especially if he won't show you the underlying data or explain how it was collected.

We don't have to wait for more data to know that much that is said about the covid virus and about climate change is nonsense on stilts, but they've become core doctrines of the latest woke religions.  Calling them out risks the same penalties that were applied to anyone who pointed out obvious problems with Lysenkoism back in Stalin's day.

History doesn't tell us what happened to the child who pointed out that the Emperor had no clothes. Be warned enough to hang onto your wallet, but be careful what you say: it's OK to oppose windmills and solar farms because they're ugly, reduce property values, kill birds, can't be recycled, require ugly high-tension wires to get power to the cities where it's needed, or make noise, but whatever you do, if you value your life, don't question global warming!

Will Offensicht is a staff writer for Scragged.com and an internationally published author by a different name.  Read other Scragged.com articles by Will Offensicht or other articles on Society.
Reader Comments

This article makes essentially the same argument from a different perspective.

Why Those Who Claim To ‘Follow The Science’ Are More Likely To Ignore It

https://thefederalist.com/2021/01/04/why-those-who-claim-to-follow-the-science-are-more-likely-to-ignore-it/

The problem with a statement like “Follow the science” is that it bestows upon science its own ontological identity — it assumes that science is a thing, an entity, and one that will lead us in some way to a particular decision. Science, thereby, takes on an almost god-like character. But science does not have a separate, independent existence, and therefore, it can’t play such a role.

It is worth emphasizing here the role that the positivism of the French Enlightenment has played in bringing about the attitude hiding behind “Follow the science.” To a considerable extent, much of the French Enlightenment was akin to a religion — based on faith, not science or reason.

Because, for instance, science cannot establish that we are all equal, it cannot establish that we are all unequal. Rather, the very notions such as the concept of “human rights,” are drawn from an arbitrary Enlightenment interpretation of science and reason, with Christianity and some strands of Hellenistic philosophy as a foundation.

The claims of actual science — that is, of experiments performed scientifically — are far more modest. Actual science will only state, for instance, that humans share about 96 percent of their DNA with chimpanzees, and between 99.0 percent and 99.9 percent with each other. Whether this means we are not very different from apes or not, or that we are all equal to each other or not, science has absolutely nothing to say.

Again, science is not an entity that decrees things to us. Science is simply a way for us to perform an action or experiment to derive certain morally neutral data — an empirical and deductive process through which we can draw certain inductive conclusions. This, however, is lost on many of our politicians, and especially those who hector us about the “dictates” of “science.”

The danger with the prevailing attitude we inherited from the Enlightenment is that it leads us to believe that we are stating objective truth when we are only expressing our prejudices. Since the complete erasure of prejudice is impossible for any person, the final result of this misunderstanding about the nature of science is that we believe we have erased our prejudices, without truly having erased them. Our prejudices thereby become even more dangerous than they previously were, because they will now operate under the illusion of being their opposite: science or pure reason.

January 4, 2021 10:32 PM
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