Posted on Nov 28, 2009 by Tom Gilson
More than two years ago I wrote “Servants of a Twisted God,” including the following:
Recently in the influential journal Science, Matthew C. Nisbet and Chris Mooney bemoaned scientists’ difficulties with influencing public policy. They recommended that scientists back off from their technical language, and recast their communications in “frames”—alternative ways of viewing information—such as “public accountability,” “public morality,” and “economic development.” They proposed that “scientists should strategically avoid emphasizing the technical details of science when trying to defend it.”
But there’s a deeper problem. Nisbet’s and Mooney’s advice can only lead to science undermining its own platform to speak. Something very similar has happened before.
Consider the position of science and scientists in Western culture. Put bluntly, science is our god of knowledge, and scientists are its only priests.
Nisbet and Mooney would have scientists do more of this: to present persuasive arguments rather than pure science. They want scientists to spend less energy on telling the public the full truth, and more on being politically effective. They are encouraging scientists to follow the fatal path that too many clergy took in the past: to become priests of power, servants of a twisted god.
The public will lose its religion over this.
Cara L. Santa Maria wrote recently in the Huffington Post, Is Science Just a New Religion? Her assessment is no, it is not religion, and for my part I emphatically agree it ought not to be. Science ought to be what science is, and what it is so good at: using empirical means to give us reliable information about the natural world.
But Bradford at Telic Thoughts points out the Checkered Beliefs of some science practitioners. Santa Maria’s article was written before the ClimateGate revelations were made, but now Bradford draws an interesting connection:
Is Science Just a New Religion? is authored by Cara L. Santa Maria and appears at the Huffington Post website. A read of this is timely in the wake of Climate Gate which shows that scientists are not immune to unethical impulses which sometimes plague mere mortals as well. Cara seeks to explain “two enormous differences between science and religion: doubt and faith.” Cara gets off course almost immediately by asserting that religious certainty quickly dwindles when doubt is present. Her point is tautological for one could remove the adjective religious and insert almost anything and come out with the same result. Certainty about the correctness of U.S. policy toward Iran quickly dwindles when doubt is inserted. Certainty about global warming quickly dwindles when doubt is inserted. Certainty about RNA world proposals quickly dwindles when doubt is inserted…
And then yesterday in the wake of ClimateGate, we have this from Michael Bolt in Australia:
The tide is turning. and fast. There will soon be an accounting – and the mood and the money for it. The reputation of science – and of many scientists – will be damaged severely.
Michael Egnor responds,
Bolt is right about this: there will be an accounting for this fraud. People are very very angry, and while the skeptics whose darkest doubts have been vindicated don’t pull the levers of organized science (the frauds do that), there are some financial and political resources available to the skeptics who have been demanding integrity in science, and they understand now that this is war.
Meanwhile Chris Mooney himself tells us his opinion on Why ClimateGate Ain’t Nothing:
None of this is at all relevant to the climate issue today. It’s a nasty, ugly sideshow. The science of climate change doesn’t stand or fall based upon what a few scientists said in emails they always thought would remain private….
The fact is that no matter what a few scientists may have said in emails, we have to go to Copenhagen and deal with our warming, melting planet. That’s what matters. The rest of this is hot air.
But that’s not all that matters. What also matters is trust.
Science, practiced the way it ought to be practiced—the way scientists say it is practiced—is a good thing that needs continuing strong support. But it stands in danger right now: danger from within, or rather, danger that flows naturally from following a path like that recommended by Nisbet and Mooney.
It’s not just that the public might cease bowing to the idol. It’s also that it might start thinking twice about dropping all those billions of dollars in the bucket.