Science Versus “Scientism”

I’ve decided I’m going to call myself an “Islamoskeptic,” because it neatly combines two left-wing, debate-stifling epithets at one stroke. If you criticize Islam, you’re an “Islamophobe”—the moral equivalent of a racist, so shut up we don’t have to listen to you any more. And if you align at all with climate skepticism and criticize any aspect of climate change orthodoxy, you’re met with the shutdown term of “science denier.” Both terms represent gross abuses of reason.

The idea came to me yesterday when I was looking for an appropriate passage to post in honor of Hayek’s birthday. One of the books I grabbed from the shelves was an overlooked Hayek title: The Counter-Revolution of Science: Studies in the Abuse of Reason, which he published in 1952. It sets out a very strong critique of social science, one that is entirely congruent with Eric Voegelin or Leo Strauss. But he has a lot to say about the problem of what we call the “hard” sciences, too, and concludes that science of all kinds has a tendency to become what he calls “scientism,” in which the claims of scientific superiority amount to yet another destructive and dogmatic authoritarian ideology. Hayek died in 1992, before climate orthodoxy had solidified, but one can easily imagine what he’d say about it.

Now it should be said that the charge of climate science denial comes most often from people who aren’t scientists, like Al Gore, the egregious Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, or his Reprehensibleness Raul Grijalva, and occasionally from deeply politicized scientists like Michael Mann. Hayek was on to this more than 50 years ago:

Let it be said at once, however, that those who were loudest in these demands were rarely themselves men who had noticeably enriched our knowledge of the Sciences. From Francis Bacon, the Lord Chancellor, who will forever remain the prototype of the “demagogue of science,” as he has justly been called, to Auguste Comte and the “physicalists” of our own day, the claims for the exclusive virtues of the specific methods employed by the natural sciences were mostly advanced by men whose right to speak on behalf of the scientists were not above suspicion, and who indeed in many cases had shown in the Sciences themselves as much bigoted prejudice as in their attitude to other subjects.

Ironically the best evidence for the abuse of climate science by the political class comes from a very sober commentary in Nature magazine this week about how climate scientists are concerned that the upcoming UN climate summit in Paris next December won’t reach a serious agreement (they’re right about this), but especially how the politicians are ignoring what scientists are telling them and the dilemma this supposedly causes climate scientists:

Climate science advisers should use the time before Paris to reassess their role. Do they want to inform policy-makers or support the political process? The climate policy mantra — that time is running out for 2 °C but we can still make it if we act now — is a scientific nonsense. Advisers who shy away from saying so squander their scientific reputations and public trust in climate research.  (Emphasis added.)

One smiles at the charming naïvete, typical of many scientists, of the author of this piece in not understanding that supporting the political process is the whole point of the UN enterprise, as a senior aide to Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott pointed out in an “emperor’s no clothes” moment a couple days ago. The science community should understand that when the grasping political class says it wants “science,” what it really wants is “scientism” in support of a political agenda. Don’t bother them with the fine points, and especially inconvenient facts such as how unserious their actual policy agenda is compared to how serious they say the climate crisis is.

The author goes on to say:

Scientific advisers should resist the temptation to be political entrepreneurs, peddling their advice by exaggerating how easy it is to transform the economy or deploy renewable technologies, for instance.

That’s very good (as well as sound) advice, since the political class always laughs at amateurs behind their backs.

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