Science, Properly Understood at Heritage

john holdrenOne of the most profound things about the move to silence critics of scientific orthodoxy or those open to questioning it publicly is how anti-enlightenment the notion is.

As John G. West, vice president of the Discovery Institute, pointed out last week in a speech to the Heritage Foundation, thinkers such as atheist John Stuart Mill, the 19th-century utilitarian philosopher and author of On Liberty and “Utilitarianism,” argued for the freedom to question science in his day.

Mill’s logic and West’s application of it is one that can be applied not only to the physical sciences, where global warming is sacrosanct under the Obama administration, but also the social sciences, where Keynesian economics reigns supreme in Washington, whenever politicians wave the authority of science over our heads to persuade us to move in the direction of their policy priorities.

After all, the policies could be based on bad science.

West quoted the following passage from Mill’s On Liberty: 

“If even the Newtonian philosophy were not permitted to be questioned, mankind could not feel as complete assurance of its truth as they now do. The beliefs which we have most warrant for, have no safeguard to rest on, but a standing invitation to the whole world to prove them unfounded.” 

According to West, atheist philosopher and NYU professor Thomas Nagel, is a modern Mill in the sense that he advocates for the freedom to discuss opposing views in science. In 2012, Nagel himself wrote a book called Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature is Almost Certainly False which argued, among other things, that the reigning Neo-Darwinian purely physical account of consciousness was inadequate.

West also highlighted that what 19th century scientist Charles Darwin wrote in his introduction to The Origins of Species was at least good in principle: “A fair result can only be obtained by fully stating and balancing the facts and arguments on both sides of each question.”

West titled his lecture “Scientism in the Age of Obama,” which was simply about the Obama administration’s overuse of science to reach certain political ends.  He pointed out that in President Obama’s first inaugural address, the president promised to “restore science to its rightful place,” which West argued the administration is doing the opposite.

He discussed six points that bolster his argument:

  • The appointment of political ideologues, such as John Holdren, who in the 1970s warned of catastrophic “global cooling” and advocated authoritarian measures to slow population growth and high marriage fees to discourage marriage, to high administrative positions.
  • Stretching the scientific data to fit the Obama administrations agenda, such as when Holdren, now Director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, in 2014 released a video “hyping the purported link between warming and extreme cold weather events,” a claim which a few scientists challenged a few weeks later.
  • “Coercive utopianism” which is embodied most visibly in Michelle Obama’s past school lunch reforms. “The apparent belief that science alone should determine what every child in the nation should eat is classic overreach,” West said.
  • The EPA’s failure to be transparent about the data it used to established air pollution standards.
  • The misuse of science to trump religious liberty and ethics, such as when former HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius defended the Obamacare regulation to force employers to provide plans that covered abortion-inducing drugs when she wrote “scientists have abundant evidence that birth control has significant health benefits for women and their families.”
  • Enlisting science in a culture war, such as when president Obama gave his presidential stamp of approval of the Fox show “Cosmos” during an intro on the first episode of the show.

The Bush administration was not free from West’s criticism. But he notes that when it came time for the Obama administration to ditch or defend a controversial study on premature babies based on bad science, rather than ditching it, the administration “circled the wagons,” as West put it, and defended it.

As a corrective measure, West said that allowing criticism of prevailing scientific orthodoxies will make their defenders better communicators of them. “And if they can’t do that, then that’s a warning sign that maybe the consensus isn’t based just on overwhelming scientific data,” he continued.

“We really need to push back at unjust claims of people being anti-science simply for raising questions,” West said. After all, scientific orthodoxies change over time. But also, there are people who have recently publicly advocated for the jailing of climate change critics.

Watch the complete lecture here

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