Donald Trump says that scientists who argue for action to combat climate change are “politically motivated” and that the climate could “change back again”. Prince Charles insists that homeopathy should be available on the National Health Service, even though there is no rigorous evidence to suggest that it gives any benefit, except perhaps through the placebo effect. Both are practitioners of “science denial”, the phenomenon at the heart of American philosopher Robert P. Crease’s insightful and practical book.
Science deniers choose which conclusions of the scientific enterprise (which Crease calls “the Workshop”) to accept. They will rely on weather forecasts and consult their doctor when ill, although they may well deny their children the MMR (measles, mumps and rubella) vaccine, with public health consequences that are becoming starkly clear. They reject science only where it conflicts with their political or religious beliefs. For baby-boomers like me, it seemed for many years that they were just another element of the lunatic fringe. We now know better and Crease’s book tells us that science denial has been around for about as long as science and, like the biblical poor, will be always with us.
Some science deniers do so for reasons of sheer economic self-interest. Their story is well told in Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway’s Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming (2010). Others are contrarians with a simple delight in rejecting the opinion of “experts”. Crease argues, however, that the most dangerous deniers are those who believe that another authority stands above or conflicts with that of “the Workshop”. That authority may be spiritual or temporal, a god or a ruler, or it could stem from any value system that is in conflict with the Workshop’s conclusions.
Crease has chosen 10 thinkers to teach us about the relationships between science and authority, and their stories form the core of the book. He deploys his team in a 3:3:3:1 formation and his first group on the grid are the near-contemporaries Francis Bacon (1561-1626), Galileo Galilei (1564-1642) and René Descartes (1596-1650). Bacon was a courtier/politician with a clear view that creation of a well-organised, well-funded scientific enterprise would be of great benefit to humanity. Crease argues that Bacon’s Advancement of Learning (1605) was the spiritual progenitor of Vannevar Bush’s Science, the Endless Frontier (1945), a report commissioned by President Franklin D. Roosevelt which was crucial to establishing the pre-eminence in science that the US still enjoys.
Galileo’s run-ins with Church authority are well known. Crease, however, argues that his real importance is in the opening of “Galileo’s Gap, a revolutionary change in human history, more significant than any war or political development”. Henceforth scientists will think differently and speak a language, often mathematical, that is barely comprehensible to the rest of the world. Galileo’s use of mathematics to describe physical phenomena was applauded and extended powerfully by Descartes.
Crease’s second tranche of thinkers are philosopher Giambattista Vico (1668-1744), author Mary Shelley (1797-1851) and philosopher Auguste Comte (1798-1857). What could possibly go wrong with the bright, science-based future envisaged by Bacon, Galileo and Descartes? These are three people who knew. Vico was an admirer of all three, yet he was convinced that there was danger in paying too much attention to the numbers – they could “drive you mad rationally”. In a phrase that still resonates, he writes, “Dazzled by modern methods, we pay excessive attention to the natural sciences and not enough to ethics.” Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818) is the pre-eminent fictional portrayal of how science and scientists can go disastrously wrong. Crease describes Comte as a manipulative, bipolar drama queen, as well as the inventor of a “Religion of Humanity”. He argues that the importance of Comte’s work is in its insight into the complexity of incorporating science into practical human life, but for once I am unconvinced.
The three rather ill-assorted members of the final tranche all sought answers to the challenges raised by Vico, Shelley and Comte. Pioneering sociologist Max Weber (1864-1920) argued that expert authority is of three types: traditional, rational-legal and charismatic – the class to which scientists belong! He noted, tellingly, that “scientific truth is valid only for those who seek the truth”. The challenges that the first president of the Turkish state, Kemal Atatürk (1881-1938), faced in developing a technologically advanced society in a Muslim country in some respects take us back to Galileo. Philosopher Edmund Husserl (1859-1938), meanwhile, offers important insights into the complex relationship between the Workshop and everyone else, the “lifeworld”. Ironically, some of the Workshop’s strengths can lead directly to its rejection by the lifeworld.
The last of Crease’s 10 thinkers is philosopher turned activist and social commentator Hannah Arendt (1906-75). Her first major work was The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951) and she reported for The New Yorker on the trial in Israel of Adolf Eichmann for Holocaust-related war crimes, coining the memorable phrase “the banality of evil” to explain the involvement of the rather ordinary Eichmann in that most terrible of atrocities. Yet it is “Lying in politics”, Arendt’s analysis of the 47 volumes of the “Pentagon Papers” leaked in 1971, that Crease argues is a key text in understanding science denial. “The lie did not creep into politics by some accident of human sinfulness,” she explains. “Lies are often more plausible, more appealing to reason than reality.”
After considering Arendt, Crease returns to science denial. We know, and he shows very clearly, that the nature of science itself makes life easier for potential deniers. Scientific “truth” is always provisional, because a better, more accurate explanation may always come along. Scientists accept that, even where there is widespread agreement on any topic, the consensus may be superseded or shown to be wrong. Scientists enhance their careers by proposing new, possibly outrageous ideas, so there will always be those who dispute part or all of the consensus. And Karl Popper has taught us that a scientific idea can be proved 100 per cent wrong but never 100 per cent right. Compare this with the political sphere, where the US founding fathers felt it was sufficient in the Declaration of Independence to state that “We hold these truths to be self-evident…”
This is not a dry academic tome. Crease’s descriptions bring his 10 thinkers vividly to life and are full of anecdotes. His erudition is great, but worn lightly. One significant thread that runs through the book, and is impartially explored, is the often uneasy relationship between the sciences and the humanities.
Crease is no ivory tower philosopher. His book finishes with four suggested tactics and five longer-term strategies to combat science denial. The strategies involve being infuriatingly stubborn in challenging science deniers; recalling and retelling past instances of science denial; developing local interconnected networks; seizing every opportunity to address current events; and, lastly, telling the story of how we got here as often as possible. This is not the first book to address science denial, but its historical perspective gives it a unique, timeless value. It should be read by anyone with responsibility for the welfare of the Workshop or who cares about truth in public discourse, as well as by President Donald J. Trump and His Royal Highness Prince Charles.
Richard Joyner is emeritus professor of chemistry at Nottingham Trent University.
The Workshop and the World: What Ten Thinkers Can Teach Us about Science and Authority
By Robert P. Crease
Published 26 April 2019
Robert P. Crease, chair of the department of philosophy at Stony Brook University in New York, was born and brought up in Philadelphia, where he recalls that he “loved to hang out at the Franklin Institute, [the city’s] science museum and academy”. He did a BA at Amherst College and went on to a PhD in philosophy at Columbia University, where he “also began writing articles about science for outlets such as The New York Times and The Atlantic”.
Now the author of a number of books on scientific achievement, including The Great Equations: Breakthroughs in Science from Pythagoras to Heisenberg (2009) and The Quantum Moment: How Planck, Bohr, Einstein, and Heisenberg Taught Us to Love Uncertainty (2014), Crease began to think seriously about scientific institutions after an incident in 1997, when “a small leak of tritium-containing water, posing no health hazard to anyone, at Brookhaven National Laboratory caused a political and media firestorm in which the contractor was fired and there were calls for the closure of the lab. That episode terrified me…The US and other countries have built a huge international, interdisciplinary scientific workshop to find the best ways for humanity to handle issues such as energy, health and the environment – how is it even possible that the findings could be dismissed as a ‘hoax’
Although convinced that “science denial is dangerous”, Crease is very clear that “it won’t work to answer it scientifically – to throw facts and figures, and charts and graphs, at the deniers. That only convinces those who already think like scientists…Science denial doesn’t happen out of the blue. It happens because of the way our institutions have developed. To understand science denial, and to do something about it, you have to begin by telling the story of how this happened.”
Print headline: In defence of a fragile truth
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