Come for the Politics, Stay for the Pathologies

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Slip Sliding Away

If you read nothing else today, or even this week, read this. Daniel Henninger’s Wonderland column cleanly and fairly summarizes what went wrong with science.

As the hard sciences—physics, biology, chemistry, electrical engineering—came to dominate intellectual life in the last century, some academics in the humanities devised the theory of postmodernism, which liberated them from their colleagues in the sciences. Postmodernism, a self-consciously "unprovable" theory, replaced formal structures with subjectivity. With the revelations of East Anglia, this slippery and variable intellectual world has crossed into the hard sciences.

And he has harsh words, indeed, for the perpetrators:

The East Anglians' mistreatment of scientists who challenged global warming's claims—plotting to shut them up and shut down their ability to publish—evokes the attempt to silence Galileo. The exchanges between Penn State's Michael Mann and East Anglia CRU director Phil Jones sound like Father Firenzuola, the Commissary-General of the Inquisition.

While warning of a relatively new “principal” adopted in the scientific world: (which I talked about in a post from the way-way back machine: Skepticism: All That’s Right With the World)

Beneath this dispute is a relatively new, very postmodern environmental idea known as "the precautionary principle." As defined by one official version: "When an activity raises threats of harm to the environment or human health, precautionary measures should be taken even if some cause and effect relationships are not fully established scientifically." The global-warming establishment says we know "enough" to impose new rules on the world's use of carbon fuels.

which translates into layman’s terms to “how can it hurt (to go along with laws limiting carbon output)?” Mr. Henninger demonstrates thusly:

The Environmental Protection Agency's dramatic Endangerment Finding in April that greenhouse gas emissions qualify as an air pollutant—with implications for a vast new regulatory regime—used what the agency called a precautionary approach. The EPA admitted "varying degrees of uncertainty across many of these scientific issues." Again, this puts hard science in the new position of saying, close enough is good enough. One hopes civil engineers never build bridges under this theory.

The column is excellent. However, it does overlook the penultimate in science’s demise: the role of government. Government funding of research, via grants, has grown geometrically since the 60’s; so much so that an entire new career - “grants writer” - has been created. When government provides the funding, it will also control research so as to advance its “public” political agenda and policies.  Sadly this agenda has come to look pretty much the same whether you’re talking a Democratic or Republican  majority. Whether we’re talking DDT, healthy lifestyle, early education, environmentalism, global cooling, or global warming, government pulls the chains and tilts the scales; and science slips away.

Public policy is nearly always about gaining more power and control over peoples lives. It doesn’t matter how it’s couched or shrouded, make no mistake: public policy is about controlling YOU. Something the founding fathers clearly abhorred. But what would a batch of  dead, old white men know about our complicated modern life?