Sunday, December 13, 2009

When Science Becomes Religion

Lessons From Climategate: When Science Becomes Religion

What can we learn from Climategate -- i.e., the scandal in which hacked e-mails revealed apparent attempts by official climate scientists to manufacture a consensus on global warming by fudgung with the data and punishing dissidents?

Here's one big idea: Power corrupts.

The power to credential truth is a heady power indeed, especially. In our society, increasingly, that power lies in science alone. And so science is increasingly misused to attempt to create the kind of working public morality that every society needs.

In the process, modern liberalism risks turning science into a kind of religion, where disagreement is heresy. You can see the process at work in the hacked Climategate e-mails.

Clive Crook writes in The Atlantic Monthly blog: "The closed-mindedness of these supposed men of science, their willingness to go to any lengths to defend a preconceived message, is surprising even to me. The stink of intellectual corruption is overpowering."

John Tierney, the science columnist at The New York Times, nailed it: "Contempt for critics is evident over and over again in the hacked e-mail messages, as if the scientists were a priesthood protecting the temple from barbarians."

This is no random accident. Every society needs public moral truths to live by. A cognitive elite that loses faith in God or rational moral truth will increasingly attempt to ground public morality in science.

On what other grounds can we justify shutting down debates and taking action that requires sacrifice of a society's members -- and punishing defections from that sacrifice?

What, for example, could possibly justify a massive global governance machine that can tell people from the U.S. to Transylvania what kind of lightbulbs we may buy or what kind of cars to drive? Why should we create a machinery that puts politicians in charge of dispensing subsidies and exemptions that permit favored industries and businessmen to stay in business, that creates a new class of carbon billionaires? What is the rational basis for a public morality than tells Pennsylvanians that using coal is a crime, but applauds China for holding down its carbon-creating population by aborting baby girls?

For liberalism, the answer has become "science." The intellectual contempt liberals routinely express for conservatives as stupid or anti-scientific is at bottom merely a reflection of liberalism's increasingly desperate attempt to misuse science to transform itself into a new public morality -- that is, a morality legitimately entitled to discipline defectors and heretics.

Scientific knowledge is still held to be "true" in a way that other forms of knowledge are not. The world is not flat. The Earth does move. Blacks are not inferior to whites. Children do not need a mom and a dad. There is no possible argument against gay marriage. If we do not establish a system of global governance to contain production and reproduction within "sustainable" bounds, the world will come to an end. Therefore, liberals get to use government power to achieve their ends over those of others. (Hint: Which of these conclusions is not like the others?)

Yet science is a particularly fragile flower of civilization, dependent on processes that may not survive the attempt to transform it into the one true basis for public morality. History has shown us that scientists are no more exempt from the corruption of power than any other human being. Under the right political conditions scientists claimed the right to experiment on black men and to torture Jews. On a much smaller level, we've seen what happens to the reliability of academic testing when schools' income depends in part on how well students score.

It was always intellectually absurd to claim that the scientific standing of global warming was anything like that of Galileo -- a climate change model that did not predict global temperatures we have experienced over the last few years can hardly be counted on accurately to predict the weather 50 years from now.

But the problem of the corruption of science into religion remains true even if the global warmongers are right. Scientific theories are inherently falsifiable. That is what makes them scientific -- and not religious or moral propositions.

Science cannot become the basis for public morality without corrupting itself in the process.

Liberalism will have to find within itself some other capacity for moral truth, for connecting reason and virtue, or retreat ultimately from any claim in the public square larger than: because I want to, because we say so.

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