27 July 2010

Unfalsifiable Intellectuals and the Rise of Cargo Cult Science

...among people in mentally demanding occupations, the fault line between those most likely to be considered intellectuals and those who are not tends to run between those whose ideas are ultimately subject to internal criteria and those whose ideas are ultimately subject to external criteria. _Sowell_Intellectuals and Society
Intellectuals do not like to be judged or called to account. Because most of their ideas cannot be tested -- or falsified -- by the real world, they see themselves as being above mere scientists, engineers, builders, merchants, accountants, crafstmen, and labourers.
[The intellectual] sees himself as a leader and a master. Not only does he doubt that the masses could do anything worth while on their own, but he would resent it if they made the attempt. The masses must obey. _Eric Hoffer The Ordeal of Change _The Intellectual and the Masses
In other words, intellectuals see themselves as above judgment by the mundane real world, or by anyone other than their own kind. They generally take care to avoid situations where they would become vulnerable to the judgment of the outside world.
Science is different, being traditionally under the discipline of repeatability and falsifiability. Genuine science goes out of its way to demonstrate an impartiality, and a fairness to competing hypotheses. But we are seeing the corruption of modern science by the "intellectual ethic", a degradation of science by the closed polemics of a clique mentality. Nobel Prize physicist Richard Feynman referred to such perversion of science as "cargo cult science."
… there is one feature I notice that is generally missing in cargo cult science. … It’s a kind of scientific integrity, a principle of scientific thought that corresponds to a kind of utter honesty — a kind of leaning over backwards. For example, if you’re doing an experiment, you should report everything that you think might make it invalid — not only what you think is right about it: other causes that could possibly explain your results; and things you thought of that you’ve eliminated by some other experiment, and how they worked — to make sure the other fellow can tell they have been eliminated.

Compare Feynman’s scientific integrity with the continual attempts by the leaders of climate “science” to prevent skeptics from checking their data. True scientists would be extremely pleased to provide all raw data, and they would make the data available to all on the Internet. A state attorney general would not have to file suit to make them disgorge. _Frank J. Tipler, mathematical physicist

Tipler singles out climate science as an example of "cargo cult science", but any science can be corrupted by the desire to be unfettered by the discipline of verifiability.

When scientists -- individually or as a group -- try to break free of the necessary restrictions inherent in honest science, they become very much like intellectuals, or like the pompous priesthood of an earlier age.

Intellectuals grew to become a "secular priesthood", beyond the judgment of the common man, by default.
With the decline of clerical power in the eighteenth century, a new kind of mentor emerged to fill the vacuum and capture the ear of society. The secular intellectual might be deist, sceptic, or atheist. But he was just as ready as any pontiff or presbyter to tell mankind how to conduct his affairs. _Johnson_Intellectuals

For a good example of the lack of integrity among intellectuals, I recommend this glimpse into the JournoList scrum.

For an example of how science can allow itself to degenerate to the level of the basest of intellectuals, study this analysis of ClimateGate well.

Honesty is a rare commodity among modern intellectuals, because honesty does not serve "the cause" to which most intellectuals are devoted. But never has honesty been more important to the average voter and taxpayer, who must now decide the best way to extricate himself, his family, and his community from the catastrophic effects of the implementation of the policies of today's intellectuals.

Why should we expect the policies of modern intellectuals to lead to catastrophe? The scrupulous avoidance of judgment by intellectuals (and cargo cult scientists) means that these persons are generally devoid of practical skills or knowledge, and typically incompetent in any area outside the realm of verbal polemic and the slipperiest forms of sophistry. You would think that such persons would at least have a good grasp of logic, or some rudimentary skills of good writing, but that is only rarely the case.

Their ideas are thus disconnected from actual mechanisms of cause and effect in the real world, and spring from their mouths and pens "ex cathedra," as it were.

If the above portrait of intellectuals reminds you of a prominent person -- or prominent persons -- in politics, media, activism, philosophy, punditry etc., that is not a coincidence. The tragedy is that such a portrait might well describe persons prominent in particular areas of science.

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Blogger Kinuachdrach said...

We have to remember the influence of the source of money on "cargo cult" science.

President Eisenhower saw this coming. In his farewell address, he followed up his comments about the military-industrial complex with a warning about the politicization of science once it became dependent on government for funding.

But enough about the Alleged Anthropogenic Global Warming scam!

More generally, what has been happening to science is another example of what happens whenever liberals take over -- everything they touch turns to dust. The universities, for sure. But also the New York Times and the BBC. Even the Church of England. This will not end well.

Tuesday, 27 July, 2010  
Blogger Unknown said...

The denigration of Cold Fusion back in the early 1980s is a perfect example of this topic. It was difficult laboratory science, and different investigators got different results. More is known now, experiments are more repeatable, but the Boogy Men still laugh. Ahem! Soon to be putting their hasty remarks in context.


Thursday, 29 July, 2010  

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“During times of universal deceit, telling the truth becomes a revolutionary act” _George Orwell

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