The uses and abuses of scientific authority

I believe that science is in need of a Reformation. By that I mean that science as presently practiced has travelled a very long way from its origins as a holy endeavour, characterised by humility in the face of the truth. The way that science is presently practiced involves a very great deal of intellectual dishonesty and manipulation, and these egregious faults pass generally unnoticed simply because of the immense social capital that “science” has generated as a result of technological success.

Scientists as such have a certain authority in our culture as they are seen as those who possess a form of knowledge which is beyond normal understanding, and the results of that knowledge are often awesome and inspiring – the moon landings being one particularly visible success. Yet there are clear limits to what science can tell us, and the distance between what an authentic scientist might say (authentic meaning one who has humility before the truth) and what a contemporary scientist might say (contemporary meaning one who simply makes bold claims without being able to back them up) is very stark.

Let us return once again to Richard Dawkins, the erstwhile Professor for the public understanding of science. When Dawkins writes about science, especially about evolutionary biology, he is excellent – a compelling writer, lucid, vivid, and able to explain complex phenomena in a way that the intelligent lay reader can understand. Dawkins has authority in this subject area because it is an area in which he has been trained thoroughly and in which he has decades of experience as a teacher. If you want to understand evolutionary biology then I can unhesitatingly recommend his writings.

However, what Dawkins is presently best known for is his writings on religion. This is not his area of academic expertise. He has not received any training in this area at all, and he has no academic experience. What Dawkins has done is use the authority that he has accrued as a writer in the sphere of evolutionary biology to try and strengthen his case in a different area. This is intellectually illegitimate; it is a form of fraud. As most people have little expertise in this area, and as most people give authority to ‘scientists’, Dawkins is given a hearing. Yet for those who actually have expertise in this area Dawkins’ arguments barely reach the level of being wrong. As the Marxist atheist Terry Eagleton memorably put it, “Imagine someone holding forth on biology whose only knowledge of the subject is the Book of British Birds, and you have a rough idea of what it feels like to read Richard Dawkins on theology.” I say this with authority because this is an area in which I have been fully trained and in which I have years of experience teaching – so yes, in this arena my qualifications are indeed much greater than those of Dawkins!

Dawkins is simply the most obvious example of a scientist who is cashing in on the general respect given to science by our culture in order to advance a different agenda. The subject of my last article, the medical-pharmaceutical-industrial complex is another. Modern medicine is indeed a marvellous thing. The ways in which we understand the mechanisms of the body and can often repair it when they go wrong, from broken bones to treating heart disease, this is wonderful and worthy of as many prayers of thanksgiving that we can muster. Yet the pharmaceutical industry has taken advantage of the trust that we give to doctors, a trust which is very much a subset of the trust that we give to scientists in general, and has manipulated that relationship in order to make money. Scientific research – that on which our whole system of modern medicine relies – has been systematically abused and distorted in order to serve the financial interests of huge industrial conglomerates, and any idea of intellectual humility before the truth was abandoned long ago.

A further example comes when we look at the issue of ‘climate change’, what used to be called – and what used to be more honestly called – ‘global warming’. The allegation was that as a result of modern industrial development we were pumping dangerous levels of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, as a result of which the global temperature was going to continuously increase. The IPCC produced regular bulletins giving predictions about what was going to happen (they still do this, even though there hasn’t been any increase in global temperatures for around 17 years now, and counting). Yet we often hear reference to the figure of 97%, as in ‘97% of scientists believe in global warming’. Once again, we have an argument which is only given a hearing because of the general authority that is given to scientists. As soon as that figure is subjected to any sort of rigorous scrutiny – Where did it come from? How was it arrived at? – then the figure falls apart, as it is based on incredibly shoddy and manipulated research (those who are interested in the detail I would refer to the blog Climate Etc written by Professor Judith Curry, one of the world’s leading climatologists). Whenever you hear someone mention this figure, our Prime Minister perhaps, be certain that it indicates a profound ignorance about the subject being discussed.

The religious reformation began with an awareness that the institutions of the church had lost touch with their own highest purposes, and had succumbed, as human institutions so often do succumb, to the very human frailties of greed, vanity and pride. I believe that, taken as a social institution, science has succumbed to the very same vices. Just as the church was reformed by a protest movement, so too must science be reformed. Just as the church was renewed by a return to first principles – the slogan used was ‘ad fontes’ – so too must science return to its own best practice, restricting itself to saying only what can be known, and not prostituting its authority in search of worldly success, whether that be celebrity or cold, hard cash. Put simply, science will only be able to properly be itself when it recognises that it cannot function without those human virtues that I have mentioned, of humility, integrity, honesty, self-discipline and the like – and most of all, when it recognises that those foundations on which it depends can only be established on spiritual terms. In other words, science will only be able to function properly as science when it both remembers and honours the original queen of the sciences: theology.

Queen of the Sciences

3 thoughts on “The uses and abuses of scientific authority

  1. Dear Sam,
    I agree with your basic thesis: I’m not sure whether scientists or bankers are the contemporary equivalent of priests in the Middle Ages.
    However, I would ask you to explain where I am going wrong on climate change: The concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere has increased as a result of burning carbon, CO2 is a greenhouse gas, average temperatures have gone up: (
    Why is it not common sense to think that these items are related?
    Yours truly, Roger

  2. Speaking as a scientist, my experience is that most scientists, and indeed peer reviewed, published scientific work, are suffused with “integrity, honesty and self-discipline”. It is common practice for published scientific research papers to include a section on the limitations of the work, for example. Spiritual people don’t have a monopoly on honesty.

    Your provocative conflating of the entirety of science with Richard Dawkins opinions on religion (NOTE: opinions NOT scientific research) is no doubt entirely intentional, but is a bit of a blunt argument. You’d be better disputing against Richard Dawkins’ actual opinions than trying to use them to make any valid point about the contemporary value of science. In my view.

  3. Hi Roger and Jo,

    Firstly apologies for only coming to these comments late. I’ve still not got my commenting system working properly.

    Roger – the simple answer is about climate sensitivity, that is, I think the situation is much more complex than ‘more CO2 = more warming’ would suggest. I get the impression that the ‘consensus’ on sensitivity is consistently moving down.

    Jo – I would agree with you that ‘most scientists’ are both humble and honest, and I definitely agree with you that spiritual people don’t have a monopoly on honesty. Just written a bit more about Dawkins…

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