A hearty second to Jonah’s praise of John Derbyshire’s column today. John offers, I think, just the right caveats: the proper sphere of science is limited, but within that proper sphere, and when conducted by its own clear rules, modern science is highly reliable, trustworthy, and productive of enormous (just indescribably great) benefits to mankind. The trouble comes when science is pulled out of that proper sphere (and so misused to try to settle questions that aren’t scientific questions), or is not conducted in accordance with its proper methods of transparent verification. There are some examples of both in our science debates today (in the embryo debate, for instance, and in the climate debate), but it’s worth remembering how very narrow these controversial or disappointing slivers of science really are. The very vast majority of what scientists around the world are doing is good, solid, impressive, and in many cases quite beneficent work — plodding incremental strides against our ignorance of nature.
It should not come as an enormous surprise that an unusually large portion of the failures to conduct science properly seem now to occur at the intersection of science and environmentalism. The two are after all very strange bedfellows, drawing on almost opposite sets of fundamental premises about nature, man, and material progress (I expand on this claim in a chapter on science and the left in my recent book Imagining the Future). But above all it shows, as Derb notes, that science is a human endeavor, and therefore highly prone to corruptions of all sorts. I do think it’s fair to say, though, that science is less prone to them (or better equipped to correct for them) than most great human endeavors.