The Corner

Gnoses to The Grindstone

Dunno about that, Jonah. Of course, the temptation for any gnostic elite is to act as if it knows everything about everything. That just goes right to my point, though; that if people at large had a better understanding of what science is and isn’t, they’d be better able to judge when a scientist is speaking _ex cathedra_, and when he’s just sounding off on a topic on which his opinion is no better than yours or mine.

Though I think people at large are pretty good at amking that judgment anyway. Too good, some scientists might say. If you’re arguing that we are in danger of an awed public and policy-makers blindly falling into line with what scientists tell them, I can only say that such an assertion would have most of the scientists I know rolling on the floor helpless with laughter.

Science’s influence on policy isn’t half what it should be. Any epidemiologist could have told you, for example, that lots of lives could have been saved by obliging AIDS patients to help with tracing all their sexual contacts, as used to be done with pre-AIDS STDs. This wasn’t done, though, for political reasons. Likewise, much of the very exciting work now being done in the human sciences — areas like genomics & neuroscience — is completely ignored by our policy makers for political reasons. That’s how we end up with gibberish like the No Child Left Behind Act.

As for scientism: It is an odd paradox, that I have noticed in my I.D.

mailbox, that scientism is strongest among the adherents of pseudoscience (making it, I suppose, strictly speaking, pseudoscientism). I quoted on The Corner a few days ago a pro-I.D. reader who emailed me to say this: “…the science classes in K-12 are not for producing scientists, they are for educating students about the nature of our existence….” That is a far larger claim than any scientist would make. I don’t personally think that science has anything at all to say about the nature of our existence.

There seems to be a widespread public hunger for science to give us all the answers to everything; and if it doesn’t, why then, those darn scientists must be cheating us — feeding us false theories! I can’t tell you how many times, in the last few days, I have been told that Darwinism fails as a scientific theory because it can’t tell us the ultimate origin of life, or of the universe. Well, no, it can’t, and no respectable scientist would expect it to. It’s a theory about the origin of species, that’s all. It’s not very surprising that scientists like Dawkins yield to the temptation to make pronouncements about big philosophical issues. But scientists, by and large, are nothing like as prone to scientism as are the science-ignorant.

Which is yet another reason to try to get some general understanding of scientific method into as many heads as possible.

And yes: While I resist the charge of scientism, I do have a deep reverence for science. In spite of being a gnosis, it is, within itself, wonderfully democratic, unlike all the previous gnoses in human history. If you conduct an experiment, and I conduct the same experiment, we shall get the same result. The result will have nothing to do with you having been born into the priestly caste and me not, or with you being blessed by divine grace and me not, or with you having access to secret, sacred scriptures and me not, or with you being Jewish and me Aryan. It will have nothing to do with you or me at all; it will only have to do with the world, and the way the world works.

Kathryn recently circulated a questionnaire to all NRO-niks so she can put little potted profiles of us somewhere on the site. One of the questions

was: “Why are you a conservative?” My answer was: “Because I despise wishful thinking.” I have always associated wishful thinking with the Left

– Man is perfectible!, etc., etc. The thing I love and revere about science is that there is no place in it for wishful thinking. You might wish that the earth is the center of the universe, or that cognition takes place in the heart, or that new species are created ex nihilo by the Deity:

science quietly, calmly tells you that those things are not so. I sometimes wonder if the fact of so many scientists being on the political Left is that, having banished wishful thinking from their working hours, it all pools in their off-duty time.

John Derbyshire — Mr. Derbyshire is a former contributing editor of National Review.

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