There Is No Such Thing As “Settled Science” (Here’s Why)

When deciding what to write and post on this blog, I am generally torn between two conflicting impulses. The first is to take note of and comment on those things that eventually drove many of us Lost Generation Philosophers from U.S. academia: the rampant dishonesty of many academic “searches,” the adjunctification of the profession, the structural misallocation of resources in many if not most universities, the sense of having to be an entertainer in the classroom to keep students’ attention, and more besides. There is certainly room for such discussion, and several good blogs cover at least the second item on the above list. The other impulse is just to comment on philosophical problems and their various applications from an outsider’s perspective. That is, from the perspective of someone with no allegiance to the fashions that get people hired and tenured nowadays, or who questions the dominant assumptions of what philosophical conversation exists today (materialist naturalism, for example).

The next problem is actually getting the material read. The Internet, after all, is not what it used to be. Blog entries done ten years ago had much more hope of being read by people who weren’t experts in driving traffic to websites; I know, because I was writing a blog then, which I mistakenly stopped because it was drawing too much of the wrong sort of attention (trolls). Today, on the other hand, the World Wide Web is so saturated with information that it’s a crap shoot. If your piece has a dramatic human interest angle, and appeals to people’s emotions, it might be picked up and tweeted all over creation and “go viral.” On the other hand, it might sit unnoticed (the fate of better than 99.99% of what gets posted on the Web now). One way of getting noticed on the Web is to say something easily perceived as threatening. But that, too, has the potential to garner the wrong sort of attention, and fairly quickly!

Many of us, therefore, would prefer to publish the bulk of our material on established online publishing platforms, which of course now means confronting many of the same problems afflicting mainstream hard copy publishing, starting with staying in the good graces of the editor / editorial board who rightly has the final say on what goes on his site. And of course, said editors / editorial boards invariably gravitate towards an inner circle of familiar writers. Thus sometimes it happens, sometimes it doesn’t. This piece was sent to three different platforms, has not appeared on any of them (it might appear on one next month), but still strikes me as important enough to appear somewhere. This is as good a place as any. It would  be nice if someone sees it. Feel free to leave a comment; feel free to redistribute, but please do me the courtesy of linking back here.

There Is No Such Thing As “Settled Science” (Here’s Why).

by Steven Yates, Ph.D.

Recently, Thomas DiLorenzo published a piece on the infantilization of university students. To those of us who did time in mainstream American academia and eventually escaped, DiLorenzo’s remarks are obvious. But elaborating this point isn’t my purpose here. In one paragraph he comments on that wonderful phrase settled science, a phrase often used to defend man-made climate change as established fact and stop all further debate. I wish to expand on this, as the basic problem may not be obvious to readers, especially if they trust academic science.

The influence of science on the modern world is a given. One would be foolish to think we haven’t come a long way in the past few centuries — since 1543, the year Copernicus published his landmark De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium which challenged the Aristotle-Ptolemaic theory of the solar system. That same year also saw Andreas Vasilius publish his On the Fabric of the Human Body which revolutionized the study of human anatomy. Isaac Newton’s famed Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica appeared in three volumes in 1686-87, and the rest, as they say, is history.

Most leading modern philosophers have been interested in science. How does it achieve its results? How does it justify them? What are its assumptions, and how do they differ from those of, say, religion? Are they better? Does science have a special method, the scientific method, guaranteed to yield truth? Is the invention of new scientific ideas a rational process, or more a matter of fortuitous circumstances? What separates science from pseudoscience? And so on. There have been vigorous debates on such questions for over a century now, and yes, philosophers of science have gotten results worth noting, often by paying attention to the history of science instead of listening to what scientists themselves say.

To make a long story short, the upshot of these debates is that there is no such thing as settled science. How we get to this conclusion is a very interesting story.

Let’s begin in the 1830s, right after William Whewell (1794 – 1866) coined the term scientist which replaced Newton’s natural philosopher. Auguste Comte (1798 – 1857), best known as the founder of sociology but also of the philosophical ideology of positivism, offered his Law of Three Stages. An advancing civilization, Comte argued, passes through three stages or states or conditions. The first stage is characterized by various forms of supernaturalism and faith: the theological or fictitious stage, he called it, indicating what he thought of it. He did see the single God of Christianity as superior to the squabbling deities of ancient Greece and Rome. The second stage is characterized by grand system-building philosophy: edifices of thought from Plato and Aristotle down through Kant and Hegel. He called this the metaphysical or abstract stage. He thought better of it, but saw it as having substituted abstractions (e.g., “natural law” and “pure reason”) for supernatural agencies.

The third stage is the scientific or positive: we give up childish abstractions air castle building, and look at what reason actually does, which is to begin with experience and test, step by step, general statements we can make about the world. We arrive at hypotheses subject to the tribunal of further empirical test and utility. With scholars having given up the quixotic effort to find absolute certainty, theories that stand up to the best tests scientists can throw at them deserve to be called knowledge. Comte’s thinking established philosophy of science as a discipline. Its working assumption was that science was tied to experience and disciplined inquiry at every point. It’s a nice idea, but it isn’t true and never was.

The fall of Newton’s physics in the face of Einstein’s relativity suggested to many thinkers that there is more to science than testing theories against experience — that science, no less than philosophy, works with grand systems of thought of a more restricted sort, and that scientific disciplines have undergone wholesale revolutions, as new sets of concepts replace old ones from the ground floor up. This idea sat undeveloped (by philosophers, anyway) for a long, long time.

In 1962, doctoral candidate in physics turned science historian Thomas S. Kuhn (1922 – 1996) published his landmark The Structure of Scientific Revolutions which tried to outline proposals for what happens when an old theory is replaced by a presumed better one. It was the most controversial book about science of that decade. The basic ideas are well known. A mature science is dominated by its paradigm — a presumed body of achievement consisting of solved problems, the basic concepts and methods used to solve them, along with any number of remaining problems awaiting solution by “normal science,” the implication being that the methods used to solve the grand problems of the past will continue to work on lesser ones in the future. A scientific paradigm is often embodied in a major work, such as Newton’s Principia. Kuhn thought the advantage of paradigms is that scientists could explore parts of nature in detail without having to dwell on fundamentals which need not be questioned. This may work for a time, but only up to a point. A few problems will resist solution; these anomalies will accumulate over time. Scientists will try to fit them into the familiar mental boxes of the paradigm.

A few (usually younger) will sense this is impossible. Gradually, allegiance to the dominant paradigm will break down, discussion will turn back to fundamentals, and “revolutionary science” will begin. It will end with the formulation of a new candidate for paradigm and what Kuhn calls the ensuing battle over its acceptability. If it creatively solves the problems that got the old paradigm into trouble while suggesting new lines of research, it may win the allegiance of the scientific community’s leaders, the journals will fill with accounts of their triumphs, and a scientific revolution will have taken place. A new period of “normal science” will begin, but the discipline will have changed its understanding of itself. The examples Kuhn developed in some detail included Newton’s physics replacing Aristotle’s cosmology, Antoine Lavoisier’s oxygen-based chemistry replacing the phlogiston-based chemistry of his predecessors, and Einsteinian relativity replacing Newtonian mechanics. Kuhn’s point was that a successor theory may use much of the same vocabulary but does not bring the same concepts to its understanding of its subject matter, so that for Newton mass is fixed whereas for Einstein it increases as its velocity approaches that of light. Other concepts just drop out. To Lavoisier’s predecessors, phlogiston was a principle released into the air by combustion. In his chemistry, in which combustible substances combine with oxygen, there is no such thing.

Paul Feyerabend (1924 – 1994), in Against Method: Outline of an Anarchistic Theory of Knowledge first published in 1975, went further than Kuhn. According to Feyerabend, deep changes in science meant that there was no permanent, enduring method involved in science at all. Neutral experience, moreover, was also a myth; we always approach nature from within a theoretical perspective or worldview (my term, not Feyerabend’s). Many ideas — Platonistic, Christian, astrological, numerological, etc. — had contributed to the scientific revolution. Kuhn’s “normal science,” moreover, was a bad idea to the extent Kuhn was right. What it did was turn science into rigid dogma more suited for a church. Healthy science embraced a proliferation of competing and often mutually inconsistent ideas, as it had always been improved by competing, mutually inconsistent lines of thought. Dominance of a single paradigm was more the product of the politics of scientific communities than intellectual argument, positivistic mythology notwithstanding.

These ideas may seem complicated. In a lot of respects, they are. I’ve only scratched the surface, without providing the details of the extensive debates they provoked within the philosophical and philosophy of science communities. They are worth thinking about if we want to understand both the impulses that lead many people, not all of them scientists, to embrace the idea of settled science, while helping us realize why there is no such animal. Science has always changed its assumptions. Narratives about reality once dominant have invariably fallen. There is no reason to think ours have any special standing.

Both Kuhn and Feyerabend were accused of introducing irrational elements into science. It was a source of frustration to both that their critics lumped them into a single “school” called “historicism,” since many of their ideas were different as day and night. Kuhn denied the allegation; what he’d said was that scientific change could not be shoehorned into the logical formulations then in vogue in analytic philosophy. Feyerabend made fun of it, responding with satire and ridicule. His “anarchism,” he insisted, had never been more than an ironic expression of the rationalist’s predicament if the rationalist honestly compared his abstract theories of science to the real thing in all its messiness. Science is not the product of thinking machines, but human beings in specialized communities. These communities always have a hierarchy and therefore both political and economic dimensions; normally, someone has to fund them, and this introduces nonscientific overseers into the mix. We thus have one of the issues with academic and corporate science — and one of the primary reasons for skepticism about its objectivity. This comes before we hear from scientists who will claim to have been ostracized for rejecting the official climate change (or some other) narrative, and some who have quit major organizations because they believed those organizations’ embrace of the narrative was political instead of evidence-based.

I trust it is clear how all this applies. First, what does the climate change narrative assert? It can be divided into at least two parts. There is the idea that the world, on average, is warming — that the climate as a whole is changing, which includes increasingly hostile weather in some locales. Climate change advocates, by the way, are right to distinguish weather from climate. Weather is what it is doing outside right now (sunshine, overcast, rain, sleet, snow). Climate is what happens around the world over a long period of time. This is why arguments that the U.S. and Europe are experiencing hostile winters don’t refute climate change proposals. Let’s avoid that mistake.

In an ideal world, whether the planet is in fact warming could indeed be determined by collecting data — large amounts of data, from various places, over a long period of time, all over the globe. Whether we have been collecting data for a long enough period is a question some ask. Another matter worth considering is whether ice fields and masses in the Arctic and Antarctic regions are growing or shrinking over time.

The next question is conditional: if the world is warming, then is human activity its cause? Here is where you’ll get the “settled science” claims; we’re all familiar with the 97%. This figure is disputed, however. Muddying the waters further is the realization that both sides have their own funding sources with deep pockets. It is clear that globalists such as George Soros are backing the official climate change narrative; it is also clear that the Koch brothers and corporations such as Exxon-Mobil have funneled millions of dollars into the coffers of climate change skeptics. The honest layman might have a hard time deciding who to believe. Worse still is the strong sense that our generation is obligated to get this right; future generations won’t look back on us kindly if we don’t. The claim is that carbon dioxide (CO2) and other greenhouse gases, products of the burning of fossil fuels entering the atmosphere for decade after decade, have begun to disrupt natural climactic patterns, and the climate’s adjustments explain the hostile weather, violent storms, and extreme cold as well as extreme heat.

From a systems point of view, the idea isn’t crazy. Systems theory tells us that systems — sets of interacting and interdependent parts or processes — always operate in an environment, always face potential sources of disruption, and are always parrying or adjusting as they try to maintain equilibrium. This sort of claim might be necessary as a justification for climate change advocacy, but it isn’t sufficient. By itself, it won’t tell us what is causing any systemic adjustments that are happening.

To opt for the view of man-made climate change — that CO2 and other greenhouse gases produced by industrial civilization are the causes of actual long-term warming — will indeed call for major changes in how we generate and use energy. Those contending that burning fossil fuels will need to be phased out on a global scale if we wish to avoid disaster are correct (how many major cities are located on coastlines and will be inundated?)! That is what is at stake here!

The fact that there is little reason to trust academic science is working against us. There may, in fact, be no rational resolution to this dilemma. It might have sounded, to idealists, like a good idea to keep science free of politics, but given that Kuhn and Feyerabend were right: given that nearly all science is done by human beings in organizations that do not finance themselves, this being impossible in a culture that values entertainment more than science (entertainers become multimillionaires while non-celebrity scientists beg for grant money).

It is conceivable, however, that other forces at work today will solve this problem for us. Kuhn’s ideas about the rise and fall of paradigms in science are echoed, somewhat, by the trajectory empires take: they rise and flourish for a time, but invariably find themselves unable to solve mounting problems they face and go into decline. Empires fail for some combination of the following reasons: aggressive behaviors towards others that breed blowback, moral confusion and debauchery bred by materialism, financial corruption and destruction of the dominant currency, an inability to transmit their traditions to future generations via education, invasion and colonization by unassimilable immigrants, or official policies by governments that sabotage the very thing that enables a civilization to stay prosperous: productive activity. When its masses consume more than they produce, as short-term pleasures displace long-term thinking and planning; when the majority grows soft and dependent, and an ethos of entitlement is built into official policy, populations become parasitical. The more resourceful members of the civilization’s intelligent and productive minority begin to flee. They take their entrepreneurial or other skills elsewhere. This usually means the decline is irreversible. History books tell multiple variations on these themes.

Western civilization has probably done the most to curb air pollution. Many Latin American cities still suffer from pollution, however; and Chinese cities are still terrible polluters. The Chinese are starting to follow the West into mass consumption, however, and will end up in the same place as consumptivism leads to entitlement. As I have argued at length elsewhere, we are not far from a major global reset. Our civilizational paradigm has been one of unlimited progress amidst centralization, war, debt, open borders, moral subjectivism, and dependency. This paradigm is beginning to fail massively. Those who have made long term thinking and planning a priority in their lives will be ready for the coming reset, and will not worry overly about the when — I grow weary of people either trying to pin a date on it or asking me for one. The point is, it will happen. History and mathematics do not lie, like mainstream politicians and economists.

When the reset occurs, it will become possible to devolve power from the center and begin progress towards a world of small states or other autonomous ventures (some of which will embark on projects of statelessness), along lines advocated by Leopold Kohr. As small, self-ruling polises proliferate, Feyerabend-style, one will see wide differences in philosophy and economic arrangement. It may be, in fact, that millennials flocking to Bernie Sanders will get a chance to try democratic socialism — on an actual Denmark-sized scale or smaller! If they aren’t bothering the Galt’s Gulches of the world, there will be no reason to stand in their way. We will find out which systems generate better lives for their participants.

None of these small entities, I submit, will tend to pollute their surroundings. Having attracted the best and the brightest, one or more of the new polises may well develop technologies for energy generation and use that do not rely on fossil fuels. This idea is no crazier than were those of heavier-than-air commercial flight or wireless communications or space travel. I see nothing wrong with pursuit of such technologies by those who choose and have voluntary support, regardless of the truth or falsity of the climate change narrative. Such efforts will encourage self-reliance. If by some chance the narrative contains some truth, we will heal the planet by having healed ourselves, at least in part. If it is false, by abandoning empire we will still have better and healthier communities than we have now. Along the way, those who have chosen to do so will have eschewed materialism and reconnected with God. These are the folks who will have achieved true happiness.

About Steven Yates

I have a Ph.D. in Philosophy from the University of Georgia and teach Critical Thinking (mostly in English) at Universidad Nacionale Andrés Bello in Santiago, Chile. I moved here in 2012 from South Carolina. My most recent book is entitled Four Cardinal Errors: Reasons for the Decline of the American Republic (2011). I am the author of an earlier book, around two dozen articles & reviews, & still more articles on commentary sites on the Web. I live in Santiago with my wife Gisela & two spoiled cats, Bo & Princesa.
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1 Response to There Is No Such Thing As “Settled Science” (Here’s Why)

  1. lecox says:

    I wasn’t aware that you considered yourself an escapee; that’s good to know.
    But what did you escape into?
    I was slated to go to college and become a professional or a scientist like my brother. But I read some books (early 1970s) that warned me about college. Ivan Illich’s “Deschooling Society” for instance. So I demurred. I studied electronics so I could have paying work, buying some time to take a closer look at the whole situation.
    And thus, I “escaped” into the world that most people live in. It could be very loosely described as dominated by an activity known today as engineering. More basically, this boils down to figuring out how to stay alive and make something of a lifetime. This activity predates science (here on earth) by thousands of years, yet uses many of its methods: Observation; Hypothesizing; Experimentation; Duplication; Perseverance.
    So science arrived on the scene not as a brand new activity but as an activity assistive to many human activities already very much in progress and and with long accumulated histories. In its turn, the activity of engineering became more formalized, and often operated to assist science (as in the invention of the glass lens, the microscope and the telescope).
    I am not a deep scholar of this history; these are my impressions. What I want to emphasize is that any analysis of science (or any other human activity) is incomplete if it does not include the wider context of the activity. What have many scientists and engineers ended up doing? Developing weapons systems for nervous politicians and military men. Another example: What became of the series of crashed “UFOs” that supposedly went down in and around New Mexico in the late 1940s? According to pretty good evidence (now), the debris was gathered up by nervous military men, explained away by nervous politicians, and turned over to scientists to figure out (in secret) what it was and how it worked. There are those who insist we got fiber optics, integrated circuits, and goodness knows what other technologies as a result of those crashes. And that is only the tip of the iceberg of ramifications from that whole situation, so successfully kept out of the mainstream even after all these years.
    To address this idea of the “scientific revolution” or the development of knowledge as a kind of anarchism, let me offer this: All people are really trying to do is achieve their goals. For many, the science-engineering-technology approach seemed the most promising (not all people feel this way – I’m thinking of the nervous politicians again). And what has been driving this approach (besides the need for answers from the people who arrange the funding) has really been technologies that have been extending the human senses. Medicine (we can suppose) didn’t really know about bacteria until someone started using lenses (developed for eyeglasses) to magnify things. The continued extension of the technology of microscopy, as an example, is really quite amazing. They can just about “see” atoms now. The particle accelerator is another example of a technology breakthrough that expanded the horizons of science. So the sequence goes (roughly): 1) make observations using an improved technology; 2) notice things you hadn’t noticed before and collect more data on it; 3) make and test hypotheses that explain the new data; 4) turn these tests into a mathematical model that predicts the behavior of the item being observed; 5) release the model to engineers who might be able to make something useful with it; 6) use the resulting extended technology to re-observe…
    Someone’s trying to turn this process into a series of “revolutions.” I don’t know about that. What I am pretty sure of is that there are some nervous military guys, politicians and scientists who know a lot more about certain things than most of us know. I also know that various groups that would commonly be described as “criminal” have their hands on all these technologies, too. In such a situation it is all too possible for the public activities of science to be reduced to writing papers that support the viewpoint of whoever has the deepest pocketbook, or the best mode of blackmail.
    Meanwhile, what some call science and others call pseudo-science has marched forward into the domain of the human psyche and discovered, not a brain, but what most refer to as a “spiritual being.” This being possesses creative abilities, and in fact may be the only truly creative agency in the entirety of existence and experience. This discovery has the potential to “disrupt” not only the physical sciences, but all the social sciences based on traditional psychology, religion, and human life in general. And it is being sat on with at least as much ferocity as “free energy” technologies. My conclusion is that politics (as in the attempts by various groups to become dominant) plays a huge role in science and all human institutions, and cannot be left out of any analysis of our situation here on Earth that hopes to come up with some useful answers.

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