Friday, November 20, 2020

Science or Scientism?

By all media commentaries the incoming Biden administration will return us to science. Or is it: scientism. Are they following real science or are they using the name of science to advance an ideological agenda. 

Take the case of John Holdren, a Harvard professor and authority on science. The venerable and august Harvard Gazette has declared him to be thus, and who dares dispute the point. After all, Holdren teaches at Harvard and occupied a serious position in the Obama administration. He was director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.

Francis Menton brings us the story, beginning with a salient text from the Gazette:

[T]he incoming Biden-Harris administration has moved quickly to reinstall science as a foundation for government policy after four years of a president who disdained accepted scientific wisdom on subjects from wildfires to hurricane tracks, climate change to COVID-19.

Of course, scientific wisdom is not quite the same as scientific fact. If we take as a guiding light Wittgenstein's dictum that there is no such thing as a scientific fact about tomorrow-- there are only hypotheses-- much of what counts as scientific wisdom comes from computer projections, a fancier form of hypothesis. Of course, on many of these subjects, scientists dispute the conclusions. While some believe that climate change caused the California wildfires, more serious scientists lay the responsibility of poor forest management.

Anyway, the Gazette asks Holdren about good science. Here is the exchange:

GAZETTE: What is an example of a classic, successful government policy backed by good science? . . . .

HOLDREN: I would point to the Paris Agreement, which was an immense step forward in which 195 countries all across the world committed to take constructive steps toward reducing their climate-altering emissions going forward. . . .

Is this true? Of course, it is not. It is nonsense. For our edification Menton reports the facts about the Paris Climate Accord:

Now, as anyone who has read the Paris Agreement knows, the entire developing world — home to about 90% of the world’s people — made no commitments whatsoever in that document, nor did they even agree to any non-binding goals, toward “reducing their climate-altering emissions going forward.” Emissions from the developing world are rapidly increasing, and will continue to do so, Paris Agreement or no Paris Agreement, thus rendering any U.S. efforts to limit emissions completely futile. Holdren is either completely ignorant on this subject, or he is intentionally trying to mislead the readership. Or it could be some of both. You be the judge.

Where Holdren says that 195 countries committed to reduce carbon emissions, the agreement was actually a statement of intention, a sop to Western environmentalists. If you think that China is going to start shutting down coal electrical generation plants in ten years, you have been smoking the wrong cigarettes. Holdren is simply flacking a piece of nonsense.

And then, Menton takes us back to 1977 when Holdren co-authored a book called Ecoscience with Paul and Anne Ehrlich. Among its salient recommendations, based entirely on science were:

For example, forced sterilization of women who had had enough children. The authors considered it easier than forcing men to have vasectomies. Does this feel slightly misogynistic? 

Then again, this man is a Harvard professor and a putative man of science. Unfortunately, for too many of our enlightened citizenry, from the heights of academia on down, are willing to use science as a rhetorical ploy in order to impose their views on people who do not know any better.


trigger warning said...

All probabilities are conditional.

All science is provisional.

A book worth reading is Samuel Arbesman's The Half-Life of Facts: Why Everything We Know Has an Expiration Date.

trigger warning said...

N.B. "At no time has the CDC suggested school should be closed..." (R. Redfield, Director CDC)

Anonymous said...

I remember on the old Glenn Beck TV program, he talked about John Holdren. He was a total nut and basically crazy (Holdren, I mean; although GB fits the same description).

Sam L. said...

I'd call it "hot air", but "luke-warm air" is enough exaggeration for me.