Monday, February 9, 2009

Ken Conner on Science: Typical Ignorance

In the wake of electing a president who actually has some respect for science, demonizing dishonest straw man attacks from the social conservatives was inevitable. Typical is this article by Ken Conner. You would think people whose top ten "don't do" list contains something about bearing false witness would be more interested in getting their opponents arguments right than this:

"[Obama] obviously intended to contrast his approach to science with that of President Bush, but what does this contrast imply? President Bush believed that scientific inquiry should be circumscribed by ethical constraints. He, therefore, refused to allow federal funding for stem cell research that would result in the destruction of human embryos. Bush was dubbed a 'neanderthal' by many scientists because he felt that 'ethics' should trump 'utility.' He was pilloried for his decision and President Obama has been among his critics. Is ethical restraint of scientific inquiry the problem that Obama seeks to correct? Should scientific inquiry trump ethics?"

No one is suggesting that science be conducted without ethical constraint. What we are calling for is science practiced without political constraint, especially when that takes the form of pandering to people whose random religious views (completely divorced from what the their bronze age text has to say on the subject) claim a blastocyst is a person. Our ethics should have a bit more of a basis than that. Conner is playing the typically dishonest card that says anyone without his ethics has none at all.

"While science has brought mankind countless benefits, it should not be held out as the fount of all knowledge. Yet, it frequently is. Scientists have been anointed the high priests of our modern era, when, in reality, they are mere mortals: fallible, biased, frequently mistaken, and subject to undue influence. Unlike the media's portrayal, the scientific community is frequently divided—there is very little 'consensus.' And often, the 'prevailing view' is later proven wrong."

No one has anointed any scientists as high priests of anything. The entire scientific system of peer-reviewed publishing exists precisely because we know scientists are indeed fallible, biased, frequently mistaken, and influenced. It is also precisely for this reason that science rejects the ignorant blatherings of the denialists of evolution, global warming, HIV/AIDS, and other areas, who obstinately refuse to participate in the rigorous discussion of evidence in scientific journals, and instead spend their time publishing popular books and speaking at churches.

Whatever mistakes science has made are dwarfed by the record of obstinate ignorance of the cranks. It is also worth noting that when science corrects itself, it is almost always scientists who do so. Einstein, famously working as a patent clerk, submitted his revolutionary work to the scientific journals. He didn't write popular books and whine about biases against him. That is how science works, and it works better than any other epistemology we have. Conner is merely projecting the faults of faith-based epistemology on science. It is religion, not science, that who promotes people to the position of high priest, not subject to challenge.

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