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Science Regress

Vitruvian ManFear of science is still alive and well. This past Tuesday at the Heritage Foundation, John West of the pro-Intelligent Design Discovery Institute gave a lecture entitled, “The Abolition of Man? How Politics and Culture Have Been Dehumanized in the Name of Science.”

West conflated science with materialism and from there proceeded to attack scientific progress as a fool’s errand carried out by irrational optimists who deign to alter human nature and create a utopia. He came armed with quotes cherry-picked from James Madison and Alexis de Tocqueville about the inherently sinful nature of man and how mankind always teeters on the edge of barbarism with science poised to push us over.

West also decried the undue deference that 20th-century politicians showed towards scientific expertise. He claimed it was anti-democratic and anti-egalitarian to exclude non-scientific voices from the legislative process. He felt that this went against common sense and traditional values, proclaiming that we can’t let scientists rule because politics is a moral enterprise.

West next trotted out the traditional list of scientific failures: eugenics, sterilization policies, lobotomies. He compared these things to the current over-reliance of parents and schools on Ritalin for children. Of course, when schools and parents do decide that Ritalin is not an appropriate or effective treatment for children, they use scientific evidence to support that decision. This still constitutes scientific progress, but it is doubtful that Dr. West would characterize this instance of scientific self-correction as an example of science’s inevitable drive towards dehumanization.

According to West, the ultimate end of unfettered scientific progress is a relativism where morality flies out the window and experts regard it merely as a primitive survival tactic.

His solution: promoting free speech by not marginalizing scientists who question the conventional wisdom and considering scientific expertise on the same level playing field as other interests in the policy-making process.

It is condescending, elitist, and ultimately dismal that West—who insists that ID is not creationism—feels the need to conflate science with bastardized theology in order to motivate the general public to approach science critically.

Even more ironically, it is relativistic that West would like to see scientific expertise put on the same level as every other possible opinion simply because it is imperfect and uncertain. The beauty of the scientific process is that in spite of this imperfection and uncertainty, it keeps seeking out new evidence so that it can build upon itself, update itself, and correct itself. The only thing that can improve scientific evidence is more scientific evidence! Of course, ethics, religion, philosophy, and plain old common sense can put scientific evidence in its proper context, but to abuse religion to distort the scientific process itself is the most pernicious form of empirical relativism that those of us in the reality-based community can imagine. Our values may decide what goals we want to strive for and what trade-offs we are willing to make, but evidence—and only evidence—will tell us how to practically achieve those goals and what the trade-offs will be.

That being said, West did admit that elite scientists can get caught up in their own rhetoric and think that they are infallible and that all of their detractors are ignorant and superstitious. This is certainly true—scientists are far from perfect, and we cannot forget horrible practices such as eugenics and lobotomies when assessing the effects of science in a broader context—but after listening to West, one can’t help but think that those elite scientists may be on to something about some of their detractors.

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