In other words, the current dominant characterization of science as referring solely to the study of the natural world is more a matter of politics (civil and informal social coercion) than it is about actual knowledge or coherent beliefs. When we hear figures from politics and the entertainment business, such as Al Gore, warning us about an imminent environmental apocalypse and especially when they invoke the cultural authority of science, please bear in mind the history of science.
This is commencement season and, in recent years, it has meant a series of earnest speeches by social, cultural, and political leaders about the danger of global warming or climate change. These speeches are one part hectoring and one part shaming of those disagree (e.g., “deniers”) in order to silence dissent. Remarkably and almost invariably, those giving such speeches are not themselves scientists.
The President of the United States recently gave one of these lectures at, of all places, the commencement exercises of the Coast Guard Academy and told them that fighting climate change is their duty as much as fighting terrorism or interdicting drug shipments. This is akin to re-tasking NASA to mediate with the Muslim world. The President’s academic credentials do not include a degree in science (e.g., BS or MS or PhD). He has a BA and a JD, i.e., a law degree.1
Bill Nye is not a scientist yet he invoked the authority of science to buttress his claims about “climate change” at the Rutgers commencement. Al Gore, perhaps the most notorious exemplar of this class, was a mediocre student who earned Ds in his science courses.2 Yet, in 2006, speaking at New York University (NYU) Law School, the former Vice President of the United States said:
Many scientists are now warning that we are moving closer to several “tipping points” that could — within as little as 10 years — make it impossible for us to avoid irretrievable damage to the planet’s habitability for human civilization. In this regard, just a few weeks ago, another group of scientists reported on the unexpectedly rapid increases in the release of carbon and methane emissions from frozen tundra in Siberia, now beginning to thaw because of human caused increases in global temperature. The scientists tell us that the tundra in danger of thawing contains an amount of additional global warming pollution that is equal to the total amount that is already in the earth’s atmosphere.
It is 2015 and even some of the most ardent proponents of the “Global Warming” hypothesis have moderated their rhetoric. China continues to create enough pollution for several nations and yet the predicted apocalypse does not seem any closer than when Gore gave the speech. The President, Gore, Nye, and others regularly invoke the now sacred authority of science and even the more fearsome combination “settled science” to quell dissent. The louder they yell, the shakier their intellectual foundation.
The remarkable thing about this theater is how utterly unscientific it all is. Dissent is of the very essence of the scientific enterprise. In the nature of the enterprise there can be no such thing as “settled science.” At best things are temporarily settled, until new data is collected, new and new analysis performed. Whenever anyone invokes this language we may be sure that they are not actually doing or reporting on science but actually making a religious claim. The religious way science functions in the late-modern West also suggests that the older distinction between a “rational” and “scientific” view of the world and the religious is tenuous.
The call to pay no attention to the men behind the curtain, who have been accused of fiddling with data to support a predetermined outcome, the demand that skeptics stop asking questions (just Google “climate skeptic”) is much more like the Enlightenment-fueled caricature of the Middle Ages than it is like science. Since when does real science tell others to stop asking questions? Isn’t critical thinking, doubt, and questioning of the essence of science? Yes, it is. Anyone who tells you to stop asking questions is telling you to stop doing science.