In Science, When 'Anything Goes,' Everything Goes
Family values activist Austin Ruse's new book, Fake Science: Exposing the Left's Skewed Statistics, Fuzzy Facts, and Dodgy Data (Regnery, 2017), offers a look at a world growing increasingly hostile to evidence-based reasoning. We have not discovered better reasoning methods; rather, many people seem to have decided that reasoning is not relevant to our life together, and perhaps not relevant to the life of the mind generally.
Ruse begins his book with a note about polls. Opinion pollsters claim that their work is a scientific enterprise. But in a recent unintended test of that claim, pollsters not only failed to call the Clinton versus Trump contest correctly, but their failure was largely due to a degree of bias that suggests discomfort with the methods of science. For example, some changed their predictions at the last minute because they simply could not believe the results of their own research.1 But a scientist should be prepared to risk a wrong prediction. Much science can be learned from researching and correcting bad data or wrong predictions; little can be learned from fudging the data or changing the predictions.
A Conveniently Loose Relationship
The sexuality lobbies on which Ruse focuses offer a tangle of conflicting, sometimes incoherent claims appealing to science. For example, with respect to sexuality, does biology prevail? Or is culture or personal preference the main factor?
Many gay rights activists claim that homosexuality is biologically determined. As Ruse documents, that claim is doubtful if broadly applied, in part because homosexual practices can often depend on culture, as in the case of prison culture2 or the "dancing boys" of Afghanistan,3 and are not a demonstration of fixed necessity or even preference. Female attraction to other women can coin-cide with marriage to a man and having children by him. Worldwide for millennia, many (if not most) people had their life mates chosen for them by others, in part for the purpose of producing heirs. Consummated romantic love of any type was more often legend than life.
But the activists face a bigger evidence problem. What does it mean to say that a non-physical trait is biologically determined and therefore "not a choice"? As noted at Slate:
In 2014, researchers confirmed the association between same-sex orientation in men and a specific chromosomal region. This is similar to findings originally published in the 1990s, which, at that time, gave rise to the idea that a "gay gene" must exist. But this argument has never been substantiated, despite the fact that studies have shown that homosexuality is a heritable trait.4
A controversial new thesis suggests that epigenetics plays a role.5 The thesis is controversial mainly because the birth control pill is the cited factor, which considerably diminishes the likelihood that the evidence will ever get a fair hearing. That underscores the bigger evidence problem: Science isn't about "What if?"; it is about "How, exactly?" Absent step-by-step documentation of a cascade of biochemical events, claims made for scientific evidence one way or the other are nothing more than social power plays.
For instance, as Ruse chronicles, gay activists have claimed that evidence from genetics justifies their demand for a ban on therapy to change unwanted homosexual attractions.6 But leaving aside the tenuousness of their scientific claims, one must ask, Why is the client—in only this one type of case—not entitled to seek therapy for his own purposes? Would the same activists also ban therapy to increase such attractions? What about the bisexual man who would genuinely prefer to just be gay? Or straight? The conveniently loose relationship activists have with science means that they won't often be confronted with evidence that requires them to adopt a coherent position.
Transgender lobbyists, taking the opposite tack, claim that a person can belong to the other "gender" irrespective of obvious, genetically driven sexual characteristics, due to a concept of gender that could exist only in that individual's mind. The lobby's stance seems all the odder when we consider that most neuroscientists hold that the mind does not even exist apart from the biological, sex-specific brain. But the majority view in neuroscience is seldom raised as an objection to transgender claims.
The Shift to Postmodern Science
But we can, perhaps, identify a pattern underlying the apparent conflict: if our brains are shaped for evolutionary fitness, not for truth,7 then we thrive by adapting to the environment—or adapting the environment to us. If gay activists find their environment uncomfortable because there are non-activists in it who seek to change their orientation, then banning change-directed therapy might seem necessary. What if justice includes the activists' right to an environment in which they can thrive as an identity group? Or what if transgender activists' rights include exemption from routine challenges posed to a non-materialist view of the mind? That would be one of the perks of maintaining a comparatively loose relationship with science.
These social brush fires are outcrops of the fact that even high science is becoming postmodern.8 Many associate this shift with Berkeley philosopher of science Paul Feyerabend (1924-1994), who sometimes said that what is termed "science" in one culture is called "voodoo" in another, and that, in science, explicitly, "anything goes":
To those who look at the rich material provided by history, and who are not intent on impoverishing it in order to please their lower instincts—their craving for -intellectual security in the form of clarity, precision, "objectivity," [or] "truth"—it will become clear that there is only one principle that can be defended under all circumstances and in all stages of human development. It is the principle: anything goes.9
Science writer John Horgan asks us to consider whether Feyerabend, in saying this, was really so "anti-science" after all.10 The best answer is probably that science itself has changed. Feyerabend was a mortal foe of modern science, but he was a pioneer of postmodern science.
Ruse reflects on the role played by popular science celebrities in spreading the postmodern approach: "Science is an inflated medium of exchange these days . . . but its value has been eroded by the charlatans making obviously partisan and sometimes wild and contradictory 'scientific' claims" (p. 218). Pop science celebrities have been around for as long as any of us can remember. But Ruse chronicles a subtle shift. Both Stephen Hawking11 and Neil deGrasse Tyson12 have made clear that philosophy is either "dead" or "a useless enterprise," something one certainly did not hear from past icons like Albert Einstein.
A variety of thinkers who would otherwise disagree on many things are also starting to use the term "postmodern" to describe the new trend in science. Multiverse skeptic Peter Woit, author of Not Even Wrong (2006), speaks of the "post-modern way of doing science," which he considers "deeply problematic,"13 and conservative science journalist Hank Campbell, author with Alex Berezow of Science Left Behind (2012), describes the multiverse proclaimed in Tyson's Cosmos as "just postmodernism with some math."14 But one gets the sense that no one is sure what to do about the disturbing trend.
The Flash of Switchblades
Marcel Kuntz, of the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique in France, asks, "If all truths are equal, who cares what science has to say?"15 Actually, a great many identity groups and lobbies care very much what postmodern science has to say. For one thing, it can be politicized so as to leave activists with little fear of being confronted with contradictory evidence they must accept.
And not only politicized but also, increasingly, weaponized. Ruse reminds us that science icon Bill Nye (a mechanical engineer turned science presenter) feels free to suggest that "it might be appropriate to throw 'climate deniers' in jail" (p. 220).16
Yes, in a postmodern world of apparently limitless tolerance, we suddenly encounter the flash of switchblades: a man can't decide to doubt Al Gore on climate change any more than he can decide he just doesn't want to live a gay lifestyle. The difference between this postmodern crackdown on heresy and traditional crackdowns is subtle but critical: nowadays, the heretic's offense is not against truth (which, if it existed, would be a tool of injustice) but rather against a narrative needed by powerful identity groups. And their voodoo is science.Denyse O'Leary
is a Canadian journalist, author, and blogger. She blogs at Blazing Cat Fur, Evolution News & Views, MercatorNet, Salvo, and Uncommon Descent.This article originally appeared in Salvo, Issue #43, Winter 2017 Copyright © 2020 Salvo | www.salvomag.com https://salvomag.com/article/salvo43/up-for-grabs