11/10/2011 - 17:14

Relativism gets us nowhere. Science is a superior way of knowing.

In Round One of this Roundtable discussion, I drew the distinction between distortion of the substance of science and rejection of science as a way of knowing. I asserted that distortion is less dangerous than rejection. The scientific process itself sorts out distortions, often quickly. Rejection of science, on the other hand, lacks self-correcting mechanisms. Rejection is dangerous not just for science, but for civilization. I wrote: "Another age of darkness could lie ahead. … Our opponents present science as dogma and construct a symmetric conflict: their dogma vs. our dogma. … There is no such symmetry."

In the second and third rounds, I hope I can persuade my tablemates, Roger Pielke and Randy Olson, to reflect on this distinction. Through this lens, here's how I read their first-round essays:

Olson, as best I can tell, shares my sense that something fundamental is amiss, and worse now than a few decades ago. He contrasts the early 1960s, when President Kennedy's administration "seemed to embody the idea of knowledge as the foundation to a bright and secure future" with today, when a television producer confides to him that "the words 'science' and 'scientists' are now actively avoided at the Discovery Channel because 'they are perceived as elitist.'"

Pielke, it seems, may not agree with my premise that the scientific way of knowing is privileged. He writes: "If a scientist says that life on Earth evolved over billions of years, anyone else has the right to counter that view by expressing his or her belief in creationism. ... Experts should never forget that in democracies, citizens have every right to make bad decisions or hold the wrong views." As statements about free speech and making "decisions" governing individual behavior, Pielke's assertions are fine. But Pielke carries his relativism and evenhandedness to the societal level when he creates a parallel construction to report to us that: 1) "Jimmy Carter set a goal of achieving 20 percent of the US energy supply from renewable sources by 2000, even though he was told it would be infeasible"; and 2) "Ronald Reagan wanted creationism taught in schools."

These statements are not parallel. Carter is working within the domain of science; Reagan is rejecting the primacy of science. Evenhandedness is appropriate at the individual level, but not the societal level. Yes, we're all entitled to our opinions -- but, no, all principles are not equally valid. Relativism must not dominate decisions about what a child should be taught. Democratic societies have made a collective decision to use the classroom to undermine racism, and, at essentially the same level of discourse, to teach the primacy of science.

A word about Climategate: Olson says that "Climategate should have been a wake-up call: It should have been seen as a 9/11 for the science community." It is not that simple. The purloined emails from and to the University of East Anglia's Climatic Research Unit were an embarrassment to the scientific community and difficult to defend. Phil Jones, the professor at the middle of the affair, showed admirable contrition when he said: "I have obviously written some pretty awful emails." Their impact on public opinion was so substantial precisely because so many people had put science on a pedestal. The public expected generosity of spirit and found meanness. They expected objectivity and found combat. Climategate revealed how many friends science has, because so many friends made it known that they were disheartened.

Olson distorts reality when he proposes that there are two sides -- scientists on one side (naïve and well meaning "Cub Scouts"), and a ruthless Mafia on the other. Scientists are not alone. In countering Texas Gov. Rick Perry and affirming their "belief" in science, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman helped science more than any scientific leader could have. Our best defenders are third parties.

More accurately, we scientists are in charge of the building where everyone lives: We are its janitors and plumbers and architects. Nearly everyone is proud to live in this building, including the mafiosi, but still there is discontent. Looking from its windows, people see palaces in the distance. It is our responsibility to find the arguments that will persuade our fellow residents not to abandon the building, for the palaces they see are only flimsy tents in the desert.