Skepticism about science and medicine

In search of disinterested science

Posts Tagged ‘John Burnham’

The end of the Enlightenment era

Posted by Henry Bauer on 2020/05/05

The previous two posts (CoVID19, HIV — Enlightenment? Reason based on evidence?; CoVID19 and the HIV legacy: Toxic “antiretroviral” drugs and PrEP) described the actual lack of competence of the medical scientists whose words are being treated by the mass media as Gospel Truth, about CoVID19 as well as about related or other matters.

Quite clearly, what such acknowledged experts as Anthony Fauci (Director of The National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases) say and advise cannot be trusted automatically. In this day and age, lauded not infrequently for its advanced medical science, how has this come about?

One part of the wider context for this bemusing and dangerous state of affairs is that since the latter decades of the 20th century, research, “science”, has become so commonplace an activity that its practitioners are anything but a small elite distinguished by outstanding intellect and background knowledge. Instead, most people doing “science” nowadays are journeymen practitioners carrying on predetermined tasks that do not call for original thinking. “Science” in the 21st century is a corporate, bureaucratic activity carried on without much (if any) thinking about whether accumulating evidence continues to support contemporary beliefs, the prevailing paradigm, the conventional wisdom in the given specialty. Science can no longer be relied on to be self-correcting.

Following WWII, science had increasingly become so intertwined with other social sectors as to have lost what characterized the Scientific Revolution and subsequent Enlightenment, namely, an unfettered single-minded pursuit of veritable, demonstrable truth. As John Ziman pointed out (Prometheus Bound, 1994), toward the end of the 20th century there was no longer a substantive distinction to be made between applied science and pure science: science was serving commerce and industry and government at least as much as being a search for genuine understanding. Science has not learned that it is impossible to serve both God and Mammon.

What has happened with science is just one aspect or symptom of something even more significant, portentous, indeed cataclysmic: a distinct change in the world order, marking the end — or at least the beginning of the end — of an era in which Western Civilization dominated the Earth. For a full and erudite discussion, see Jacques Barzun, From Dawn to Decadence: 500 Years of Western Cultural Life (2000). The accuracy of Barzun’s diagnosis, published already a quarter of a century ago, is being demonstrated by the rising influence of China as well as India, while the United States and Europe have lost their dominance and are striving mightily just to keep their heads above water, so to speak.

It was not unusual in the 19th and 20th centuries to note that the authority of science had eclipsed that of religion. That stemmed in part from the decadence of religious institutions, progressively corrupted from their initial ideals in becoming large, bureaucratic, institutions — bureaucratic institutions being self-serving almost by definition, and “large” tends to make for mediocrity. Catholic priests and Anglican pastors were by the 20th century quite ordinary men (and women, among the Anglicans), not at all like the idiosyncratic, highly motivated characters among the apostles of Jesus, nor at all like such strong personalities as Luther or Calvin who rejuvenated the Christian religion in the 16th-century Reformation.

Modern science, emphasizing the careful, scrupulous attending to tangible evidence on which to base beliefs, is consensually dated to the 16th century Scientific Revolution, which led to the 17th century Enlightenment that sought to extend that scientific method to human culture as a whole. Just as religion became corrupted, so too has modern science become corrupted through growth and worldliness. The hosts of people nowadays doing some sort of “science” also display the pervasive mediocrity that follows inevitably as an activity attracts more and more people, with the forming of an increasing number of organizations with the inevitable consequence of bureaucracy and an effective loss of any ideals with which the enterprise might have begun. (A prescient discussion was published in 1985: Jan Klein, “Hegemony of mediocrity in contemporary sciences, particularly in immunology”, Lymphology 18:122-31; it is a little eerie in this age of deadly viruses that Klein emphasized immunology, since our only truly effective weapon against viruses is the immune system; and Klein wrote just as the HIV/AIDS blunder was taking hold.)

Religions became decadent as the host of ordinary priests and pastors merely parroted what they had been taught. Just the same decadent mediocrity has now overtaken science and its acolyte, medical science. The media feature as “experts” a variety of scientists and practicing physicians whose credentials illustrate this phenomenon: anyone with an MD or a PhD is automatically accorded the status and prestige of expertise, when in point of fact far from all of these featured experts deserve that appellation: not many of them offer added value beyond what they were taught and what the prevailing so-called consensus happens to be. Before they speak, one knows pretty much what they are going to say, for it differs in no way from what the mainstream conventional wisdom happens to be.

And so it has come about in the 21st century that science has lost and superstition has won, as the public and the media simply accept on the authority of science — in other words, on faith, superstitiously — whatever they are told by “the experts”, no matter how unlikely or contrary to available facts. (See historian John Burnham’s How Superstition Won and Science Lost, 1987).

Almost universally accepted is the belief, disseminated by the International Panel on Climate Change, that human generation of atmospheric carbon dioxide is the prime cause of global warming, a belief that is proved wrong by the long-standing and unquestioned actual data in the geological literature (lack of correlation between global temperature and atmospheric carbon dioxide; for primary sources see Climate-change facts: Temperature is not determined by carbon dioxide).

The degree to which science is generally accorded unquestioned and magical powers is nicely illustrated by the fact that knowledgeable advertisers understood that it would be effective to market a remedy for declining memory (Prevagen) by claiming that its efficacy stemmed from an ingredient first discovered in jellyfish, a species not otherwise known for remarkable powers of memory.

When historian Jon Meacham notes that Trumpism marks a loss of Enlightenment values, he may not realize how deeply that loss is pervasive in contemporary culture.

 

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Caveat re contemporary CoVID19 panic: That Anthony Fauci, Robert Redfield and others lack all credibility does not mean that they are necessarily wrong about CoVID19 or anything else. Many Trumpists, after all, happen to be right about climate change. We are all fallible, and we may sometimes be right just by chance, perversely and for wrong reasons.

Posted in consensus, global warming, media flaws, resistance to discovery, science is not truth, scientific culture, scientists are human | Tagged: , , , , | 7 Comments »

 
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