September 22, 2017
Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson has been doing the leftist media interview circuit recently, pressing his peculiar thesis that professional (i.e., paid) scientists are a superior class of humans whose conclusions are intrinsically beyond reproach and must therefore be accepted blindly by unscientific lunks like you.
In each of these interviews, a non-climate scientist asks a series of predetermined questions designed to elicit rehearsed responses from the non-climate scientist Tyson, the upshot of which is that (a) people who question man-made global warming are anti-scientific fools driven by irrational agendas; (b) scientific consensus is not the product of the social and political pressures of academic life working on the minds of the career-motivated, publication-obsessed majority of scholarly mediocrities, but rather consensus is the very definition of Objective Truth; and (c) anyone who questions a scientific consensus poses a threat to the survival of democracy.
For an example of (a), here is Tyson’s explanation of why some people continue to question the alleged scientific consensus on global warming:
What’s happening here is that there are people who have cultural, political, religious, economic philosophies that they then invoke when they want to cherry pick one scientific result or another.
In other words, non-scientists who have the audacity to cite scientific results falling outside the consensus as grounds for questioning global warming are just people with agendas who are refusing to accept the settled science, for anti-scientific reasons. This doesn’t account for the actual scientists who produced those dissenting results or hypotheses. Are they also to be dismissed as mere “deniers,” since their views do not match the consensus?
Tyson’s answer appears to be yes, as he offers this interesting definition of “objective truth,” answering to talking point (b), above:
For an emergent scientific truth to become an objective truth – a truth that is true whether or not you believe in it – it requires more than one scientific paper. It requires a whole system of people’s research all leaning in the same direction, all pointing to the same consequences. That’s what we have with climate change as induced by human conduct. This is a known correspondence. If you want to find the three percent of the papers or the one percent of the papers that conflicted with this, and build policy on that – that is simply irresponsible.
So according to Tyson, science is ultimately defined not by superior individual minds defying accepted views – i.e., standing against a consensus. No, science is rather defined by consensus itself, for consensus alone establishes objective truth, which “is true whether or not you believe in it.” (Funny – I always thought Nature or God established objective truth, but apparently, in our nihilistic progressive age, that task has devolved to the collective of university professors.)
And what is a scholarly consensus? It is “a whole system of people’s research all leaning in the same direction, all pointing to the same consequences.” Tyson conveniently leaves out the most important factor: “all beginning from the same underlying premises.”
Scholarly consensus is what you get when a few people at the top of an academic hierarchy become gatekeepers and use their authority as peer-reviewers, thesis supervisors, and hiring committee members to influence the range and limits of “legitimate” research. A new specialization that has detached itself from a broader system of inquiry, and therefore has relatively few prominent practitioners, as in the case of climate science, is most easily susceptible to this form of “consensus-building.”
As for point (c), above, Neil deGrasse Tyson gives us this doozy:
I’m so disappointed that the country that I grew up in – that put men on the moon, that developed the internet, that invented personal computers and smartphones – that people are debating what is and what is not scientifically true.
By “people,” Tyson means those who are not professional climate scientists. Unless you are an officially accredited member of the fraternity of scientists, you may not debate “what is and what is not scientifically true.” In other words, shut up, ignore the evidence around you, and just follow your betters. Failing to do so is, according to Tyson, “the beginning of the end of an informed democracy” – where “informed” means compliant.
Not being a professional (i.e., paid) scientist, I never received the memo announcing that ad hominem, appeal to authority, and plain old elitist condescension have now been enshrined as elements of the scientific method in good standing.
Leaving all that aside, Tyson’s best argument for bowing before the god of scientific consensus – his only argument based on reasoning rather than intimidation – is in fact the “oops” moment to end all “oops” moments for a global warming apologist. For this argument actually undermines his whole case, by justifying the core position of climate change skeptics.
Referring to the August solar eclipse, Tyson leaps at the opportunity to catch the “deniers” in a contradiction.
I don’t see people objecting to [the prediction of an eclipse]. I don’t see people in denial of it. Yet methods and tools of science predict it. So when methods and tools of science predict other things, to have people turn around and say “I deny what you say,” there’s something wrong in our world when that happens.
And I would say that when a renowned scientist fails to realize he has just blown his own position to smithereens, then there is something wrong in our world.
Tyson’s analogy between global warming and solar eclipses is meant to be a zinger that wows the audience into submission, so that there is no need to flesh out the terms of the analogy more clearly. But let’s take a moment to clarify his point.
Scientific predictions are not standalone declarations made on the basis of some sort of magical thinking called “scientific method.” Rather, scientific reasoning is used to form hypotheses about certain aspects of the material world, which hypotheses are then typically evaluated over time by means of their predictive power. In other words, predictions are the arena in which underlying scientific premises are assessed for plausibility. The more evidence of accurate predictive power, the more believable the underlying theory becomes.
Let’s look at Tyson’s example of solar eclipses. If you questioned whether the recent solar eclipse would really happen, you would truly have exposed yourself as an uneducated pleb who doesn’t respect scientific method. But why did you feel obliged to believe that the eclipse would happen? Was it because there was a scientific consensus?
No – it was because every eclipse predicted in your lifetime has actually occurred, exactly when and as the scientists predicted. None of us has ever met a person who could tell a story of “the eclipse that never happened” or “the eclipse that caught everyone by surprise.” Having not a single counterexample to cast doubt on the scientists’ predictions, ordinary men and women have developed a complete trust in the validity of those predictions.
If, by contrast, we had seen that the astronomers were often wrong in their predictions of eclipses, or that there were often eclipses that no astronomers had predicted, or even that eclipses frequently occurred precisely when the scientific consensus insisted that no eclipse could possibly happen, then most of us would be skeptical about predictions of solar eclipses. We would have every right to be. No astronomer in these circumstances could reasonably demand that we trust the scientific consensus, given how often their predictions had failed. And even if, by chance, this year’s solar eclipse had turned out more or less the way they predicted, we might reasonably classify that as a coincidence rather than as evidence for their theories, remembering how often their previous predictions had been false.
Or imagine that astronomers had taken to predicting both that an eclipse would occur this year and that no eclipse would occur, such that neither outcome could disprove their underlying theory. Wouldn’t we all – wouldn’t even Tyson himself – regard such a theory with skepticism in light of its advocates’ unwillingness to let it stand or fall on the accuracy of any decisive prediction? Wouldn’t Tyson accuse those scientists of trying to create an unfalsifiable theory – i.e., one which no empirical outcome could ever prove wrong? Wouldn’t he question whether such an unfalsifiable theory qualifies as legitimate science at all?