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'It’s Science' Has Become the New 'it’s Gospel'

In his take on the latest dissemblings by Neil deGrasse Tyson after being caught promulgating a quote never uttered by President Bush in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 (when Bush was in full-on PC "Islam is peace" mode), Samuel James of the Patheos Website writes:

It’s difficult to understand why Tyson didn’t simply diffuse the situation via retraction and apology. I agree with The Washington Post’s Jonathan Adler that Tyson’s behavior puts his integrity on the line.

It’s frustrating to note the shortage of real public pressure on Tyson. [Left-leaning journalist--Ed] John Aziz, for example, grants that Tyson should correct the record, but then suspects that close attention on Tyson’s discrepancies is motivated by global warming denial. “[I]t should be said that none of Tyson’s errors amount to methodological or factual errors in published scientific papers,” Aziz writes. This may be true but it’s also completely irrelevant. Sean Davis’s investigation suggests that Tyson may have a considerable history of public fabulisms. Saying false things–and then doubling down on  your own brilliance when evidence of your mistake is raised–is an issue that affects the credibility of any person, scientist or no.

Aziz exemplifies here a troubling attitude that some, particularly on the Left, have towards scientific research. The notion that a fudged quotation here or a false statistic there don’t add up to a credibility problem for an accomplished scientist is valid only if one believes that scientific work is a completely closed realm of self-referential authority. That is, unfortunately, how some scientists have postured their discipline (consider Tyson’s extreme dismissiveness towards those studying philosophy). In a recent cover story for National Review, Charles Cooke noted that scientists seem of all professionals most encouraged to dispense authoritative knowledge on issues well outside their academic training. This bespeaks a change in the way society perceives what “scientist” means. Rather than a fallible observer who utilizes the scientific method to test hypotheses, the word now drums up images of a priest of culture dispensing quasi-religious wisdom to the ignorant masses. “It’s science” has become the new “it’s Gospel.”

"Dispensing authoritative knowledge on issues well outside their academic training," you say? As Tom Wolfe has noted on numerous occasions, such as this interview 2006 interview with Bruce Cole of the National Endowment for the Humanities, that's the very definition of being an intellectual:

Wolfe: I make a distinction between intellectuals and people of intellectual achievement.

Cole: Who are intellectuals?

Wolfe: An intellectual feeds on indignation and really can't get by without it. The perfect example is Noam Chomsky. When Chomsky was merely the most exciting and most looked-to and in many ways, the most profound linguist in this country if not the world, he was never spoken of as an American intellectual. Here was a man of intellectual achievement. He was not considered an intellectual until he denounced the war in Vietnam, which he knew nothing about. Then he became one of America's leading intellectuals. He remains one until this day, which finally has led to my definition of an intellectual: An intellectual is a person who is knowledgeable in one field but speaks out only in others.

This whole business was started unintentionally by my great idol, Émile Zola, in the Dreyfus case. Zola was an extremely popular novelist. A popular writer writing fiction had never been considered a person of any intellectual importance before, but in the Dreyfus case he and Anatole France and others who were trying to defend Dreyfus were singled out by Clemenceau as "the intellectuals." The term had never been used that way before-meaning people who live by intellectual labor. That was Clemenceau's term.

When Zola wrote his great manifesto, J'accuse . . .!, it appeared on the front page of a daily newspaper. All 300,000 copies of the newspaper were sold out by afternoon. Suddenly the world of writers and teachers and all of these intellectual laborers realized that it was possible for a mere scrivener to be called an intellectual and be considered an important person.

Zola, incidentally, was very knowledgeable about the Dreyfus case. He knew it as well as anybody, as well as any law clerk did. That part was lost later on; it was considered not necessary to go that deeply into anything. All that was required was indignation.

Marshall McLuhan once said that moral indignation is a standard strategy for endowing the idiot with dignity. I think that's quite true these days.

It also meant--the Zola example--that the intellectual is really above the government. It doesn't mean he hates his country or even hates his government. It just means he looks down upon it from a great height, and he's been raised to this height by indignation. Without it, it's impossible to be an intellectual or to be taken seriously.

It caught hold here in the twenties and thirties, this idea of the intellectual who is above all the dim bulbs who actually govern.

Back off man, I'm an intellectual.

Update: Richard Feynman on "Cargo Cult Science."

More: "I like Neil deGrasse Tyson. I’m sure he’s a nice, smart, interesting guy. His most ardent followers, however, are not. And, if his behavior over the past month is any indication, he’s been captured by them."