The Chinese Dragon Dance of “Science”

By which I mean

The basic skills are simple to learn, however to become a competent performer takes dedicated training until movements become second nature and complex formations can be achieved — which rely not only on the skill of the individual member, but on concentration by the team as a whole to move in co-operation.

For some six or seven years or so now, I’ve had in my glossary two definitions of “science,” a classic one and a modern one. The classic definition places emphasis on the learning objectives and the method, and the newer definition places the emphasis on the institutions, the phony consensus, and the elitism; the choreography, the “Chinese dragon-dancing.” Sad to say, I think that’s still correct. The word is undergoing a change. It would be dishonest to insist that it means what it has always meant, when it is abused constantly.

Around the time of entering those glossary items, I wrote:

I keep on hearing that science is in danger of being destroyed by politics. I believe this has already taken place.

President Obama, early in His first term, showed how concerned He was about this too (hat tip to Goddard).

When President Obama lifts restrictions on funding for human embryonic stem cell research today, he will also issue a presidential memorandum aimed at insulating scientific decisions across the federal government from political influence, officials said.

“The president believes that it’s particularly important to sign this memorandum so that we can put science and technology back at the heart of pursuing a broad range of national goals,” said Melody Barnes, director of Obama’s Domestic Policy Council.

That was then, this is now.

President Obama angrily blasted climate change skeptics during his energy policy speech Tuesday at Georgetown University, saying he lacked “patience for anyone who denies that this problem is real.”

“We don’t have time for a meeting of the flat-Earth society,” Obama said. “Sticking your head in the sand might make you feel safer, but it’s not going to protect you from the coming storm.”

This is a perfect exercise of anti-science:

Anti-Science (n.)

Whereas real science is a disciplined accumulation of knowledge, toward a more useful and complete understanding of the world around us, this is the exact opposite. It starts at the opposite end and runs perfectly backwards. The conclusion comes first, and then as evidence arrives it is compared to this conclusion. If the evidence doesn’t support the desired conclusion, an elaborate anti-treatise will be prepared giving reasons why the evidence has to be discarded.

In anti-science, it’s all about the consensus; the consensus is the product. And, just as you get a sharper point to the pencil by whittling parts of it away, as opposed to fastening on something new, anti-science works according to a subtractive process. You get rid of whatever doesn’t belong. Anti-scientist Barack Obama did a great job of showing how.

When no one is left with any authority intact, save for those who can repeat back the catechism, then you have a good dancing-dragon and your choreography is complete. That’s a successful (anti) science-ing. Quoting myself yet once more:

I think we should just cut the crap and go straight to the point.

[Anti-] Science is not about learning the nature-of-nature. It is not about accumulating any kind of information at all. It’s about arriving at a consensus and making it so that “everyone” agrees. This is done by conversion or else by some sort of obliteration/defenestration, that part of it doesn’t matter too much, the important thing is that everybody arrives at the same conclusion.

This metastasizing is long and slow, I can tell, given that I was making notes about it that now have six years of dust on them, and it isn’t hard to find some more examples three or four times as old. Some of the influences driving this, I believe, have been around since the very beginning. Scientists are human. It’s in the job description to fight the demons within, to resist the human temptations.

Think about when a prison guard or sheriff’s deputy is accused of being a bully. There is a certain air of immediate legitimacy to such a charge; if you are a bully and have yet to settle on a lifetime vocation, well…these are good jobs for you to have. So it isn’t unreasonable to suppose, within the ranks of such employment, you might find some bullies. Well, for similar reasons, scientists can be “bullies” too. The labels “science” and “scientist” possess such a positive appeal for those who detest debate, just want to say what’s so and impose an obligation on everyone else, near & far, to believe. If it really is science, you have to, right? It’s science!

But this situation is more hazardous than the prison-guard thing. A prison guard who is a bully, can get the prison-guarding done. At least, at the end of the day, the prison is guarded.

Science suffers, though, when people who loathe dissent and discussion, just want things done their way with no questions asked, start to saturate the ranks of those who are authorized to call themselves “scientists.” They may say that’s what they are, they may have the proper credentials, they may do some of what has classically been called science. And, on a wholly separate topic of discussion when they drift away from the scientific method, and start Chinese Paper Dragon Dancing and repeating the conclusions of others without understanding any of it, like David Suzuki did, they can certainly still reach the correct conclusion; the authority on whom they were relying, may be properly exercising the scientific method and the “web of trust” system may work beautifully here and there.

The fact remains. Dragon-dancing is not science-ing.

Cross-posted at House of Eratosthenes and Rotten Chestnuts.

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