Wednesday, January 23, 2008

"Scientific Authority" an Anti-Concept

The Jan 22nd, links to an article at Spiked by Frank Furedi. Mr. Furedi makes many good points about how science is morphing into dogma and I recommend reading the whole thing. Gus Van Horn posted on this article Friday here and I agree with Gus's assessment of it. But I want to focus on a specific concept Mr. Furedi cites.

In his essay, Mr. Furedi mentions the use of the word 'scientific authority.' This term is a cognitive anti-concept. It is trying to package together two ideas that do not belong together, that are essentially different. In terms of essentials, the essence of science is reason and the essence of authority is power. So packaging the two together will give us science where truths are determined by force, that is, where reason has been forced out.

In science there are hypotheses and facts that are either true, false or not yet determined either way. There are no authoritative facts or hypotheses. A scientist can be an authority in a given field. But his facts and theories do not give orders to other facts and theories or lord over them. He discovers what is true by whether or not it corresponds to reality. He discovers this relationship by means of testing and experiment, not by demanding reality conform to his theories. Authority is a political concept. It does not belong in science.

But what does putting it there do? Its purpose is to destroy a valid meaning and replace it with a new meaning. The valid meaning to be exorcised is scientific knowledge. The new intended meaning is scientific belief. The coiners of the term 'scientific authority' want their reality to be accepted in the same way religious people accept as true the tenants of their religion as revealed by religious authorities. Religious authorities don't have to prove their tenants. They are accepted on faith. The new 'authority' scientists want the same luxury. They can have it if they can get society to accept the notion that knowledge doesn't exist, only beliefs do. Therefore, the beliefs that governments are to consider important and thus enforce, are not those that have truth, but those that have "authority." The concept 'scientific authority' achieves that goal by defining out of existence the idea of scientific knowledge and replacing it with scientific beliefs.

One of the reasons this seems to be working so well is the fact that Americans still have respect for science and its ability to discover the truth about reality. It is this positive respect for the concept scientific knowledge that is used by the pushers of 'scientific authority' to smuggle into the minds of the public the idea that science deals in beliefs that have or don't have authority. If someone asks about a scientific hypothesis or theory, they must be referring to beliefs they'll be told. Provable knowledge? There is no such thing they will intone. (The concept belief is such a mixed bag, it means different things to different people, it needs a post of its own which I will attempt soon.)

The IPCC has been declared the 'authority' on climate change we are told. They have 'revealed' the reality that it is all man's fault and will lead to disaster for life on Earth unless we all make sacrifices. Those who disagree are not called critics which is what they are, but "skeptics", "deniers" and "doubters." Just like the dark ages. It's my guess that if the greenies could burn a Richard Lindzen or John Christy at the steak, they readily would. But I digress.

In his excellent lecture series Clarity In Conceptualization: The Art of Identifying Package-Deals, Peter Schwartz pointed out that package-deals and anti-concepts are spread through a culture like drugs, by two kinds of people, pushers and users. The pushers would be university professors of philosophy and maybe social sciences and the users pretty much everyone else who unquestioningly accepted the concepts. I entirely agree with this assessment.

So when I hear or read a scientist, reporter or politician using the term 'scientific authority' I know I'm listening to a user I can no longer trust for credible info.


Burgess Laughlin said...

I fully agree with your overall description--and a very articulate one--of the nature of science. I would like to suggest caution, however. Not every instance of the use of the words "scientific authority" name an idea which is a package deal.

The words "scientific authority" can name another, valid idea: A particular scientist who has a proven track record in his field and is trusted by other reliable sources for his conclusions, in general.

In a criminal trial, a particular scientist can be an "authority" on DNA, for example. That doesn't mean he is claiming his own special facts. It is simply a recognition of his reputation for having enough competence to state generally trustworthy conclusions, especially to laymen.

In this sense, an "authority" is one who has the knowledge to "author" a conclusion worthy of serious consideration and respect, in the absence of contrary testimony.

(The concept "expert" is related but not the same; I use the term to name this idea: someone who knows (1) the general points of every department of his field, and (2) the fundamental principles of his field. Those requirements are onerous. That is why there are very few experts, and the ones who have that status properly are usually very specialized.)

Anonymous said...

I don't see any anti-concept here. As Burgess points out, there is a completely legitimate usage of "scientific authority."

"Authority" is not just a political concept. It can refer to a special kind of expertise: the kind of expert whose testimony we are justified in believing, because he has established a public track record of reliability.

Since nobody can be an expert on everything, we need authorities to guide our decision making on dozens of subjects. I have no serious knowledge of medicine, so I go to a doctor. If I have reason to trust the doctor has credentials and his explanations make sense, I'm justified in believing that his diagnosis is sound.

The same is true for questions of science. If a scientist has an established track record and he can explain his case logically to me, I will tend to believe him, and I'll appeal to scientific authorities on questions I don't have special knowledge about.

There is a difference between fake and genuine authority. Introductory logic classes usually make the distinction this way: appealing to the first is committing the fallacy of the appeal to *irrelevant* authority. But appealing to relevant authority is not a fallacy. It's relying on reliable testimony, which we can't do without.

So the problem with "scientific authority" is not that is an inherently invalid concept. It's that it's often misapplied to authorities who are not genuine.


Burgess Laughlin said...

1. I would also like to suggest--in the hope of being corrected if I'm wrong--that "scientific authority" is not, strictly speaking, a concept, valid or invalid.

"Scientific authority," as I have heard it generally used, is a qualified-instance of a concept. (Rand, ITOE, pp. 23, 71, and 177.) Note the list of example anti-concepts which Dr. Binswanger adds to the end of the "Anti-Concepts" article in The Ayn Rand Lexicon, p. 24. Is it a coincidence that they are all single words?

(It may be true, as an epistemological description, that in some cases specialists use two or more words to represent what actually is a concept in their minds. That is a failure of nomenclature, not a license for abandoning the epistemological prescription of one concept, one word.)

2. What I take to be Mike's payoff point is correct. Mike is saying that, while advocating anti-business laws, at least some environmentalists (and certainly the Environmentalists, as religionists) do sometimes appeal to the authority of scientists whose conclusions they agree with as being intrinsically correct on issues that seemingly support environmentalism. (Of course, law does not objectively stand on specialized sciences but on political principles which in turn stand on moral principles.)

Mike is right to warn of this point. The same environmentalists who laud "scientific authority" on one issue reveal their corruption when they reject legitimate scientific authorities who say nuclear power plants, properly designed, are safe.

Mike N said...

Burgess and Anon:

You are both right in claiming that 'scientific authority' can have a valid meaning. I agree completely with that. In fact, I alluded to that point in one sentence which read: "A scientist can be an authority in a given field." I can see now I should have elaborated on this point in the clearer way both of you have. One sentence was not sufficient.

What my post objects to is the use of that term when applied to science itself and to scientific papers and documents. I object to media and politicians referring to the IPCC's Assessment Reports and Summeries for Policymakers as the most authoritative science on the subject of global warming for example. Used this way authoritative becomes a nudge word which says in effect "Don't question these findings since they are 'authoritative'.

I think Anon was right that the term can be misapplied because I certainly think it is today. referring to the IPCC as 'authoritative' while referring to the criticisms of a Richard Lindzen as 'skepticism' is certainly not my idea of valid usage.

I do think Burgess, that you may be right that this could be a qualified instance of an anti-concept. Authoritative is an adjective after all and valid when applied to actual expert scientists, but invalid when applied to documents or findings in my judgement. I'll have to give this more thought.
Thanks for the input. Both of you.