Culture Club Science: Post-Normal Science at Work

by james on February 2, 2011

in Environmental, Science and Technology

Introduction

I have been asked today to speak on how science is often abused as a political tool, rather than appreciated for what it is: a powerful method to describe how our world works. Probably I have been asked to do so for I am a physicist, and an educator. And I have a story.

Gore’s presentation at the meeting. . .suggested to me that my area of science was being exploited for political purposes.

In the fall of 2006, at the American Geophysical Union professional meeting, I attended a presentation by former U.S. Vice President Al Gore, where he presented his theory of global warming. Yes, he was by then a successful Hollywood actor, but given the numerous scientific errors in his movie, I considered it odd that he received an invite to talk on science to scientists. Surely his many exaggerations and errors would disqualify him. Yet the crowd of nerdy scientists appeared delirious with pleasure. Afterward it was more than a little troubling to watch the enormous crowd slowly uncoil itself, like a human dragon.

dragon

Uroborus, the Green Dragon

Gore’s presentation at the meeting, plus the prominent presence of the Union of Concerned Scientists, an environmental advocacy organization, suggested to me that my area of science was being exploited for political purposes. When my university showed Gore’s documentary around twenty times during March 2007, I was fed up with being told how many squares I could use after visiting the toilet. Greenies, keep your absurdities off my lavatories! Environmentalist propaganda presses on every side.

A course I taught that semester had global warming as a hot topic. We got to watch two films. One was Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth, just in case any of my students had missed the previous campus showing, and the other The Great Global Warming Swindle. One horrified physics faculty member suggested that to show Swindle was irresponsible and akin to teaching Nazi propaganda! I don’t react well to that kind of comment. But I’m a college professor, so you can probably guess what I did – I wrote a book. My book, Resisting the Green Dragon, is an in-depth analysis of the worldview, philosophy, theology, ethics, politics, and strategies of the Green movement. I wrote the book because I believe it is possible to apply a balanced Biblical view of stewardship and conservation to the critical issues of a healthy environment and development.

But today I’m here to talk about post-normal science, a kind of science where the quest to explain how our world works is replaced by a quest to use the authority of science and religion to achieve political goals. To get the ball rolling I’d like to talk about something that must be on your mind – the weather.

The weather has been kind of chilly and unpleasant recently, so as an aid to your mood and digestion I would like to encourage you to think of a beautiful tropical island with palm trees waving lazily in the warm breeze. Suddenly a large bird swoops overhead and soon, some distance away, there is a racket. When the natives arrive where the bird is perched they find that friendly men have surrounded it with elaborate buildings, and a long, flat, wide path leads up to the bird’s strange feet.

These strangers can make rain come up through the earth, and kill just by pointing. They must please the gods.

As time goes by, the natives observe more birds coming and going, and when they land they disgorge delicious foods, luxuries, and other sorts of wondrous cargo. Life, at least for those natives favored by the visitors, becomes easier and not so nasty and short. The terrors of life recede. Some of the natives favored by the visitors receive things like food from rocks, miraculous medicines, and manufactured clothing. These strangers can make rain come up through the earth, and kill just by pointing. They must please the gods.

But after World War II they left, and the cargo left also. Into the vacuum returned old terrors of hunger and sickness, and an angry Earth. So the fearful natives copied planes and runways. They made a wooden hut where a man sat with two wooden pieces on his head like headphones and bars of cargobamboo sticking out like antennas. They had the form right –the outward form of religion–but they did not have the power. In fact, they had perfect form. They drilled just as they had seen, but no airplanes land. In anthropology this form of religion has been called a Cargo Cult.

In Vanuatu, in the 1800s, natives stared in blank bewilderment when John Paton, Presbyterian missionary from Scotland, dug a well and rain came from the ground. The native’s knees were weak with wonder. Unscrupulous men might take advantage, but Paton said,

“Jehovah my God gave it out of His own Earth in answer to our labours and prayers.”[i]

Their knees shook because in pagan cultures there is a fear of animals and trees and the restless Earth Mother. They worship the sun and moon. All is one, and so they fear, because any small action may anger gods. As Paton wrote,

“They worshipped the Serpent, as a spirit of evil… that is to say, they lived in abject terror of his influence, and all their worship was directed towards propitiating his rage against men.”[ii]

The apostle Paul saw this too, in an earlier paganism. earthYou may recall, about 2,000 years ago he was shipwrecked on Malta. When he was bitten by a serpent the pagans waited for him to drop dead. “Howbeit they looked when he should have swollen, or fallen down dead suddenly: but after they had looked a great while, and saw no harm come to him, they changed their minds, and said that he was a god” (Acts 28:6).

Culture Club Science

feynman

Caltech Commencement, 1974

Now let me get to the point. What I have described for World War II era Vanuatu is something that Richard Feynman, the celebrated Nobel prize winning physicist, said is happening increasingly in our so-called scientific age. In his 1974 Caltech commencement address he explained how it is possible for professing scientists to go through the motions of scientific rituals yet not actually be doing science. In a manner reminiscent of the Cargo Cults, they appear to be doing scientific research; they have the lab coats and equipment, only to discover that in many cases they have simply deceived themselves. They are doing Cargo Cult Science.

I come to you as a scientist, and as a Christian. And so I suppose I’m like an anthropologist as I try to convey to you a major problem in the scientific culture and education. People of St. Louis; Earthlings: I come in peace.

Feynman classified Cargo Cult Science as going through the motions of scientific research with the goal to produce a certain result. Or, if they are true believers, they fail to ask critical questions that might challenge their cherished beliefs. Or perhaps they fear asking the hard questions because the donor funding the research deems such questions unacceptable; fear is a powerful motivator. In the latter case the scientists are like the natives who know the gods are but men, but keep up the sham because they are willing to be used, or afraid of the alternatives.

The global warming federal-scientific complex is an example of Cargo Cult Science. Experiment first, conclusions afterwards is the very basis of scientific inquiry. But here the conclusion is pre-determined. In this country tens of billions of dollars have been thrown at studying global warming. The current 2011 funding provided by the federal government to study global warming is approximately as large as the entire federal government’s budget was in 1932 — $3.994 billion.[iii]

Late 2009 emails stolen from a British climate lab showed global warming scientists engaged in systematic manipulation of the scientific process, obfuscation, and sometimes outright lying. Several scientists associated with the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), including several from NASA, are implicated. When he and others were caught red-handed the IPCC scientist at the center of the Warmergate scandal, Dr. Phil Jones, admitted not only that the world may have been much warmer in the past, but there has actually been no global warming for 15 years.

His admission is startling given that in its celebrated 2007 assessment the IPCC, in which Jones played a pivotal role, said the evidence that the world was and would continue warming was “unequivocal.” But in the Alice in Wonderland world of the post-normal global warming means…whatever you like. Global warming means global cooling, if that is convenient.

To an already fearful people whose fevered dreams were built on crumbling sands of secularism, this new paradigm is the sum of all fears. It embodies in it all the hurricanes, tornadoes, floods, droughts, plagues, pestilence, pollutions, and almost any other ecological disaster that one can imagine. You name it, and global warming will claim it.

What a splendid paradigm—it is a catchall, seemingly able to explain anything from the blasé to the banal. Let’s look at a few news reports. Who would have thought Bulgarian brothels[iv] would suffer barren business because of balmy weather? This greatest of environmentalist peccadilloes will not only lengthen the day[v] by slowing Earths’ rotation, but has already apparently caused the death of the Loch Ness Monster,[vi] increased Italian suicide rates,[vii] and birthed two-headed turtles.[viii] The ability to explain everything is a characteristic of Cargo Cult Science. The political possibilities of post-normal science are increasingly appreciated.

A friend of mine – an engineer – explained:

“I hope you appreciate that despite my being convinced that anthropogenic climate change/global warming is true, that there are plenty of other social/economic/ecological interlinkages/issues that I place at similar level of importance. . . .”

In other words for him, as for many in the green movement, global warming science is just one of a number of interlinked puzzle pieces. Even if it turns out there is cooling, we still have to save the planet. For many in the movement, system change is the point, not climate change.  Climate change is a vehicle.

The following illustrates post-normal science perfectly. A few weeks ago I posted this on my facebook wall, from The Independent:

“Snow a thing of past in Britain because of global warming, say top Scientists. The effects of snow-free winter in Britain are already becoming apparent. According to Dr David Viner, a senior research scientist at the climatic research unit (CRU) of the University of East Anglia, within a few years winter snowfall will become “a very rare and exciting event”. “Children just aren’t going to know what snow is,” he said.”[ix]

Obviously, I started getting shocked responses from my friends, some of whom live in Britain. How could these top scientists, all associated with the United Nations IPCC, fail to see all the global warming falling from sky. And this is the third such harsh winter in a row. I would be distressed if this was the start of a trend! That report was from 2000 when the alarmists assured us that the science was settled and snow was done for. Now that all the data is in, it actually appears Britain experienced its second coldest December in over 350 years. And guess what, the world’s top scientists now explain that the extreme cold and snow makes sense – it’s. . .because of global warming.[x] I sense a classic snow job.

In some cases we are so far beyond a psychedelic dream that it is almost funny. Just two weeks ago in Nature, a science journal I never would have associated with comedy, I saw an article no doubt published by the top scientists in the world who say global warming will continue to year 3000 in best case scenarios. We are doomed. We are doomed.

This is totally surreal. We are now deep in Monty Python’s Black Knight territory here.[xi] Though King Arthur hacks off several of his limbs the Black Knight remains optimistic of his chances on the field: “It’s merely a flesh wound,” says he; all that cold and snow three years in a row, no warming for 15 years – pshaw. Global warming is global cooling is climate change. It all depends on what the meaning of is, is.

Scientists may have once been considered magicians. We are now returning magickto the age of magic, where the most incredible predictions are made, and the herd stampedes in fearful belief. Here researchers make predictions out to the year 3,000, and the credulous natives open their mouths in wonder. It is magic.

Tracking the Trend

. . .we are seeing the paganization of society leading to the paganization of science

I believe the reason we are, as a culture, willing to be taken by such arguments is largely because of the resurgence of earth centered paganism. As discussed in my book, in paganism what matters most is not truth, but power. As we regress from principles of Christianity, such as basic honesty, I expect this kind of problem to increase. In a very strong sense, we are seeing the paganization of society leading to the paganization of science – Culture Club Science.

George

Boy George

In the 1980s, some of you will remember, the band Culture Club burst into existence, like the little ripe pimple that could. They perfectly personified the age with the androgynous image of their lead singer, Boy George, and hits like Karma Chameleon which was number one on the US charts for over 20 days starting the week of January 29, 1984. “I’m a man (a man) without conviction,” he crooned, because the idea of objective truth is no longer needed in this chameleon world of Boy is Girl is Boy is rat is pig is dog.

Two years later, on Jan 28, 1986, close to lunch time, the Space Shuttle Challenger shattered out of existence in the deep sky of Florida. Up to that time, it was arguably the most heart-breaking aviation/aeronautics disaster in this country’s history. Seven astronauts lost their lives – a brilliant South Carolinian physicist, five engineers, and one teacher. Almost thirty years later NASA personifies many of the problems we see in science education.

In 1958 NASA launched into existence with the National Aeronautics and Space Act. NASA’s mission was, “To provide for research into problems of flight within and outside the earth’s atmosphere, and for other purposes.” Since then the mission has been updated more than a few times:

“To understand and protect our home planet; To explore the Universe and search for life; To inspire the next generation of explorers . . . as only NASA can.”

What!? Inspiration and E.T? Look, if you want inspiration, you can get it for a few bucks from Star Trek, or Starbucks. You can boldly go…across the road. And looking for E.T. is about as nebulous a vision as waiting for the planes from the gods. What next; no alien left behind?

Well, sort of. President Obama has refocused the mission, which the new NASA administrator explains has as its foremost goal,

“to reach out to the Muslim world … to help them feel good about their historic contribution to science, math and engineering.”[xii]

Maybe your government will be sending out commemorative box cutters to Mosques, with the NASA icon cut into the handle. Whatever clarifications need to be given, surely it is clear that making Muslims feel good has nothing to do with the science of going to space. But then, in post-normal science, that there is no point beyond politics is the point.

Dangerous Post-Normal Science

Let’s go back 25 years, to 1986 and the post Challenger commission. Probably the most famous member of the blue riband panel, tasked to investigate the disaster was physicist Richard Feynman. He wrote an appendix to the panel report, arguing that the estimates of reliability offered by NASA management were wildly unrealistic, differing as much as a thousand times from the estimates of engineers. “For a successful technology,” he concluded, “reality must take precedence over public relations, for nature cannot be fooled.”[xiii]

For a successful civilization, reality must take precedence over politics, for God cannot be fooled. As the Bible says (Galatians 6:7),

“Be not deceived; God is not mocked: for whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap.”

challenger

Challenger disaster

The same is true for cultures. As surely as the Challenger fell from the sky, so surely the rejection of rational truth that we see in post-normal science will to lead to needless suffering. What is the hope? Where does strength come from? May I offer this, not as a trite expression, but as a quiet, but bright, light: Tell the truth. God has a way of bringing the most incredible victories out of seemingly hopeless situations. There is a God. He is transcendent. All is not One. Christ is all.

So be a truth teller. Not only will you benefit, but also those around you. It is as He who rose from what appeared as a shattering defeat said, “And ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.”


A version of this was presented at Constitutional Coalition, Educational Policy Conference, St. Louis Jan 27-29, 2011.

 


[i] John G. Paton, Missionary Patriarch: The true story of John G. Paton, The Vision Forum, Inc., 2001, p.350.

[ii] Paton, pp. 332-333.

[iii] Gene J. Koprowski, Global Warming Skeptics Lambaste Plan to Increase Funding for Climate Change Research, 14 Feb. 2010, online at http://www.foxnews.com/scitech/2010/02/11/obama-spending-increase-global-warming-research/; viewed 1/21/2011.

[iv]“Global Warming: Now it Hits Brothels,” Metro.co.uk, March 6, 2007, online at http://www.metro.co.uk/weird/article.html?in_article_id=39945&in_page_id=2, viewed 7/3/2009.

[v]“Researchers Find Global Warming Lengthens the Day,” AMS Newsletter, 23:3 (March 2002).

[vi]Bob Dow, “Veteran Loch Ness Monster Hunter Gives Up,” The Daily Record, February 13, 2008, online at http://www.dailyrecord.co.uk/news/scottish-news/2008/02/13/veteran-loch-ness-monster-hunter-gives-up-86908-20317853/, viewed 7/9,2010.

[vii]A. Pretia, G. Lentinic, and M. Maugeri , “Global Warming Possibly Linked to an Enhanced Risk of Suicide: Data from Italy, 1974–2003,” J. Affective Disorders 102(1-3) (September 2007, 19-25, abstract online at http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17234275, viewed 7/9/2010.

[viii]“Two-headed Olive Ridley Turtle Hatchling,” World Wildlife Fund, November 29, 2005, online at http://www.panda.org/about_wwf/where_we_work/latin_america_and_caribbean/country/c, viewed on 11/27/2007.

[ix] Charles Onians, Snowfalls are now just a thing of the past, The Independent, 20 March 2000, online at http://www.independent.co.uk/environment/snowfalls-are-now-just-a-thing-of-the-past-724017.html, viewed 20 December 2010.

[x] Richard Alleyne, Snow is consistent with global warming, say scientists, online at http://www.telegraph.co.uk/topics/weather/4436934/Snow-is-consistent-with-global-warming-say-scientists.html

[xi] Graham Chapman, Monty Python & Holy Grail (London: Methuen Publishing Ltd, 2002).

[xii] If you watch Al Jazeera, you know Obama’s new mission for NASA: To help Muslim nations ‘feel good’, 8 July 2010, online at http://latimesblogs.latimes.com/washington/2010/07/nasa-muslim-world-charles-bolden.html; viewed 20 January 2011.

[xiii] R. P. Feynman, Report of the PRESIDENTIAL COMMISSION on the Space Shuttle Challenger Accident, Volume 2: Appendix F – Personal Observations on Reliability of Shuttle, online at http://history.nasa.gov/rogersrep/v2appf.htm; viewed 1/21/2011.

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