Wednesday, March 18, 2015

The View From Outside

Recently I’ve been reacquainting myself with the stories of Clark Ashton Smith. Though he’s largely forgotten today, Smith was one of the leading lights of Weird Tales magazine during its 1930s golden age, ranking with H.P Lovecraft and Robert Howard as a craftsman of fantasy fiction. Like Lovecraft, Howard, and most of the other authors in the Weird Tales stable, Smith was an outsider; he spent his life in a small town in rural California; he was roundly ignored by the literary scene of his day, and returned the favor with gusto. With the twilight of the pulps, Smith’s work was consigned to the dustbin of literary history.  It was revived briefly during the fantasy boom of the 1970, only to sink from sight again when the fantasy genre drowned in a swamp of faux-medieval clichés thereafter.

There’s no shortage of reasons to give Smith another look today, starting with his mastery of image and atmosphere and the wry humor that shaped the best of his mature work. Still, that’s a theme for another time, and possibly another forum. The theme that’s relevant to this blog is woven into one of  Smith’s classic stories, The Dark Age. First published in 1938, it’s among the earliest science fiction stories I know of that revolves around an organized attempt to preserve modern science through a future age of barbarism.

The story’s worth reading in its own right, so I won’t hand out spoilers here. Still, I don’t think it will give away anything crucial to mention that one of the mainsprings of the story is the inability of the story’s scientists to find or make common ground with the neo-barbarian hill tribes around them. That aspect of the story has been much on my mind of late. Despite the rockets and rayguns that provide so much of its local color, science fiction is always about the present, which it displays in an unfamiliar light by showing a view from outside, from the distant perspective of an imaginary future.

That’s certainly true of Smith’s tale, which drew much of its force at the time of its composition from the widening chasm between the sciences and the rest of human culture that C.P. Snow discussed two decades later in his famous work “The Two Cultures.” That chasm has opened up a good deal further since Smith’s time, and its impact on the future deserves discussion here, not least because it’s starting to come into sight even through the myopic lenses of today’s popular culture.

I’m thinking here, for example, of a recent blog post by Scott Adams, the creator of the “Dilbert” comic strip. There’s a certain poetic justice in seeing popular culture’s acknowledged expert on organizational failure skewer one of contemporary science’s more embarrassing habits, but there’s more to the spectacle than a Dilbertesque joke. As Adams points out, there’s an extreme mismatch between the way that science works and the way that scientists expect their claims to be received by the general public. Within the community of researchers, the conclusions of the moment are, at least in theory, open to constant challenge—but only from within the scientific community.

The general public is not invited to take part in those challenges. Quite the contrary, it’s supposed to treat the latest authoritative pronouncement as truth pure and simple, even when that contradicts the authoritative pronouncements of six months before. Now of course there are reasons why scientists might not want to field a constant stream of suggestions and challenges from people who don’t have training in relevant disciplines, but the fact remains that expecting people to blindly accept whatever scientists say about nutrition, when scientific opinion on that subject has been whirling around like a weathercock for decades now, is not a strategy with a long shelf life. Sooner or later people start asking why they should take the latest authoritative pronouncement seriously, when so many others landed in the trash can of discarded opinions a few years further on.

There’s another, darker reason why such questions are increasingly common just now. I’m thinking here of the recent revelation that the British scientists tasked by the government with making dietary recommendations have been taking payola of various kinds from the sugar industry.  That’s hardly a new thing these days. Especially but not only in those branches of science concerned with medicine, pharmacology, and nutrition, the prostitution of the scientific process by business interests has become an open scandal. When a scientist gets behind a podium and makes a statement about the safety or efficacy of a drug, a medical treatment, or what have you, the first question asked by an ever-increasing number of people outside the scientific community these days is “Who’s paying him?”

It would be bad enough if that question was being asked because of scurrilous rumors or hostile propaganda. Unfortunately, it’s being asked because there’s nothing particularly unusual about the behavior of the British scientists mentioned above. These days, in any field where science comes into contact with serious money, scientific studies are increasingly just another dimension of marketing. From influential researchers being paid to put their names on dubious studies to give them unearned credibility to the systematic concealment of “outlying” data that doesn’t support the claims made for this or that lucrative product, the corruption of science is an ongoing reality, and one that existing safeguards within the scientific community are not effectively countering.

Scientists have by and large treated the collapse in scientific ethics as an internal matter. That’s a lethal mistake, because the view that matters here is the view from outside. What looks to insiders like a manageable problem that will sort itself out in time, looks from outside the laboratory and the faculty lounge like institutionalized corruption on the part of a self-proclaimed elite whose members cover for each other and are accountable to no one. It doesn’t matter, by the way, how inaccurate that view is in specific cases, how many honest men and women are laboring at lab benches, or how overwhelming the pressure to monetize research that’s brought to bear on scientists by university administrations and corporate sponsors: none of that finds its way into the view from outside, and in the long run, the view from outside is the one that counts..

The corruption of science by self-interest is an old story, and unfortunately it’s most intense in those fields where science impacts the lives of nonscientists most directly:  yes, those would be medicine, pharmacology, and nutrition. I mentioned in an earlier blog post here a friend whose lifelong asthma, which landed her in the hospital repeatedly and nearly killed her twice, was cured at once by removing a common allergen from her diet. Mentioning this to her physician led to the discovery that he’d known about the allergy issue all along, but as he explained, “We prefer to medicate for that.” Understandably so, as a patient who’s cured of an ailment is a good deal less lucrative for the doctor than one who has to keep on receiving regular treatments and prescriptions—but as a result of that interaction among others, the friend in question has lost most of what respect she once had for mainstream medicine, and is now learning herbalism to meet her health care needs.

It’s an increasingly common story these days, and I could add plenty of other accounts here. The point I want to make, though, is that it’s painfully obvious that the physician who preferred to medicate never thought about the view from outside. I have no way of knowing what combination of external pressures and personal failings led him to conceal a less costly cure from my friend, and keep her on expensive and ineffective drugs with a gallery of noxious side effects instead, but from outside the walls of the office, it certainly looked like a callous betrayal of whatever ethics the medical profession might still have left—and again, the view from outside is the one that counts.

It counts because institutional science only has the authority and prestige it possesses today because enough of those outside the scientific community accept its claim to speak the truth about nature. Not that many years ago, all things considered, scientists didn’t have the authority or the prestige, and no law of nature or of society guarantees that they’ll keep either one indefinitely. Every doctor who would rather medicate than cure, every researcher who treats conflicts of interest as just another detail of business as usual, every scientist who insists in angry tones that nobody without a Ph.D. in this or that discipline is entitled to ask why this week’s pronouncement should be taken any more seriously than the one it just disproved—and let’s not even talk about the increasing, and increasingly public, problem of overt scientific fraud in the pharmaceutical field among others—is hastening the day when modern science is taken no more seriously by the general public than, say, academic philosophy is today.

That day may not be all that far away. That’s the message that should be read, and is far too rarely read, in the accelerating emergence of countercultures that reject the authority of science in one field. As a recent and thoughtful essay in Slate pointed out, that crisis of authority is what gives credibility to such movements as climate denialists and “anti-vaxxers” (the growing number of parents who refuse to have their children vaccinated). A good many any people these days, when the official voices of the scientific community say this or that, respond by asking “Why should we believe you?”—and too many of them don’t get a straightforward answer that addresses their concerns.

A bit of personal experience from a different field may be relevant here. Back in the late 1980s and early 1990s, when I lived in Seattle, I put a fair amount of time into collecting local folklore concerning ghosts and other paranormal phenomena. I wasn’t doing this out of any particular belief, or for that matter any particular unbelief; I was seeking a sense of the mythic terrain of the Puget Sound region, the landscapes of belief and imagination that emerged from the experiences of people on the land, with an eye toward the career writing fiction that I then hoped to launch. While I was doing this research, when something paranormal was reported anywhere in the region, I generally got to hear about it fairly quickly, and in the process I got to watch a remarkable sequence of events that repeated itself like a broken record in more cases than I can count.

Whether the phenomenon that was witnessed was an unusual light in the sky, a seven-foot-tall hairy biped in the woods, a visit from a relative who happened to be dead at the time, or what have you, two things followed promptly once the witness went public. The first was the arrival of a self-proclaimed skeptic, usually a member of CSICOP (the Committee for Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal), who treated the witness with scorn and condescension, made dogmatic claims about what must have happened, and responded to any disagreement with bullying and verbal abuse. The other thing that followed was the arrival of an investigator from one of the local paranormal-research organizations, who was invariably friendly and supportive, listened closely to the account of the witness, and took the incident seriously. I’ll let you guess which of the proposed explanations the witness usually ended up embracing, not to mention which organization he or she often joined.

The same process on a larger and far more dangerous scale is shaping attitudes toward science across a wide and growing sector of American society. Notice that unlike climate denialism, the anti-vaxxer movement isn’t powered by billions of dollars of grant money, but it’s getting increasing traction. The reason is as simple as it is painful: parents are asking physicians and scientists, “How do I know this substance you want to put into my child is safe?”—and the answers they’re getting are not providing them with the reassurance they need.

It’s probably necessary here to point out that I’m no fan of the anti-vaxxer movement. Since epidemic diseases are likely to play a massive role in the future ahead of us, I’ve looked into anti-vaxxer arguments with some care, and they don’t convince me at all. It’s clear from the evidence that vaccines do far more often than not provide protection against dangerous diseases; while some children are harmed by the side effects of vaccination, that’s true of every medical procedure, and the toll from side effects is orders of magnitude smaller than the annual burden of deaths from these same diseases in the pre-vaccination era.

Nor does the anti-vaxxer claim that vaccines cause autism hold water. (I have Aspergers syndrome, so the subject’s of some personal interest to me.)  The epidemiology of autism spectrum disorders simply doesn’t support that claim; to my educated-layperson’s eyes, at least, it matches that of an autoimmune disease instead, complete with the rapid increase in prevalence in recent years. The hypothesis I’d be investigating now, if I’d gone into biomedical science rather than the history of ideas, is that autism spectrum disorders are sequelae of an autoimmune disease that strikes in infancy or early childhood, and causes damage to any of a variety of regions in the central nervous system—thus the baffling diversity of neurological deficits found in those of us on the autism spectrum.

Whether that’s true or not will have to be left to trained researchers. The point that I want to make here is that I don’t share the beliefs that drive the anti-vaxxer movement. Similarly, I’m sufficiently familiar with the laws of thermodynamics and the chemistry of the atmosphere to know that when the climate denialists insist that dumping billions of tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere can’t change its capacity to retain heat, they’re smoking their shorts.  I’ve retained enough of a childhood interest in paleontology, and studied enough of biology and genetics since then, to be able to follow the debates between evolutionary biology and so-called “creation science,” and I’m solidly on Darwin’s side of the bleachers. I could go on; I have my doubts about a few corners of contemporary scientific theory, but then so do plenty of scientists.

That is to say, I don’t agree with the anti-vaxxers, the climate denialists, the creationists, or their equivalents, but I think I understand why they’ve rejected the authority of science, and it’s not because they’re ignorant cretins, much as though the proponents and propagandists of science would like to claim that. It’s because they’ve seen far too much of the view from outside. Parents who encounter a medical industry that would rather medicate than heal are more likely to listen to anti-vaxxers; Americans who watch climate change activists demand that the rest of the world cut its carbon footprint, while the activists themselves get to keep cozy middle-class lifestyles, are more likely to believe that global warming is a politically motivated hoax; Christians who see atheists using evolution as a stalking horse for their ideology are more likely to turn to creation science—and all three, and others, are not going to listen to scientists who insist that they’re wrong, until and unless the scientists stop and take a good hard look at how they and their proclamations look when viewed from outside.

I’m far from sure that anybody in the scientific community is willing to take that hard look. It’s possible; these days, even committed atheists are starting to notice that whenever Richard Dawkins opens his mouth, twenty people who were considering atheism decide to give God a second chance. The arrogant bullying that used to be standard practice among the self-proclaimed skeptics and “angry atheists” has taken on a sullen and defensive tone recently, as though it’s started to sink in that yelling abuse at people who disagree with you might not be the best way to win their hearts and minds. Still, for that same act of reflection to get any traction in the scientific community, a great many people in that community are going to have to rethink the way they handle dealing with the public, especially when science, technology, and medicine cause harm. That, in turn, is only going to happen if enough of today’s scientists remember the importance of the view from outside.

In the light of the other issues I’ve tried to discuss over the years in this blog, that view has another dimension, and it’s a considerably harsher one. Among the outsiders whose opinion of contemporary science matters most are some that haven’t been born yet: our descendants, who will inhabit a world shaped by science and the technologies that have resulted from scientific research. It’s still popular to insist that their world will be a Star Trek fantasy of limitlessness splashed across the galaxy, but I think most people are starting to realize just how unlikely that future actually is.

Instead, the most likely futures for our descendants are those in which the burdens left behind by today’s science and technology are much more significant than the benefits.  Those most likely futures will be battered by unstable climate and rising oceans due to anthropogenic climate change, stripped of most of the world's topsoil, natural resources, and ecosystems, strewn with the radioactive and chemical trash that our era produced in such abundance and couldn’t be bothered to store safely—and most of today’s advanced technologies will have long since rusted into uselessness, because the cheap abundant energy and other nonrenewable resources that were needed to keep them running all got used up in our time.

People living in such a future aren’t likely to remember that a modest number of scientists signed petitions and wrote position papers protesting some of these things. They’re even less likely to recall the utopian daydreams of perpetual progress and limitless abundance that encouraged so many other people in the scientific community to tell themselves that these things didn’t really matter—and if by chance they do remember those daydreams, their reaction to them won’t be pretty. That science today, like every other human institution in every age, combines high ideals and petty motives in the usual proportions will not matter to them in the least.

Unless something changes sharply very soon, their view from outside may well see modern science—all of it, from the first gray dawn of the scientific revolution straight through to the flamelit midnight when the last laboratory was sacked and burned by a furious mob—as a wicked dabbling in accursed powers that eventually brought down just retribution upon a corrupt and arrogant age. So long as the proponents and propagandists of science ignore the view from outside, and blind themselves to the ways that their own defense of science is feeding the forces that are rising against it, the bleak conclusion of the Clark Ashton Smith story cited at the beginning of this post may yet turn out to be far more prophetic than the comfortable fantasies of perpetual scientific advancement cherished by so many people today.


On a less bleak but not wholly unrelated subject, I’m pleased to announce that my forthcoming book After Progress is rolling off the printing press as I write this. There were a few production delays, and so it’ll be next month before orders from the publisher start being shipped; the upside to this is that the book can still be purchased for 20% off the cover price. I’m pretty sure that this book will offend people straight across the spectrum of acceptable opinion in today’s industrial society, so get your copy now, pop some popcorn, and get ready to enjoy the show.


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John Michael Greer said...

I'm quite aware that I've touched on some subjects in this post that tend to spark massive fistfights online and elsewhere. That being the case, I'd like to ask all my readers to be especially careful about courtesy in responding to it, and to your fellow commenters. Since this post is about attitudes toward science, and not about vaccination, climate change, or evolution, I'm also going to ask those who want to debate those subjects to go elsewhere. Any attempt to redirect the discussion to the pros and cons of any of those subjects will not be put through. Many thanks for your forbearance.

Glenn said...

Canticle for Leibowitz comes to mind. There were quite a few dystopic SF stories written in which "Science" and "Scientists" took the blame.


in the Bramblepatch
Marrowstone Island
Salish Sea

John Roth said...

I wonder if this will get cross-posted at Retraction Watch.

Carnegie said...

Americans who watch climate change activists demand that the rest of the world cut its carbon footprint, while the activists themselves get to keep cozy middle-class lifestyles, are more likely to believe that global warming is a politically motivated hoax;

Realistically, this is a double bind for environmentalists. Someone I know put it this way. Who are you going to trust about climate change? The woman who drives an SUV and preaches about sustainability or the woman who emerges from the woods, leaves in her hair, and stands atop a pulpit preaching about the coming flood? The correct answer is neither. You are going to trust neither of these people.

Of course it's a false choice, and it's possible to live a lower impact lifestyle without being an Alaskan homesteader, but I think it's also a useful point. On one hand, the SUV will make a skeptic out of the listener, but on the other hand, the prospect of drastically decreased wealth ("dark green environmentalism") will likely generate such a gut reaction as to wall off the listener's ear drums.

How can we win?

It is no wonder that off-the-grid ecovillage fantasies pop up among environmentalists so frequently. Just like the climate denial, it may not be a good idea, but you can at least understand why it happens.

JimK said...

A couple excellent books on nutrition that address the problems of scientific method etc.: Eat, Drink, and Be Healthy by Walter Willett, and Good Calories, Bad Calories by Gary Taubes.

While the outside view of science is important, the inside view of philosophy of science is also a crucial blind spot. The two blind spots are related, of course. But scientists largely adhere to a blind faith in "the" scientific method. It's like the wizard of Oz insisting, "Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain."

Science itself would be greatly enhanced by a better balance between producing results and reflecting on methods. But science has really degenerated into careerism. Real scientists, passionately curious and courageously questioning, are probably rarer today than a century ago. The crass commercialism creates such a brutal environment that the real scientists can hardly survive. Not much different from the world of the arts.

Kutamun said...

Yes we had Richard Dawkns in a panel debate on an ABC program recently . They pitted him against a Catholic Archbishop and some scientists and politicians , not a polytheistic oligotheist in sight , with predicatably bourgeoise and boring results ! . Was it Kunstlers recent book that depicted people who were involved in science having to keep a very low profile after it all went to pot ??
The Gods of one Age become the demons of the next , so perhaps we will see a subversive tradition of counter culture people worshipping dark altars and images of these fallen minor deities of a previous age " Scientists " , xhiefmost CEO among them who may be summoned at sunset and commandeth 666 legions may be called "Vaccine" , but be warned do not let him fool or deceiveth you , he soeaks with forked tongue and assuredly will attempt to free himself from the triangle .....

Andy Brown said...

There are many reasons why I gave up academic social science, but there is one that cut most deeply. It was the realization that if I actually did discover something that contributed deeply to our understanding of human beings - some new and powerful knight - there was no reason to expect that such an insight would be used to improve the lot of human beings. On the contrary, every structure of power and influence in our society seemed to be determined to use any new insight or discovery to drag people deeper into servitude and dependency.

I departed for a more tactical level, working with people trying to do good.

So, while I can't really disagree with your analysis, I locate most of the problem in the compromises that scientists make toward a destructive, external system of power and greed, though maybe that sounds to you like a hollow and evasive excuse.

Scholarship, like the arts, has always needed a patron, but in too many cases it struck a deal with the devil. Some of them should have known better.

El Borak said...

I've long been of the opinion once we manage to put stuff back together on the other side, one of the first capital laws that will be enforced will be against the wearing of lab coats. And it's not because science is wrong or bad or what have you, it's because when science screws up epically it has the power to take us all with it.

Witness the disease scientists (most recently at Wisconsin Madison) who are trying to create more virulent strains of flu and what have you. Sure, we want to study in order to protect ourselves. But we're still human, and humans sometimes do stupid things just because we can. Mistakes get made, and if one happens to be made with a cross between Ebola and Spanish Lady, then the future religious fanatics won't fear science because they don't understand it, but because they understand it too well.

r_df34 said...

Hello JMG,

I think the risk of science being abandoned altogether is minimal. If anything, the first thing our descendants will jettison is the institutional web of science - the network of universities and foundations - which are, after all, the most susceptible to corruption. The scientific method itself, conceived purely as a tool for understanding certain aspects of reality, seems too useful to abandon. I wonder if the idea of a professional scientist, being paid to produce research, was itself a misstep for our society. How can monetary compensation not interfere with objectivity in the pursuit of the truth? I can more easily see a return to the form that science had in the 16th or 17th century, pursued as a hobby by the educated upper classes, or laypeople without a formal education/indoctrination.

Random Man said...

Yeah this is an interesting topic and I do enjoy thinking about as part of a decadent reflection.

But my opinion is formed and will remain so for the rest of my life. Namely, that very little of what we talk about today is going to be relevant or last.

If a society is terminable and unsustainable, I must conclude that every part of it is terminable and unsustainable, including science.

I do not for a moment mean that human beings won't have science in 50 or 100 years. I think we all agree on that. What I mean is, we won't have the science we have today, so whatever comes is more or less going to be unrecognizable.

Dan the Farmer said...

JMG, did you see where Bill Nye just did an about face on GMOs after the nice people at Monsanto had a heart to heart with him?

Patricia Mathews said...

I passed on your first two links to both my best friend in Klamath Falls, and to the Bujold (s/f fandom)list, since a debate about modern vs alternative medicine was happening on the list. And the Slate article to Jean in K. Falls with the heading "Why people believe the stuff they do."

You see, I'm old enough to remember when the medical consensus of my parents' generation was that the poor were "pale, pudgy, and unhealthy from all the cheap starches they eat", and when the medical & diet industry was trying to shove those cheap starches down our throats as healthy. A lot of us swallowed that. If you saw the weight given on my 2004 driver's license (and quite certainly rounded down), though other factors were at work there ....

So, three cheers and a hearty BRAVO! for letting me know I'm neither alone nor among the crackpots for my heavy skepticism.

Bob Wise said...

In the area of nutrition, I think a lot of the apparent reversals in doctrine result from scientific findings being filtered through news media. "Everything you thought you knew about X is wrong" makes a great news hook. But I have noticed that there's a deep divide between working MD's and PhD's about the proportions of fat and carbohydrate that should be in one's diet. I followed a low-fat regimen, more or less, for decades, until my doctor recommended a book by a neurologist suggesting a diet high in certain fats. After I followed that sort of diet for a year, she told me she didn't "completely agree" with that advice...OK. I'd like some authoritative recommendations, but can't fault her for not providing them. There's no scientific consensus.

Chester said...


I think the connection you made between vocal champions of science and angry atheists is an apt one. I was an angry young unbeliever myself at one time -- easily persuaded by the logic of the Dawkinses of the world. Not that that was difficult, given the tepid attitude toward religion in the white, middle class Northeastern American areas where I grew up.

But dogmatism is dogmatism, and it was ultimately that relentless bullying attitude which forced me to step back and reexamine my conclusions. I consider myself some kind of pantheist/agnostic now, though I'm sure strict adherents to that phony atheist-fundamentalist tug of war would call me an atheist.

Anyway, that experience has given me the perspective to be able to empathize with anybody that chooses to reject a popular paradigm -- whether it's climate change, vaccinations, feminism, or whatever. People often throw away good, healthy ideas as a result, but it's hard to blame them.

Perhaps this is a part of the end of the age of abundance? It once seemed like there were just a few versions of reality competing for prominence. With the fall of the Soviet Union, globalization seemed like it was poised to merge us all into one science-led vision of reality, but it seems to have gone the other way. Instead, everyone picks up little shards of unconventional belief here and there and suddenly nobody can agree on what's true anymore.

Maybe that's not a bad thing? I don't know, but it seems confusing.

Steve Carrow said...

Any human endeavor is subject to our imperfections, but in addition to the dynamic you lay out, I also see this degradation of the science enterprise as one more of the positive feedback loops in our predicament.

As we get further into decline, governments have less and less income to apportion to "overhead" functions like pure research or regulatory oversight, profit seeking money steps in to fund research, the corporate/government revolving door spins all the faster, universities and research labs struggle to maintain their function and take the Faustian bargain.

Adding fuel to the fire, in a dysfunctional symbiosis, the media, grasping for eyeballs, scour the journals for studies they can sensationalize, at the same time researchers, desperate for the next grant, stretch their conclusions to imply more than they can really justify.

The field of science, in addition to losing credibility and drive toward improvement, is now shackled to short term profit in service to its master. As the catch phrase from the 70's says:"Follow the money". Or from another empire in the past: Cui Bono".

Pinku-Sensei said...

"Despite the rockets and rayguns that provide so much of its local color, science fiction is always about the present, which it displays in an unfamiliar light by showing a view from outside, from the distant perspective of an imaginary future."

Science fiction speaking to our current anxieties has always been true. According to a film professor at Georgia Tech, it was true in the 1930s when literature and film converted the fears about war and depression into cataclysms such as floods, tsunamis, plagues, and cometary collisions. Looks familiar, as some things don't change, including fears of war and depression today translating into similar disasters in modern science fiction literature and media. That same film professor pointed out that climate change had become a current anxiety in its own right and a subject of cinema.

Another source of anxiety might be something not as obvious. A lot of 21st Century monsters may not be representations of threats to life and limb, but threats to autonomy. The spread of ideas that turn people into mindless mobs might just be the inspiration for the fear of the zombie apocalypse. Misuse of information technology and media, the instruments of last week's topic, "The Prosthetic Imagination," and part of what produces the view from outside, could lead to the horror of The Matrix movies. Add the subjects together, and the result might be monsters of the digital frontier.

As for the likelihood of that happening over the long term, I fear that JMG may be right; there may be no ability for the conditions that give rise to these fears to go on long enough, and next century's monsters may again be the ones that pose threat to life and limb, and not just the autonomy of industrial civilization's comfortable denizens.

Finally, PhD Comics portrays part of the problem with popular representation of science, the way university's promote the research of their own scientists, in The Science News Cycle. Based on that, the academy has no one to blame but themselves.

Curtis said...

Hello Mr. Greer, I greatly enjoyed this post.

I would suggest a couple of remedies that, while paradoxically seeming to undermine faith in science, might actually restore a modest amount of it. Instead of science as a bludgeon (the Dawkins approach), we might restore science to a "candle in the dark" - a modest but useful way to dispel some problematic beliefs. (Sagan had problems in his views, but his metaphor is still useful, I think.)

1. Teach science the way that the late Neil Postman suggested: As a historical endeavour. Postman suggested with dead seriousness that the Ptelomaic model of astronomy before Copernicus's. His idea was to see the successes and failures of theories, and why succession of one theory of another can be useful.

Thomas Kuhn makes a related point for different reasons: textbook science edits out the failures or "irrelevant" aspects to present science as progress. I do not recall any science book talking about Newton's alchemy, for instance.

I remember learning about the caloric theory of heat and Lamarckian evolution in high school - this was an extremely useful exercise because you could see *why* people believed them and why people thought they were now wrong.

Postman, interestingly, suggested a solution to teaching creationism that was sure to please no one - teach it, and then have students try to test each theory with experiments, facts, and the proposal of new hypotheses.

2. Read about issues by people outside of the discipline. For instance, if you read about health issues from a sociological perspective, you get a very different set of prescriptions of health than what others recommend. For example, one of the reasons why the United States is far off the map in terms of health in the first - and even developing - world is its inequality.

On the health issue, my favourite outsider's book was Ivan Illich's "Medical Nemesis". Iatrogenesis should be a far better known term.

3. Read critical books within the discipline. On the medical issue, I have numerous critical books on mainstream medicine... written by mainstream doctors. Examples:

Overdo$ed America by John Abramson
On the take by Jerome Kassirer
Overdiagnosed: making people sick in the pursuit of health by H. Gilbert Welch et al.

Chris Balm said...

After reading this I can see parallels between the scientists and politicians and the way they frequently ignore the view of the public.

John Michael Greer said...

Glenn, oh, granted. As I noted, Smith's piece was one of the first in a long and often distinguished sequence.

John, I hope so.

Carnegie, by moving toward the middle, away from those two extremes. Half the reason I have what credibility I possess is that I don't have either the SUV or the leaves in my hair. If people who were concerned about climate change cut their carbon footprint in half, while maintaining a humane and decent lifestyle -- and it's entirely possible to do that -- my guess is that cliamte change activism wouldn't have fallen flat on its face.

JimK, granted. I'm just using the angle of attack that I think might do the most good.

Kutamun, wouldn't surprise me at all; a lot of medieval magic was based on classical Pagan philosophy, after all.

Andy, I certainly didn't mean to put the blame on individuals! As I noted, from outside, it doesn't matter what combination of pressures are driving scientists to behave the way they too often do; it's the effect that matters.

El Borak, no argument there. Compliments on your online handle, btw -- given that this post started with a Weird Tales reference, a comment from one of Robert E. Howard's less famous pulp heroes is certainly apropos. ;-)

R_d, I think you're wrong, for the reasons cited in my post.

Random, well, we disagree. I don't think it's possible to change the overall trajectory of industrial society this late in the game, but there are still things that can be accomplished.

Dan, no, I didn't. That's sad.

Patricia, you're far from alone. After all, you've got Dilbert on your side! ;-)

Bob, that's part of it, but not all of it. The next time your doctor gives you some health recommendation, try saying, "Well, but how do I know if that's right? After all, these other recommendations werent" -- and see whether she takes that calmly. (If she does, you have a very good doctor.)

Thomas Daulton said...

I am not going to debate any scientific subject, all I have is applause. I mentioned in an earlier week that if I could only squeeze out the spare time, I would write an entire book about "Scientific Arrogance". With the various links you cite here, I am both in dread and in eager anticipation that the broader culture may write my book about this subject before I can get around to it.

I would propose one refinement to "The View from Outside", though: at least as often as not, a doubter's negative experience with science comes not directly from the scientists nor even directly from the mass media reporting on the science; especially in the case of health, (and don't even get me started on the "science" of economics), it very often comes secondhand from a fellow lay-person who has read some news article about a generalized scientific principle. The other person, who has some kind of axe to grind and wants to feel superior, attempts to use the general principle as a blunt instrument in attacking some specific hated group either personally or politically. Even if he's not the subject of the attack, the doubter sees very clearly that the motivation for the pseudo-scientific attack is not scientific, and comes to believe that all science is corrupt and partisan.

"The View from Outside" of science is by no means a unified or monolithic standpoint. The Scientific Method allegedly has safeguards against fraud and orthodoxy... but it incorporates no safeguards whatsoever regarding the use of science as a political football by non-scientists, tossed between opposing cliques. You've mentioned this in passing in the context of competing factions trying to feed at the trough of a collapsing culture, but I think it's an important component of why individual people mistrust science.

druiddisciple said...

This post brought to mind the utter revulsion I felt towards the biomedical industry after reading, "The China Study" by T. Colin Campbell. That book initiated my own study of herbalism.

John Michael Greer said...

Chester, I have plenty of friends who are somewhere on the atheist-to-agnostic-to-maybe-pantheist spectrum; some of them are fellow Druids. So I'm familiar with that realm of ideas! I think that for most of us who have trouble with the "angry atheists," it's the adjective that causes trouble, not the noun.

Steve, that's a very plausible analysis.

Pinku-sensei, it doesn't take much watching of Japanese monster movies to realize that Godzilla is a personified earthquake and Rodan a personified typhoon, so I tend to agree.

Curtis, those are three very good habits. It amuses me, though, to think of the spluttering that you'd get if you proposed them to Neil DeGrasse Tyson et al.!

Chris, no argument there.

Thomas, that's a very good point -- the way atheists use evolution as a stalking horse for No-God-ism, which I mentioned briefly in the post, is just one example, of course.

Cherokee Organics said...


Yes, I had remembered your recommendation of Clark Ashton Smith (and the meeting rules / organisational books) but have not yet made the journey to the dark, dingy and dusty bookshop where I'm pretty certain that there'll be a bumper load of his books.

Sorry people, it's not in my nature to be mysterious, but I cannot reveal the whereabouts of this true gem of a bookshop. I can't lie, I'm driven by self interest in this matter as I'm genuinely concerned others may get there first. hehe!

As an interesting side note, I picked up most of the more obscure Jack Vance pulp books there too. Original covers and in good - but very dusty - condition. Jack Vance cites Smith as an early and heavy influence. I'm currently reading Vance’s work Emphyrio which I can't stress highly enough as to its level of excellence – but I am a rusted on fan.

Yes, don't mention herbalism to a medical practitioner. I've never been treated like a whacko before and it is an unpleasant feeling, but it had the positive benefit of letting me know that there must something in it - otherwise they would not bristle so, would they? Who would have thought that you could unknowingly step into the middle of a long and brutal turf war...

As to what makes up a profession - well I know something about this, and will below provide a grading for the scientific profession along with some notes:

- Systematic body of theory and knowledge. A+. Well done, they have worked well at this task, but complacency is possible and they must continue to work hard to avoid that particular trap.

- Extensive education process. Again A+. A rigid and formal hierarchy / caste system has been long established with scope for individuals of high merit to rise within the priesthood - oops, sorry, I meant to write hierarchy.

- Ideal of service to the community. Qualified C grade. It is worthwhile exploring this particular concept a bit further to uncover the reasons behind the poor grade. A monopoly of professional knowledge gives professions power and opportunity (should they wish to) to exploit their privileged position to the detriment of the public at large. The monopoly continues so long as the power is used in the public interest. This trust is a social contract. I would suggest that scientists are straining the limits of the social contract, still I guess we may need to do more research into the matter (people - as hint that last sentence is a bit of humour which you may need to think about).

- A high degree of autonomy and independence. C-. Unfortunately if the community at large has the perception that the scientific community is not independent from that of their employers then that ship has sailed as they are perceived to lack integrity and no longer working in the public interest.

- A code of ethics for members. F-. JMG put that argument forward better than I could. It doesn't look good for them.

- A distinctive ethos or culture. A+. Outsiders opinions must not count in the process, they are unable to approach the altar.


Cherokee Organics said...

- Application of professional judgement. E+ with a stern warning. Again this application of judgement is part of the social contract, the scientific profession does not operate within a vacuum. Scandals, conflicts of interest or outright fraud need to be dealt with openly and honestly and I can't see this happening as there is no process to maintain the value of the professional social license. Think supporting cigarette companies...

- Existence of a governing body. F. Fail. Nuff said. They are a profession in chaos.

Hope you all enjoyed my report card on the state of the scientific profession!

Exactly, they're setting themselves up as the scapegoat de jour and they're too narrowly focused to even understand that minor but important detail. Because when they fail to deliver - they'll be crucified - especially as more people chant the mantra "they'll think of something". Expectation management wouldn’t be a bad idea at this stage of the game.

Incidentally, I'll end this notable rant (yeah, I'm being silly) by linking to Dr Karl Kruszelnicki the Australian science communicator - a very well-spoken bloke - talking about The recent government intergenerational report. As a challenge see how many faith based statements you can spot.



PS: The latest blog post is up:
Burning Scones about: having to rebuild the wood heater here; frost in the valley below; more excavations; autumn flowering plants; Poopy the Pomeranian; more stuff on how the house was built; and how to get rid of a very large plastic water tank (not my idea). Lots of cool photos too.

SweaterMan said...


To me, the most vexing problem with "SCIENCE" and the "SCIENTISTS" is in the way science is supposed to work versus how scientists get boxed into their views, just like the rest of us.

Science is supposed to be self-correcting; as new data arrives that is incompatible with current theories, then either (1) the data has to be explained within the current framework or shown to be anomalous, or (2) current theories need updating.

So if there was any group of people you would expect to notice this change in view "from the outside", react to it, and update their way of thinking to this "view from the outside" you would think it would be scientists! It's the way their profession works!

Instead, they corral the wagons and defend from within, again and again.

This saddens me, because some scientific ideas may be utterly lost as we move forward. And while many ideas have little impact on day-to-day live of people [Quantum Electrodynamics], other do impact in severe ways [Germ Theory of Disease].

I don't think there is any way to get the money out of science however. As an example, someone can't prove a theory about extra-solar gas giant planets without having access to a boatload of equipment that costs big dollars to operate. If you don't have access to telescopes outside of the atmosphere your theory is nothing more than speculation over a couple of beers.

I'm stopping now, because I'm rambling. This was truly a disturbing post to me tonight however. The end of Asimov's story "Nightfall" springs to mind...

oilman2 said...

I don't disagree with you, but there is more going on here than scientists looking down their noses in arrogance at those of us not ensconced in ivory towers. From where I sit, with an Aspergers lawyer, a sommelier, a housewife/coach and a horticulturist as graduates - education plays as big a role in this as the scientists.

With calculus and even advanced algebra removed from mandatory curricula; with special "sciences for (insert non-science filed here) as credit hours; with social studies and geography no longer even taught much less anything resembling real history - how can the typical graduate even begin to absorb anything remotely technical?

There is also a dearth of generalists due to the demand for specialists of every sort - and it pays well. But having run several companies, generalists are better bang for the buck, as they tend to focus on what is realistically possible within the bounds of current science. These same specialists often are completely lost in the forest searching for a species of tree...yet they are forced to teach!

I have read what passes as a 'textbook', and when the spelling and grammar are corrected by an algo, it isn't completely coherent. It also is more often than not priced as a printed textbook, but actually an e-pub. And the content atrocious if not mainly grandstanding blather covering basic concepts that can be found in any library (do they still have those?)

The graduates of today are not and have not been given the same degree of education as I was in the 1970's. My latest son took Beekeeping, and it consisted of watching YUtube videos and taking tests - bees were verboten due to possible lawsuits from any allergic reactions. Textbook was 65 pages Epub for $150, mandatory. Truth - education is now truly a corrupt racket.

Education in America has become so ludicrous that even my kids told me we were getting ripped off - but it is the only path available if one must get a job. I am amazed that I had to explain the difference between the average and median AFTER they covered statistics...making it no wonder that the populace cannot understand basic science much less epigenetics.

I believe that the general dumbing down from political correctness and fairness doctrines espoused by academia have irrevocably hurt education and discourse. I think that the extreme monetization of college educations combined with the above items, as much as your theory regarding sciences rapidly corrupting image, serves to build a very high wall between science and the common man.

Science was never supposed to be a religion, but we are approaching that stage now, when discourse is discouraged. The scientists circle the wagons and many pontificate theories (not laws, but theories) while the populace is intentionally being educated less - forcing them to accept or reject based on what 'sounds good' or "makes sense". Glass is not a solid - does that make "sense"?

Maybe we have come to the age of "Soundbite Science", because that is all people get delivered to them and all we can understand in many cases.

Curtis said...

I must confess to being an atheist, but never saw how that makes me a better person or how it could affect my scientific thinking or beliefs.

I cannot prove or disprove god(s) directing evolution, for example.

I have no idea what happens when we die. (Although I am intrigued by answers offered by Stoics, Epicureans, and Buddhists, where I draw many of my beliefs from.)

When I was 10, I saw a bright blue light in the ditch across from my house, and have no idea if I saw an alien or other novel life form, was having one heck of a lucid dream, or what.

The angry atheists lack are empathy and humility. (In fact, any scientist who lacks these things is dangerous.) It's easy to condemn beliefs; it's harder to understand why people might hold them.

I am also content to experience moments of awe without forcing the scientific mindset. I grew up on a reserve in Southern Ontario -- I'm part Ojibway - surrounded by enormous bluffs, thick forests, wild strawberry filled fields, clean water.... And while I understand the "science" of all of these things, to be present in the experience requires no explanation.

This is a long winded way to say, if a scientist also doesn't have that sense of wonder about the world and reverence for it, they too are also likely to be dangerous.

El Borak said...

JMG: a comment from one of Robert E. Howard's less famous pulp heroes is certainly apropos. ;-)

Given the Wierd Tales intro, I'll confess to having been a little self-conscious about posting on this thread...

That said, I ought to add that much of science's modern problem is a lot of not-science and almost-science trying to appropriate the respectability that actual science has accumulated over time. When almost-science inevitably fails, it makes actual science look bad.

It's not chemistry's fault that someone else's prediction doesn't pan out the way the models and the spokesman-celebrities publicly predicted. But when both are 'science' it becomes chemistry's problem.

Angus Wallace said...


I think Carnegie makes a good point, and that more thinking on it is worthwhile. This is something I've been thinking about recently.

Realistically, any effort to reduce one's impact on natural systems means consuming less. That includes things like cars, clothing, toys, houses, travel. All those things are status symbols. Therefore, an effort to impact the biosphere less amounts to a loss of status. This has the consequence that others will pay that person less respect than they would if that person had all those status symbols.

I agree that there needs to be a middle ground between business-as-usual and livin-wild-in-the-woods, but it is not clear to me how to counter the loss of status. Perhaps we need to push new status symbols? (this might be already happening, but golly it's slow!)

ps. on vaguely related themes, I wrote a couple of posts recently. The first about kitchens, and how people think about them. The second about how much wealth is liberated when cars are removed.

Thanks again for your interesting essay,

Mickey Foley said...

As you say, Science may be in the early stages of a transition from a pillar of society to an occult tradition, not unlike paganism, magic or astrology. Historical processes eroded these institutions from foundational bedrock to ethereal boogeymen. But they keep a foothold in successor cultures through superstition. I wonder what scientific practices might live on as "old wives' tales." For the sake of future generations, I hope the germ theory of disease survives in some form.

If you're so inclined, check out my blog, Riding the Rubicon.

Ben said...

JMG et al..,
Jarred Diamond will be speaking at the University of Tulsa next Thursday. The event is free and open to the public, if you'd like to attend ;)
Diamond's books 'Collapse' and 'Guns Germs and Steel' had a profound effect on my thinking about the wider world as a young man. I have bee disappointed in recent years by Diamond's insistence that the green-washed efforts of Wal-Mart (among others) might manage to stave off ecological collapse. I will be very curious what he actually has to say next week, and will report here if y'all are interested.
On a related note, my father recently gave me a subscription to National Geographic. I have a lot of respect for them for, among other things, actually talking about the end of the age of cheap oil waaaay before it was cool. That said, this recent article
ascribes skepticism to, for lack of a batter term, tribalism. Your (plural) thoughts?

FiftyNiner said...

Most clairvoyant Archdruid, you covered many of the questions that I had been mulling over for the last few days! I went to high school in the late 1960's here in the small town near where I live now. I had a remarkable science teacher who taught the entire science curriculum, which I took all of, and made A's, I might add! Looking back, how did we get through biology without all of the drama that seems to adhere to it these days? Mind you, this is the conservative, rural South and most of may classmates were Baptists, but I and they had enough respect for the way the basic science was presented to conclude that science and religion can coexist without cancelling each other out.
When I went to college I went straight for the humanities and took only some basic science courses.
My mother had type 2 diabetes for almost 40 years. I did everything I could to help her manage her disease and up until the last five years or so I trusted her doctors without question. Even when she was given Avandia, which resulted in life altering congestive heart failure, I blamed the drug company more than the doctors. No longer! MD's and most DO's in this country are de facto employees of the pharmaceutical industry. The medical schools don't even try to hide the source of their major funding! Does anyone think that when Novartis gives $20 million to a medical school in Pennsylvania that they don't expect some bang for their buck?
Too late I learned how we had been lied to about food. My mother's health and that of myself and my family suffered as a result. Too late I learned that the thing that is most likely to kill a diabetic is not too much "sugar" in the blood but too much "insulin!" Add to that the recent disclosures about "anticholenergic drugs being implicated in dementia, and you have here one good ol' boy who is through with doctors! I will use herbs and supplements and consult with a ND when I need to.
Johnny Carson had a joke years ago which in effect concluded that it was over for doctors--the lawyers and the insurance companies had won! A might disconcerting then--undeniable now!
NB. (The science teacher referenced above was born the same year as my mother and she too is in the nursing home in the final stages of dementia.)

peakfuture said...

This post is on Science; I'm curious how engineering fits in here.

As science falls away, what happens to the engineering/science interface? If you don't need alloys more exotic than iron-carbon steels, not much research is needed in exotic material sciences.

Also, when the infrastructure of the modern world falls away, perhaps engineering becomes more like it was in the Roman or pre-industrial age; rules of thumb, with some knowledge guarded and some openly published in well bound books. Or will engineering be rejected as well?

I tend to think that r_df34's point about funding of science interfering with the Truth is on the mark. Did Science go off the rails when it started being backed by lots of money (and when did that start to happen?)

If memories of Science are strongly linked with the world of problems we will have in the future, however, it is definitely plausible that people will reject it in the future. Sort of like people reflectively rejecting any flag that has an angular black, red and white color scheme; your cause might be noble, but the memories of that Other Flag could seriously put the damper on the transmission of your ideas.

Godwin's Law Of Flags - Any flag of a cause that has an angular black/red/white color scheme will immediately be associated with the group mentioned in Godwin's Law.

Zachary Braverman said...

Here in Japan there was recently a scandal about a doctor at a big university hospital killing and maiming a bunch of patients over the years by performing surgical procedures he was totally unqualified for.

My wife is a doctor here, and she agreed with me that there had to have been wide knowledge among other doctors at the hospital of this doctor's fatal incompetence. They can't help but know. But of course, no one wants to raise a fuss or be the bad guy, so patients keep dying.

IMHO, it's those doctors who are truly at fault. There will always be bad apples (in any country in any discipline), but when everybody knows about the bad apple but is unwilling to do something about it, that's when structural corruption occurs.

Dylan said...

Re: autism spectrum disorders as autoimmune disease

I have several friends on the spectrum and have been a mentor/chaperone to children in similar situations, so I've been quite curious about this subject as well.

The best information I've found has been through a local woman who at age eleven decided to devote herself to studying her own symptoms, combing the medical journals and experimenting in her own life to see what worked. For her, science has been a tool for personal empowerment. She's come up with five root causes of autism, each of which may be more or less relevant for each individual:

1. Brain and Nervous System Injury
2. Unresolved Trauma
3. Immune Overwhelm
4. Impaired Detoxification
5. Gut Dysbiosis (intestinal ecosystem unbalanced)

Numbers 1 and 2 often occur at birth or in early childhood, number 3 chimes with your hunch, JMG, while 4 and 5 are aggravated by trends you cover in this blog.

These are my rough notes from her online resources; always best to go the source:

I mention all this because although medical science usually tells autistics they have an incurable neurological disorder, it's more likely compounded biomedical sensitivities that seem to go along with certain cognitive gifts- gifts our culture has little to no appreciation for. Medical science's "diagnose, medicate, repeat" addiction furthers people's frustration and narrows the perceived scope of scientifically verifiable treatments.

Your description in last week's post of re-imagining things visually reminded me strongly of a young autistic boy I used to accompany. Just watching the way he watched the world was enough to change my perceptions of things profoundly.

pyrrhus said...

I mentioned Clark Ashton Smith on Twitter last year and got into a discussion with a 15 year old, who refers to him as "CAS". There is hope!
As to medical research in general, since most doctors and researchers are terrible at math, the vast majority of it is just garbage, which is what some verification studies are finding--80% of NIH papers are not reproducible. This problem is rampant in the social sciences, and also in "climate" science.
Nassim Taleb observes that all of the increase in life span in the last 50 years in the US is attributable to the decrease in tobacco use....leaving none for medical "advances." It is also true that when hospitals shut down, the death rate drops.

RepubAnon said...

For a story mentioning Clark Ashton Smith, try Fritz Lieber's "Our Lady of Darkness" - a very scary read.

Ien in the Kootenays said...

I have had a blog post brewing on this topic for some time. I may still get around to it but meanwhile, you have said much of what I have been trying to formulate. Your erudite writing is always a pleasure. Thank you.

Robert Martini said...


While institutionalized science may fall flat on its face. I don't believe there is much danger to practical science on an individual scale. It very well may evolve into trade organizations, but even the most religious and dogmatic societies relied on practical science simply because it was better than alternatives. Building irrigation structures and levees, great cathedrals and temples, and even astronomy was developed multiple times and places independently. I don't mean to underscore the value of retaining the science on an individual level as well. The issue of autoimmune disorders benefit greatly from the concepts of microbial ecology in the gut, mouth and on the skin. Altering the composition of gut flora via macronutrient ratios in my diet whether ketogenic or fasting allowed me to cure things my doctors said were incurable. Going forward much like the economy real results will define the ideological landscape cutting through the muddled abstractions. I plan to choose a few of conceptual suites to carry through to the decades. Speaking of which.

One conceptual suite concerning me as of late is this. I was hoping you could tell me what the spirits of nature may think of the task of reclaiming deserts for life?

Also decline and fall and twightlights last gleaming were brilliant!

Best Wishes!

Purple Tortoise said...

I'm a working climate scientist, and in my experience, climate denialism seems more driven by ideological affiliation than any general doubt about science. That is to say, climate denialists usually accept conventional views in other scientific fields like GMOs and vaccines but not regarding climate change because it conflicts too much with their political views. They generally like scientific and technological developments and refuse to believe that they can have bad outcomes like climate change.

Tasha T. said...

(Maybe not so)ironical I was a Captial-S-Skeptic myself.

Until I decided to be skeptical about some of the Skeptical Dogma.

First I searched, "scientific evidence against GMOs"

Then I searched "scientific evidence for psychic powers."

And I realized that "debunking" and repeating the mantra "Occam's Razor" was not science.

And great as science is, it isn't everything.

And now I'm growing a little garden in my apartment and throwing "garbage" into my worm bin to make black gold.

I'm reading primary sources, building up a library, and making janky printing presses.

I'm pouring over gnostic text and the works of Hermes Trismegistus. I'm reading Tarot spreads and feeding my lodestones.

And I have real hope for the first time in years and I'm putting that hope to work.

Val said...

As I think you're aware, the current issue of National Geographic is headlined "The Enemies of Science" - an extremely Dawkinsesque title - and names among these Enemies the critics of genetically modified organisms - presumably including GMO foods, I suppose. Such a characterization strikes me as truly perfidious, and it appears I'm not alone. Today at the supermarket checkout I noticed that someone had left the display copy of that issue upside-down. This doesn't happen all that often, and somehow I doubt it was merely a careless oversight.

Nicholas Carter said...

So a few things.
On the topic of science supporters' attitude: One of my experiences is that if someone comes to me asking for advice and I give the advice honestly, that is to say with appropriate caveats, hedges, and caution, they will say "Oh, well then I will ask someone who actually knows." aka someone who speaks with the Wagging Finger of Authority. The lesson I'm tempted to take away from this, the lesson I see reflected in many co-sciencists lived experiences, is to warm up that Wagger and say "This is the way it is, or I'll blight Hagsgate!" whenever the issue is even a bit important.
On the topic of medicating: An essay I read from a practicing physician once explained that there is a word, when a medicine exists for an ailment, for recommending an allergenic, dietetic, or lifestyle intervention. It's a straightforward legal term for recommending fish oil, or st. john's, or any number of other well-known curatives.
Malpractice. A licensed doctor professionally recommending a cure that isn't on the FDA approval list is committing malpractice, and his license will be whistling in the wind before long. That's what the doctor likely meant by "we prefer". This is why the FDA is currently monitoring drug trials to derive expensive treatments from fish oil, so that no one's license should be threatened if they recommend it.
And while it isn't reasonable, perhaps, I can't help but think when I read about Florida and South Carolina making the phrase climate change verboten, that maybe lay people are already too involved in scientific debate. The Archdruid himself has little patience for anti-science cornucopians of the Cold Fusion, Infinite Economic Growth, and Pollution Goes Away crowd.
I think it's ironic that in the future there's a good chance that the process that gave us organic agriculture, ecology, and the limits to growth will be vilified as the Faustian summoner of the Hyperborian age. But I guess that's what you get when you live in a Hyperborian age.
Lastly, I had no idea Aston Clark Smith was forgotten. He is well remembered in my neck of the woods, and discussed in online chats as a touchstone. Perhaps, like Walden and the Bible he is often quoted, rarely read?

Mark said...

And then too, when Kenneth Brower asked Freeman Dyson, the great scientist who was on the teem designing a manned vehicle to be powered with explosions of nuclear bombs, how it felt to be so much smarter than everyone around him, Dyson replied, I don't think of that way; I wonder why others are so stupid.

While I can see his point, I wonder if most scientists don't wonder the same thing. After all, they are not the ones with questionable judgement, it's the people outside. Besides, if they were smart, wouldn't they be on the inside? Hasn't every experience in their lives reinforced the belief that the smartest people win?

BTW, the book is "The Starship and the Canoe" and it's categorised as non-fiction.

And correct me if I'm wrong, but isn't genetic engineering where the smartest people are going these days? because that's where all the money is? Or is it still weapons development?

What Could Possibly Go Wrong?

(Biosphere II)

YCS said...

Talking about polemic science, here's the latest example of a respected scientific figure being shouted down by the proponents of the 'current fad'.

It's amusing that most pro-GMO articles I've read always mention some 'vast evidence' that I never seem to find, or the 'obviousness' of the safety of a huge systems change that hasn't been tested yet.

Also (for all): I wrote a post on my blog two days ago. It's slapdash, but I hope to convey some imagery. Thoughts much appreciated!


John Michael Greer said...

Cherokee, oh, granted -- I've tended to see Vance's Dying Earth as a straightforward homage to Smith's Zothique stories. As for your report card, yeah, that seems about right.

SweaterMan, excellent. There are several bits in "Nightfall" that make me think Asimov had read, and was thinking about, Smith's "The Dark Age."

Oilman, I won't disagree -- but I'd point out that scientists come out of that same educational system, and they have plenty of educational deficits as a result. I routinely encounter people with Ph.D.s in a scientific field who believe the crassest stupidities about history, for example. My conclusion is that scientists may have more in common with the rabble than they think!

Curtis, thank you! To my mind, the willingness to say "I don't know" is the rock bottom foundation of all human wisdom.

El Borak, oh, granted. One of the challenges here is that exactly what counts as "scientific" is a political football in contemporary culture.

Angus, of course it's a challenge. One of the things I've noticed in my own work in this field, though, is that status symbols are increasingly ambivalent these days -- what conveys high status also calls up a range of negative reactions, and people actually get wistful in the presence of some status-lowering things (along the "I wish I could do that" line of thinking).

Mickey, a fascinating question.

Ben, well, of course! Admitting that there's anything else to it would require talking about the view from outside, and that means that the outside perspective has to be admitted to the discussion. You're not going to see that anywhere in the bland glossy mental monoculture of today's pop media.

FiftyNiner, condolences -- that's got to be harsh to go through.

Peakfuture, as long as there have been people, there have been people who make things -- call them engineers if you wish. Outside of a very few historical periods, yes, it's been a matter of rule-of-thumb and craft secrets passed from master to apprentice, and I'm quite sure that the people-who-make-things of the future will do things much the same way.

Zachary, that's always the problem with treating such things as a manageable internal problem: from outside, it looks very different, and the consequences can be very ugly indeed.

Dylan, interesting. I'll check it out.

Pyrrhus, hope indeed! Thank you.

RepubAnon, it is indeed. I need to go back to Lieber one of these days -- a major fave in my teen years, though I've read little of him for decades.

Derv said...

Rabble rabble rabble! Those democrats made up climate change so they could steal our Christmas presents and vaccinate our puppies! Rabble!

Sorry, just wanted to do that. I'm glad that the tone and quality of conversation here can rise above that, even when various people disagree. I think you've shown here the value of a moderated forum online.

I think the only way to save the scientific institution at this point is to have a schism, one complete with new principles that are binding. There are some pretty fundamental flaws with the scientific method as it's currently practiced. Old ideas are often not abandoned, but rather revised to fit new data, even when this totally undermines their original justification for acceptance. Most importantly, there are countless studies and data sets that remain unpublished, often because they don't get the results that are wanted. If every study undertaken had to be published, and a method for discarding old theories was incorporated, and data sets became public after, say, 5 years, then there may be a chance. But it'd be the heretics who would save the institution, not the current lot. It is too insular, entrenched, and easily manipulated to survive without massive change, and this comes from a strong believer in the scientific method.

Obviously our Star Trek future is never happening, but I do wonder if the people of the future will look back at our autoimmune issues with the same mockery and revulsion that many look at the four humours, leeching, and taking heroin as medicine. That seems to me to be the underlying thread tying together our biggest health problems: autism, diabetes/obesity, gluten issues (insofar as it isn't just a fad), perhaps even depression. I myself have terrible back and joint issues from ankylosing spondylitis, an autoimmune disorder.

And if I may be so permitted to touch softly upon the issue, with no intention of sparking debate, I think creationism is often held for epistemological reasons. The scientific consensus has never been and could never be superior to the Bible in the view of many believers, so the quality of its output is somewhat irrelevant. They really just trust the Bible. But I grant that disillusionment with the inadequacy of the current establishment can both lead people to seek other explanations like (young-earth) creationism and to see little need to compromise their views even slightly by accommodating scientific findings.

For my part, I'm what I'd call a philosophical creationist. This is the approach I use to try to defuse the tension and anger I've seen from some of my fellow Christians. Once you grant the existence of a supernatural Creator, debating His methodology seems a bit of a moot point, doesn't it? :) Creating a universe five minutes ago (or 7000 years ago) that looks like it's been buzzing along for billions of years isn't exactly challenging to an omnipotent Being, and Adam wasn't created as a baby, so why must the universe be? (Again, not trying to spark debate or even argue either way on the age of the universe; I'm just trying to point out that a claim to supernatural origins has no need to appeal to natural methods for that origin, and so the two need not be in conflict).

I hope that didn't go too far. I mean no offense to anyone and promise I'm not looking for a fight! I just wanted to give my two cents and perhaps provide an insider's view on one of these issues, as I sometimes do. I have more I want to say about my experience with anti-vaxxers, too, but the potential there for conflict is I think too much, so I won't touch it. Suffice it to say that many whom I know are good people with their hearts in the right place. And you're absolutely right, JMG - distrust of the scientific community plays a huge role in it.

John Michael Greer said...

Ien, please do get around to it! The more voices in this conversation, the better.

Robert, as long as there have been people, some of them have tried to figure out how the world works. When I talk about science, I don't mean that universal habit -- I mean the specific traditions, practices, and techniques that have evolved over the last few centuries in the West. My take is that there's plenty worth saving in that, but I'm not sure how likely any of it is to get through the bottleneck ahead. As for spirits, er, that's a question for the other blog!

Tortoise, are you basing that on personal conversations you've had, or on exposure to the media?

Tasha, glad to hear it. I'd be happier if more skeptics applied their skepticism to skepticism, as you did!

Val, yes. The view from outside is not pretty when it points in that particular direction.

Nicholas, that's why I specified the absence of ethics from the medical industry, rather than from the individual. As usual, it's a matter of whole systems, not of individual components. The fact remains that from outside, it looks like deliberate harm in the service of greed.

Mark, I've read it!

YCS, exactly. The GMO industry's gone out of its way to prevent safety testing from being done, and then insists that GMOs must be safe because there have been no negative results in testing. Personally, I have no idea whether GMOs are safe or not, but I know that there's no way to get objective information on that subject, and that in itself suggests a reasonable course of action.

John Michael Greer said...

By the way, I've already had to delete five comments for trying to drag the discussion over to one of the topics I asked people to take elsewhere, and another for profanity. I do mean what I say, people: any comment that tries to start an argument for or against vaccination, anthropogenic climate change, or evolutionary theory will be deleted, and so will any comment containing profanity. Thank you for following the house rules!

deedl said...

I can see both sides of the science-cred discussion. As a scientist from the STEM-world i have often enough experienced how difficult it is to talk about something with people who miss many of the concepts and abstractions necessary to understand an argument.

On the other hand i am in fields of economics or medicine an interested laymen. Although i do not have formal education there, my scientific background enables me to evaluate if the methodology of other disciplines is scientifically sound. So in discussions with physicians and economists i was always the sceptical laymen questioning the expert (and also blog about some of the the nonsense many economists "believe",

Based on those experiences i would split the topic. You (and also scott adams) always treat science as a single entity. I would suggest to differentiate between science and experts.

Science is a set of methods to derive knowledge. Everybody can use ist and everybody should use ist (please everyone read Kants enlightment essay wikisource has the german original and an english translation Science is a powerful tool for everyone. It gives you the power to emancipate from the experts.

The problem is not with science, it is with experts (or with the loudest of them). Any laymen who asks questions or finds wholes in an argument advances science. But he may unmask the failure of an expert. So the expert then argues ad personam by claiming that he is the expert and the laymen is just that.

So let us get science back from the "experts". Science should be open source. Everybody should be able to participate in it. Read Kant. Use to access scientific data when searching for information. Learn about the difference between correlation and causality. Science is, just as your personal well being, to important to let it be done by experts.

Lucretia Heart said...

Speaking of Slate articles about the clash between scientists and outsiders... Just Wednesday morning I came across another article in Slate about this topic. Its a part of a larger one written by a scientist in Atomic Scientists magazine or some such.

Anyway, it was discussing why "medievalism" is returning to challenge Science-- and its chock full of arrogant judgments and... well, see for yourself. I think you'll be darkly amused JMG:

Its good he notices. However, the author acts as an apologist and insists fracking will help America strategically, etc. Crazy. Yet he IS picking up that there is a rejection of modern life going on, though he blames primitive barbarians, not Science-with-a-capital-S!

What's amusing are some of the comments to the articles. A couple were people who go to Renn faires and other Medieval history re-enactors teasing the author!

Purple Tortoise said...


Yes, my impression that climate denialists are otherwise pro-science are based on personal conversations. For example, awhile back I had some interactions with people associated with the Heartland Institute. Although very skeptical about climate change, they argue that scientists need to more forcefully defend GMOs. What's the common thread? Their stated goal is to "promote individual liberty, limited government, and free markets". Climate change isn't a problem solvable by limited government or free markets, so their knee-jerk ideological reaction is to deny that it is a reality. They deny that GMOs can be a problem for the same reasons. I haven't done a comprehensive survey of every climate denialist I talk too, but they certainly do seem to all fall into the ideological spectrum outlined above.

Thomas Daulton said...

Off-topic from this week's post, but related to earlier columns: I thought of JMG's prediction that Baby Boomers would someday organize cheerful "suicide parties" when I read this article: "Why Middle-Aged Men Feel So Lost".
Perhaps we underestimated the stubbornness of the Boomers and overestimated the rebelliousness of Generation X. This article from the UK shows statistics that suicide rates of late Gen-X males (age 40-59) have suddenly jumped up disproportionately, and younger Gen-X males are right behind (age 30-44). The author discusses conversations with this age group which indicate these males feel trapped in an unpleasant transition, and futureless -- unable to continue the societal roles of their fathers, but unwilling to adopt the flexibility and the tolerance for ambiguity which are hallmarks of the younger Gen-Y.

A brief glance at the CDC and related sites for equivalent statistics in the USA shows me that the US data is not well presented to spot these age/gender correlations. But it seems to my layman's eye that 2009 statistics saw males age 75+ being the disproportionate US leaders in suicide rates, whereas the 2012 data shifted suddenly to younger generations, again males 45-59.

As an American male in that age group (age 48), what immediately struck me about the UK Telegraph article, was the discussion revolved exclusively about identity issues and societal perceptions. It mentioned almost nothing at all about real-world, tangible, physical factors such as unemployment. The author talked with men who had lost jobs, but everyone loses jobs, and the article did not comment whether this age group had lost jobs disproportionately to the rest, or if unemployment was a widespread pattern. Basically, the article sort-of insinuated that the suicide problem for UK Gen-X males was "all in their heads". The idea that maybe Gen-X males had identity problems because the fossil-fuel exploitative economy that they(/we) had sold our souls to was ceasing to function in the real, physical world -- and Gen-Y was adapting better because these latchkey kids had never been promised nor received the corrosive wealth of imperialism and abstraction -- seemed to be ignored by the Telegraph article.

Karim said...

Greetings all!

Science as an institution most probably won't make it down Hubbert's curve.

Like JMG said over the years, it will be down to individuals across the world or institutions like monasteries that may transmit to the future what remnants of science they can.

It is entirely possible that it will be religious institutions that will mainly carry on this task.

What an irony to think that the works of Richard Dawkins may be made available to future generations only by the efforts of religious organisations!

To some extent is it already happening even in my little country of Mauritius. There is a Hindu organisation here, the Brahma Kumaris which originate from India, who are combining respect for nature, learning, spirituality and sustainability in their discourse.

For instance I was pleasantly surprised to read in the press that they had organised last year a family day with workshops on spirituality together with workshops on compost making and organic agriculture!

I don't think that they are consciously doing it for the sake of safe-guarding higher learning in the face of the collapse of modern civilisation but in the end it might well be a spin off of their religious works.

Tim & Nicky Jarman said...

Whilst I was finishing my Science PhD at a top UK University my Dept was reorganized and staff had to reapply for their jobs in the new Dept. The posts were only offered to those Academics attracting the most funding to their work rather than the quality of their research. I mourn the loss of true Akadēmía and the opportunity to learn and discuss, sitting in a grove of trees.

streamfortyseven said...

Back when I was doing my PhD in physical organic chemistry - working for two high-powered and well-funded research groups - I was repeatedly reminded that if I couldn't explain what I was doing to high school grads in a bar over a pitcher of beer, that it was *I* who didn't understand what I was doing, not them. I practiced this skill on a regular basis, and it was extremely helpful to *me* because it helped me to clarify what I was doing - and on more than one occasion, questions asked by ordinary people - which I couldn't answer at the time - led to new ways of looking at a problem. It doesn't sound like this is being put across very well now.

Medicine is not a science, despite all protestations to the contrary, it is a healing *art*. Real doctors treat it as such, but there are few of them around any more, it seems. But if you want to get "fired as a patient", you'll tell the nice doctor that you use homeopathic remedies (or herbal remedies) and they do in fact work - and without noxious side effects. Do that, and you'll be out the door in no time at all.

And from my experiences in doing peer reviews of papers for the journal for which Prof was chief editor, I'd say that about 90% of what gets published is useless bafflegab, headed straight to the rubbish heap or the dusty halls of university libraries. Moreover, there are plenty of peer-reviewed articles in leading journals which got published for the sole reason that the Principal Investigator was a God of his branch of science who could publish no wrong and no abject falsehood. One of these articles cost a friend of mine two years of his graduate career, before the author, a Fellow of the French Academy of Science, fessed up that he'd faked the results and the article was hogwash. It was subsequently retracted in a note in the rear of the journal after having been in print for 16 years - but it's still out there to serve as a snag for others unless they're particularly careful in their survey of the literature. By the way, it took this character six months to get backed up against the wall sufficiently to admit his error, and another six months to get the retraction squib in print. It's a good thing RetractionWatch exists, but charlatans with their lies and threats of legal action still abound.

ed boyle said...

I had two immediate thoughts:

Kant's categorical imperative-anything you do should be based upon the idea that this should be a universal moral precept not moral relativism.

Fachidiot-a german term-fach-means specialization in any technical area-the opposite is generalist. A Fachidiot only knows his area of specialization and outside of that is an idot.

Do no harm is the ancient doctor's oath. Apparently modern doctors have not taken this oath, ignore it, having discovered that kant's imperative is bettered replaced by moral relativism or are Fachidiots, just living in the short sighted bubble of what their industry tells them is correct. Not having experience outside of it they fail to see the difference between their small world and unive rsal experience. The term Gods in white coats could apply to any scientist, not just doctors, as the scientific concept is actually quite religious. Search for and discovery of truth is high up the list. One ignores own and others mistakes among the priesthood, as 'we' are better than others. This could apply to any other area where people cover for each other's mistakes, cops for example, but medicine and science have consciously taken on the cloak of priesthood in modern society, search for final truth, healing, etc.. and must be held accountable. Doctors pay high insurance rates. Perhaps scientific malpractice should be introduced. Will the eskimos win a suit against oil companies due to disappearance of their way of life? Kant should be applied to technology companies as well. Malpractice = liability for externaities.

gnomelandgardens said...

I just want to say thank you for regulating the comments here so thoroughly. I'm not interested in another vaccination or climate change debate, but I certainly do appreciate reading the comments here each week. Thanks for putting in the effort to keep it civil!

Avery said...

Hate to drag in a painful anecdote of how I was defeated on Wikipedia, but this week I spotted that their article on Reiki declared that it was "now considered pseudoscience". I attempted to replace with something more neutral -- like, Reiki is a non-medical healing practice akin to therapy or massage -- but there is actually a separate set of rules for articles that they claim to fall into the "pseudoscience" category, so all my edits were considered "apologetic" and reverted by several different people.

Of course, the result of this is precisely as you say. People will come to Wikipedia wanting to learn something about the health benefits of reiki, and will see it dismissed as "pseudoscience" in the first sentence and immediately decide they should find a less biased place to get their information from.

It's bewildering to me how people who I presume have expertise in medical subjects will eagerly let their own argument be defeated. Science is getting more, not less, cult-like as time goes on. Just look at the personality cult around Neil DeGrasse Tyson; that controversy was, of course, scrubbed from his Wikipedia page as well.

Bruno Bolzon said...

JMG, in the West at least, science may disappear for a while. However, I believe the East may pick up the baton: China and Japan, specially.

Angus Wallace said...


I think we need to make a distinction between people disliking the standard status symbols and society disregarding them.

I think that, while many people might be disgusted at the fat mining magnate in their expensive suit and big car, they nonetheless respect them. That even though the local philosopher is an affable person and down-to-earth, they lack the respectability of the hot-shot lawyer in town.

I've quickly put my thoughts together here. This is by no means complete or well-thought-out, but hopefully provides a useful sketch.

Cheers, Angus

Carlisle Wheeling said...

'Science' as defined in Webster's Dictionary: "knowledge covering general truths or the operation of general laws especially as obtained and tested through the scientific method." This I have no trouble with, nor, I feel, would any person of reason. This is a good thing and a noble pursuit. And I can not imagine that such endeavor and the benefit of it would ever wholly disappear from the human experience.

That said, what our host is describing is the perversion and corruption of science. For fame, for power, for money. 'Tis the same for all institutionalized endeavor, eventually. Government, education, mass media, you name it, all institutions go down this same road. What is begun with the intention of safeguarding, recording, scrutinizing and sharing, and the maintaining of standards for the general integrity of the endeavor winds up a perversion of itself and a corruption of it's founding purpose.

Why this must always be so would seem to suggest something weak, sinister and sadly pervasive in human nature when in positions of power which I am not competent to address. But whatever it is, it is age old and constant. It exists and has existed in all places at all times. Power corrupts. And entrenched power never relinquishes. It is torn down or rarely collapses under the weight of it's own corruption, but it does not reform or go quietly.

In the end, all we can do is to be skeptical, engage our critical thinking and do our homework. The internet and the instant, widely spread availability and sharing of information has created cracks in formerly unassailable institutions as a result of their inability to control it. This blog is a good example; since reading it I can't tell you the number of ideas, techniques, authors, films, resources of all types that I have found here and my knowledge and understanding grow exponentially because of it. So I would like to share and suggest a documentary (currently available for viewing through Netflix, I don't know where else) titled "Culture High." Whether you have any interest or opinion regarding the central theme, what it reveals about institutions, how they function and their purposes is eye-opening. It addresses the issues of 'inside and outside' that this post presents.

ozquoll said...

JMG, I am absurdly pleased to find out you are a fellow Aspie! I have been reading your blog with pleasure, and occasional dismay, for a year or so. I worry that in a future that is likely to be much poorer, grimmer and more violent than now, those of us on the autism spectrum will struggle greatly - building strong social networks will be vital, and Aspies are not much good at that (in person, that is - the Internet makes it easier)..

I'm getting off-topic. I actually came here to recommend the blog of a person who exemplifies scientific curiosity and honesty, perhaps because he is NOT part of the 'approved' list of scientists in his area of interest, the treatment of classic autism (of which his son is a sufferer). His blog is . I have treated some difficult symptoms of my own Aspergers based on ideas on his blog.

Stein L said...

Bruno Latour spent his six Gifford Lectures exploring the divisions between society, religion and science, in a manner that deals with the inside/outside schism.

He draws parallels that should be mind-opening to those too fond of maintaining barriers.
The first two lectures are hard going, but are where he creates his categories that demonstrate the artificial nature of the boundaries between Nature, Science and Religion.

The last two lectures provide thought provoking ideas.

I'll offer a little excerpt here, from the sixth lecture. They are available from the University of Edinburgh, or YouTube, but I suggest searching for a pdf of the lectures, as his French/glish can provide an obstacle.

Bruno Latour, Six Gifford Lectures, February 2013:

So far, everything happens as if it was impossible to enjoy the simultaneous presence of a people, a soil or an Earth, and a science. We find people without science nor soil; science without soil nor people; people with soil but no science!

How to get the three together: such is the puzzle that we have to solve.
First the soil. As we have seen earlier, everything that was part of the background has now melted into the foreground. There is no environment any more, and thus no longer a need for environmentalism. We are post-natural for good. With the end of the political epistemology of the past that insured the presence of an indisputable outside arbiter — namely, Nature known by Science — we are left without a land and without a body politic. I remember that many years ago, when I began my research, sociologists and historians were scandalized because Actor-Network-Theory claimed to follow associations between humans and ‘non-humans’ in a continuous way!

What at the time seemed a deviation close to bestiality is now taken for granted: who would be foolish enough not to include non-humans into the definition of what is a human? Remember the accusation that such a social theory was a case of deranged ‘anthropomorphism’? And now, as we have seen earlier, it is geologists who see everywhere the indisputable shape of humans quickly morphed into the very cycles of non-humans.
How timid our anthropomorphism looks at the time of the Anthropocene! Remember when there was a modernizing frontier that was supposed to move forward by separating science from politics, the hard domain of facts from the disputable domain of values? How difficult it is today to recognize an arrow of time that would distinguish for good what is from what ought to be when it is what is that obstinately requests its due. If you can still dispute whether ‘we have never been modern’ or not, who now disputes that ‘we’ will never be able to modernize the Earth for lack of the five planets (according to calculations by ‘global hectares’) that would be needed to push our endless Frontier to the same level of development as North America?
Things have changed so fast that it is hard to keep track.

Remember when Hans Jonas had to appeal to the welfare of future generations to bring their virtual ancestors into virtual motion? Now, it is our own generation or that of our children whose fate is staring us in the face. Remember how people laughed derisively when Michel Serres offered to enter into a Natural contract on an equal footing with Nature as if humans could entangle Her in the ropes of law? Now we would be happy to still have such a tame partner in front of us when it has become the ‘angry beast that we are poking with a stick’— the Bengali tiger in the lifeboat of the Story of Pi.


Stein L said...

Continued - Latour:

Remember when people believed that at least there existed Indians, deep in the Amazonian forests, or Aborigines in the central Australian desert, or Highlanders in the mountains of New Guinea who knew how to live peacefully ‘in touch’ or even ‘in harmony’ with Nature? Now every ethnographer has learned that Nature is a narrow historical and contingent concept that no traditional people has ever shared, except when they have to seduce NGOs and pop stars into defending their cause against a new dam or a new mine.
Remember how many intellectuals used to shake in excitement at the term ‘de-territorialisation,’ as if nomadic existence was the new ideal of too comfortably rooted city dwellers? Now, the same people look desperately for a land, for a terra firma where they may re-territorialize again without being accused of being reactionary.
Remember how centuries of Christian cults, images, metaphors, and prayers sent believers away to Heaven, eyes turned upward, wishing to upload themselves, away finally from this base mortal Earth below? Now, they realize, so terribly late, that they had misread the Gospel and that instead of: ‘What good would it be to possess the world, if you forfeit your soul?’ they should have heeded this other sterner injunction: ‘What use is it to save your soul, if you forfeit the Earth?’

Jo said...

If absolute power corrupts absolutely, then of course it follows that the scientific community is corrupt - because it has the dubious privilege of being the dominant paradigm of our culture, and wherever the most compelling story of our culture is, there follows the money and the power.

Christianity was an obscure little Eastern religion before it was adopted by a Roman Emperor and transformed into the mighty Roman Church, thenceforth co-opted by the rich and powerful in many and varied ways in order that the wealthy of the world could remain wealthy.

This of course doesn't invalidate the very real and true faith of its individual believers or the dedicated work of individuals within the Church, merely it underlines the truth that the rich and powerful don't care what the ideas and philosophies of the dominant paradigm are, just so long as they provide a suitable vehicle for becoming more rich and powerful.

Which leads to our current dominant paradigm of Science as a Religion: the rich and powerful interests of our society don't care whether the science is good, bad, or even useful, so long as it serves their vested interests, and their vested interests include everyone following the scientist-gods (under the management of the real power - money) like sheep, and whether the scientists are 'proving' that tobacco is harmless or will kill you or fat is bad or fat is good, or the climate is just fine.. none of content of the science really matters, as long as the rich are still making money.

Sadly, it seems that a large segment of the scientific community still believes in the Scientist as God story, and because it serves them so well, they will probably be the last to realise that they are merely the puppets of The Money.

And of course this does not invalidate the incredible hard work and brilliance of individuals within the science world, but it must often make the lives of scientists with integrity quite challenging.

As the mother of a clever, curious, idealistic 18yo who will be heading off to university next year to study biotechnology, I worry most about what the politics of science will do for her idealism. All I can advise her is to stay away from the money. Probably the key to finding the purest science will be looking at what is seriously underfunded...

Odin's Raven said...

I don't think one can reasonably expect the fruits of science to be preserved, when it's roots have been destroyed.

Moreover, when all the institutions of society have been corrupted by greed and mendacity, science cannot escape and separate itself from their fate.

Having seized the robes of Authority from Religion, Science must accept that along with them comes a scourging and a Crown of Thorns. Centurion, nail them up!

Andrew Vines said...

As a former initiate into the world of research science (biochemistry) I can only agree heartily with what is communicated here. I would only add my impression that the view of ordinary people from outside of science is echoed by those inside it as well. There were regular hushed discussions amongst the PhD students and post-docs that the system was deeply broken. Even my professor was conscious of the requirement to "sex things up", rent themselves out to corporate interests, and most interestingly avoid conducting experiments that had the potential to disprove their pet theories and therefore sink any potential for future commercialisation. Consequently narrow specialist projects get pushed forward for decades before a fatal flaw is found (usually once the professor is comfortably retired). I believe a similar dynamic is happening in the pharmaceutical industry where people are micromanaged and rewarded for reaching milestones on the way to a marketable drug. Not surprisingly they do what they can to avoid sinking projects that are destined to fail eventually, increasing costs and decreasing returns.

I still remember how heart broken my professor was when I told him I wasn't going to continue a career in research. He mourned the idea that there would be no-one left to discover new things in the future. The least capable and most desperate scientists stayed behind however, further lowering standards.

Andrew Vines said...

While I think of it a relevant bit of reading from a dissonant internal perspective would be "The Death of Science" by Bruce G Charlton, free online as an e-book.

Cherokee Organics said...


I will try to get those Zothique books and also well done for your new book, I'll get that one too when it becomes available down under. Top work and glad to hear that you are annoying everyone, I'd be displeased if you weren't! Anyway, it will probably annoy me too at one point - although I'll push on, but I guess that is the point isn't it? Incidentally Jack Vance fessed up to a few major influences, but then you influence my thinking too, so it is all good from my perspective!

Music is sort of like that in that one person’s work builds upon another. I discovered recently that Seattle grunge scene that splashed so noisily into the world stage in the early 1990's had its roots down under. Go figure.

The point about the score sheet was that science has been established along similar organisational lines as religions, yet they wish to be treated as a profession. There is no such thing as science as a single body or group: it is a mere puff for people to project their fantasies onto. It simply doesn't exist other than as a word which contains a meaning which may be a bit beyond my understanding.

You know over the years I have had a few creepy people try and mirror my life choices. Now I used the word creepy, because it is creepy to me. The funny thing though is they always copy the easy to do aspects and largely ignore the very hard aspects. This generally leads to failure for them and then they get bitter. Not good and it has cost me a friend or two over the past couple of decades. I run my own race and people just don't seem to get that.

Anyway, my point is that scientists wish to be treated as a profession when in actuality they are closer to being a religion - based on my opinion about how they go about organising themselves.

For example: Do they have a governing body that holds members accountable to certain known standards of ethics - NO. Do they subscribe to a minimum standard of ethics? NO. Are their actions accountable to the public? NO.

That was my point. They seek a social license in which to operate and seek status from the public and yet they don't wish to do the hard and honestly quite boring yards that will protect them and their members from the very bad mess that they currently find themselves in.

Dunno really, but just sort of thinking out loud.



Carlisle Wheeling said...

A couple of nights ago I watched a documentary I'd like to recommend because it clearly and in detail describes the very dynamic this post and discussion have been exploring. As I understand it, that is; institutions, their credibility, motives and disconnection from the general population, whose lives are so directly impacted by them. The film was an eye-opener, to say the least. I would mention that it truly matters not what your opinion might be regarding the central question the film is organized around, rather it is the the revealed motives and machinations of institutions, individually and in concert, and their effects upon the public that directly bear upon the discussion here. The title is; "Culture High" and I came upon it through Netflix (streaming video.) I don't where else it might be found.

I would also recommend a German film titled: "Days To Come." (same source) But not for the same reason. This film is fiction, placed in Berlin, tracking a 8 year period from 2012 to 2020. It's main characters are a well-to-do family, the story revolves around their relationships, but the backdrop is Collapse. Over the 'years' come fuel and food shortages, civil unrest and gradual breakdown of order, increasing numbers of the homeless, terrorism, resource wars on multiple fronts, vast numbers of refugees from Africa and Asia, extreme weather. But this is not a Hollywood movie, the collapse is not the 'star' in a standard disaster/action film. This is subtle social comment. You the viewer see it, the elephant in the room. Like frogs in a slowly heating pot, few of the characters do. And of those who do, only one sees it for what it is.

Anyway, lest you think I spend all of my time on Netflix, I wanted to share what I hope are relevant sources as I have gathered so many from all of you as a result of reading this blog.

M said...

In addition to the outright corruption you mention, I think science and scientists suffer from "Ivory Towerism", something that is now pervasive throughout our culture, in the sense of being disconnected from the practical concerns and realities of everyday life.

This would include not only scientists but our motley collection of pundits, urban planners, and, of course, economists. You can find these examples everywhere, but The New York Times is particularly useful in this regard. For instance, a recent Op Ed piece by a French economist, who concluded that the solution to the end of the growth model is...happiness and satisfaction! Not once is energy or the scientific laws of thermodynamics mentioned.

Then you have David Brooks, who along with the rest of the big thinkers at The NYT, every few months or so publishes a piece about the new skills needed to succeed in the new economy. The latest is skills fall under the general heading of "social courage:"
For example, in today’s loosely networked world, people with social courage have amazing value. "Everyone goes to conferences and meets people, but some people invite six people to lunch afterward and follow up with four carefully tended friendships forevermore. Then they spend their lives connecting people across networks."

Everyone goes to conferences? And can afford to invite six new friends to lunch? I guess space travel really is happening, since Brooks is definitely talking about a different planet than the one I am on. In any case, it's all abstractions about skillsets. If he paid any attention, he would see the best skillset will be how to grow a turnip.

To stop picking on the Times for a moment, there is Tesla co-founder and CEO Elon Musk, who recently said cars driven by humans would soon be outlawed in favor of robot-operated vehicles: "You can't have a person driving a two-ton death machine."

Of course from his ivory tower viewpoint he misses the scientific fact that, never mind his technofantasy, Stewart Brand style "decoupling," the earth won't be providing two tons of resources for every future human being to drive to Walmart in.

Science, as a system in the broader sense, has, like our education, transportation, and medical systems, gone past the point of usefulness in many regards, and now suffers from not only diminishing returns, but existing for the purpose of maintaining its own existence--ergo the payola, the pointless studies, the bizarre focus on esoteric diseases, etc.

trippticket said...

[delete, delete, delete]

Every now and then, it's good to remember that even our beloved archdruid is just a human too! Though I totally agree with your take on attitudes toward science, and freely admit that my attitude toward vaccinations springs from a deep-seated distrust of scientific authority (and I'm a scientist).

And so I think I'll just invoke the future's absolute need for dissensus!


Talking Rock

Sven Eriksen said...

There is a media trend over here that has been around for as long as I can remember, but it has shifted into overdrive over the last years. Absolutely anything you read in the media, no matter how utterly stupid it is, starts with the words “Science says...” or some close equivalent. And please note, not ever something akin to “this specific research carried out by such-and-such has fielded evidence that suggests...” No, “Science”, as a monolithic entity, has bestowed whatever it is that you are supposed to believe unto the media pundit how happens to be “educating” you at any given moment. The habitual application of this has become utterly mechanical, and it is grim entertainment to hear how it affects the way people talk, for instance. The most clueless people I know are reliably those who frequently make references to what they themselves vaguely visualize as a kind of a monolithic knowledge enterprise that is supposed to be taking place somewhere, along the lines of “They've proven that [insert whatever you want, anything goes]...” As the slow suicide of science picks up speed, I can't help thinking that the dwindling few who will cling steadfastly to it no matter what, can roughly be divided into two groups: Those who have at least a good modest chunk of themselves invested in some of the institutions, beliefs and personal benefits that have grown up around the scientific project, and the clueless jokels who are utterly dependent on being told what to think about absolutely anything. The latter group of course, being exactly those that the former take such pride in distancing themselves from.

I have a feeling you will be neck deep in troll dung this week, John. I hope you've brought a big shovel.

Scythe of Relief said...

Howdy JMG, another excellent post.

Yes, skepticism among scientists is considered healthy, but skepticism amongst the public is problematic for the authorities.

When you look at a particular science, the consensus among scientists may be overwhelmingly for it. But something like Gmo's seems to have no consensus at all. But that does not stop proponents of Gmo's saying to skeptical people that they must be anti-science. And trying to equate the science for Gmo's to be as legitimate as other feilds of science, that have a consensus of scientists.

And it is also not helpful when skeptics of a legitimate science lump that science into the GMO camp.

To my mind most scientists would always weigh up the risks. So if you have a overwhelming consensus, you hopefully have a lot lower risk for that particular science being bad for humanity. Then on the other hand you have the money factor, and the skeptics go bingo! call off the search.

David said...

Our modern concept of "science" (attempts to objectively observe and categorize the universe around us) really broke into Western consciousness with the Renaissance and then came to the fore with the Enlightenment. While we in the US see democracy, for example, as the "natural" order, the concept of self-government by the people (meaning at the time, of course, all landed white males) was a radical concept in the 18th century.

What keeps rolling around in my mind, I fear, is the thought that we keep looking for the formula (social structure, economic system, philosophical/religious viewpoint) which solves our problems once and for all -- "the" solution -- and the growing suspicion that such a creature does not exist. Perhaps we are no different from the yeast cells I pitch into my wort -- they look at the feast of resources and consume until they crash. Conflict occurs because resources are finite and groups will compete for them. Force provides a good short-term solution, even if the long-term consequences are dire. Are we in a Hobbesian universe after all?

Returning to your point, however, modern institutional science is no different than any social structure. All such structures grow, ossify and then decay. The growing insularity is just another sign of that process.

Twilight said...

The blowback from the outside will not stop just with science. I've always been a non-conformist in many ways, but I'm an engineer and the son of an engineering professor who grew up in the era of moon landings and lived on sci-fi. If anyone was predisposed to support science, and the religion of progress complete with all that entails it was me.

My family's experiences with Lyme disease and vaccination damage (my study has led to different conclusions on that topic) knocked me permanently out of that orbit starting some 15 years ago. While it might have happened eventually anyway, once one loses that connection it begins a journey that can go far beyond just losing faith in science, and break too many of the illusions one must accept to be comfortable in this present world.

While I think health will be the starting point for many there are other ways to begin that journey – it could be from an experience in any of the failed institutions of our society, be it education, law, finance, food, health, etc., but the end result is the same if one is willing to keep one's eyes open after they have seen. Some will choose to close their eyes again because seeing is too difficult, but still they know back there somewhere. Others will stop believing in much more than just science, and unable to determine what is false and what is not will just withdraw from all of it.

I think your vision of how we will be viewed is very likely, and that science will be viewed in a very negative light. It will need to go underground if the valuable parts of the scientific method are to survive, or to find a powerful benefactor institution.

Unknown said...

JMG,thank you for another thoughtful and thought provoking post!

As a scientist and an angry atheist,I feel relatively defensive when you start 'having a go' at science,whilst nodding at your argument and appreciating your logic simultaneously.A difficult intellectual position to find one's self in! My entrenched position is a stubborn one,and even elegant and persuasive argumentation will take a while to get my mindset out of those trenches!As someone who takes the scientific method seriously(much like the reviled Dawkins,a particular hero of mine)it's going to be a long and attritional retreat! I'll try to maintain my dignity on that long road....

On your point of Gojira in reply to someone else,I disagree(partly).Godzilla is the monsterification of the intense(warcrime of) fire-bombing all the major Japanese cities during WWII and the incredible civilian toll that resulted from such(the anniversary of the horrendous,unjustifiable raid to 'punish'the civilian population of Tokyo was just last week.I hope Curtis Le May suffers like the tokyoites wherever his essencemay be(Bomber Harris Too!)).There was also a flavour of the atomic bombing of Hiro.and Naga. too in the use of radiation in both the genesis of the creature and it's effects on people,but I'll grant I think that earthquake damage plays a part too,albeit a minor one(this was regularly in the Japanese/English press and commented on as such.I lived in Japan for 12 years).

oilman2 said...

@JMG -

Per your comment about scientists - if you have the feeling that many of them have excessive ignorance outside their immediate area of expertise, is it any wonder that theories bandied about as discoveries are questioned vigorously? When you toss in the corporate sponsorship, one HAS to question the results of research when sponsors are grinding axes.

While not every researcher is closely guided by their sponsors, research grants delivering unwanted outcomes are cancelled - period. From a 'normal' POV, the system reinforces finding desired outcomes and disregarding or marginalizing undesired or contrary results. Your comment to YCS is reflective of this.

Science is designed to be questioned - the basis for research is questioning - so why are scientists defensive?

IMO, much of the behavior of scientists simply mirrors the behavior of politicians. They obfuscate, deflect and attack out of guilt. Like a kid caught cheating on a test. Particularly apparent was Bill Nye's conversion.

If science is as rife with money influence as politics, and we have every reason to believe it is, then it MUST be questioned. Even if it is the "rabble" (proud member here) doing the questioning.

All of us are not stupid - give us the data. Oh wait...we have to purchase it to be informed because the researchers do not own it...hmmm...

The more we dig into politics, science, law-making and enforcement, business accounting practices - the more we seem to arrive at money being the principal problem. The search for more money skews everything in predetermined directions identical to the source of the funding.

So the problem with things, and maybe understanding them more effectively, is that EVERYTHING is a business model - monetized. EVERYTHING - from your AR site to research grants to which laws get written to medicine.

So is the problem much more in the vein of a lack of personal integrity? More due to fear of standing outside the herd? Or simply fear of starving for not playing the grand game?

Robert Carran said...

"Science has failed our world.
Science has failed our mother earth.
Spirit runs through all things..."
System of a Down

I got my biochemistry degree in 1991. The same year, I had my Fukuoka moment and decided that organic farming/homesteading was a better path. One aspect of my decision can be illustrated with the simple example of antibacterial soap. Kills 99.99% of bacteria! Yeah, and then the super bacteria that survives gets the run of the roost? No thanks. You talked about the externalization of costs associated with technology. I think that the unintended and unobservable consequences are equally important. Consider the bogus republican theory of cost benefit analysis. One natural conclusion of which is putting an actual figure on the value of a human life. When you do cost benefit analysis, you tend to only count the costs that you see or can easily quantify. Human science has the same flaw: in trying to pin the universe down, we ignore, at our peril, the mysterious interactions that we can't pin down. Spirit runs through all things. I wonder if this isn't behind many peoples distrust of science as well.
It's the same with economics: by commodifying so many things, we kill the spirit of life cycles.

There is an equation I call the "no free lunch except from the sun equation": delta G = delta H - t delta S
It basically says that in any system over time, entropy either stays the same (with perfect reactions, which don't really exist) or increases UNLESS you have energy input from another system.
If earth is one system, then the only reason we have life (negentropy) is that the sun, another system, gives us free energy (delta G). So, to whatever extent we use energy beyond what the sun gives us, it is generally going to cause some chaos. Science and technology are the vehicles by which we have been able to use energy so much faster than the sun gives it to us. The sun is a christ like figure, in that it sacrifices its body constantly to feed us.

buzzy said...

Speaking as an "outer party" member of the medical/scientific establishment (pharmacist) I can say it just as bad or worse than folks know. Even is drug company sponsored research or cases of otherwise "independent" studies where the drug company produces all the statistics it is still possible to determine the Number Needed to Treat, where NNT = 1/(event rate for control group - event rate for intervention group) where the event is whatever you want to happen, say a drop of cholesterol by 5 points. Statins, a common class of cholesterol meds, have an NNT of 100, meaning you have to treat 100 people for one to see benefit. This doesn't even cover Number Needed to Harm, which is the same calculation but for adverse events. For Avandia, which coincidentally is still on the market, the all cardiac NNH is 60 per published (ie vetted) reports. Of course, to calculate NNT and NNH you need access to the published reports. The recent case of Tamiflu is instructive here. Tamiflu is a blockbuster drug, not least because many governments spent billions on stockpiles again a flu pandemic. When a group called the Cochrane Collaboration tried to produce a meta-analysis to assess efficacy they requested unpublished papers submitted by the drug company to the FDA as part of their approval of the drug. Long story short it took the drug company almost a decade to fully release all studies. The subsequent meta-analysis showed that while there might be some benefits for hospitalized patients most folks saw symptom duration reduced by less than 24hr. The point about malpractice claims arising from failure to use FDA approved pharmaceuticals is true but misleading. If doctors were properly educated, either by medical schools or their own efforts, they would know there are sources of valid info on non-pharmaceuticals, such as German Commission E monographs for many herbs that are scientifically defensible. Doctors know who pays the dinner bill (literally), so they have little motivation to go off (literal) script.
Oh, and there are already three FDA approved fish oil products on the market; the only one I have price info for is $317.05 for a months supply, or roughly $2.64/capsule.

pg said...

On "the dismal science" fringe, this from Peter Gossling and Jennifer Oldham: "If Economists Were Right, You Would Have a Raise by Now" (15 Mar 2015). .

Martin Vachon said...

I have been stuck in a non-discussion recently when I tried to bring the idea that dogmas generally don’t drive us to take appropriate actions. The underlying topic was the proposal of a public wide, “free”, and even mandatory vaccination against flu. I was absolutely not arguing the scientific basis of vaccines but only wondering if it was appropriate to take public funds to vaccine everyone against a virus that causes no permanent harm among healthy people while ignoring the cost and the very possibility that any vaccine may have undesirable known or unknown secondary effects. Just bringing the question got me tagged as an “anti-vaxxer”.
I too often encounter people who have lost the capability of nuances. For them, saying I don’t know, admitting that science has limits or thinking about appropriateness doesn’t appear to be an option. It’s all black or white, for or against. There is no place for argument. Frustrating.

k-dog said...

Throughout history men of virtue have lived side by side with those who pursue avarice and little else. Some people care little about the plot and message behind a video experience. These people want high definition, special effects, bells and whistles. These people care about surface presentation and have little mind for depth. Others care far more about message plot and depth than the quality of presentation. These people will watch fuzzy black and white and be as happy with it as with any high definition color presentation.

In any society these different kinds of people live side by side. At times coexistence is difficult. Sometimes very difficult. Men differ by temperament and this does not change. What changes is what society considers acceptable.

In a decline truth seems to betray and the future is uncertain. In these conditions living for today with the enjoyment of 'bread and games' without thought of tomorrow becomes popular.

It becomes a question of focus. Scientific intellectual dishonesty in nothing new but as our leaders now fail us in all areas of life it becomes more apparent and more popular to notice. Perhaps it is in fact no more common now than in former more prosperous times, but it appears to be so.

My article impressions as I wish all a happy equinox for we will soon enjoy the beauty of new life returning to the land.

Ray Wharton said...

Evolution, Vaccines, and Climate Change Oh My! Those are certainly some hot buttons. I have a relatively firm position on two of those, and a slightly more ambivalent position on the other, but in all three cases, and many others, I find myself playing the devil's advocate quite a lot. What gets to me is how a perfectly interesting topic for debate and investigation can be used as a phatic tribal identifier.

The questions that these three topics, and many like them, address are very fascinating, and interesting clues and quandaries are apt to come from all corner of the debate. Sometimes the most pathetic argument against a position is just the key to exploring the mystery more deeply!

But intelligent conversation is wasted when the instincts that brought us sports fans and rock star groupies take over the drivers seat. It is most vividly tragic when an issue gets reduced to two poles.

The far ends of a debate, taken like one is arguing on a teeter totter and trying to keep the other sides board off the ground, are filled with dumb.

A pattern I see far to often is this: some talking head makes a weak argument to claim intellectual territory for the Mauve team. Someone on the Chartreuse troop writes a response shooting the fish in that intellectual sand box, and the Chartreuse troop cheers, for their troop has defended the territory and now knows the Mauve team is dumb. But the Mauve team is oblivious of the weak points of their argument because who listens to Frog News, the Mauve team is busy reading the arguments against the Chartreuse position in Pedantic Quarterly. So both conclude that the position exposed by the other side is stupid, and that the other side is wrong, but ironically the only position that unites the troop or the team is the wrongness of their adversary, about which they are often right.They both assert the other side is talking out of the wrong end, and they both can maintain this position because it is right. Tragity strikes when this energy isn't absorbed in sports or some other folly and these instincts are let loose on topic that some people actually want to contemplate carefully.

The life of the mind is in a sad way. Lucky for me Philosophy is already collapsed well ahead of the rush and can quietly recompose itself outside of the glare of public attention.

@Angus -

I have been rocking homeless swagger on and off for three years, I get mad props the more thoroughly I lower myself down the ladder. If one can let go of status attachment and still maintain, dare say foster, self respect people see it. Of course some don't, but haters gonna' hate. One could say "not homeless, urban camper." I feel like a poser and it is reflected in how I am treated when ever fate throws too much comforts my way.

If you can feel like a boss for letting go of the crud of our culture, all those people who wish they had the courage to do will feel it to. If you feel like you are failing to hold your mainstream life together, people will feel that too. Based on your blog it looks like you've got some great eco-status credit to build with! Chickens in the garden, how daring!

Denys said...

I can't think science and humans without that pesky placebo effect.

This is my favorite study -
Study Find Common Knee Surgery No Better Than Placebo

And where would we be without placebos in marketing?

Travis said...

Aspergers syndrome aye? That answers my question of how you stick to this long form blog while fielding every comment with a response week in, and week out. Myself I have ADHD. Now as an adult, with the use of a Yoga practice, and certain psychedelics along the way, I have it a bit more under wraps. In fact a lot of my interest today (including my long affair with Yoga, and other personal growths I had to make) never would of manifested without my ADHD blessing. Fortunately when I was a child ( I am 38 now) they were not handing out Ritalin at the school store yet. Though I do remember candy cigarettes. My ADHD had always kept me just enough outside the in-group to be able to get my own outside view of their collective inner world, and so avoid some of it's traps that I see many "normals" (poor suckers) fall prey to. Anyways thank you for your disclosure, and also your opinion on vaccinations!

librarian@play said...

A pervasive disbelief in science converging with an increasing belief in progress. It seems counterintuitive, unless it's framed within this blog's context of progress-as-religion, which is a theme picked up by Megan Hustad in Tuesday's New York Times: "I grew up among Christian evangelicals and I recognize the cadences of missionary zeal when I hear them. TED, with its airy promises, sounds a lot like a secular religion…. The TED style, with its promise of progress, is as manipulative as the orthodoxies it is intended to upset. A great TED talk is reminiscent of a tent revival sermon."

Leo Knight said...

A Facebook friend of mine, a scientist, linked to this article, which seems to bear on this week's topic. I feel a bit reluctant to link to this, as it does involve politics:

His final points:

"1.The expert isn’t always right.

2. But an expert is far more likely to be right than you are.

3. Your political opinions have value in terms of what you want to see happen, how you view justice and right. Your political analysis as a layman has far less value, and probably isn’t — indeed, almost certainly isn’t — as good as you think it is.

4. On a question of factual interpretation or evaluation, the expert’s view is likely to be better-informed than yours. At that point, you’re best served by listening, not carping and arguing."

I mostly agree, but I have seen points 3 and 4 turn into, "What you want doesn't matter, either. Your experience has no value. You have no right to talk at all. Shut up."

I think of the economist I met whose study had shown that population growth always led to improved standards of living. When I raised the questions of resource depletion and pollution, he grew adamant: "ALWAYS! You can't understand! I did the study! I'm an ECONOMIST!"

I also remember a moment from a documentary about the ordeal of citizens of Love Canal. Unable to convince anyone of the reality of their plight, the families started documenting the many health problems of residents living near the toxic waste site. When they presented their evidence, the authorities literally threw their report on the floor. Housewives didn't have the "expertise" to understand complex health matters.

Some experts don't seem able or willing to get, as you put it so well, "the view from the outside."

The other Tom said...

Perhaps another impediment to scientific credibility is the media habit of almost always presenting issues as a binary choice. This distorts every discussion. Sometimes the evidence may all point one way, or maybe there are 20 possibilities, but a binary choice sets it up so that if you attack one side it is supposed to lend credibility to the other. It seems like a sports metaphor applies to everything, to politics, culture wars, major questions of science or ethics: always two teams fighting it out.
Which team are you on?
There is no proportional weight either: you could have almost 100% scientific opinion going the same way, but a few skeptics without evidence to present can make an issue seem unresolved.
As an analogy you could have 1,000 auto mechanics say that you should regularly change the oil in your car, but if a few others say it is an unnecessary waste of money it means that changing your oil is controversial.

Clay Dennis said...

I had the good fortune to take Astronomy 101 from the late Carl Sagan. While we can agree that he was certainly deep in to techno-grandiosity, he was a once-in-a-generation communicator of Science. He was also a kinder and more nuanced representative of the athiest scientist than Dawkins.
But the important thing, for our discussion today is the negative pushback he got from fellow scientists, and even students for being a populariser of science. We have forgotten this today, as Sagan has become a demigod in the mostly feeble quest to promote science to the masses. But at the time, Cosmos was just coming out, he was viewed with suspicion and jelousy by many in the scientific community and his own fellow faculty members. They thought that distilling science down to simple principles that could be taught and understood by the average person was a bad thing. So in many ways the predicament that science finds itself in was self inflicted.

Moshe Braner said...

Some scientists get it.

"Here we review the rationale for and alternatives to the current high-carbon [climate] research culture. We find no clear obstacles to justify an exemption for the research community from the emission reduction targets applied elsewhere. ... Such a change in practice would strengthen the trust of the public in research."

Ares Olympus said...

Doing and communicating good science is a predicament of huge proportions.

And at the start all scientists themselves want to avoid "appeals to authority" and look at the evidence, but then get hit in the face when their 30 year career is defeated by a politician who never took a science class but whom can parrot the rhetoric of skepticism without having any awareness it is possible to separate opinion from fact in the first place.

Then a good scientist would prefer to give up and say "Shut up and trust me" so he can get back to his safe world of controlled experiments.

I love Feynman's lecture on cargo cult science, transcript and reading of it.

I don't have as much cynicism as Scott Adams over the science of diet and exercise, and it goes back to cargo cult science, plus people want to hear certainty, even if you don't want to give it, so if a scientist speaks in his mouse voice with 4 recursive levels of qualifiers on his results and the need for further study, no one will listen. And meanwhile if a woo-doctor Oz says something dramatic and scary, repeating what he heard from cherry picked data, with his own spin that makes it relevant to his listeners boring lives, that'll be repeated over and over and over. So "free commercial media" seems more a cause than bad science.

But a bigger issue I see is the nature of risk. If you ask a cautious scientist about risk, and he's uncertain, he'll say "let's study it more" and he'll still be saying that long past sensible clarity for needed action.

So global warming is an example, its not science if we only have one earth, and we have to run an experiment 100 years before we decide we're "sure" there's a problem. And it is WRONG to expect scientists to "take sides" on this. We want them to be neutral.

Yet, if a scientist is asked to testify before the Senate that the earth is older than 6000 years, that's a different thing than asking her to testify that the positive feedback loops of increased CO2 will dominate the negative feedback loops of increased clouds leading to a likely 4 degree celsius increase in global temperatures by 2100.

The first is a historical fact, while the second is a speculative projection based on limited information. So an honest climate scientist will say there's a 2 standard devition certainty that the global temperature will be between 4 degrees celsius colder and 5 degrees celsius warmer by 2100, and suggest cutting the burning of fossil fuels is sensible long term goal to reduce risks of this yet unknown danger.

Lastly my sympathy towards "antiscience" goes in line with E.F. Schumacher, against what he calls scientism, i.e. objective science can answer the questions we need to answer, and whether reducing the nature of the world to objective data is sensible or helpful.

Schumacher doesn't help solve the dilemmas but at least he gives me reminder "map" of what we shouldn't expect or try to be too confident about.

And on science fiction, perhaps Asimov's Foundation serial gives some hope for the scientists and scholars, if only we can find a benevolent psychohistorian to prod us in the right directions.

Maybe Archdruid John Michael Greer is aspiring to this role with his Green Wizards, carriers of the sacred knowledge?

...oh, darn, but I'm sure we're going to need more than one model in this evolutionary experiment.

Violet Cabra said...

This post reminds me strongly of "The Sharp Edge of the Shell" from a few months ago. Of course both essays explore the relationship between "The Rabble" and the Scientist Priest class from very different angles. Regardless, the endgame is likely the same: a widespread rejection of science which its embers being carried by secret societies until it can light some new fires in the distant future.

Something I've been wondering recently, as I've been studying herbalism is how much the utility of science will carry forth cryptically in crafts. I imagine, for instance, that even with the sort of future we're looking at, distilling alcohol will endure. If there is alcohol there will also be vinegar. With alcohol, vinegar and herbs one can extract a very wide-spectrum of chemicals from carbohydrates, to sterols to terpenes to alkaloids. Some of this information has the ability to save a lot of lives; for example alkaloid rich herbs are best prepared with vinegar to create a solution that can draw out said alkaloids. If the plant has tannins and alkaloids then adding some honey or glycerine can stabilize the tannins which would otherwise interfere with the alkaloids. If a bacterial "superbug" came to town and there was one healer who knew these details a lot more people could survive than otherwise. While it is easy for me to imagine the knowledge of the chemicals structures of various plant constituents to be forgotten, I imagine that the knowledge of their utility will endure as well as the best ways to extract them. the knowledge is so adaptive and so decentralized at this point, that I think it will likely make it through the bottleneck, one way or the other. And if there is this basis of information than just one organic chemistry textbook surfacing could totally rewrite the understanding of medicine in 900 years.

This couching of practical information in myth seems a way that much information has been preserved, and transmitted historically. You mentioned in one essay how children and teenagers are taught stories and songs that are allegorical and revealed at the beginning of adulthood to be of deeper significance. There is a parallel with larger social patterns and development. The mythologies of yore become the foundations for applied rationalism. As a Civilization approaches senility then, perhaps the same process happens in reverse; the rationalism becomes mythology and is carried forth as such.

Kenaz Filan said...

I have no doubt that the institutions of science will collapse with civilization -- they're collapsing already. College is becoming less important and science is getting off-shored like manufacturing. I would guess the educational system my great-grandchildren's generation are raised in will bear far more resemblance to frontier schools than to the schools my wife and I attended. (This isn't necessarily a bad thing, as anybody who has compared a frontier school textbook to contemporary ones can tell you).

What I hope to see saved is the Scientific Method. It's not in much use today, especially among those who use it like a mantra. (A true skeptic is open to any conclusion: today's "skeptics" come to the argument knowing the answer ahead of time, which is the polar opposite of skepticism). But it is, as you've said before, the hallmark achievement of our age like Aristotelian logic for Classical Greece. Perhaps the most important thing we can do is to educate on that method, and explain how it has little to do with what is called "science" today. How to do that is a subject deserving of some study or maybe even a blog post (hint, hint). It seems to me that is our best and possibly only chance of lighting the upcoming Dark Age.

onething said...


By all means, give us your impressions of the Jared Diamond speech.
My thoughts on the article - the title says it all. In my opinion this represents a new low in science becoming, as someone above noted, a religion. When "doubt" becomes a heresy, that means we are entering faith-based territory. It means that we are to obediently receive the faith from the proper authorities. When doubting some aspect of scientific data output gets you the ad-hominem of being a "science" doubter rather than a doubter of specifics, how is that different than thinking that if someone doesn't believe in your god, that they have no god at all? I have had several people say to me, when I tell them I am not exactly Christian "So you don't believe in God?"

daelach said...

I think this article should have made a reference to an earlier article:

Btw., as a side remark on the medical topic: in Germany alone (!), estamations are running that up to 30,000 (!) people die in hospitals each year due to infections. The reason is that the neolibs cut down the time and manpower for the cleaning crews. On the other hand, many parents vaccinate their children against what used to count as normal childhood deseases 30 years ago. That seems strange becaus we didn't have 30,000 dead children each year due to chicken pox and measles. So why does the money go there instead of tackling the much bigger hospital problem?

Do the math - paying more for getting more cleaning crews would benefit lower class members since they are the ones who'd do that job. Mass vaccinations, on the other hand, are more profitable for the pharma industry.

Yucca Glauca said...

I've noticed an particular variant on this that's more prevalent than the anit-vaxxer et al. style disbelief in the groups I'm mostly familiar with: College students at a very Liberal institution. Here, a large portion of the more passionate "True Believers" in science are severely depressed and have a nice long list of mental illnesses they've been diagnosed with, along with an even longer list of medications they're taking either for the diagnoses or to deal with the side effects of other medications. I'm certainly not qualified to say whether or not their diagnoses are legitimate. I do have my suspicions that in at least some of the cases, when they spend nearly all their time sitting in front of boxes of colored lights and then feel like their lives are unsatisfying, tedious, and wasting away that it's not a mental illness at work but the perfectly healthy mental and bodily response to wasting away a life in an unsatisfying and tedious manner (electro-drapetomania?). In either case, it become clear after a certain point that regardless of what legitimate troubles they may have, saying "chemicals in my brain" constantly is a convenient way of escaping responsibility. But far from self-designed escapism, the view that they can't influence their own behavior or thoughts in any manner is disempowerment they've paid good money for from professional therapists. The part that's relevant to this particular post is that in these cases, "imbalanced chemicals in the brain" also happens to be essentially synonymous with Science for these people, such that challenging one is equivalent to denying the other altogether. For many people of my generation, passionate defenders of vaccinations and evolution, Science means powerlessness and a rap sheet of side effects. I haven't seen many people break out of this, but when they do, there's a tendency for their faith in Science to decline at the same rate their own emotional health increases.

Eric S. said...

I’ve had to be away for a few weeks dealing with family stuff, but I’m glad to finally have some time to put aside to join in the discussion again. First of all, congratulations for (at least to my mind, though your references to deletions suggest the sentiment isn’t universal) navigating the veritable minefield you chose to step onto this week about as gracefully as can be done. I think this is the first discussion of the vaccine debate I’ve seen from any side that hasn’t rubbed me the wrong way.

One really interesting thing about public distrust of science, at least as it exists right now, is the way that there’s a jagged line being drawn across society regarding which science gets embraced and rejected. The people who reject evolution and climate change are, by and large not the same people who reject vaccination and various other science relating to the health and food industries, and all along the spectrum from racists to creationists, everyone tries their absolute hardest to use the prestige of “science” even when there’s nothing being done that can be remotely defined as such to advance their agenda. Even people who claim scientific literacy today, don’t always know how to read and critique a scientific paper and usually only get their information from pop magazines, television documentaries and newspapers. The prospects for the scientific method don’t look good right now, and I expect that there’ll be a lot of things being called “science” someday that don’t fit our current definition (though it may be preserved in some small intellectual circles or rediscovered from writings in some future time).

The question of what you’ve termed “science as product” on the other hand seems almost like a different question when it comes to this topics. What is the likely fate of the knowledge that science has uncovered? Much of that has sunk so deeply into our consciousness that we don’t even question it, passing it on to our children as thoughtlessly as shapes, colors, and vowel sounds. I just can’t imagine a cultural bottleneck small enough to kill the idea that the stars in the sky are distant suns just like ours with planets orbiting them much like Earth does here. But what of things like Evolution and the deep history of the planet, and other topics that for whatever reason aren’t as universally or unconsciously accepted? Perhaps it could be said that this late in the game they won’t be, but I also don’t see a universal rejection happening. Could there be something happening along cultural lines with things like that? Some people accepting Evolutionary Biology as its currently understood, possibly even being able to explain the evidence and reasoning behind it in their own crude way, some rejecting it outright, others perverting it to fit various agendas (some possibly not so pleasant to think about)? If something like that happened, the discoveries of modern science, while battered and broken and perhaps ripped from their context, might at least be able to enter into humanity’s collective conversation for some other civilization to sift through once some of the method behind it has been rediscovered. In a lot of ways that seems like the most likely outcome… different people grasping onto different pieces of today’s scientific consensus and even different methods that they come to call “science” each according to their own values. Do you see something like that as a possibility?

Martin B said...

My doctor once prescribed antibiotics for my case of 'flu. I said I thought antibiotics were ineffective against the 'flu virus. He replied I was right. So why did he prescribe them, I asked? "Because patients expect them," he replied.

At the time I was very angry, given the known over-use of antibiotics, but now I think he was right. The most effective curative regime is the one you embrace. It is pointless recommending lifestyle changes when it is unlikely the patient will change his or her ways. Rather prescribe something the patient believes in you know the patient will take, and rely on the placebo effect to work its magic.

Jake said...

Great post.
Personally, did not think the Slate article was that great: the author kept insulting the you-know-who's with snarkey insults. But at least he admitted the truth: that arrogance and insults (ironically, since he used insults) will not work, and will not convince anyone to join the "enlightened ones."

I've noticed that most of the extreme partisans of institutional science treat science as a religion: an authority to be worshiped and obeyed, and if you bring up any experiences or data that you or your friends have experienced vis a vis one of the hot-button issues, they dismiss this real-life data as irrelevant and not worthy of consideration.

I'm sure you have read William James: a great soul, who as a scientists NEVER diminished or dismissed the experiential observations of others.

Finally, JMG - there actually has been scientific research showing that GMO corn causes cancer in rats. Look up the French scientist Séralini. His paper was published, but a year or so later, under immense pressure from Monsanto and their paid shills, the paper retracted the research.
The scientist had used Monstanto's own protocols (where they "proved" their GMO corn to be safe)!!
I have read and corresponded with a scientists/physicist who discovered that cell-phone type EMF destroys DNA, at the levels used by cell phones.
He was threatened with the loss of his research money if he didn't shut up.
I think people greatly underestimate the extent to which institutional science has been compromised. Some of the ugly stuff going on are, in fact, real conspiracies... But that, of course, makes me a reviled "conspiracy theorist."

Martin B said...

On a different topic, I was diagnosed with ankylosing spondylitis, an autoimmune disease, forty years ago. I'm also Asperger-y and a lifelong depressive, so I fit JMG's theory of the link between autoimmunity, depression, and Asperger's to a T.

Of course, I'm a sample size of n=1, but as further confirmation I used to read many life stories of AS sufferers online, and the overwhelming tone of their letters was depressive. I'm pretty sure there's a link.

Adrian Ayres Fisher said...

Very interesting post regarding inside and outside views. I can't help but wonder:

As you yourself deminstrate, Mr. Greer, one of the benefits of an old-fashioned liberal education is that it is broad enough that it leaves one free to read around in whichever field one pleases; the real product of such an education, if sufficiently rigorous, is the scaffolding it provides for continued independent learning. (Not to mention learning to think logically.)

For some reason, I keep trying to connect this post with your comment last week that contrary to stereotype, most people actually tend to think in abstractions, while thinkers do the work of linking generalities back to the raw sensory data.

Then I think about the scientific method, in which, though not a scientist, I was trained (thanks, liberal education!), which literally works back from the abstract to the raw sensory data, as you put it last week, and forward again to a verifiable (until disproven) general law. I begin to wonder if--besides the corruption, arrogance, and distortions caused by the extreme pressure to produce-- some of the inside-outside effects might reflect differences in habits of thought?

It would be terrible to throw the scientific method out with the authority of scientists (or should I say the authority of corporate misuse of science for corporations' own ends?). It's also important to remember that NO science or scientist is ever really objective. All theories and experiments carry the burden, explicit or not, of the scientists' worldview.The pretense of objectivity can lead directly to sanctioning very "scientifically" done procedures that by any ethical standards are monstrous. It is this misuse of science to ideological or corporate ends, not to mention straight up lying that is so harmful; and these kinds of tactics are used by anti-science folks too. I'm speaking in generalities here, but there are plenty of examples.

The working ecologists, soil scientists, and biologists I know are pretty humble folks working out of the limelight, carrying on with their research, trying to do some good for the earth. They carry a deep understanding of the real and present dangers to earth, humans and other species from our "progress-driven" civilization. I've never met a group more skeptical of the claims of corporate-sponsored science (especially medicine, pharmacology, nutrition and chemistry) than a group of young biology, environmental science and microbiology faculty I know, who are trying to raise their children in a healthy, low-carbon manner. (They also definitely vaccinate their children: they understand the mechanics of infectious diseases). Are they inside or outside?

Greg Belvedere said...

Excellent post! I'm particularly glad you addressed the downright nasty attitude of many "skeptics". I have also noticed that no matter who you believe on the topic of paranormal events, it seems one side is a good deal more polite.

Pharmaceutical research seems like a particularly corrupt area of study. Many anti-depressants have been shown to be less effective than placebo in studies held back by their manufacturers. A quick google search will pull up many reputable sources on this.

I have thought about writing to Neil deGrasse Tyson asking him to give Rupert Sheldrake the same treatment he has given to scientific heretics of earlier times in the next season of his Cosmos reboot. I think this could shed some light on some of the problems in science, but I don't think he would be too into that.

Dammerung said...

I really think the scientific-materialist movement is digging its own grave and doesn't even realize it. You can only contradict the content of peoples' lived experiences for so long before they stop being willing to pay you, especially in a deeply depressionary and contracting economy. I just hope what replaces it isn't radical, reactionary Jesusism.

Greg Belvedere said...

I also suspect pharmaceutical company shenanigans in what seems like a very flawed meta-study of homeopathy put out by the NHMRC. But this is just speculation on my point. It seems like they ignored any trial that was too small, or did not pass a very vague standard of quality. They can get away with it because of the way the media reports on science. They take small samples sizes as proof that homeopathy does not work, when it really calls for larger studies. I have become very fond of the a statement I attribute to Gregory Bateson, "Science never proves anything." Though I recognize this is useful internally for science, but problematic when communicating to the broader public.

escapefromwisconsin said...


Lynford1933 said...

Thanks JMG. Interesting read as always.

This is a note from the other side of eighty. No one will really believe it because it is on the Internet but you might find it interesting. Believing and interesting are too different things.

Just about the time I was able to get my head around the Big Bang concept that happened exactly 13.8 billion years ago, some other fellow came up with a different idea that it didn't happen that way at all. Rats! The Hubble found those beautiful formations that happened only a few million (billion) years ago. Most of them cannot even be seen, let along dealt with. No matter the money, those were neat pictures.

Just this morning a couple nice fellows came by to tell me about their particular brand of faith. That was interesting. I accepted their literature and bid them a good day. An add on the side of a blog I attend occasionally told me to buy this and be assured of good health. At 82, I will be lucky (or unlucky?) to make it 18 more years no matter what I ingest? But in all of the above I have been able to maintain my skepticism.

A couple years ago I read "One Straw Revolution" and it seems to be working out in my garden. I find it no real problem going along with the nature of plants because they want to grow. Where I find the problem is after growing and maturing they want to spoil; like me I guess. So to keep them from spoiling for a year or so is the major problem.

Perhaps All of the above are the same. After growing and maturing, they want to spoil and it is damned hard to keep anything from spoiling; it's some sort of theory of physics.

I remember pulp fiction well. I read a lot of it during the war because there was a paper shortage; romance, SF, comics, et al. It hung in the little house out back and was much more friendly than the slick paper of the catalogs. If you didn't read it then it was soon gone forever.

Cheers from the other side

onething said...

Purple Tortoise

"I'm a working climate scientist, and in my experience, climate denialism seems more driven by ideological affiliation than any general doubt about science. That is to say, climate denialists usually accept conventional views in other scientific fields like GMOs and vaccines but not regarding climate change because it conflicts too much with their political views. They generally like scientific and technological developments and refuse to believe that they can have bad outcomes like climate change."

Isn't it possible that some people actually disagree on the interpretation of data? Is it fair to question whether they are suspicious of science in its entirety? I agree with you, though, that a lot of people have opinions that are driven more by ideology, group identity and suchlike preferences, than analysis.

onething said...


"One conceptual suite concerning me as of late is this. I was hoping you could tell me what the spirits of nature may think of the task of reclaiming deserts for life?"

When I first heard the idea of terraforming Venus (it was Venus before it was Mars), I thought about it and decided we ought to terraform the middle east.
Much of its current dryness and extreme heat likely comes from human acitivity anyway.

George Coles said...

Thank you for this post, Mr. Greer.

My memory is generally poor, but I believe you referenced Alasdair MacIntyre’s book “After Virtue” in an older post. I could be wrong. Regardless, I immediately
thought how complementary your posts having been over the months to Mr. MacIntyre’s thoughts, as well as others who take a constructive-critical
view of Enlightment-era philosophy. The idea that we are able to rationalize
our individual positions – sometimes at the expense of the “common good” – is
a clear double-sword.

My favourite example is Jeremy Bentham’s concept of the Panopticon: a prison or hospital for the insane, where, because
it would be essentially made of glass, only one guard would be required to keep an eye on the inmates. The Russian author Yevgeny Zamyatin wrote “We” back in the 1920’s using that idea and applied it to the police state of the future.
It’s a great novel – and belongs to the “Brave New World” / “1984” triology.

In today’s age where we already suspect that our “authority figures” (whomever
they might be) are watching us more each day through communication
technology’s version of the Panopticon, I have to wonder if people will do less and less upsetting of the proverbial apple cart instead of offering practical
proposals, no matter how critical of the establishment?

I think you were dead on with your comments about how some (many) in the
establishment have simply dismissed the average citizen who is, supposedly, devoid of the proper credentials to offer an out of the box solution and a various topics.

All the best. GC

Janet D said...

@Dylan. Thanks for the autism info & the link.

My son does not have autism, nor is he on the spectrum, but we are just in recovery from a two-year descent into hell, where he was exhibiting severe signs of OCD, anxiety, insomnia, paranoia, etc. (He is now 12, was 11 when we were going through this).

We did it all - sleep study with a psychiatrist, doctor visits, regular therapist sessions, as well as a whole host of alternative therapies. Nothing was working and finally, in desperation, I took him to another psychiatrist who, surprise!, wanted to put him on a long-term regime of Prozac. I was so desperate I almost did it, but then someone turned me on to a Functional Medicine doctor (FM is a branch of medicine devoted to helping patients with long-term chronic conditions through lifestyle, nutrition, supplements, diet modification, etc). It turned out that my son's body was not manufacturing any of his neurotransmitters, almost literally (neurotransmitters are made in the gut).

Anyway, how this is relevant to your post is that the FM doc has my son largely following the same protocol as her autism patients - detox protocols, diet modification, numerous supplements (none of which have the side effects of Rx meds), for reasons # 3,4, and 5 on your list, exactly.

It has worked miracles. He is 90% better, albeit we still have to be very careful with his environment, diet & regular supplements.

The kicker to all this? When I told my GP that I was not going to put my son on Prozac, because the Functional Med doc (who is an MD) was helping him with supplements, she (the GP) said, "I can't approve the use of supplements." But a lifetime of Prozac, with it's risks of dependency, dry mouth, restlessness & insomnia (which my son had in spades already) apparently, was just fine.


Janet D said...

On another note, re: GMOs.

I'm always curious that the "GMOs-are-great" crowd never acknowledges one of the main complaints the so-called anti-GMO crowd has, which is the corporate control of ever-greater parts of the food chain.

You no pay, you no get seed. You may not attempt to save seed. If some of your crop is accidentally pollinated with GMO-crop, you get sued (and lose). And so on.

Although I am not convinced that eating pesticide-laced food is "safe", some of my main concerns about GMOs are about much more than being assured they are "safe". Yet these concerns are just swept aside as being "anti-science".


team10tim said...

Hey hey JMG,

An interesting little detail from the medical profession about bedside manner. Apparently there is a high correlation between malpractice lawsuits and poor bedside manner. Google will find all the details and essays on the matter.

The two obvious points here are: One, malpractice lawsuits should only be correlated with malpractice and two, bedside manner or lack thereof is what shapes the view from outside for most patients. This is a nice little metaphor for the problems with science. Basically, a lot of the science that society sees comes from an establishment with horrible manners. This pretty much guarantees that there will be social a backlash.

Human beings are social creatures and for better or worse these are the rules we have to play by. Manners and etiquette are the social constructs that we have made to keep ourselves from killing each other over every little thing. For example, this blog is heavily moderated by our gracious host and there is a high level of constructive discussion on rather touchy topics. If JMG let the trolls in to play then civility would go out the window and we would have screaming matches and flame wars.


Myriad said...

I'm Science (let's pretend), and I've gathered up the world for a rousing game of that old classic, 'Science Says.' Ready, world? Let's go!

Science says 'Find out the nuclear structure of Uranium 235 in terms of the proton-neutron-electron atomic model.'

(World does experiments and declares: '92 protons and 143 neutrons.')

Well done! Science says 'Study the decay of Uranium 235 and quantify the energy release resulting from chain reaction conditions.'

(World does experiments and presents equation.)

Excellent! Now you can build bombs and power plants exploiting that form of energy release.

(World builds bombs and power plants.)

Buzz! Sorry! I didn't say 'Science Says!'

Man, I never get tired of that game. It gets 'em every time.

Varun Bhaskar said...


I'm slowly entering conversations about the amount of corruption in the scientific community. The best counter-point I've come with to the idea of "science as savior," is pointing out the relationship between environmental destruction vs. technological advance. Right now I'm dealing with some very pro-GM people, who all keep saying there's a way to do it “right.” My question to them is, “given the amount of environmental destruction that we've managed with our current kit of technological tools, why do they think that adding more powerful tools is some how going to make things better?” It's a stumper of a question since not one of these people believe in the social progress myth.

Also here's a new poem.

Everyone else,

So, View on the Ground is opening up the Saturday and Sunday edition for short-stories, poems, and discussion on other interesting issues. The material should be related to peak oil, or other topics discussed on either of the Archdruid's blogs. Submissions should be sent to viewontheground at Thank you!



John Michael Greer said...

Derv, you're likely correct about the schism. Hopefully the collapse in funding for research will inspire that, if only by convincing some younger scientists that they really do have nothing to lose.

Deedl, exactly -- extracting science from the deathgrip of a corrupt and failing institutional system is one of the major tasks of our time. I'll be talking about how that might be done in a future post.

Lucretia, thanks for this! I wonder if the author realizes that he's just going to make more people think warm thoughts about the Middle Ages...

Tortoise, fascinating. I don't have many opportunities to talk to people from the Heartland Institute; the people I hear discussing climate denialist talking points are ordinary working Joes in the small Appalachian town where I live. They haven't gotten to the point of questioning all science as such, but at this point it's not just global warming -- saying "scientists have proved X" doesn't have much credence with them these days.

Thomas, good. I definitely get a whiff of drapetomania from the Torygraph's claims...

Karim, exactly. More on this as we proceed.

Tim (or is it Nicky), ouch. That's pretty blatant, isn't it?

Stream, I'll keep that in mind in case I ever need a doctor repellent, since I use herbs and homeopathic cell salts as mainstays of my home health care.

Ed, it's important not to treat this as a matter of the ethics of individual doctors or scientists -- the whole system is broken, and people with ethics who end up caught in the system either leave or compromise.

Gnomeland, thank you. I like civil, thoughtful conversations, and detest drama -- and of course there's also a certain simple pleasure in glancing at some troll's screeching five-screen denunciation, hitting the delete button, and letting the Stark Fist of Removal fling it into the Void of Slack forever...

Avery, well, that's Wikipropaganda for you. It amazes me that some people still consider that site a source of facts.

Bruno, that's quite possible. My guess is that science will do as logic did, and get picked up by several successor civilizations, each of which will reformulate it in its own way.

Raymond Duckling said...

Over 100 comments in less than 24 hours. If your intention was to scare away people with that many hot button issues (plus the ban on the typical flame war that would otherwise erupt)... I am sorry it did not pan out.

On the other hand, the way I see it, there is little this audience (or anyone else) can do this late in the game to affect the fall of grace of Science(TM). You cannot, metaphorically speaking, talk the already drunk driver into giving up the keys of the already recklessly driven car. The question is what each of us can and should do about it.

One name popped out in my mind from my old readings in middle school: Antoine-Laurent de Lavoisier. He's considered one of the fathers of modern chemistry, and is therefore one of the Saints of the Church of Progress. And a martyr saint at that. He was guillotined during the French Revolution because of his ties to the Ancient Regime; the judge dismissing his appeal for pardon on the merit of scientific achievement.

If that is the kind of future one might expect - and current Scientist elites seem to be doing their level best to earn it - someone has to take the fruits of science, disguise those as something else... something innocuous, and pass it to the next generation.

My humble contribution to that project so far is a game named "Animal Riddles". This is a modified version of the 20 Questions game where the initial question is always "What animal am I thinking about?", and you get 3 free hints: non-overly-specific open ended questions ("where does it live?" is fair game, but "what's its genus?" is cheating).

I play it with my kids, and they play it amongst them and occasionally with other children as well. They not only have learned a lot of Biological Classification facts (which the eldest teaches the youngest, even if he thinks he's arguing who won), but also got the insights of "divide and conquer" and "tree pruning" algorithms from Computer Science.

But, you know, that's good for the existing scientific lore. If only someone would do the same for the Scientific Method and related techniques.

Admin said...

Engineering is nothing more than the practical application of science. But for some reason I am the only person I know who refers to myself as an engineer without getting an accredited degree in engineering. I am an engineer not because of a college degree, but because I apply science and mathematics to solve problems and build systems. Granted, I am not building bridges and large scale power plants. But when I build a bell siphon for my hydroponics garden*, and then have to tinker with it because the siphon either wont start or wont stop, that is engineering, even if it is a far simpler and easier form of engineering than robotics or nano technology. I think far too many people limit themselves with the notion that some institution or authority figure has to define who you are and what you are capable of. On that point, as these institutions continue down the path of making themselves worthless, being a "healer" may some day be better than being a Doctor, despite the latter having diplomas. I know that I will never get a job at Boeing without an engineering degree, but so far I have zero regrets on that front. I am content to help my friends, family, and community with applied science and mathematics.

* I know, I know, hydroponics is not sustainable farming, even if it is popular to believe otherwise. The media would have you believe that you could be sustainable if you just purchased the right consumer goods, and most people like the idea of being green (or the status / bragging rights) more than the reality of being green, so they fall for any solution that involves technology and buying things.

@JMG - I read a lot, and I have to say that this is one of the best sites on the internet. Thank you for giving us this site.

Admin said...

Just thinking out loud here, but I think that maybe science should become part of the whole "local" movement.

It would be very open-source, much like a previous commenter suggested. But what I am talking about is the idea that if someone in France publishes a peer-reviewed paper, then I should be able to reproduce the results of that paper in a lab in my local community with a minimal amount of resources (i.e. money and equipment). Otherwise the scientific paper is just more useless garbage to be tossed in the rubbish bin with the unwanted junk mail. In other words, if it can't be independently verified locally, then it has the same legitimacy as marketing materials ("scientifically proven to whiten your teeth").

Now I know that last paragraph will upset many people, but there are a few things worth mentioning. Here is one:

Dr. Marcia Angell, the editor of New England Journal of Medicine for 20 years, wrote the following:

“It is simply no longer possible to believe much of the clinical research that is published, or to rely on the judgment of trusted physicians or authoritative medical guidelines. I take no pleasure in this conclusion, which I reached slowly and reluctantly over my two decades as an editor of The New England Journal of Medicine.” (NY Review of Books, January 15, 2009)

or as a previous commenter stated "some verification studies are finding--80% of NIH papers are not reproducible."

The second one is a quote from a previous comment:

"someone can't prove a theory about extra-solar gas giant planets without having access to a boatload of equipment that costs big dollars to operate. If you don't have access to telescopes outside of the atmosphere your theory is nothing more than speculation over a couple of beers."

Here again I would argue that if you can prove a theory about the universe, but I am unable to verify your theory in the labs in my local community, then even if your theory is correct, what is the practical application of the knowledge?

Maybe this is a naive view to have, further thought and discussion could prove this "local science" rule foolish. Perhaps time will tell.

I have an interesting anecdote to share regarding this topic:

During my college days at UCSD I took an undergraduate physics class. The professor would sometimes try to do a demonstration in order to elaborate on an important concept (like static electricity for example). The hilarious part was that about 7 out of 10 times his demonstrations would fail. It was as though the laws of physics did not apply to his classroom.

Now of course I understand that static electricity exists and it has certain behaviors and properties. But the important thing is that the same "local" rule applies. If I am supposed to be able to harness the power of static electricity to produce some effect, and after repeated failed attempts I am unable to produce the desired effect, then all of the "official" science of static electricity is irrelevant to me. What good is it?

I can see some obvious drawbacks to this line of thinking. If we rigidly adhered to the local-science rule then we might still believe the world is flat. But at the same time, if we can't prove the world is round using local resources, how can we trust that you are not just trying to sell us on your dogmatic version of reality?

On a separate but related note I see Science (the institutions) going away, but the scientific method, along with engineering, staying the course. Small groups of local "hobby" scientist and engineers will be the ones carrying the torch for future generations. As one commenter put it:

"let us get science back from the "experts". Science should be open source. Everybody should be able to participate in it."

Marcello said...

"I don't believe there is much danger to practical science on an individual scale. It very well may evolve into trade organizations, but even the most religious and dogmatic societies relied on practical science simply because it was better than alternatives."

Most technical accomplishments and advances until industrialization (and even afterwards for a while) happened by tinkering and lucky discoveries rather than by research and applications of general theories. A medieval smith did not have a clue about the existence of a thing called "carbon", he knew that by heating iron in charcoal he would obtain metal with certain desired properties. He could verify it in practice and he had been taught to do so by whoever he learned from, whom in turn had learned from somebody else all the way back to some accidental discovery much earlier. While having a more modern understanding of the processes might help to optimize results it is not really an absolute necessity until you get into somewhat complex stuff. One might note that when the french artillery was redesigned in the 18th century there was a lot of talk about incorporating scientific advances but in the end even something as important as barrels length was decided by a committee taking a look at existing models: even Napoleon later on was not keen on forking out the money for a ballistic pendulum capable of handling cannon shots. Which bring us to the problem: in most areas research simply takes more money/time/resources than what a few amateurs can spare and whoever is writing the checks, be it the state or private purse will want something back, one way or the other. That said I think it is as common as unfair to let the other side off the hook: the people writing books in which they denounce vaccines as tool of the élite to cut down global population (or what have you) might not have billions behind them but they are still expecting to make a buck pandering to paying customers, the very thing it is supposed to discredit all the establishment arguments against them.
Incidentally for those who would like for germ theory to survive and to yield its benefits the anti-vaxxers should be a clue that it will be likely on of the biggest targets for opprobrium further along the process. Perhaps it might survive as an exoteric piece of knowledge for select few.

So the bottom line is that science can be lost without compromising most of the stuff that can be had in a society without industry and fossil fuels. In fact a lot of things that could be theoretically be built in a pre-industrial society often would not be available due to scarce resources being allocated somewhere else: europeans were usually satisfied with building huge cathedrals while putting up with water and sanitation arrangements that the romans would have found somewhat lacking.

latheChuck said...

Here is my first-hand experience with corruption in academia science, with a slightly different twist. A few years after earning my MSEE, I was given a recent graduate's completed MSEE thesis on a topic which was relevant to my own work. As soon as I read the abstract, I knew that there was an error. A few hours later, I found it: numeric rounding ran in the student's favor over the range of published results. When I casually described the problem to the student's faculty advisor, he admitted: "well, um..., we knew there was something wrong, but he wouldn't have graduated on-schedule if we'd taken the time to figure it out."

So that was all it took: the pressure to award the degree at the promised date, research integrity is optional.

When I read academic literature now, it's to find the useful footnotes to classic papers of antiquity (i.e., mid-to-late 20th century), or to amuse myself finding the simplifying assumptions that make the research irrelevant.

Myriad said...

I had a similar experience to Martin B, where a medical approach looked different from the doctor's side. Many years ago I developed a condition that's known to be closely correlated with overweight. after becoming overweight over the previous year or two. After getting the diagnosis, I expected a scolding, or at least a pamphlet about diet and exercise shoved into my hands. But instead, the doctor prescribed moderately risky medication (which I'd presumably have to take indefinitely) and never even mentioned weight loss.

After reflection, I realized that from his side, this made perfect sense. He doesn't get to choose between me exercising and me taking pills. From his side, the options are telling me to exercise or telling me to take pills. If weight loss is 90% effective at treating the condition, but only 10% of patients urged to lose weight actually do it (which is a wildly optimistic estimate), then that first option is only 9% effective, while prescribing pills that work 70% of the time which 90% of patients follow through with taking is a 63% effective treatment by comparison. Why even waste time with the long-shot option, especially if it also makes most patients angry and drives them away?

One of my sisters is an MD, and she agrees that among the other forces arrayed against doctors' ability to provide sound and ethical care (such as insurance guidelines, lawsuit fears, educational debt, and pharmaceutical company influence), the expectations of today's "empowered" patients figure prominently.

This clearly parallels the experience of my other sister, a college chemistry professor, whose performance ratings (and hence pay, and job security) are tied directly to students' ratings, which go down if the course content is challenging or the grading anything other than ultra-lenient.

Even leaving collapse out of the picture, another two or three generations of those trends and scientific hubris will be a moot point because scientists won't actually be capable of doing science any more.

John Michael Greer said...

Angus, status is a complex thing, and who responds to what status symbol is even more complex. In my experience, the people who respect the guy in the suit and the fancy car are those who (a) want to be like him and (b) think they have, or might have had, a chance to be like him. Those who are convinced they don't have, and never had, a chance at the suit and the fancy car tend to react to it, not with respect, but with hostility -- anything on the spectrum from casual putdowns to a lead pipe over the head. The more the current system breaks down, the more people fall into the latter category. More on this as we proceed!

Carlisle, reasoning from dictionary definitions is always a risky option. Science, also termed "modern science," is also a specific historical phenomenon with its own culture and praxis, and that -- not the abstraction you've brought into the discussion -- is what I'm talking about, of course.

Ozquoll, on the other hand, those of us on the spectrum are less susceptible to peer pressure and the magnetic attraction of collective thinking, and that can quite literally be life-saving at this point! Thanks for the link.

Stein, thanks for this! The website for the talks seems to have a broken link -- I've tried a couple of times to download the PDF and haven't been able to get it. All in good time.

Jo, it's a challenging situation. One of the things that makes corrupt institutions so deadly is that they feed on the idealism and honesty of their inmates.

Raven, if that's the religious metaphor you prefer, what happens after the crucifixion and entombment?

Andrew, thanks for the report from the trenches!

Cherokee, Smith never wrote novels -- all the Zothique stories fit into a single volume, and it's been out of print for a while in this country (I have no idea what the status of old SF and fantasy is down your way). Definitely give Smith a look, though!

M, nicely put. It's reminiscent of the faux pas by Nelson Rockefeller back in the 1960s: "Consider the ordinary working guy, making say a hundred thousand a year..."

Tripp, only a human? As compared to what? ;-)

Sven, so far the troll action has been only a little heavier than usual. It'll be interesting to see what happens when the post hits the skeptic blogs -- though that just means a few more taps on the "delete" button, of course.

Scythe, these days a very large part of the skeptic movement basically functions as unpaid marketing for a handful of corporate interests. They're "skeptical" about anything but press releases from the pharmaceutical and biotech industries...

Leo Knight said...

I may have said this before, but it bears repeating, the comments here are so much more thoughtful than anyplace I've seen. Yesterday, I made the mistake of reading the comments at a local newspaper. The story concerned the woes of mass transit in the area. I recoiled at the meanness and ignorance in the comments. It left me feeling very depressed for quite a while. Thanks for moderating, JMG. By the way, I discovered l have a copy of your book "Monsters" in my collection!

1ab9a86a-8991-11e3-899b-000bcdcb8a73 said...


science isn't actually organized as a profession at all. You can see that by the virtual non-existence of career paths. People entering actual professions such as law, medicine etc would never put up with that. To the extent that science achieves any of your criteria, this is an accidental byproduct of its history and, in a sense, its success (such as it is).

The goal of an individual research scientist is to discover something new. That's about it. The result is a body of knowledge, but I disagree with your A+ assessment because of your use of the word "systematic". In fact, I would give science an A+ for a "acquiring a large, disorganized body of theory and knowledge".

In biomedical disciplines, this needs to be qualified by mentioning that there is very little theory behind much of it, and as pyrrhus somewhat un-diplomatically said already "As to medical research in general, since most doctors and researchers are terrible at math, the vast majority of it is just garbage".

Unfortunately that is true (to varying degrees) for a wide range of biosciences, including ecology, in the sense that research papers get written that combine new, expensively acquired data with analysis that is total garbage, because the authors don't understand the analytical (e.g. statistical) methods they are forced to use as a substitute (prosthesis?) for scientific reasoning. In these disciplines, "scientific method" is taught explicitly but then reduced to trivialities such as P-values, confidence intervals and their 1000 nearest bug-eyed relatives you find in statistical recipe books. So in other words, scientific reasoning, which is the really hard part of science where all the gains are to be made, is abandoned in advance. The inevitable consequence is a series of random conclusions in papers dealing with health and nutrition, fluctuating over the decades, making little progress but leaving a wake of incoherent noise.

There are a very small minority of serious biostatisticians, who actually do know what they are doing, who develop advanced methods and apply them correctly; unfortunately this does not impede the mountain of garbage being published. In fact, their excellence puts them at a relative disadvantage since good careful work is a lot slower than the competition, i.e. "the bad drive out the good" and so you get, as pyrrhus mentioned, a huge fraction of non-reproducible results.

trippticket said...

@Angus: ditto Ray Wharton's take on rocking the poverty. Three years ago my wife and I took all the money we had to our names, or could pull together from donors, bought 2.3 acres of southeast-facing mountain slope in north Georgia (with cash), chopped down a few trees (with an ax), built a big deck (with a handsaw and hammer), set up a 16x20 wall tent on it, put some pine shavings in the sawdust toilet, lit a couple of oil lamps, hung a black eco-shower bag from a red oak tree built into the front porch, hung out our shingle as full-time herbalists, and got busy collapsing from our former solid middle-class lifestyle. With two young children in tow.

The sense of awe and reverence that we field, every week, from people who discover us is astonishing. We are absolute rock stars in our county and in certain parts of Atlanta and Chattanooga where we work some markets. Sales in our herbal products increase every time a customer finds out how we live; some folks buy something just because of the story. In fact, the other day I was seriously taken aback by someone who found out about us and didn't think it was cool at all. But he was a 15 y.o. foster kid with a soft spot for fancy cars...


Steward of
Talking Rock
Lower Appalachia

Ed-M said...

Pity that science (the process, not the "instutional society) and the scientific method could become victim to a backlash caused by the all the ill effects of the results of the activities of engineers -- and workers -- in the employ of thoughtless industrialists and government officials, none of whom ever gave a thought to what would happen to the waste once it went "away," or to what would happen to the built infrastructure were the natural resources and wealth required for its upkeep to become insufficient for the task, let alone begin to run out.

But then again there might be a backlash against engineering, too; and it, like science, might be completely forgotten. The status of engineers these days is much lower than in the heyday of highway construction and the space programs. From what I understand, this is due in no small part to a backlash against highway construction through city neighborhoods once the locals figured out what sort of influence a planned eight-lane interstate would have on their community (ex: Cambridge, Mass., and the Boston Inner Belt Expressway). Plus the glamour went out of the space program.

Odin's Raven said...

After the crucifixion and entombment things may become interesting. Science, if not individual scientists, might be resurrected, although it could require three aeons rather than three days.

Freed of it's body of materialistic restrictions science might cease to be 'the knowledge of that which is not worth knowing' and become knowledge of deeper truth.

1ab9a86a-8991-11e3-899b-000bcdcb8a73 said...


I just saw your follow-up, so evidently I didn't need to tell you that science isn't organized as a profession.

However I'm puzzled by various points:

1. What makes you think scientists want to be treated as part of a profession?

2. Your claim that science is organized as a religion, talking of priests and altars etc ... none of that rings any bells with me at all. So I wonder where you get that imagery from.

3. Totally baffled by your "supporting cigarette companies" claim. Ever since I can remember, science has been trying to strangle them to death.

4. "Outsiders opinions must not count in the process". What exactly are scientists supposed to do with opinions, whether outsiders, insiders or frontsy-backsy-inside-outsy? How is an opinion going to alter my analysis? There's simply nowhere to put it, which is just as well considering the two main facts about opinions: (a) there are lots of them (b) they have a well-established track record of being wrong.

I suppose I'm inclined to think that science hasn't tried to establish itself as a formal "profession" for some very good reasons. Take a look at the IPCC and imagine a giant version of that. I'm shuddering just thinking about it. A total nightmare.

Lets just say that if you wanted to finish science off quick and clean, that would do it :)

fyreflye said...

Hello, JMG and friends
For those interested in reading more Clark Ashton Smith and aren't boycotting Amazon or its Kindles:
Often long OP and obscure works see the printed light of day again through the comparatively inexpensive Kindle publishing process. The listings above also show any pbk and hb versions as well.

Gwyneth Olwyn said...

I would self-identify as a scientist but I thankfully don't have to earn my living within its ivory tower and therefore I get to be a practitioner rather than a Defender of the Faith.

I have given up having discussions altogether on "anti-vaxxers" but it was still nice to see my 'outlandish' stance reflected within your blog post this week.

Several months ago, someone took exception to a cartoon posted on I Expletive Love Science regarding lab rats. IFLS defended animal testing as being an unfortunate and necessary approach for providing safe treatment and drugs for humans and that anyone who has ever taken a drug is a hypocrite if they are also against animal testing.

Here was my response:

"Any scientifically literate person also knows to avoid saying something as indefensible as "every medical breakthrough has been made with animal testing." or "necessary for medical progress." We can and should do better in the scientific community. Science is a practice, not a religion or faith and therefore any status quo in procedure or approach should never be accepted as automatically the best. Animal studies correctly predict outcomes for humans with between a 5 to 25% success rate. Check out the systematic reviews and meta-analyses (peer-reviewed published) on the prediction efficacy of animal testing for even the most unambiguous of trial results and you'll note that animal test outcomes give us results we could achieve by chance when it comes to predicting safety and efficacy of treatment or drug interventions. So as one scientifically literate person, I refuse to stand on dogma and misrepresent animal testing as some necessary evil."

I tire of the unthinking elitism I see within the scientific community. They are quick to ridicule, belittle and deride individuals who, on many occasions, are quite rightly cynical and jaded when it comes to the entire scientific community's incestuous and murky relationship to the influential and for-profit drug and medical device industries.

Steps off soap box. Ahem."

And don't worry, the irony of quoting systematic review and meta-analyses is not lost on me.

It's still sad that true scientific inquiry as a way in which we investigate the world around us will not survive this turn of the wheel. Thankfully I won't be around to witness it.

GreenEngineer said...

Not disagreeing with any of your post, I wanted to offer a couple of points for consideration.

As someone who is not a scientist but is good friends with an inordinate number of them, I would suggest that the main problem with the "view from the outside" is that it has very little to do with the scientists themselves. With some notable exceptions, most of the "pronouncements" you read are in fact the product of either the popular media, or a university's public relations team. In both cases, these announcements are being written by people who have (1) an incentive to sensationalize the findings and (2) little or no understanding of the specific topic and (3) little understanding of the nature of the scientific process. I think this, more than anything else, is why the public is treated to a neverending stream of sequentially-conflicting assertions.
The problem here is simply that most scientists are not, and do not want to be, communicators and public spokespeople. The traits that attract one to science are, in general, not the ones that make for a good marketing person. The scientific community needs to grapple with this problem and they know it. They just don't want to do it.

I also wanted to highlight a growing awareness among scientists themselves of the shortcomings of research quality and reproducibility. This is a relatively recent thing - a Stanford researcher named Ioannidis kicked it off about a decade ago, with this paper.

Since then, awareness has grown that the scientific community - completely aside from outright fraud - has a serious problem with reproducibility and bias. For example:]_Victoria_Stodden,_Columbia_University.pdf

Many of these problems (particularly the infrequency with which important results are replicated) can be traced directly to how science is funded and how scientists are rewarded. The current fad to make science more commercial, with a focus on immediately useful discoveries and ferocious competition, only serves to exacerbate this problem.

jonathan said...

for a thoroughly chilling experience i suggest reading clark ashton smith's lengthy poem "the hashish eater". he captures something integral to the current dilemma in an "Ozmandias" sort of way.

Purple Tortoise said...


Yes, people can disagree on the interpretation of the data. From my perspective, though, the climate denialist interpretations are not well-founded. It's like your friend who smokes two packs a day but is unwilling to concede that smoking is bad for his health. So he goes from doctor to doctor until he finds one who agrees with him. And if you bring up evidence, he'll just argue that the science is not settled because his second cousin's father-in-law smoked four packs a day and lived to age 95.

John Michael Greer said...

David, the notion that there's an answer that will solve our problems once and for all is a common fallacy of ages of reason -- it was just as popular during the equivalent period in Greek history, for example -- and has to be outgrown in the usual way. In reality, of course, our problems amount to the consequences of being alive, and although there's a cure for that, it's not a particularly popular one.

Twilight, and of course that's true -- what propels a person through the crack between the worlds, to use a once-iconic phrase, varies quite a bit from person to person -- and science isn't the only thing that's in the process of being rejected.

Unknown Gojira Fan, fair enough. Thank you for having the courage to follow along on this journey; I can't promise you'll find the scenery pleasant, but I think it's worth taking.

Oilman, exactly -- it's not just, or even primarily, a matter of personal integrity or the lack thereof. That's why I stressed that the view from outside doesn't take into consideration all the honest people who are trying to do the right thing -- of course they exist. The problem is that that's not what the people who suffer from the consequences of misapplied science get to see; all they get to see is "we prefer to medicate for that." That's what's going to drive that final furious mob to smash down the doors of that last laboratory, and it won't matter at all that the people in that laboratory are honest and good.

Robert, excellent! Were you aware that a solar Christology, which identifies the sun as one embodiment or manifestation of Christ, is an important theme in a number of alternative forms of Christianity? "For all things have died that you might live."

Buzzy, thanks for the news from the trenches. I knew it was bad; I didn't happen to know that it was that bad.

PG, good heavens. The media's starting to admit that economists can't tell their backside from a hole in the ground? We may be in for it sooner than I thought.

Martin, frustrating indeed. That's what happens when people load science and reason with unscientific and unreasoning emotional commitments -- as of course they always do.

K-dog, yes, but there's more going on than that.

Ray, no argument there. I wish the Mauve and Chartreuse teams would take up chariot racing or something.

Denys, you may be amused to note that some self-proclaimed skeptics insist there's no such thing as the placebo effect. I gather they're offended by the notion that the human mind can do anything at all without a prescription.

Travis, you're welcome and thank you. I've also been interested to note how certain disciplines, as well as the ordinary aging process, have helped me get my Aspergers more and more under control, to the extent that I can look people in the eyes on social occasions without too much discomfort!

Purple Tortoise said...


Outside of work, my social circle is dominated by politically conservative and libertarian types. They generally have higher-than-average education and/or income, so they probably are a different demographic than your small-town acquaintances. I've heard that political affiliation one way or the other increases the higher you go up the socio-economic scale, which could account for their stronger ideological stances and being friends-of-friends with the Heartland Institute. Unlike small town ordinary Joes, they're more invested in and benefiting from the current system despite political conflicts with their ideological opponents.

Marc L Bernstein said...


You're so often completely overwhelmed by responses to your posts that I'm trying my darndest to be brief.

So you have Aspergers? Join the crowd. I easily qualify. I have always liked to make lists since I was a child (baseball statistics, sumo statistics, etc.), sometimes engage in repetitive activities and often prefer solitude over the company of people, even friends. I sometimes have trouble reading other people's emotions and more often than not respond cerebrally and analytically to them rather than sensitively.

However, persons with such a "disorder" perform a valuable social function if for no other reason than that they look at things a bit differently than the average individual.

Here's a question I'll leave with you:

Can those with Asperger's become self-actualized according to Abraham Maslow's definition?

Angus Wallace said...

Hi Ray and Trippticket,

Thanks for your comments, and respect to you both for your journeys. Both your stories sound fairly amazing to me!

For now, my choice is to remain in the suburbs, but try to find a lifestyle that is low(er) impact (though a log-cabin in the woods definitely has a lot of appeal!). I'm pretty low-status, and am comfortable with that, despite living in a fairly middle-class area.

It's not the respect (or lack of it) that I care about, but the ability to influence thinking and (more importantly) public policy. It would be better if former-elite-now-drop-outs could continue to influence the elite into mending their ways, instead of waiting for the downtrodden to rise up as JMG suggests is likely.

Cheers, Angus

John Michael Greer said...

Librarian, makes perfect sense. I've fielded one invitation so far to do a TED talk, and turned it down flat. I have better things to do with my time than provide entertainment to a bunch of bored yuppies -- and preaching sermons to devout believers in the Great God Progress sounds even less interesting.

Leo, that's the difference between the expert and the true scholar: the expert insists that everyone ought to listen to him because he's an expert; the true scholar can explain to his listeners why his viewpoint makes sense and ought to be listened to.

Other Tom, but if 1000 auto mechanics claim you ought to change your oil once a week, a service they provide, then maybe the outliers are worth considering. That said, your point in general stands.

Clay, interesting. I'll need to look into the criticisms of Sagan from within the scientific community as time permits; it seems bizarre that, after so many generations of popularizing writers and speakers, Sagan should have been controversial at all.

Moshe, that's very good to hear. Now let's see what kind of reaction that gets from the rest of the scientific community.

Ares, I think I'd probably be a Hairy rather than a Hari Seldon...

Violet, excellent! You get tonight's gold star for sheer perspicacity. You're quite correct, of course, that disguising science as superstition is one of the few ways to get it intact through the rise of the Second Religiosity. Let me murmur this quietly: this isn't the first time that's been done, by a long shot.

Kenaz, I've actually talked about preserving the scientific method in several previous posts here, but yes, it's going to come up for discussion again.

Daelach, the rise of nosocomial infections is more complex than just a matter of inadequate cleaning -- though that's certainly a factor; every time I've been in a hospital recently, I've seen things that would make old Ignaz Semmelweis turn pale. Still, of course you're right; who makes how much money from a given procedure generally has much more to do with how often it gets done than its mere effectiveness.

Yucca, that's fascinating. I wonder if others have observed a correlation between faith in the omnipotence of science and clinical depression.

Eric, welcome back! Oh, no doubt pieces of scientific theory will be picked up and incorporated into the myths and tales of future cultures, just as ancient Greek philosophy got looted for raw material for the worldview of medieval Christianity. It's an interesting question whether those pieces will be useful for the long run, or whether they'll turn into a burden that has to be overturned, as Aristotle did.

Martin, oh, granted. I wish they would just use sugar pills, though, so that microbes wouldn't have so many options to pick up resistance to antibiotics!

John Michael Greer said...

Jake, of course there are actual conspiracies. It's the existence of real illnesses that gives the hypochondriac something to work with.

Martin, interesting. I don't tend toward depression at all, but there again, I'm a sample of n=1.

Adrian, again, the view from outside doesn't care about all those humble and hardworking people. Unless they make themselves visible -- which, I'm quite aware, would generally cost them their jobs -- they're just another cog in the machine, as far as the view from outside is concerned. That's exactly the problem.

Greg, I have a hard time thinking of a better way to get instantly deleted by Tyson's flacks. To the publicists of modern science, the only good heretic is a dead heretic -- more precisely, a heretic who revolted against something that doesn't pay the publicists' salaries.

Dammerung, exactly. Thank you for getting it.

Greg, I have yet to see an honest study of homeopathy done by the mainstream. I've seen some highly inventive forms of experimental fraud and data-massaging, though!

Escape, do you think that the tobacco industry stopped being generous enough with the payola, or what?

Lynford, funny. Some of the pulps were probably better off used for that purpose anyway...

George, I have indeed cited MacIntyre's After Virtue here. As for the Panopticon, since nobody's had the fortitude to do it according to Bentham's design, it depends on a very high rate of energy and raw material inputs, and will not last long. This strikes me as a very good thing.

Janet, well, of course! Yelling "Luddite!" is much easier than explaining why serfdom to a handful of big corporations is a good idea.

Tim, I didn't know about the correlation between lawsuits and bad manners, but it makes sense -- and the would-be defenders of science have a spectacular case of bad manners, so yes, a backlash would follow...

Myriad, funny indeed.

FiftyNiner said...

@ Jo,
Best of wishes to you and that idealistic 18 year old about to go off to college to study biotechnology. As everything does in this blog, it seems every post by JMG and a preponderance of all the comments have a very real connection to my own life and that of my family. Of course the topic of the collapse that we discuss here is nothing if not about all of human existence, past, present and future.
I have some very loved nieces and nephews and the most accomplished, academically, of them is a niece who upon completing her undergraduate degree in medical technology applied to and was accepted into the PhD program at Florida State University College of Medicine. She settled on FSU after concluding that as a relatively new medical school(less than 15 years old)it would probably be somewhat immune from the ingrown kinds of atrophy that plague all institutions as they age. My niece's forte is the lab and she became a minor campus legend in her undergraduate days for the precision and scientific competence she brought to the laboratory. One of the reasons that she selected Florida State was that the medical college operated no less than 54 laboratories on the Tallahassee campus and throughout the Florida panhandle. If my brother, her dad, is to be believed a bidding war broke out among the faculty members who headed the different labs as to who would get her in their lab first!
Sadly, the experience was not all that she had hoped. She became disillusioned by a system that is totally controlled by the drug industry in deciding what it is that the PhD candidates are even going to be allowed to work on. She chose to leave with a master's degree and is now teaching at a long established junior college in Florida.
Being the high achiever and perfectionist that she is, I think that eventually she will carve out for herself another niche and go for it. A certain amount of toughness is going to be required of our youth if they are to succeed.

John Michael Greer said...

Varun, nicely played. Do they stop and think when you say that, or do they just get angry?

Raymond, nah, if I want to chase people away, the key is getting weird, not getting controversial. I have that in reserve in case the comments get too thick on the ground.

Admin, I have a friend who's an engineer without benefit of degree, so you're not completely unprecedented! As for localizing science, an excellent idea -- and I hope you won't take offense if I note that it's the kind of response I'd expect an engineer to think up. Every engineer I've ever met was good at solving problems in really odd ways, so solving the problem of the survival of science? Just another neat technical problem! ;-)

(That said, it's among the more workable notions I've seen.)

Marcello, granted. The Middle Ages would have been possible without logic and philosophy, for that matter -- but I still think there was a point to preserving those through the fall of Rome.

LatheChuck, ouch. That's unusually lame even for a university.

Myriad, and of course that's also a point that will have to be addressed in salvaging science.

Leo, thank you. You may be amused to know that that's still my best selling book -- though it mostly seems to attract attention from teenage monster fans.

Ed-M, I'm concerned that there could be a backlash against the whole kit and caboodle, science, engineering, medicine, the lot, as tools of the existing order -- and breaking the tools may seem like the most expedient strategy to attack the social order that uses them.

Raven, exactly.

Fyreflye, on the other hand, for those who don't want to deal with the Evil Empire, the same website that hosts "The Dark Age," and was cited on my blog, hosts every other story and poem Clark Ashton Smith ever wrote, and can be accessed free of charge.

Gwyneth, I've come to think that if science as a method of inquiry does survive, it'll be entirely because of people who don't earn a living at it, and so are free to practice it.

GreenEngineer, of course the view from outside has little or nothing to do with the individuals involved. That was an important part of my point. Focusing on the individuals can blind you to the way the whole system appears from outside -- and thus to the rising potential of a violent backlash against science as a whole. It doesn't matter if most scientists are good people; it doesn't matter whether they understand the problems in the system -- if they don't reach out to those outside the scientific community, and change the way science looks from outside, they're going to be caught up in the backlash just as surely as the corrupt experiment-faker two lab benches away.

Cliff said...

Interesting timing on this post - I've been watching last year's Cosmos series while I exercise at night.

I watch it because I'll learn a few things about science, but also because it has a mix of oversimplification, futurism, and evangelism that's fascinating, now that I know how to look for it. (To be uncharitable, it strikes me as propaganda for atheists.)
It's interesting to watch Neil deGrasse Tyson talk about the need to switch to solar energy and how mankind will go to the stars one day, and then a blaring commercial for Chrysler cars or what have you will come on.

In the last episode, Tyson had a line about how the wonders found in nature far surpass anything the human imagination can come up with.
That undervaluation of imagination has always disturbed me. Imagination is one of the quintessential human traits, but there's a strain of humanists that can't seem to stand it.

And anymore, this attitude feels oppressive. I've come to think that there are people with vested interests in divorcing me from my imagination in any way possible.

John Michael Greer said...

Jonathan, no argument there. The man was a very capable poet as well as a prose stylist.

Tortoise, that makes sense, then. I know a lot of conservatives, but they're the guys in T-shirts drinking beer at a grubby bar, not the guys in three piece suits drinking bourbon somewhere on the wealthy side of town.

Marc, I've never been greatly impressed by Maslow's definition, or by any general definition of the kind. It seems to me, rather, that each person has a wholly unique potential for self-actualization, since each person is a unique self, and what would be self-actualization for one person might be the opposite for someone else. Did I mention dissensus yet? ;-)

Cliff, two shots dead on target. Yes, Cosmos is propaganda for atheism, or more precisely for the anthropolatrous worship of Man the Conqueror of Nature that responds with jealous rage to the suggestion that there might be anything bigger and badder than their hero; and yes, the fear and hatred of imagination is deeply engrained in contemporary scientism and in our society as a whole. That's why the prosthetic imagination -- all those glass screens with little pictures dancing around on them -- is such a pervasive presence in modern life; good heavens, we can't have people coming up with their own mental imagery, now can we?

1ab9a86a-8991-11e3-899b-000bcdcb8a73 said...


you are so right. Those on the inside get to see the view from the outside (unless they are total media-shy hermits, which is rare). And what they see ... rarely seems to have anything to do with what they know is actually happening on the inside.

Scott Adams made a similar point about the financial media's portrayal of companies having zilch to do with what insiders were seeing.

However I think the disconnect is much more severe in the case of science. The media's portrayal is in a parallel universe all on its own, and mostly it doesn't help at all when scientists try to engage with the media. You only have to see a few disasters before concluding that staying as far away from the media as possible is a practical necessity.

Which is another way of saying that science communication is really really fracking hard and combining it with research seems to be virtually impossible.

Yucca Glauca said...

What do you think about ecology? I've had a slowly growing feeling that ecology is kind of science (the specific cultural project) taken to it's extreme until it turns into it's opposite: We want to understand everything through breaking it down. Inherent in this is the desire to account for every detail, yet accounting for every detail lead to a discipline where you can't break anything down. Reductionism reducing itself into holism. Perhaps ecology could be somewhere between modern science and whatever will replace it. Or perhaps I'm just trying to justify my ecology degree.

Robert Hall said...

Interesting piece, JMG.

To see whether you are speaking with a real scientist, ask what problem most interests him/her today. Then ask what they are working on. A gap between these is likely, because many need to work on something that is funded.

Great questions are asking what we do not know. What hypotheses have some evidence, but our investigations are incomplete because evidence is limited; contrary hypotheses have not been tested, etc.

Without rising to the level of deliberate misrepresentation of data, money introduces incentives for confirmation bias and denial of contrary evidence. At its most blatant, a finding that can be funded, or that can be marketed is a marvel of science; anything that casts doubt is "junk science." Once firmly attached to a belief, the human mind invents endless rationales for self-deception. Even in science.

I for one have difficulty trying to track a finding reported in news about science to its original published source. I can't dig deeply into very many areas, so I have to rely on the integrity of those that I think have. Over the years I have come to be suspicious of the science backing a lot of commercial claims.

My point is that many citizens have reason to distrust "experts," especially those who appear in TV ads -- and who may really be only actors playing the role. As that great scientist, Groucho Marx once quipped, "What are you going to believe, me or what you can see with your own eyes?"

In a world where much of the systems that we depend on, not just scientific findings, are abstract from common experience, it's little wonder that we have arrive at our current pass. Truth is whatever I am convinced that it is, by whatever route I drew a conclusion.

In this situation, a great many people distrust experts of almost any sort. They may not question their technical abilities. They distrust whether their proposals in the long run will actually benefit or harm them. In a free-market world, the precautionary principle is far too often given only lip service in an advertising claim that is backed by far too little hard or extensive evidence.

What do they not know, and what are they not telling if they do?

N Montesano said...

Well, that story is chilling, considered in this context. Fun to read, though; thank you! I found myself growing quite angry at and disgusted with the elderly gentleman. And yet, clearly it is suggested that his actions may have been for the best after all, if not for his reasons. But I had better not say more to avoid any inadvertent spoiling.
The discussion about angry atheists has been interesting to me, since I came from the other end of the argument; becoming an ... irritated ... atheist in college, after one too many childhood encounters with Christians trying to browbeat me into belief with variations on the theme of "Love God or He will torture you."
These days, am mostly agnostic. There are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy, Montesano...
The whole discussion of the outside view of the various professions is a useful one; certainly thought-provoking. Made me realize how many contradictory views I hold about them myself.
It was also interesting to read this post, because last week, in trying to work through the reasons for some of my discomfort with previous posts, I found myself asking whether I could consider myself either an environmentalist or a moral person, given my "cozy middle-class lifestyle," in a world where so many have less than they need. Ehhh... That was comfortable.

John Michael Greer said...

Yucca, my take is that ecology is exactly the sort of science that will be easiest to preserve -- since corporate sponsors generally hate it -- and also most crucial to preserve -- since the ability to figure out what's going wrong in an ecosystem will have a great many benefits in the future ahead of us. More, much more, on this in a future series of posts.

Robert, exactly. That's the thing about expertise: the ability to claim authority based on knowledge lasts only until other people start saying, "How do we know you're telling the truth about what you know?" Science is at root a way of confirming that we know something about nature -- and when the trust that comes from that confirmation is broken, there may not be much left once the rubble stops bouncing.

Montesano, I used to get bombarded by that sort of Christian all the time, too: "God will torment you for all eternity for the crime of disagreeing with me." I quite understand the attraction of atheism in the face of that sort of bullying.

Derv said...

Martin B.,

Check out my earlier post. Also ankylosing spondylitis (and my brother has it too), also Asperger-y (though I've leaned more recently toward Schizoid Personality Disorder, which isn't a disorder at all, just a type of person), and depression/bipolar runs strong in my family. I don't have it, thankfully, but had life played out differently I probably would have, as I can tell I'm predisposed toward it.

It's a bit uncanny, really, to find two Aspergerish commentors on an Archdruid blog with ankylosing spondylitis. One of life's little quirks, I suppose! You wouldn't also happen to be a Latin-loving Catholic in North Dakota with three kids, would you? Cuz then we might have to call Guinness.

Derv said...

N. Montesano,

I can understand why such statements really turn you off to Christianity. I'd like to say, in assuming the best about people, that at least some of them really do think they're trying to help you. If you see it from their perspective for a moment, imagine a friend you loved was driving their car off of a cliff, and you were the only one who could stop it. You'd take even drastic action to help your friend, right? (I say this to help explain their motivation and help you sympathize, of course, and not as some an argument for or against Christianity.)

I can absolutely see how it could become downright grating to others if you don't believe it. I wouldn't take too kindly to a Buddhist harassing me daily about how terrible my next reincarnation will be if I don't embrace the Four Noble Truths. But I hope I could at least see that they were motivated by true concern. I speak here of the sincere and kind-hearted, mind you; there are of course jerks in every religion who just want an excuse to be jerks.

As for the idea of Hell, I know that it's very difficult for many to reconcile the idea of an all-loving God with it. I don't want to violate the house rules, so I'll just say that the Scholastic approach to the subject, found especially in St. Thomas Aquinas, can be very enlightening. A big part of it, briefly, is just an inherent incompatibility between an individual's chosen disposition/end and the nature of God. There's more to it than that, but I won't go into it. I just wanted to say that there are very well-thought-out explanations for it that, to me at least, make perfect sense. You just have to look in the right place; find the towering intellects of the religion, and not the petty church ladies, if you want to give it a go.

Stein L said...

JMG - I'm giving you the link again. I heartily recommend these lectures, they are filled with insights and are most relevant.

If the link doesn't work, you'll find the document at, under the title:

Bruno Latour Facing Gaia Six lectures on the political theology of nature.

KL Cooke said...


"When I was 10, I saw a bright blue light in the ditch across from my house, and have no idea if I saw an alien or other novel life form, was having one heck of a lucid dream, or what."

Possibly what you saw was a will-o-the-wisp.

KL Cooke said...


"Realistically, any effort to reduce one's impact on natural systems means consuming less. That includes things like cars, clothing, toys, houses, travel. All those things are status symbols. Therefore, an effort to impact the biosphere less amounts to a loss of status. This has the consequence that others will pay that person less respect than they would if that person had all those status symbols.

I agree that there needs to be a middle ground between business-as-usual and livin-wild-in-the-woods, but it is not clear to me how to counter the loss of status. Perhaps we need to push new status symbols? (this might be already happening, but golly it's slow!)"

Just guessing, but reading between the lines I sense in "loss of status" the difficulty in attracting a mate ( we called it "getting chicks" back in unenlightened days ;o> ). Unfortunately, I believe that's part of the evolutionary cul de sac we've wandered into. Mating success as a function of the demonstrated ability to provide. You see it playing out in the "chicks dig bad boys" syndrome, with the unconscious logic that bad boys are aggressive, and acquisition requires aggression(theory, I admit, and controversial, but I'm not alone in this).

One can argue that this is an atavism, a trait that has outlived its time. However, I'm skeptical that our species has enough time left to evolve a better adaptation.

Denys said...

At first I thought this was an Onion article.....presenting "accelerationism"

Is Cosuming Like Crazy the Best Way to End Capitalism?

Gabriela Augusto said...

There is in did a general discredit of science these days, but this side of the Atlantic the confrontation between religion and science is of no real significance for the matter. Criticism of science refers more to the arrogance of some part of the science community, stating as facts or results what are mere hypotheses. Not long ago I heard in a televised debate, someone asking if we are really expected to accept as proof of a causal relationship the results produced by a computer model. That made me wonder if scientists are not relying too much on computers, letting themselves be dragged to a virtual world less and less connected with the physical world where we live.
This phenomenon, of a parallel world of made of indicators and scenarios built of cherry picked measured data and computer models demonstrating the inexhaustibility of resources, the ever growing economy, the innocuousness of several technologies and substances largely decoupled with the experience of people lives and common sense, is increasingly apparent. It doesn’t help when once asked about the level of uncertainty, the answer points to 300 % or “this is not a stochastic model”. That leave us all wondering if they have any idea of what are they talking about.
Another reason for the discredit of science is to call economy a science!
I trust that microscopes, telescopes, generators, transformers, radios and the scientific method established by the Arabs in the IX century and formalised in the XVIII century in Europe, will still be respected and used in the centuries to come.

Brian said...

This was an excellent post on the seemingly inevitable disconnect between the actual working of science and the public perception of it. I'm reading a good book that explores this idea specifically in regard to evolution (and deflates human exceptionalism beautifully): The Accidental Species, by Henry Gee. I've been fighting the notion of human exceptionalism most of my life, and it's good to see the idea getting traction.

Everyone tries to come up with definitions of "human" that separate us firmly from the beasts, but then we learn that animals use tools, birds use syntax, etc., etc. So I've come up with one I think might stand: Humans seem to be, at this point in our understanding, the only species that invents gods to tell itself how wonderful it is.

Phil Harris said...

JMG % All
I am glad that this blog has a climate scientist on board. FWIW I endorse Purple T's personal experience.

Britain's class structure is even more peculiar than class in the USA I guess, and has strong (reinforced?) elements of a caste structure. Apparently British 'social mobility' has in recent decades shrunk to near non-existent, despite a massive increase in 'higher' education in my lifetime. Climate-Change denial appears much less pervasive here, although the subject seems generally avoided in conversation.

The two most 'skeptical' deniers that I know are both research scientists: one an old friend was senior in an oil company and the much younger man teaches at a University. One is 'realist' conservative, the other 'leftish'. Both complain of 'bad science'. I found their vehement positions initiallly surprising and alarming. They have taken the issue very personally, despite apparently having insufficient credible expertise. I am inclined to think it is this 'progress thing', and probably their own personal investment in career success.


Jon from Virginia said...

Clay Dennis's remarks on the pushback Sagan received for his clarity reminds me of the other tradition, Science Obfuscation. Here's a century old example. Suppose you want to build a manageable telescope, something with a four foot tube and a decent size, a eight inch scope with an f/6 focal ratio to be exact. So you want to grind out a smooth curve with a depth of 1/12 an inch. How do we know that? (algebra warning!) If you read a book or article, it will tell you the depth required is r squared over 2R. What is R? R, the focal radius, is 2*(focal length), so the equation is now r squared over 4 focal lengths. What is r? r is is the diameter, D over 2, so we now have D/2 squared over 4 f.l., or {(D squared)/4} over 4 f.l., which simplifies to D Squared over 16*f.l. But the f.l. is your focal ratio, FR, times the diameter, so you have D Squared over FR*D, which simplifies to D over 16*FR. So we have 8/(16*6) which simplifies to 1/(2*6) or 1/12 an inch.
Remember, we're trying to build a 8 inch diameter F6 scope. So how many books and articles give you the simple equation using the diameter and focal ration, D/(16*Focal Ratio), and how many give the equation (r squared)/2R?

Adrian Ayres Fisher said...

Now I really get what you mean by "the outside" and I guess staying under the radar makes sense. The folks I'm involved with are kind of off in the corners, and because more involved with ecology, perhaps less likely to attract negative attention, anyway.

Adrian Ayres Fisher said...

Yucca Glauca and JMG,

Regarding the discussion of ecology--Yucca, I love your description of extreme reductionism leading to holism--a couple of my mentors think very much along those lines and have taught me to do as well. And that does seem a way for ecology to survive, especially once spiritual aspects get brought in.

And, as JMG points out, it's not a favored discipline. I greatly look forward to future posts about all of this.

In the ecological restoration community I'm part of there seems to be some frisson between the on-the-ground practitioners and the more theoretical ecologists, and suspicions have been voiced that some models aren't actually that useful when confronted with field conditions--and vice versa, of course. Yet there is also an extremely strong "citizen-science" component, and a large amount of collaboration on fieldwork, with monitoring, bioblitzes and so on. The people organizing this work are always looking for recruits.

To me that's a good sign for the future potential health of ecology as a discipline, even if it gets morphed into another structure and form.

I recently read a pretty good, fairly interdisciplinary book that discusses some of the cultural issues surrounding ecology, the perceived value of restoration, and even some "inside-outside" issues is "Making Nature Whole," by W. Jordan and G. Lubick.

oilman2 said...

@ Yucca -
Ecology is underfunded and unwanted in a world of "specialists" - it requires broad general knowledge and to back away and observe, tinker, and observe. Obviously this ill fits digital time streams and methods/products designed to address one specific thing (TWAWKI currently).

Efficient farming involves deciding where your best PEROEI (Personal EROEI) lies. After all, we are trying to convince an inherently chaotic, self-buffering system to do what we want. Fukuoka works on a personal level, but harvesting is problematic. There is a way, undefined as yet, and your chosen discipline will help you and others.

Outlier, inefficient, impractical, ancient, old - beware people using these words as negatives. Chances are, the words were written in the Industrial Revolution or the Age of Oil - both of which are likely to be revealed as very temporary blips in the timeline.

Gregor Mendel comes to mind - him being outlier, old, and by today's methods, inefficient. Darwin? What a clown spending his life observing things God explains easily (outlier). Wish I had ecology degree instead of mere biology and engineering...

Strovenovus said...


Thank you for this. I've been struggling with these sorts of issues for some time now.

I truly love science as a method for testing what we think we know about the world, and hopefully a way to understand the nature of the universe a little bit better.

Why do I love science? In large part because science claims a way toward the truth, but does not stake any claim on truth itself. Mysteries will always remain.

Science demands that we are answerable to others, since any evidence uncovered must be subject to independent verification. No one can claim a monopoly on the means to testing our beliefs.

I am well aware that this is an idealization. Still, it's good to remember these strengths.

I should add that some of the evidence that science has uncovered is also a wonder to behold.

As for scientists, well, they are at least as fallible as the rest of us, and also at least as likely to forget that condition. Too many seem to believe that they are the keepers of the truth, and place too much faith in the contingent and incomplete knowledge that they have cobbled together.

I believe that helping to preserve science is a worthy task. This includes safeguarding science against the failings of those who view themselves as its most ardent advocates, but are proving to be their own worst enemies.

I am teaching my daughter my love for science, while explaining its limitations. I speak out against treating science as a faith. What more can I do?

Ed-M said...

JMG, yes, that fear is entirely valid! It's happened before when the masses embraced Christianity after Galerian, then Constantine, legalized it in the 4th Century CE. Of course, this also means that the old, established forms of Christianity will be replaced by the crazy-making new forms, by Islam, or by something we know nothing about or expect the least (like Scientology).

Clay Dennis said...

JMG, upon further thought I may have mischaracterised the pushback against Sagan from the Scientific Community. It was less of a pushback against the popularization of scinece and more a pushback against the idea of celebrity and Science. In the Zeitgeist of the time,Sagan was viewed as more of a celebrity and a showman than as a serious scientist. This had nothing to do with his academic record which was considerable, and no one doubted that he was a serious intelect, which he was, but that no real scientist would spend so much time on Tv or in popular culture. This view of Sagan as celebrity before scientist was not helped by Sagans outsized ego and his bright yellow Porsche with vanity plates reading "Cosmos" or that he lived in a replica of an egyptian temple hung on the side of a cliff.

In an addition to the thread about non academic engineers. The engineering profession is unusual in that there is a path to become a P.E. ( a licensed professional engineer) for someone with no academic backgroud at all. It is long and arduous and involves several tests, and much time spent under the tutelage of a P.E. But once obtained , these workingman's engineering credentials are usually held in high regard.

Ed-M said...

@ Leo Knight,

I suppose the meanness ang ignorance of the comments in regard to the woes of your area's local mass transit has as much to do with "those people" who rely on public transportation to get to work, get groceries, keep appointments, and other daily necessities as it does with the agency in charge of the transit, and government in general. For there really is a meanness in the air, spread and exploited by certain pseudoconservatives, that is directed against those who are lower in socioeconomic status than the broad middle class, like there is against unionized employees and public officials (said pseudoconservatives and their political party excepted of course!).

Jim Irwin said...

It is reassuring to read that others have observed the "corruption" of the scientific community from the inside. Little known outside of the world of scientific grants is how research funding at the major oceanographic institutions changed when the Office of Naval Research was cut in the 1990s- this spawned the boom of NOAA funding and concommitant explosion of research on "climate change". I am not a climate change denier but have been inside these scientific agencies enough to be extremely wary of them....

Fred said...

Richard Dawkins spoke at the Free Library of Philadelphia a number of years ago. His presentation received a room full of enthusiastic applause. It was dismaying. I’m a student of history…and maybe not a valedictorian, but I try to be diligent and objective. And it is disturbing just how wrong Dawkins is on the basic facts of world history, and his interpretations, and how eagerly these views are embraced by a certain segment of the public.

People embrace beliefs that satisfy their emotions, and then only respond favorably to “information” that supports those beliefs. I catch myself doing this, too, try as hard as I might to be “objective”.

Josh said...

Another factor, that I believe you have touched on, contributing to distrust of scientists and those who claim to stand upon science in their perspectives is perceived hypocrisy or lack of integrity - "not practicing what you preach."

Recently the Tyndall Centre produced a thoughtful white paper discussing the dilemma of the outsized carbon footprints of scientists, in particular from flying around the world to attend meetings on climate change - and how this might influence public perceptions of climate change and other environmental issues.

I think a movement of sustainability scientists to actually attempt to live small(er) Ecological Footprint lifestyles would help things. The exercise would point out interesting challenges where living a small EF lifestyle might come into conflict with a more aggressive pursuit of career advancement that characterizes the priorities of most "normal" scientists and researchers.

Patricia Mathews said...

Unclear on the concept in *so* many ways, you could get three columns out of this:

Magicocornucopianism & Harry Potter

Sven Eriksen said...

John, you do know that direct exposure to sunlight will make the trolls burst open in excruciating death, right? Just might come in handy, is all I'm saying...

peacegarden said...

Cosmic Vernal equinox greetings to you all…
"If they would eat nettles in March, and Mugwort in May, so many a fine maiden would not go to the clay"
~Funeral Song of a Scottish Mermaid~

I am about to go out and harvest some nettle leaves; they are just peeking out of the ground. Going to make a strong tea and savor the turning point this day brings. There is much to contemplate, and even more to appreciate.

We planted two gingko trees Wednesday, and transplanted a volunteer sumac yesterday…ah, to have your fingers in that cold, cold soil…thrilling!

I loved science as a child; it was like a window into the world; how things worked, why they worked and how they all worked together. And science offered a method of study…anyone could do it, even me!

I have been lamenting the sad state of scientific corruption over these last several decades. I wanted to see a revival of integrity, but I’ve come to believe we are going through something quite necessary and the likelihood of turning a corner is nil.

So for me, the area of science I most want to keep alive is botany. I will continue to learn about and from the plants, and share that knowledge with anyone who will listen, or sit in the presence of the force…

The force that through the green fuse drives the flower
Drives my green age; that blasts the roots of trees
Is my destroyer.
And I am dumb to tell the crooked rose
My youth is bent by the same wintry fever.

The force that drives the water through the rocks
Drives my red blood; that dries the mouthing streams
Turns mine to wax.
And I am dumb to mouth unto my veins
How at the mountain spring the same mouth sucks.

The hand that whirls the water in the pool
Stirs the quicksand; that ropes the blowing wind
Hauls my shroud sail.
And I am dumb to tell the hanging man
How of my clay is made the hangman’s lime.

The lips of time leech to the fountain head;
Love drips and gathers, but the fallen blood
Shall calm her sores.
And I am dumb to tell a weather’s wind
How time has ticked a heaven round the stars.

And I am dumb to tell the lover’s tomb
How at my sheet goes the same crooked worm.
~Dylan Thomas~



Bruce The Druid said...

Ahem, not a big monster movie fan (though I watched my fair share on slow Saturday afternoons), but Gojira had radioactive breath. It was always my understanding Gojira was the personification (monsterification?) of the destructive power of nuclear weapons. At least Wikipedia says so: It relates the idea for the film from the Lucky Dragon 5 incident, where a nuclear test by the U.S. at the Bikini Atoll had a much higher yield than expected, and exposed the fishing boat crew to lethal radiation doses:

Shawn Aune said...

"...capacity to retain heat..."

It is the, "capacity," part of the equation that is lost on most people. What is the difference between an 85 degree dry heat and an 85 degree humid heat? The concentration of a single greenhouse gas and lots of energy (measured in joules). How everybody became completely focused on temperature data is... not really that much of a mystery. Never mind.

Shifting Focus...

If people remain focused on how bad GMOs may or may not be for human consumption perhaps they'll never notice how bad GMOs are for the biosphere?

Angry Atheists...

I've always wanted to like Dawkins. He has a creative mind and could do so much more if he weren't so focused on the debate. What would he do with his time if every Christian suddenly began agreeing with him? What if he is right and there really is no God?

If he allowed himself to ponder that possibility for any meaningful amount of time he might realize that consciousness and intelligence are inherent to the cosmos, given the facts that they do exist and God does not. Then again, maybe he wouldn't.

Either way I'd be much more interested in reading his work.


GreenEngineer said...


No question at all - I completely agree. My point is that the problems is acknowledged and the community is trying to do something about it. They need to do a great deal more.

That said, upon further reflection, I think the news-consuming public is themselves at least partly responsible for the current situation.

Generally speaking, people lament the poor quality of modern journalism and right denigrate it as infotainment, and criticize the media for not doing a better job. But at the same time, it's pretty clear that the media is giving the public what they want: (over)simple stories with an emphasis on drama and conflict, presented morally and politically in black-and-white terms.

I would argue that the incredibly poor state of science journalism (much worse even than most of the rest of the field) is similarly a reflection of the media giving the public what they want. Good science reporting requires subtlety, nuance, and frequently quite a bit of background information. Given the modern American's nanosecond attention span and strong preference for simple, clear narratives, is it any surprise that these patterns are reflected in science reporting?

I mean, there is good science reporting out there (just not very much). Ars Technica does a very good job, for example, falling prey to very few of the standard shortcomings of science reporting. But they are not a widely-read source. Most people get their "science" from the nightly news and other soundbite sources. So of course they have a completely distorted view of what science is, how it works, and what it can and cannot do.

From this point of view, the average scientist (who is ethical, hardworking, and trying to figure out a tiny little corner of the universe) is a victim of the public's own unrealistic expectations, as translated through a for-profit media system.

My point is that while scientists as a whole have really fallen down on the communication front, it's not at all obvious that simply trying to engage the public and communicate clearly and honestly is going to help fix the problem. That sort of science communication is available, but there is very little market for it.

1ab9a86a-8991-11e3-899b-000bcdcb8a73 said...


I'm curious about one detail concerning these students at a "very Liberal institution" : what are they studying?

I ask because you describe them as "True Believers" in science and speak of their "faith" in science.

When I'm doing research, I don't need "faith" in any grand concept, I need confidence in my technical abilities and I need to monitor the boundaries of that competence. It seems to me that those in contact with the coalface of how science is actually done, that is to say those grappling with what might be called mundane realities, might be less inclined to embrace "faith" in the grand enterprise of it all.

However, there is no doubt it can be depressing looking back and realizing that we missed out on the heyday of the thing, and this would be worse for anyone contemplating starting now.

As an aside, is it possible that affluence is a factor? All those therapists and meds wouldn't be cheap.

Bruce The Druid said...

I think much confusion arises when people start talking about the "Scientific Method". There really is no scientific method, per say, but it appeals to teachers because it seems logical, and its easy to teach (science fairs are guilty of pounding this into the ground).

This is the best site I have seen that talks about how science actually works (when its not being corrupted by bags of money).

oilman2 said...

Arthur C. Clarke's first rule of scientific prediction: "When a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something is possible, he is almost certainly right. When he states that something is impossible, he is very probably wrong."

I also dearly love this address:

Science should be Darwinic - it should evolve as facts come to light, enabling more complete understanding.

Varun Bhaskar said...


It's more of a profound silence than anger, the kind of silence that comes when smart people realize that they're between a rock and hard place.

Purple Tortoise said...

Regarding money in science, I think it would be a mistake to primarily see it as a matter of direct corruption (e.g., scientist falsifies results for money). Rather, the role of money is to raise the voice of those scientists who hold views desirable to the funders. The denialist climate scientists I have encountered appear to sincerely hold their views -- they're not in it for the money, though they take the money because it enables them to do the work they want to do. But with one exception, the denialist climate scientists are completely mediocre. You would never have heard of them if the funders had not raised them up to promote denialist views. The role of money is to promote one message over another irrespective of underlying scientific merit.

SLClaire said...

Back when I was practicing science (1980s to early 1990s), among the chemists I knew and worked with, the attitude problem was already present. Granted, it's a small sample size. But still, the arrogance of most of my co-workers stood out. They were convinced that in order to be a Scientist(TM) you had to be the best and the brightest. They thought it impossible to get scientific concepts across to upper management in the company, much less to the general public.

At first I bought into the attitude, if for no other reason than to keep up with my co-workers. Eventually I got to know enough folks outside of science to realize that intelligence was a much more wide-ranging and widespread quality than science culture gave it credit for being. I also had more social skills than most of my fellow scientists, which stood me in good stead in general if not among other scientists.

I'd like to be able to say I left in 1992 because I didn't think much of the state of Science(TM). It's partially true; I didn't like the already increasingly desperate competition for research grants that was yet another result of the Reagan administration's slashing of government spending. But it was also because I didn't think I was capable of doing research at the university level. Nor did I think I had sufficient ability to attract funding. Nor did I like what happened to people who stayed in corporations long enough. It was all those reasons and a few more besides that pushed me out. Now I practice science for no pay, at home and with citizen science organizations.

My impression of scientists' reaction to science popularizers of the 80s and 90s, Sagan in particular, is much like Clay Dennis'. We thought we needed them to keep the public on our side and the money rolling in if for no other reason, but as soon as they did write popular books, we took them less seriously as scientists. I think the arrogance and general lack of respect for non-scientists had a lot to do with this. The public really was supposed to ante up on our say-so, because we knew what we were talking about and they didn't. Just hand over the bucks and we'll give you some nice toys to keep you content.

Oh, my, that's cynical. It bothers me to know I'm capable of writing something like this. I think I still carry a bit of that attitude way down deep, even after years of ferreting it out. But it's why I think you are right, JMG.

Dennis D said...

I usually refer to myself as an agnostic, but that is not really correct. When questioned, I reply that I have no problem with a belief in a supreme being, but that I have problems with the behaviours of organized religion. In the same way, I have a belief in the scientific method, but much of what passes for Science has a lot of question marks. For example, GMO`s have some promise, but the behaviour of Monsanto and their legal department makes me question everything about them. The climate change discussion seems to leave out the natural variability of the climate, and researchers that distort data to push an agenda leave a sour taste to the subject. Medical studies that turn out to be marketing strategies in hindsight have tainted the entire structure. In fact the areas of science that conform to the definition of science have been overrun by pseudoscience, that have attempted to ride science`s credibility, until the hucksters and legitimate are too difficult to tell apart. I need a simple explanation on the difference between science and what is commonly expressed as science, much as I have with God and organized religion

onething said...

"Escape, do you think that the tobacco industry stopped being generous enough with the payola, or what?"

It does seem to me that the over-hyped self-correcting mechanism of science is partially true. Truth is the daughter of time.

The cholesterol thing and statin drugs seem to be finally on the way out, and the reason is that too much evidence is against them. To be sure, it was available 20 years ago, but it is slowly turning around, due to dogged persistence of those with better evidence.

My impression is that the majority of doctors are pretty nice people. Some are busy and distracted. Doctors do recommend lifestyle changes, but few people are able to do it. I think they give up and start medicating. What I see of patients in hospitals is they take almost no proactive interest in their own health. They don't even seem to have a grocery store magazine sense of healthy food. The hospitals serve very cheap fabricated food, margarine, powdered creamer, soft drinks 2 meals per day.

So far as I can tell, most doctors buy into the official line. But, the other week I was at a meditation group and there was a doctor there, who in telling something about her work, sort of quietly said, well, I can't really say or offer what I really think.

It is now a requirement to pressure every patient, every admission, to get vaccinated. There are mandated requirements to put people on statins.

JMG, do you really think that a driving motive behind sciency types' atheism is anthropo-hubris?

Yucca Glauca said...

Adrian Ayres Fisher and Oilman2, very encouraging responses! I am hoping my background in ecology will aid my Green Wizardry.

1ab9a86a-8991-11e3-899b-000bcdcb8a73, I didn't refer to faith in science, but to capital-S Science. The crowd I had in mind were mostly undergraduates in social studies with some physics majors thrown in, all of whom have absolutely horrendous misunderstandings of how evolution works, which I suspect may be a factor. People in the areas that I hang around the most--biology, ecology, and environmental science--are generally much better adjusted. People who actively do research in a science are very rarely True Believers: We've all read enough papers that made big claims but then massaged the stats beyond any credibility.
As for affluence, I do suspect that it's a factor, but it's certainly not a requirement: Some of those therapists and pills are provided by the university's health care plan.

Caryn said...

Bruno Bolzon said...
"JMG, in the West at least, science may disappear for a while. However, I believe the East may pick up the baton: China and Japan, specially."

Bruno, can you please elaborate why? I can't speak to Japan, but this seems completely contradictory to Everything I know about Chinese culture, especially their current trajectory. I don't understand your line of reasoning. (?)


Caryn said...

JGM and fellow commenters: Thanks again! I always find a light-bulb moment from these essays and the comments here: 'trailer's' of thought and links to discover more and more and more. So much I don't know. (so greedy to learn and discover).

Lightbulb moment, for me, this week: Well, it's a well-worn path to compare the rise and fall of the ancient Roman Empire to the rise and fall of the US (hegemony) empire, (or I suppose now it could be said - Western Empire). So many direct parallels in successes AND failures, sometimes it feels like we are purposefully following their blueprint. But: I've always been flummoxed as to how they could have 'lost' some such every-day technologies as say - indoor plumbing! Indoor plumbing is sooooo useful and nice to have and not that hard to figure out. How could it have been lost?

The whole notion of the hoi-polloi outside of the citadels not losing, but actively rejecting 'Science' engineering and technology of the day - Wholesale! never crossed my mind. Perhaps indoor plumbing in ancient Rome was great for those who had it and a pollution nightmare for those figuratively and literally 'outside' who did not? Perhaps it was just a trapping of wealth that enraged the have-not's of the day, like SUV's? This notion may be very pedestrian for some, (apologies), but for me this possibility, (probability?) fills a BIG piece of the puzzle. How exactly DID we get from here to there?

It also reminds me of 'Freedom Fries" and other much larger nonsensical rejections. During the tumult of China's Cultural Revolution the Red Guards, (kids) were instructed to, and did pull up and destroy every flower and blade of grass in city parks as they represented 'Beauty' - and therefore Imperial, Western and Capitalist decadence and oppression. Beauty itself was declared an enemy of the people.

Such were the emotions in times of calamity and chaos - we poor pathetic humans, we DO do these things. There are myriad other anecdotes out there.

I'll be cruising through the comments again to follow some of the links.

Thanks again All!

Strovenovus said...


I noticed what appears to be skepticism on your part toward mainstream medical studies on homeopathy.

My understanding of homeopathy is that it was a strong area of practice before the 20th century. The orthodox position is that homeopathy faded before successful treatments using modern medical practices.

Yep, the Power of Science, praise the almighty. Germ theory, cell science, molecular biology, organic chemistry, physical chemistry, physics, I'm still a believer.

Do you have a history of medicine that you would recommend?

The Pew Poll cited by Adams showed that a large percentage of Americans perceived science to have benefited them, but the number was down 6% since the last poll, which didn't seem so long ago. Somebody here noted the huge gap in GM. And your ever-popular encyclopedia of monsters; I believe our library can get me that!



HalFiore said...

My favorite aunt, almost 93 when she died in 2000, was a high school biology teacher, naval officer in WWII, genealogist, and family historian. When she returned to school in her 50s for her teaching credential, her research and passion for nature hooked me on science at an early age. Her usual practice in heading on the road to collect sheep droppings, ditch water, or to view some astronomical event, was to grab a kid, usually me, on her way out the door.

After I had moved to California, and was home for a visit one time, regaling her with the latest received knowledge on health or nutrition, she said something to me that I still carry in my heart: "If you live long enough, you will see every theory (on health or nutrition, but I apply it a lot more broadly as I age) overturned at least once."

GreenGoth said...

In Richard Louv's book Last Child In The Woods, in which he described the effects of what he terms "nature deficit disorder" on modern indoor-living, media-fed, rigidly scheduled & "protected" children, he referred to studies and personal accounts by people working with children on the autism spectrum that many of the children benefitted greatly from unstructured time spent out in natural settings, away from the constant barrage of artificial overstimulation of our "modern" world. They were calmer, more able to focus and take in information, less stressed, etc. out in woods, meadows and other truly natural settings (not artificially manicured city "parks"). I'm wondering if any of the commenters and our host have had similar experiences of the soothing and healing effects of nature on autism spectrum challenges?

I know the best thing I can do for myself when overwhelmed, stressed, depressed, etc. is retreat to the nearby mountain & canyon trails and spend some time alone among the trees and wild critters, just being still, experiencing the natural world with all my senses and letting go of intrusive thoughts of worries, fears, must-do lists, etc. as they arise as a form of meditation.

Much better than any prescription or over-the-counter med has ever been. But I'm not on the autism spectrum so don't know if such nature immersion has a similar beneficial effect?

FiftyNiner said...

A somewhat awkward admission on my part: I had never heard of Charles Ashton Smith! Awkward because I have been a science fiction fan all my life.
I read all the science fiction in our local regional library, brought on the book mobile to our little town when I was in junior high. The awkward part, however, is that yours truly, after completing an undergraduate degree with majors in art history and Romance languages and minors in studio art and English, completed half of the course requirements for a Master of Library Service degree at the University of Alabama which was the last of my matriculation. This was in the late
1970's and part of the culture of librarians at the time was to disparage science fiction. Interestingly, though, a crowd of us from a night class along with our professor went to see Star Wars when it came out. I guess science fiction as film gets a pass, but as words on a page does not!?
Reading the story was a real joy. It made me realize how my writing skills have atrophied in the past couple of decades of non use. I have never really attempted fiction, but in reading Smith you are aware that no matter a writer's subject, he has to be completely aware of the "terrain" in every sense. He has to paint a believable picture in the mind of the reader, and to do that without "artifice" creeping in is no small task. Scientists and Engineers need to read more outside their specialties!

onething said...


A very thoughtful post. I can understand being a latin loving's a beautiful language, isn't it?

Re hell: "A big part of it, briefly, is just an inherent incompatibility between an individual's chosen disposition/end and the nature of God."

That is the kinder explanation, but this is why I think reincarnation is the most sensible. People are so confused and don't even understand their own drives and motivations. So I don't see atheists (for one example) as rejecting God or even having an unchanging disposition. Our lives are a tiny moment in time, and human beings are very complex processes. But I'd like to be more familiar with the arguments you mention that make sense to you. Could you point me to something I can read?

Crow Hill said...

Hello JMG,
Thank you for clarifying the distinction between science the good, the bad and the ugly, and also for the commentators who have given personal examples known to them. I have heard of people applying for grants for their research in fundamental or “pure” science who know they should add on some fashionable application, for example cancer treatment, to get the money.

I wonder whether the following (heard this week in a BBC programme) falls into that category--could also be a real life candidate for the Great Squirrel Case Challenge?:

It’s about the system they’re developing to use synthetically optimized photosynthesis as an energy source.

The role of prestige/status Angus Wallace brought up as a guiding principle in our civilisation. Publicity appeals to this, with its cars, hair creams and the like. “Prestige, how many crimes we commit in your name.” This is a very interesting field of investigation: finding out how much prestige makes our societies go round.

Also JMG what’s your take on Steven Pinker’s theory that “All is well in the best of worlds”?

John Michael Greer said...

Stein, many thanks! One of my correspondents emailed me a copy -- tip of the archdruidical hat to Horacio P. -- and I'll be reading it as soon as time permits.

Denys, these days telling the satires from the straight news stories is getting to be really hard...

Gabriela, I hope you're right. Of course conditions may vary from one part of the world to others.

Brian, thanks for the tip -- I'll put it on the get-to list. By the way, what makes you so sure that animals don't have gods?

Phil, interesting. Thanks for the perspective from across the pond!

Jon, it's been a long time, but when I was a kid and was putting together my first telescope, I seem to recall the simpler form in at least one book I read. (No, I didn't grind my own mirror -- you could get very nice optics back then from Edmunds Scientific, so that's the route I chose.) I wonder if the obfuscation index has increased over the years.

Adrian, exactly -- among other things, the willingness of ecologists to recruit citizen scientists for phenology studies and the like is a good sign that that's a likely place to build the necessary bridges. More on this as we proceed!

Strovenovus, I love science as well, partly for the reasons you've noted, and partly -- and I know plenty of scientists would be offended by this! -- because it's one of the most distinctive products of western cultures, right up there with oil painting and symphonic music, and is worth preserving as a product of our species' creative genius for exactly the same reason that any other great cultural tradition is worth saving.

Ed-M, fortunately there are also other options. More on this later.

Clay, I wonder how much of the reaction to Sagan was sheer envy -- a lot of other scientists might have envied him his Porsche, etc.

Jim, maybe so, but I have a lot more respect for NOAA than I do for the Pentagon!

Fred, I know. The degree of crass ignorance of basic history common among scientists in general is stunning. Dawkins isn't even noticeably worse than usual. It fascinates me that people who make such a fetish about having the facts seem so completely unable to look up a basic fact when it comes to history!

John Michael Greer said...

Josh, yes, I saw (and was delighted by) the Tyndall Center paper. If that sort of thinking becomes more common among climate scientists, it might do quite a bit of good.

Patricia, many thanks! That was seriously funny -- and yes, it'll be put to work in at least one (and probably more than one) upcoming post.

Sven, I do indeed know that! I grew up in Seattle, though, so have never gotten used to the idea that sunlight is something one can reliably get... ;-)

Peacegarden, we'll know that the world is starting to get sane again when botany textbooks include poems by Dylan Thomas. Thank you.

Bruce, fair enough. I'm quite capable of being wrong, of course.

Shawn, well, yes, I got thermodynamics drummed into my brain good and proper, so heat storage capacity is something I think of automatically!

GreenEngineer, trying to engage the public and communicate clearly and honestly won't do a bit of good as long as the view from outside remains unnoticed by those trying to do this. I do think there are ways to bridge the gap, but it's going to require a rethinking of the whole social framing of science. I'll be discussing that down the road a bit.

Bruce and Oilman, thanks for the links!

Varun, excellent. If they've gotten to the moment of dead silence, they may eventually be able to take the next step and rethink the whole question.

Tortoise, that's certainly part of it. Still, I saw enough scientific fraud being practiced when I was at college to have no very high opinion of the honesty of scientists in general, and I suspect a lot of the researchers who turn out canned studies to market the latest pharmaceuticals know perfectly well what game they're playing.

SLClaire, that's very nearly a universal habit of thought among intellectual elites, and it generally plays a large role in leading them to their ultimate destiny dangling from lampposts or the like.

Dennis, good. The distinction between science and institutional science has a lot in common with the distinction between religion and institutional religion. More on this later.

John Michael Greer said...

Onething, I've met quite a few atheists whose attitude toward gods is pretty straightforwardly based on the angry rejection of the idea that anyone in the universe has the right or the power to tell human beings that they can't have everything they want, so yes, I do think that's a large part of it.

(BTW, please stop trying to drag in the vaccination issue. There are plenty of other forums where you can discuss that. Comments referencing that issue won't be put through, so all that's going to happen is that I'm going to get irritated at you. 'Nuf said!)

Caryn, good. It's among the basic credos of contemporary life that everyone actually wants science and technology, except for a few religious cranks -- but when science and technology become sources of harm to the majority of people, and sources of help only to the privileged, that credo becomes a dangerous delusion. The survival of science depends, among other things, upon scientists recognizing that science and technology can and do harm people, in ways ranging from the subtle to the savage, and people's attitudes toward science depend very much on the cost/benefit ratio they face in their own lives.

Strovenovus, I don't know of a history of medicine that isn't basically cheerleading for one side or the other, so no, I can't recommend one. My skepticism about mainstream studies of homeopathy is based partly on my own extensive experience with it, and partly with a close look at the experimental protocols used in those studies I've examined, which are very nicely designed to make sure of a null result.

For example, homeopathic prescribing is based not on disease entities as identified by modern medicine -- e.g., "influenza" -- but precise details of individual symptoms; any one of twenty or thirty different remedies might be prescribed to someone with the flu, depending on exactly what their symptoms are, and ignoring this pretty much guarantees a lack of results; mainstream studies systematically do just this, and use one homeopathic remedy to treat all cases of influenza, thus getting the results they want.

Hal, you had a wise aunt.

GreenGoth, I can't speak for everyone on the spectrum, but it's one of the things that helps me. Far more effective, though, is turning off all electronic media. Silence, stillness, and stimulus reduction are essentials for me.

FiftyNiner, you're not alone -- a lot of people have never read Smith. The website to which I linked has all his stories and poetry; I'd encourage you to read the lot!

John Michael Greer said...

Crow Hill, I'm impressed with how many actual news stories might as well be Squirrel Case Challenge entries. (Next week, btw, the winners of that will be announced.) As for Pinker, he's very good at cherrypicking data and ignoring anything that doesn't fit his case. It's a popular habit these days -- the closer we get to the steep part of the decline curve, the louder I expect the voices of the privileged to shout "No, no, really, everything's just fine!"

Scotlyn said...

A lovely post & great comments, to which I have nothing to add. But, regarding Asberger's, of which (to my knowledge) I have no personal experience, the layperson's view, from the "outside", as it were, suggests a person lacking in social graces.

I'd like to say, JMG, that in your interactions in this and your other blog, you have always come across with warmth, close engagement and, yes, a fluid social grace. If it is the case that achieving this effect has cost you more effort and attention than it might have done for another, then I'd like to salute you and express my appreciation for it.

Cherokee Organics said...


Many thanks and I definitely will. Before the advent of the Internet, it was very hard to get out of print or old Sci-Fi novels here and I suspect it will be again in the future at some point. It is ridiculously easy to purchase Twilights last gleaming for instance!

Before the time of the internet, you had to make acquaintance with the specialist bookshops which sold those books. They were really hard to get. Melbourne had a bookshop called "Minotaur" in the CBD which always kept up with the latest releases and stocked some of the older books. And I'm mildly embarrassed to mention that many times I had to wait for the order for the hardback edition of David Edding's latest books in the Belgariad and Mallorean series to be released. And I really was eager to get my hands on them. Yeah, yeah, I know, but they were an enjoyable romp at the time. Yes, my street cred has just taken a serious nose dive! hehe!

The problem was that you'd also ask for older releases and they'd look them up on the printed ledgers and they'd tell me they're out of print at the publishers. They then always had to go on and explain to my disappointed self that it didn't mean that the books were no good, it just meant that the publisher didn't print them anymore. Difficult times. At one point Jack Vance's Demon Princes series was completely out of print and the last book was less than a decade old.

People don't know how good they have it nowadays.



Matthew Casey Smallwood said...

At M Vachon & JMG:
"I too often encounter people who have lost the capability of nuances. For them, saying I don’t know, admitting that science has limits or thinking about appropriateness doesn’t appear to be an option. It’s all black or white, for or against. There is no place for argument. Frustrating."
John Raulston Saul should interest you:
He identifies with Socrates' culture of doubt (aporia?) vs. Plato, and although I think that's a rhetorical shot, it has more substance than most rhetoric these days (I am a Christian Platonist). Saul is useful in that he clinically diagnoses practically HOW the managerial or Rieff's "officer or subaltern" therapeutic/managerial class (this is who JMG is talking about as being "in charge") make the system work and how they think, and why they represent a betrayal of Socrates (not to mention, obviously, Plato as well). George Parkin Grant, another Canadian, is useful when analyzing the problems of technology (he's a Platonist or Vedic Christian). Hope this helps. A culture of doubt might be useful - we apply it only to religion these days.

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