Academic Social Science and Scientific Literacy

Apr 07, 2015 |  William H. Young

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Academic Social Science and Scientific Literacy

Apr 07, 2015 | 

William H. Young

Since the 1960s, academic social science has advanced new concepts and processes for natural (physical and biological) science that are (1) contrary to those that formed the basis for the technological and life advances of the modern West and America and (2) congruent with the academy’s political and cultural visions of transnational progressivism, postmodern multiculturalism, and environmentalism. As part of its rejection of Western civilization, academic social science has transformed and debased the scientific literacy of college graduates, other than those in the technical professions.

In the New Organon (1620), Francis Bacon laid out a new method of inductive reasoning for the West—the “scientific method” in which facts would first be gathered without preconception and then analyzed. He established the scientific credo as well as method: the endless pursuit of knowledge, which grows incrementally and systematically over time; the use of experiment and evidence to provide objective proof of truth (or falsity) and a basis for inductive logic; and utility as the goal of science. Later, Isaac Newton realized the need for theoretical formulation prior to observation, and his Principia (1687) added the use of mathematics to complete the scientific method. The natural sciences subsequently made possible, for the first time in human history, “the metamorphosis in humanity’s estate,” the well-being of the Western common man, as Stephen Balch observed in Metamorphosis, or Why We Should Study the West.

Misconstruing and misusing MIT philosophy professor Thomas E. Kuhn’s landmark work, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962)[1], academic social science turned to social constructionism and cultural determinism, in which individuals or groups envisage their own mental models—or “paradigms”—for natural science. Scientific literacy, in other than engineering, medicine, and other sciential professions, became “theoreticism,” theories divorced from actual evidence and the scientific method, such as oneness with nature and ecofeminism.

In today’s progressive governance, which I described in Academic Social Science and Governance, college-educated elites now seek political consensus for their scientific “paradigms,” as well as other matters, as the democratic “will” of the people.  Academic social science also provides public processes for democratic engagement through which a diversity of stakeholders can apply their own versions of science.

Sustainability is the newest fashionable and dominant “paradigm” of academic social science and a fixation of societal elites. It reflects not only ignorance of, and opposition to, Western science, but also to capitalism, as I argued in Academic Social Science and Our Capitalist Economy. A companion paradigm is “climate change,” in which computer models (extending mental models) and socially constructed data are the flawed basis for seeking to replace the economies and technologies of the West.

The 1960s

Beginning with the counterculture of the 1960s, academic thinking vehemently rejected the “rationalistic” mentality associated with Western scientific mechanism and materialism, what Theodore Roszak derided as “objective consciousness.”[2] By contrast, Kuhn postulated that modern science advanced through history by a series of revolutions in which creative individuals and groups, starting with new discoveries and perceptions of the ways in which nature exists and works, developed new paradigms through which parts of science are explained. New theories are proposed and then validated through acquisition of data—or evidence—by innovative applications of the scientific method, often in new environments. In Kuhn’s terms, there have been hundreds of historical new paradigms, such as the discoveries of x-rays, the voltaic cell, electromagnetism, and Newton’s and Einstein’s laws. Proposed new paradigms are subject to rigorous independent verification by competent peer groups before acceptance as truth within the limits of knowledge and measurement at a given time. Thus, Kuhnian science is cumulative, even though through conceptual revolutions based on revelations from research.[3]

However, philosopher Ken Wilber explains in The Marriage of Sense and Soul (1998) that Kuhn’s work “became perhaps the most influential misunderstood book of the century.”  Academic social science came to say, in effect, that:

Science is not governed by facts, it is governed by paradigms, and paradigms are not much more than ad hoc constructions or free-floating interpretations….This is not at all the way Kuhn defined or described paradigms, and he strenuously denounced this abuse of his work—to no avail….This blatant misreading of Kuhn erased evidence from the scene of truth, and into that vacuum rushed every egocentric project imaginable…. that allowed them arbitrarily to deconstruct any reality that happened not to suit them and insert their own “revolutionary new paradigm” into the scene, imagining that they were somehow vanguards of a revolutionary transformation that would shake the world to its very foundations, and the keys to which, they now held…[4]

Literary critic Frederick Crews called that misuse of Kuhn “theoreticism,” which saw abstract theory as fact. Wilber goes on:

This popular misunderstanding of Kuhn—this “theoreticism”—also meant that science was allegedly arbitrary (it is the result not of actual evidence but of imposed power structures), relative (it reveals nothing that is actually constant in reality but simply things that are relative to the scientific imposition of power), socially constructed (it is not a map corresponding to any actual reality but a construction based on social conventions), interpretative (it does not reveal anything fundamental about reality but is simply one of many interpretations of the world text), power-laden (it is not grounded in neutral facts; it is not dominated by facts; it simply dominates people, usually for ethnocentric and androcentric reasons), and nonprogressive (since science proceeds by ruptures of breaks, there can be no cumulative progress in any of the sciences).[5]

A new academic field called Science Studies took off based on these serious distortions of Kuhn’s work. Science studies look at natural science as “caused by social factors or conditions, such as cultural content or self-interest.”[6] French sociologist of science Bruno Latour, one of the founders of Science Studies, argued that:

The ultimate source of enlightenment relies entirely on the fragile shoulders of social scientists requested to provide a watertight knowledge of society able to take the place, not only of God…but of the laws of nature as well.[7]

An offspring of Science Studies, arising from the mid-1980s, was Science and Technology Studies (STS), an interdisciplinary program viewing science and technology as socially embedded enterprises. Scholars in these programs see themselves more as activists working for change rather than dispassionate, “ivory tower” researchers, reflecting a sense that science and technology were developing in ways that were increasingly at odds with the public’s best interests. The intellectual foundation of STS became the social construction of technology.[8]

The 1990s

The views of academic social science about natural science by the 1990s were assessed by Virginia biologist Paul R. Gross and the late Rutgers mathematician Norman Levitt in Higher Superstition (1994). They found that academic social science (along with humanistic studies):

Not only condemn science as the heritage of the Enlightenment that provides the wicked source of power for our political and economic order, but are hostile towards scientific knowledge and methodology themselves and deny their validity. Claiming superior ways of knowing—and courting and proclaiming pride in irrationality—they condemn science and seek to exorcise it.[9]

Academic social science includes sociologists who view science “as a social convention, reflecting social prejudice”; Marxists who see science as “bourgeois,” a “superstructural manifestation of the capitalist order”; radical feminists who view science as “poisoned and corrupted by an ineradicable gender bias”; radical environmentalists who condemn science as “embodying the instrumentalism and alienation from direct experience of nature which are the twin sources of an eventual (or imminent) ecological doomsday”; postmodernists who see science as “the ideological system sustaining the cultural and material practices of Western…civilization,” which are bankrupt; and multiculturalists who view science as “inherently inaccurate and incomplete by virtue of its failure to incorporate the full range of cultural perspectives.”[10]

Gross and Levitt concluded that:

With the aid of an unrelenting moralism that cloaks itself in political and social virtue,...the critics enthrone a doctrine and a methodology for thinking about science that is at once scornful and ignorant….The assumption that makes specific knowledge of science dispensable is that certain new-forged intellectual tools—feminist theory, postmodern philosophy, deconstruction, deep ecology—and, above all, the moral authority with which the academic left emphatically credits itself are in themselves sufficient to guarantee the validity of the critique….[11]

But science...is too powerful...Therefore, it must be exorcised, castrated, at least at the symbolic level….Thus the drive, fragmented and incoherent but energetic, to impeach science not merely as amoral handmaiden of the wickedly powerful but as flawed at its conceptual roots....Science cannot be seen merely as dangerous; it must also be revealed as false in some essential way….[12]

How ultimately dangerous are these radically new views of academic social science?

What is threatened is the capability of the larger culture, which embraces the mass media as well as the more serious processes of education, to interact fruitfully with the sciences...and, above all, to evaluate science intelligently. To the extent that the academic left’s critique becomes the dominant mode of thinking about science on the part of nonscientists, that thinking will be distorted and dangerously irrelevant….If, as seems obvious, scientific and technical issues will become increasingly and urgently relevant to public policy in the decades ahead, how well will such matters be debated in this country? Obviously, we cannot hold high hopes.[13]

These concerns of Gross and Levitt about the thinking of our clerisy would turn out to be well founded.

Stakeholder Processes

The academy’s processes for democratic engagement with the public, which I summarized In Academic Social Science and Governance (and are further examined in my book Centering America (2002)[14]) are designed to accommodate a diversity of beliefs about scientific reality held by multiple and self-appointed stakeholders. Gross and Levitt comment regarding such processes:

Outwardly or covertly, they insist on supplanting standard science with other “ways of knowing” that, by their very nature, will be inclusive and welcoming... The predictive claims of science have been ill founded, so why not abandon, or at least demote them, in the name of communitarian solidarity and radical egalitarianism.”[15]

In 1991, Connie P. Ozawa, an urban studies professor then with the Program on Negotiation at Harvard Law School, explained things further in her 1991 book, Recasting Science:

In a sense, consensual procedures accommodate a full range of alternative interpretations of reality and the future. The consensual nature of decision making also will prevent decisions that have a chance of resulting in consequences to which any one group objects. Accordingly, decisions may tend to be conservative from a scientific perspective, since even the more extreme scientific interpretations will be given consideration….

One subchapter of Ozawa’s book is tellingly entitled “Neutralizing Science: Empowering the Underdogs.”[16]

Progressive and postmodern multicultural processes for democratic governance are geared to include the corrupted concepts of scientific literacy that academic social science now conveys, undermining prospects for properly informed public decision making. Moreover, our cultural and media elites and most journalists have been taught such mistaken views in college, which influences their communications to the public.

Sustainability and Climate Change Science

Wikipedia describes a new academic discipline, born in 2001, “sustainability science,” whose paradigm has been defined as:

The cultivation, integration, and application of knowledge about Earth systems gained especially from the holistic and historical sciences (such as geology, ecology, climatology, oceanography) coordinated with knowledge and human interrelationships gained from the social sciences and humanities, in order to evaluate, mitigate, and minimize the consequences…of human impacts on planetary systems and on societies across the globe and into the future…

Another definition reveals its explicitly anti-capitalist nature:

To analyze the root causes of the fundamental unsustainability of the prevailing economic system, such as the emphasis on growth as key to solving problems and advancing society’s well-being. Sustainability science must include the study of the sociology of material consumption and the structure of consumerist society, the role of technology in aggravating the unsustainable social practices…that presuppose economic growth as a necessary condition for advancing societal well-being…[17]

Sustainability science includes different ways of knowing and a Marxist agenda that are not science. Yet it has been added by the National Academy of Sciences to its Science and Technology for Sustainability Program.[18]

The paradigm accompanying sustainability is “climate change science,” in which academic social science and a cosmopolitan progressive elite assert a “scientific consensus” for the claim that increasing atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases, notably carbon dioxide emissions by capitalist economies and fossil-fueled technologies, will have disastrous consequences for mankind and the planet. Such “science” demands a turn to totalitarian collectivism and “clean” technologies for the salvation of nature from anthropogenic effects—sustainability, which I discussed in my previous series on The Reverse Metamorphosis of Sustainability.

Averring such “scientific consensus,” President Obama tweeted in 2014 that: “Ninety-seven percent of scientists agree: climate change is real, man-made and dangerous.”[19] What is the basis for that near-unanimous percentage?

In 2009, Maggie Kendall Zimmerman, a graduate student at the University of Illinois, and her master’s thesis advisor, Peter Doran, asked 10, 257 earth scientists the question, “Do you think human activity is a significant contributing factor in changing mean global temperatures?” The answers of only 77 of the 3,146 respondents, “who listed climate science as an area of expertise and said they published more than half of their recent peer-reviewed papers on climate change,” were used. That 75 of the 77 answered “yes” is the thin reed for the 97 percent consensus widely claimed by those who support radical government action to combat climate change.[20]

Ironically, Bruno Latour bemoans criticism of claims of consensus on apocalyptic projections for climate change, saying:

Entire Ph.D. programs are still running to make sure that good American kids are learning the hard way that facts are made up, that there is no such thing as natural, unmediated, unbiased access to truth,…while dangerous extremists are using the very same argument of social construction to destroy hard-won evidence that could save our lives. Was I wrong to participate in the invention of this field known as science studies?[21]

My former colleague at the U. S. Department of Energy during the first Bush administration, Princeton physicist William Happer, has long been one of those “dangerous extremists,” showing that “climate change science” fails the traditional tests of Western natural science. As he explains::

The frightening warnings…about the effects of doubling CO2 are based on computer models that assume that the direct warming effect of CO2 is multiplied by a large “feedback factor” from CO2-induced changes in water vapor and clouds, which supposedly contribute much more to the greenhouse warming of the earth than CO2. But there is observational evidence that the feedback factor is small and may even be negative. The models are not in good agreement with observations….The computer programs that produce climate change models have been “tuned” to get the desired answer….

What, besides the bias toward a particular result, is wrong with the science? Scientific progress proceeds by the interplay of theory and observation. Theory explains observations and makes predictions about what will be observed in the future. Observations anchor our understanding and weed out the theories that don’t work. This has been the scientific method for more than three hundred years.  Recently, the advent of the computer has made possible another branch of inquiry: computer simulation models. Properly used, computer models can enhance and speed up scientific progress. But they are not meant to replace theory and observation and to serve as an authority of their own….The models have failed the simple scientific test of prediction.[22]

Could there be a better example than “climate change science” to illustrate the potentially large and harmful consequences of the academy’s mistaken concept of what constitutes natural science?

Scientific Literacy

The National Academy of Sciences (NAS) defines scientific literacy as:

The knowledge and understanding of scientific concepts and processes required for personal decision making, participation in civic and cultural affairs, and economic productivity.[23]

Wikipedia amplifies that NAS definition with the following observations about how science is seen in America today:

The theme of science in a socially-relevant context appears in many discussions of scientific literacy. Ideas…in life sciences include an allusion to ecological literacy, the “well-being of Earth.”…A discussion of physics literacy includes energy conservation…and global warming….[Chemistry literacy] includes environmental and social justice….

Attitudes about science can have a significant effect on scientific literacy….The decision making aspect of science literacy suggests further attitudes about the state of the world, one’s responsibility for its well-being and one’s sense of empowerment to make a difference.[24]

Those are not the concepts and processes of natural science that should be included in scientific literacy.

Conclusion

For the first time in American history, academic social science has rejected Western natural science as a measure of nature and denies the validity of scientific reality and methodology, adopting the illusion that scientific truth can be socially constructed by personal or computer models without the need for confirmation by material evidence through the traditional process of testing hypotheses. Academic social science should re-embrace the rigor of Western natural science and the scientific method and restore true scientific literacy in college graduates. With such literacy, they would be able to realize that “sustainability” and other ideological paradigms are not science or founded on science. 

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This is one of a series of occasional articles applying the lessons of Western civilization to contemporary issues relevant to the academy.

The Honorable William H. Young was appointed by President George H. W. Bush to be Assistant Secretary for Nuclear Energy and served in that position from November 1989 to January 1993. He is the author of Ordering America: Fulfilling the Ideals of Western Civilization (2010) and Centering America: Resurrecting the Local Progressive Ideal (2002).

Image: Yale News

 

[1] Thomas R. Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1962).

[2] Theodore Roszak, The Making of a Counter Culture, (New York: Doubleday, 1969).

[3] Ken Wilber, The Marriage of Sense and Soul: Integrating Science and Religion (New York: Random House, 1998), 29–30.

[4] Wilber, Marriage of Sense and Soul, 31–2.

[5] Ibid., 28.

[6] “Science studies,” Wikipedia, en.wikipedia.org. 9 February 2015.

[7] Bruno Latour, “When things strike back: a possible contribution of ‘science studies’ to the social sciences,” British Journal of Sociology, Vol. 51, Issue No. 1 (January/March 2000), 107–123.

[8] “Science, technology and society,” Wikipedia, en.wikipedia.org. 9 February 2015.

[9] Paul R. Gross and Norman Levitt, Higher Superstition: The Academic Left and Its Quarrel With Science (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994), 2–3.

[10] Gross and Levitt, Higher Superstition, 4–5.

[11] Ibid., 245–46, 6.

[12] Ibid., 220.

[13] Ibid., 237, 4, 248.

[14] William H. Young, Centering America: Resurrecting the Local Progressive Ideal (Philadelphia: Xlibris, 2002), 90−2, 217–34.

[15] Gross and Levitt, Higher Superstition, 249–50.

[16] Connie P. Ozawa, Recasting Science: Public Procedures in Public Policy Making (Boulder: Westview Press, 1991), xi, 45–7, 111, 117.

[17] “Sustainability science,” Wikipedia, en.wikipedia.org, 2 March 2015.

[18] Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, http://sustainability.pnas.org. 2 March 2015.

[19] Joseph Bast and Roy Spencer, “The Myth of the Climate Change ‘97%’,” The Wall Street Journal, 26 May 2014.

[20] Larry Bell, “That Scientific Global Warming Consensus…Not!” Forbes, 17 July 2012. Bast and Spencer, “Myth of the Climate Change ‘97%’.”

[21] Bruno Latour, “Why Has Critique Run Out of Steam? From Matters of Fact to Matters of Concern,” Critical Inquiry, Vol. 30, No. 2 (Winter 2004), 25-248.

[22] William Happer, “The Truth About Greenhouse Gases: The Dubious Science of the Climate Crusaders,” First Things, June 2011.

[23] National Science Education Standards, National Academy Press, National Academies of Science, 1996.

[24] “Scientific literacy,” Wikipedia, en.wikipedia.org, 18 March 2015.

 

 

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