The Reverse Metamorphosis of Sustainability: Science

William H. Young

Stephen Balch’s important recent article makes the case why colleges and universities should again offer courses on Western civilization. Dr. Balch highlights the metamorphosis in human knowledge and achievement that occurred uniquely within the modern West over the past three hundred years. The sustainability ideology might be called academia’s “reverse metamorphosis” because it proposes to turn America and the world back to pre-modern ideas about science, nature, the economy, and governance. I address Western science herein, with the other aspects to be covered in separate commentaries.

The ancient Greeks began the mathematical description of the structure of nature, but they never carried out the empirical experimentation necessary to convert the ideals of Plato and logic of Aristotle (the Organon) into science and scientific principles. It would be two thousand years before the balance between logic and empiricism would be achieved, uniquely by the West, in the Scientific Revolution.

In his New Organon (1620), Francis Bacon laid out a new method of inductive reasoning—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 proof of truth (or falsity) and a basis for inductive logic; and utility as the goal of science. It would later take Newton and the Principia (1687) to realize the need for theoretical conjecture prior to observation and the use of mathematics to complete the scientific method. With the scientific method, the natural sciences made possible, as Dr. Balch observes, “the metamorphosis in humanity’s estate,” the health and well-being of the Western common man.

Notwithstanding, with the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s, American academia would turn against Western science through misuse of Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962). Kuhn postulated that Western science had advanced 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,” which were validated through acquisition of data—or evidence—using the scientific method. In Kuhn’s terms, there have been hundreds of such new paradigms, such as the discoveries of x-rays, the voltaic cell, electromagnetism, and Newton’s and Einstein’s laws. Such new paradigms were subject to rigorous independent verification by competent peer groups before acceptance as truth within the limits of knowledge and measurement at a given time. Kuhnian science is cumulative, even though through conceptual revolutions.

But Kuhn’s work “became perhaps the most influential misunderstood book of the century,” explains philosopher Ken Wilber in The Marriage of Sense and Soul(1998). Postmodernism “says, in effect, that the world is not perceived, it is only interpreted. Different interpretations are equally valid ways of making sense of the world, and thus no interpretation is intrinsically better than another. Science is not a privileged conception of the world but merely one among many equivalent interpretations; science does not offer ‘truth’ but simply its own favorite prejudice; science is not a set of universal facts but merely an arbitrary imposition of its own power drives. And in all cases, science is no more grounded in reality than is any other interpretation.”

Postmodernism postulated 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.

This kind of thinking is prominent within the sustainability ideology, which assumes that projections of anthropogenic global climate change are accurate. Professor Steven Pinker observed in the New York Times that “the threat of human-induced climate change has become the occasion for a moralistic revival meeting….Our habit of moralizing problems, merging them with intuitions of purity and contamination, and resting content when we feel the right feelings, can get in the way of doing the right thing.” Thus, many scientists seek to restore the scientific method to its rightful place in consideration of climate change. Ironically, sociologist Bruno Latour bemoaned their criticism of sustainability’s apocalyptic projections, saying “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 the field known as science studies?”

In Higher Superstition (1994), professors Paul Gross and Norman Levitt began the science wars of the 1990s by revealing that college programs were turning out graduates taught that natural science is ideological, reflecting the postmodernist hyperbole that there is no truth, all claims to knowledge are relative and socially constructed, and truths are replaced by opinions. And colleges 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 seek to exorcise science itself. With the aid of an unrelenting moralism that cloaks itself in political and social virtue, they enthrone a doctrine and a methodology for thinking about natural science that is at once scornful and ignorant. What is perhaps most frightening about this, warn Gross and Levitt, is that many of our national and cultural elites have come to embrace such views.

Science and Technology Studies and other college programs continue that approach while schools of education and teachers have undermined the understanding of, and attitudes towards, science taught in the public schools, guiding students to become true believers in the reverse metamorphosis of sustainability. We now have generations of our educated elite not only incapable of the kinds of critical thinking required for matters involving science, but indoctrinated to misunderstand and oppose the proper uses of the scientific method itself. Our universities urgently need to return to teaching the knowledge of Western civilization about science and the creativity and innovation it has made possible over the past three hundred years.                                                                       _____________________________________________________________________________________

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).



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