In response to Michael Spencer’s video attached to this article over at CNN.com:
I think it’s dishonest for Spencer to lead off on a speech about science by referencing technology, the two are not equivalent. Technology is the application of science by the human will to perceived needs. Technology gives us tools that I accept as neutral in that they are neither good nor bad, in and of themselves. However, it’s worth considering whether a nuclear bomb or a bow and arrow allow for a faster rate of death and destruction. The examples he gives aren’t even particularly relevant; how many people’s faith in science was shaken by “hanging chads”?
I generally disagree with Spencer that we’re anti-scientific. Much advertising appeals to us on a scientific basis (regardless of the quality of the reasoning). For example, part of Cadillac’s brand-rejuvenating campaign in the early 00’s was “Art & Science”. Shoe makers regularly appeal to laws of physics to sell us the latest novelty sole. The Corn Refiner’s Association buys TV spots and equivocates on the meaning of nutritionally equivalent. These are only three examples, but it seems clear our relationship with science isn’t characterized by antagonism.
Spencer claims that “this is the greatest time there’s ever been on this planet”. This is burdensome to argue with directly, so I invite all readers to respond if they are in unqualified agreement. In the United States, I’ll give two examples that seem to contradict this and other of his claims: The break-up of the nuclear family or families generally, and the dissatisfaction that US workers (and reportedly among working women) are experiencing. His attitude towards longevity is questionable, several studies released in April of 2008 show that some demographics have experienced decreasing longevity since the 1980s. I once found myself playing devil’s advocate for GM crops in a college course on public health. But when compared with Spencer, never have I felt a need to ally so closely with the likes of Wendell Berry.
At one point, he claims that the scientific method is one of the greatest triumphs of humanity. I will not debate his order, but I will contend that the scientific method depends on other foundational beliefs and thus Spencer has erred in his attribution. For example, science seeks to explain observable phenomena and thus depends on a belief in the continuity of reality and dependability of the senses, and more importantly on the reliability of rational thought – which cannot exist without a deity preceding man. He nearly touches on the epistemological issues when he says, “We’ve lost faith in institutions, in authority, and sometimes in science itself. And there’s no reason we shouldn’t have.” I would ask Spencer to define this word “faith” with respect to science.
He argues that natural resources are going away soon, but regardless of his particular opinion, markets generally capture the scarcity of resources. It’s ludicrous to suggest that we’d suddenly wake up one day without potable water or oil. As a resource becomes scarcer, the price increases to the point where previously unattractive economic opportunities become viable. Money flows in to these new competing opportunities (preferably at the direction of markets, not governments), and over time, marginal production costs decrease. This is one reason why you can still find coal, candles, and oil lamps.
He says, “When you get proof, you need to accept the proof.” I agree. However, the underlying issue in vaccines v. autism isn’t about the proof, it’s epistemological. And later on, Spencer seems to acknowledge this when he says, “We hate big pharma, we hate big government, we don’t trust the man, and we shouldn’t.” Perhaps it’s about people finding the lack of explanation for the causes of and increases in autism unacceptable. The broader issue is something that’s difficult to test scientifically, that the uncertainty introduced from a ‘popular’ connection of autism to vaccines has led people to question whether there may be long-term negative side effects from vaccination, a legitimate scientific inquiry. I think that people often have the belief that nothing is all-good (call it TAANSTAAFL, whatever), that there are always tradeoffs. Perhaps the initial correlation between vaccines and something bad simply triggered this other belief (which may be generally very beneficial to human functioning, but may not apply here – vaccines do cost money after all).
I also agree with Spencer that people do tend to take things that, in their experience are unchanging, for granted. A contemporary theologian has put it this way: “[O]ne generation believes a truth, the next generation assumes a truth, and the third generation denies a truth.”
I agree with the Spencer when he says, “The most mindless epidemic we’re in the middle of right now is this absurd battle between the proponents of genetically modified food and the organic elite.” I’m also glad that he mentions the issue with gene patents. However, I’m disappointed that he has failed to address the fact that some of the most subsidized crops are visibly GM. Because they’re subsidized, the caloric cost is reduced, and the scientific discipline of economics gives us some insight in to human nature by revealing that people over-consume a subsidized resource. So yes, GM foods are correlated to health issues caused by subsidized agriculture, why not use his platform to address the policies – which combined with free trade agreements do impact global food supply as we do export large portions of the excess produced in the US?
Spencer’s views are incoherent and arrogant, and the way he personifies science is downright disturbing. He says that, “science isn’t a company, it’s not a country, it’s not even an idea. It’s a process. And sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t. But the idea that we should not allow science to do its job because we’re afraid is really very deadening.” Without people (who depend on foundational beliefs), science isn’t even a process – there would only exist natural phenomena. The scientific discipline has no job and no purpose other than the explanation of said phenomena. To suggest otherwise should strike a blow to respectable scientists who enjoy intellectual freedom. But with Spencer, freedom of thought doesn’t seem to be on the menu. He appears to believe in absolute truth, and clearly has beliefs of his own. For example, he says that “people wrap themselves in their beliefs, and they do it so tightly that you can’t set them free. Not even the truth will set them free. And listen, everyone’s entitled to their opinion, their even entitled to their opinion on progress, you’re not entitled to your own facts.” He’s speaking of people generally, and the verbal metaphor is a straitjacket – surely Spencer must find any human advancement nearly miraculous with the general public slaves to their miserable anti-scientific beliefs. (I will not equivocate over the word “fact”, but it is worth asking to what extent one’s beliefs determine how and when knowledge is considered as such.)
I’ll close with this quote, as it summarizes Spencer’s authoritarian message:
“And you know what, when I say this stuff, people scream at me and they say ‘What do you care? Let people do what they want to do, it makes them feel good.’ And you know what, you’re wrong.”