Wednesday 25 September 2013

On Science and Postnormalism

In my opinion, writing is mankind's greatest achievement.  The ability to write things down, to record our thoughts and researches for future generations to read and learn from is a thing of wondrous beauty.  It has enabled the arts and sciences, civilisation and humanity itself to reach pinnacles otherwise impossible to reach.  Bernard of Chartres was correct when he likened us to dwarfs standing on the shoulders of giants.

If writing is mankind's greatest achievement, then, science is his greatest endeavour.  We have, through millennia of research, divined the existence of the atom, its structure and how its power may be harnessed; we have bottled lightning, walked upon the face of the moon, cured smallpox and myriad other ills, discovered how to cure the body by cutting into it, built machines that can carry great loads or travel across oceans and skies, found methods of cleaning water to make it safe to drink and are on our way to discovering the deepest wonders of the universe.  Each of us has benefited from this; not only can we expect to live longer than our forebears, but we enjoy a life of such luxury and plenty that previous generations could not imagine.  We can can travel in flying machines to all corners of the globe, and hold a conversation with someone on another continent as clearly and as easily as if they were in the next room.

How have we done this?  By century upon century if trial and error.  By someone noticing something and saying "That's funny..." and then having the curiosity and patience to find out why it was funny and what was going on.  By men and women of great intellect spending many patient years trying things out, making mistakes and achieving great results.  By these people formulating theories about why things happen the way they do, and when those theories are disproved, coming up with new theories.  An endless process of continuous revision, improvement, updating and above all testing, proving and disproving.

Scientific theories are developed that explain why things work the way they do, and - most importantly - make predictions about the results of experiments and phenomena before they occur, allowing the theory to be tested.  Of course, any theory must be falsifiable to be called a theory; you can prove it wrong if it is wrong - but of course, you cannot prove it right.  The closest you can come to that is to fail to prove it wrong.  And of course, before any scientific paper is published, it is subject to peer review - a process by which all other scientists working in the same field review the research, its methodology and findings, and even attempt to replicate those findings.  Damned fine icing on the cake, this last; stops time, money, resources and effort being wasted on blind alleys.

What a wonder and a glory is science!  Bernard was indeed right: nanos gigantum humeris insidentes.

But there is a cancer eating away at the heart of the endeavour.  There are those that seek to invert its principles.  There are dwarfs who wish to kill the giants.

Two such dwarfs go by the names of Silvio Funtowicz and Jerome Ravetz - long may their names be reviled.  What these poisonous homunculi thought up was a concept they called 'Postnormal science'.  The essence of this was that for cases where "facts are uncertain, values in dispute, stakes high and decisions urgent", they suggest that there must be an "extended peer community" consisting of all those affected by an issue who are prepared to enter into dialogue on it.  Regardless if those entering the dialogue know anything about the subject - they must be included within the peer review process.

Clearly, this makes no sense.  How can anyone who is not a peer - i.e. not a scientist operating in the same field of research - possibly able to provide meaningful insight?  I mean, could you have anything sensible to say on, for example, the altered expression of sialylated glycoproteins in breast cancer using hydrazide chemistry?  I know I couldn't.  Couldn't even tell you what it means.  But our dwarfs would claim that anyone with breast tissue - which is all of us - should be included within the peer review process, and our opinions should count equally as much as those who are experts in the field.


Now, the excrescence of Postnormalism was originally defecated onto the protesting face of science in regard to climate change. I shall not speak of this subject here - largely because I am ignorant of the science involved, but also because it is such an enormous subject that it is beyond the scope of this blog to comment upon.  The thought was that the consequences of man-made runaway climate change would be so catastrophic if true, that it would be best to corrupt the science behind any research to always show the result that it was true. To subjugate science to a political aim, in other words.  Lysenkoism at its very best.

This has spread to claiming that, when there is no proof either way, a 'consensus' of opinion is all that is required.  Let me reiterate that: under postnormal science, a scientific theory does not have to make predictions that are accurate, it does not have to disprove any alternative theories, it does not even have to be falsifiable (and therefore does not even need to be a theory).  All that need happen is that enough people - preferably scientists, but not necessarily, and not necessarily operating in the same field - have to say that they think the 'theory' is right (or wrong) and Presto Changeo!  The science is in, let there be no more debate.

And it is not just climate change that has seen this happen.  The theory of evolution is now open to challenge by those who like the idea of intelligent design.  The origins of the universe likewise.  In every field, the voluble, the ignorant and the obnoxious demand to have their voices heard, and for their ignorance to be assigned equal weight as another's knowledge.

It has reached the point that the website of Popular Science has even had to close all comments to all further articles. The ignorant and the foolish are so keen to spread their postmodern nihilism, to shit their foolish uninformed opinions into the ears of others, that the drawbridges are having to be drawn up.  Should this continue, science will become once again the preserve of the few, understood and mistrusted by the many who will prefer superstition and guesswork to reason and empirical evidence.

This, ladies and gentlemen, is the age of the Endarkenment.

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