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Tuesday
Jun262018

Why Silencing Contrarians is a Mistake

I recently read an article in the New York Times by a professor of Philosophy, who recommended that Charles Murray, one of the authors of  1994’s The Bell Curve, not be given airtime in the public media or at universities, because the book’s findings are “junk science.”  What Murray claims about his findings, which include the idea that differences found in IQ and achievement between races may be innate, may be objectionable to many, but the data in the book is not “junk science” just because one disagrees with its conclusions.The data it cites are almost entirely from reputable, mainstream sources. The job of those who disagree with its conclusions—and that includes me—is to examine the data and decide why they come to a different conclusion than the authors. The Bell Curve’s message is refutable, both in terms of the data it includes and in light of research carried out since the time it was published, but it is not “junk science,” and the quest to silence its author on this basis is misleading and represents a failure to understand how science works. 

As Thomas Kuhn pointed out more than fifty decades ago, scientific knowledge generally proceeds in small increments. Increasing failures of current theories to predict experimental results finally leads to a “a paradigm shift” to accommodate the errant findings in a new viewpoint of the world. There are almost always positive and negative findings and the determiner of truth in science is primarily consensus. Experimental or observational findings are replicated and anomalous findings are explained until everyone more or less agrees on a common interpretation. If the anomalous findings persist, a change of interpretation may occur. A new theory may emerge. Science tries to unearth facts and explain them using theories. Theories explain experimental and observational facts using the concepts available at the time. Anomalous findings that do not support the current theory are taken seriously by scientists and are not labeled “junk science” simply because they fail to agree with other studies.

Many of those in the media and in politics claim that  findings that do not support the concept of man-made global warming are examples of “junk science.” The nearly unanimous agreement among climate scientists that global warming exists and is man-made is often cited as “scientific proof” that it is real. In California, a serious proposal was made to make questioning the scientific validity of global warming a criminal offense. The consensus among the majority of the world’s climate scientists is real, but not because the findings are either clear-cut or incontrovertible and they certainly are complex. The causal relationship between C02 concentrations and atmospheric temperatures has been very difficult to establish and predictions of rising atmospheric temperatures made in the 1980s and early 90s overestimated the increase, a finding which is only now being explained by discovering how deep oceanic heating may have reduced atmospheric heating. The relationships are complex and the scientific findings are varied, although the scientific consensus that the phenomenon is real has not wavered. But anomalous findings need explanation and those who bring them up are not resorting to “junk science” and should not be told to be quiet.

Real science can lead to anomalous results that don’t agree with accepted wisdom. Public perception of the state of science is usually a simplification. Unfortunately, once a scientific finding enters the political arena or the mainstream media, it is further simplified but opinions of lay people become hardened around what they perceive are the facts. The media and many partisan advocates have taken simplistic viewpoints with regard to complex issues and, in this age in which we approach many topics with our preconceptions on one sleeve and our moral self-righteousness on the other, have argued for “shutting down” voices that oppose the received wisdom. If we disagree with the voices who challenge our viewpoint, then we can argue against them, citing the reasons we prefer our own view instead of theirs. With science, this will probably be an argument about facts or the implications of facts. With social questions this may be about facts, but may just as well be about morals and ethics related to such facts.  Whatever the debate, it can be worth having and is better than closing our minds and not listening because we don’t like what is being said.  The world is a complicated place and very little of what we know about it is cut and dried or exists separate from our perceptions and opinions. 

 

Reader Comments (1)

The Bell Curve is part hard science and part social science. It’s a ridiculous concept to call scientific findings you don’t agree with “junk science.” It’s irrefutable that climate and terrain caused slight variations in human populations over time. Hair color and texture, shoulder/hip ratio, skin pigment, antibodies, cellular mutations, cranial capacity, eye color and shape were all subtly influenced by our ancestors’ environments. It was these adaptations that initially allowed our species a better chance to survive in different regions of the planet. Most of The Bell Curve is about how these slight alterations by regional influence have affected people who’ve lived in the past one hundred years and how populations across the globe might benefit from this knowledge. Too many people seem to focus on the perceived differences in reasoning and data processing between different groups. But since people are only ever individuals and are part of a group merely by happenstance, l find it strange that anyone would apply Professor Murray’s findings to themselves as an individual. A group identity can say nothing of value about the individual. It’s really a shame that Charles Murray has been so reviled for simply collating eighty years of available data and coming to a few possible conclusions based on the gathered evidence.

As far as climate science goes, I’m open to the idea that there are strong signs that point to variant and concerning weather patterns. I’m not, however, ready to fall into the pit of correlation/causation and abide the notion that climate change is certainly based on humanities’ flaws and foibles

June 27, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterMark Wheeler

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