Sunday, December 06, 2009

British Climate Memos: Baconian Science as Usual

With the UN's IPCC now doing damage control—er, staging an investigation, the "Climategate" controversy over the leaked emails from the University of East Anglia Climate Research Unit (CRU) continues to heat up. The public is understandably shocked by the revelation that "science" is possibly being manipulated to further political ends.

The public might not be so surprised if it knew the seedy origins of "science."

"Open-source" Science

There has been much good commentary on emails as manifesting the problem of science being done behind closed doors. This Slashdot story has a lot of interesting commentary. John Tierny notes how these inept attempts at manipulation are backfiring:

In response to the furor over the climate e-mail messages, there will be more attention than ever paid to those British temperature records, and any inconsistencies or gaps will seem more suspicious simply because the researchers were so determined not to reveal them.

Andrew Revkin even quotes climate scientists who see this scandal as an opportunity for more openness:

Mike Hulme, a climate scientist at the University of East Anglia and author of “Why We Disagree About Climate Change,” said the disclosures could offer a chance to finally bring the practices of climate researchers and the intergovernmental panel into the modern era, where transparency — enforced legally or illegally — is inevitable and appropriate.

“The I.P.C.C. itself, through its structural tendency to politicize climate change science, has perhaps helped to foster a more authoritarian and exclusive form of knowledge production,” he said in an e-mail message, “just at a time when a globalizing and wired cosmopolitan culture is demanding of science something much more open and inclusive.”

The call for more transparency is nearly universal. We live, after all, in a democracy (as opposed to an aristocracy). "We the people" need to be rightly informed so that we can decide. Scientists lashing out from elitist frustrations with their fellow citizens' ignorance and thickheadedness won't win any converts. Perhaps scientists at a university could condescend to educate? (This would seem particularly apt given the public funding many of these scientists receive.) The secretive strategy is rather short-sighted.

Which Science Is Betrayed?

But even the perspicacious commentators on the problem of scientific secrecy have missed a critical point: public manipulation in the name of science is no betrayal of science—as long as one means by "science" modern science, whose primary goal is "useful" production, instead of the classical, more general conception of science as (not necessarily productive) knowledge.

As far as modern science is concerned, this scandal is not that much of an aberration. The popular perception is that science as we know it seeks truth. In reality it seeks "fruit" or results.

Much of modern science's blueprint was drawn up by Francis Bacon (1561–1626), who was not so much a scientist as a politician: before discovering anything about the world, science is a human endeavor and therefore a political project. The modern project is above all political. Bacon asserts that the “true ends of knowledge” are “the benefit and use of life.”1 His aim is to “lay the foundation… of human utility and power”2 and seek in knowledge “a rich storehouse for the glory of the Creator and the relief of man’s estate.”3 Most pointedly Bacon criticizes the Greek philosophy then regnant as having “the characteristic property of boys: it can talk, but it cannot generate; for it is fruitful of controversies but barren of works.”4

To Bacon then, truth is not the highest value, but production: what 'works.'

Certainly, Bacon avowedly seeks the benefit of all mankind. Unfortunately, the goal very easily slides from "benefit mankind" to "benefit my scientific career" or "benefit a political program." The arguments go something like this:

  • "But I'm a part of mankind, am I not? So what benefits me, benefits mankind, no?"5, and:
  • "Our political movement is full of good people who, unlike our opponents, seek to make the world a better place. So regardless of the falsehood of this particular argument, its advance helps our movement, which helps mankind."

Indeed, in Bacon's New Atlantis, the members of Salomon's House (the scientific research institute of his utopian story) manipulate the people with illusions (e.g., light-shows to promote Christian religion) and keep secrets from even the state. Baconian scientists seek to manipulate not only nature, but also their fellow citizens and their country.

From its inception modern science has elitist, secretive tendencies.6 In the CRU scandal, these tendencies have merely been exposed to the light.

Science and Democracy: Uneasy Allies

Tocqueville has some insightful observations on the linkage between democracy and practicality in the sciences:

Men of science at such periods are consequently carried away towards theory; and it even happens that they frequently conceive an inconsiderate contempt for practice. "Archimedes," says Plutarch, "was of so lofty a spirit that he never condescended to write any treatise on the manner of constructing all these engines of war. And as he held this science of inventing and putting together engines, and all arts generally speaking which tended to any useful end in practice, to be vile, low, and mercenary, he spent his talents and his studious hours in writing only of those things whose beauty and subtlety had in them no admixture of necessity." Such is the aristocratic aim of science; it cannot be the same in democratic nations.7

Lust for practical results is common to both democracy and Baconian science. On the other hand, democracies, to function well, require open and honest debate, while as we've seen, Baconian science is intrinsically elitist and manipulative—that is, at odds with the basic requirements of democracy.

It seems then that democracies will love the products of Baconian science, but that such science will undermine democracy. The net action is that science is one instrument that democracies use to undermine themselves.8

Somehow the public hasn't gotten over what many in the postmodern academy might regard as an unsophisticated love of truth. "We the people" in our earthy naivete are drawn toward the real meaning of "science," but have mistaken modern science for the occupant of that office. Baconian science disguises itself under the regalia of classical science, that is, science in the sense of philosophy or systematic truth. Is it possible that modern science can cast away the baggage of its rough parentage and truly fill the throne it occupies by popular confusion? Can modern science be turned to seek truth more than products?

With our economy structured around scientifically motivated technical innovation, the odds are against such a reform in the near term. However there are many conceptual seeds to be sown now that will only fully sprout in the cultural desolation of a civilization turned entirely technical. Who knows?: Some of this new growth may take over before the old has entirely died away.


You can find a searchable database of the CRU emails online here (h/t What's Up with That?).

News summary, up-to-date as of Thursday, December 3: "Storm contiues to swirl around Climategate, as multiple investigations get under way "


1. Francis Bacon, “The Great Instauration,” New Atlantis and the Great Instauration, ed. Jerry Weinberger (Wheeling, IL: Harlan Davidson, 1980), 16.

2. Ibid.

3. Advancement of Learning, Book I, v, 11

4. Bacon, “The Great Instauration,” 8.

5. A related dimension that's often lost in the climate change controversy (and so many stories about science) is the often self-serving nature of science's dramatic claims. As I commented in the last post (regarding DNA), from the time of Galileo, science has been about self-promotion; scientists need funding to carry on their research. (Galileo's claiming more for his theories than he could actually observationally support is a large reason he got in trouble with the Church—as Cardinal Bellarmine's statements make clear.)

6. Closely related to the transcendence of the Cartesian 'mind' over the physical world.

7. Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, vol 2, ch. X.

8. Yet another more general way to look at this: democracies prefer short-term results (products) to long-term goods (such as truth); they get short-term success and long-term failure. Cf. Toqueville's "self-interest rightly understood"—only truth is a self-interest that transcends the self and whose discipleship sometimes requires complete abandonment of "self."


John Farrell said...

Hi Larry,
Going through my archives, I could swear we've had email correspondence offline a few years back, but of course, I can't locate your email. If you get a chance can you send me an email via mine, which is at my website and blog? (

Lawrence Gage said...

John, I'm entirely certain that we've never corresponded before. Your comments to the "Conservative Physics" post were the first I'd heard of you.

I do appreciate your comments!