The Beautiful Lie

Have you seen this, yet? It has about 600,000 views on YouTube.

Steven Heyward over at PowerLine comments, “Here you will take in a typically politicized student, at South Africa’s University of Cape Town, arguing that “Science as a whole is a product of western modernity, and the whole thing should be scratched off.” The audience laughs with approval at this apparent bold transgression, and when someone interjects, at about the one minute mark, that “It’s not true,” he is shouted down and demanded to make an apologize for having violated their “progressive safe space.” Chairman Mao would have been proud.”

Quite. As Steve says, then the nonsense resumes,

Steven Novella of the NeuroLogicaBlog summarizes it thus:

She gives as an example that Newton saw an apple fall, made up gravity, wrote down some equations, and now that is scientific truth imposed on the world forever (seriously, I am not exaggerating this one bit).

The other pillar of her position is that in Africa there are practitioners of black magic who can summon a lightening bolt at their enemy. This is not explainable by “Western” science, and yet this is African knowledge, and therefore is an example of Western colonialism suppressing indigenous wisdom.

via Academic Absurdity of the Week: Who’s Against Science Again? | Power Line

Wow! Just Wow!

But as Steve also says, it allows us to introduce Dan Sarewitz’s essay in The New Atlantis, “Saving Science,”

I’ll give you the opening, as Steve did, but while very important, this essay is long, it’s also wide ranging , well written, fascinating, and I think pretty much on the money, but make a pot of coffee, because you’ll be a while.

20160816_tna49sarewitzendlessfrontiercoverw300Science, pride of modernity, our one source of objective knowledge, is in deep trouble. Stoked by fifty years of growing public investments, scientists are more productive than ever, pouring out millions of articles in thousands of journals covering an ever-expanding array of fields and phenomena. But much of this supposed knowledge is turning out to be contestable, unreliable, unusable, or flat-out wrong. From metastatic cancer to climate change to growth economics to dietary standards, science that is supposed to yield clarity and solutions is in many instances leading instead to contradiction, controversy, and confusion. Along the way it is also undermining the four-hundred-year-old idea that wise human action can be built on a foundation of independently verifiable truths. Science is trapped in a self-destructive vortex; to escape, it will have to abdicate its protected political status and embrace both its limits and its accountability to the rest of society.

The story of how things got to this state is difficult to unravel, in no small part because the scientific enterprise is so well-defended by walls of hype, myth, and denial. But much of the problem can be traced back to a bald-faced but beautiful lie upon which rests the political and cultural power of science. This lie received its most compelling articulation just as America was about to embark on an extended period of extraordinary scientific, technological, and economic growth. It goes like this:

Scientific progress on a broad front results from the free play of free intellects, working on subjects of their own choice, in the manner dictated by their curiosity for exploration of the unknown.

“The free play of free intellects…dictated by their curiosity”

So deeply embedded in our cultural psyche that it seems like an echo of common sense, this powerful vision of science comes from Vannevar Bush, the M.I.T. engineer who had been the architect of the nation’s World War II research enterprise, which delivered the atomic bomb and helped to advance microwave radar, mass production of antibiotics, and other technologies crucial to the Allied victory. He became justly famous in the process. Featured on thecover of Time magazine, he was dubbed the “General of Physics.” As the war drew to a close, Bush envisioned transitioning American science to a new era of peace, where top academic scientists would continue to receive the robust government funding they had grown accustomed to since Pearl Harbor but would no longer be shackled to the narrow dictates of military need and application, not to mention discipline and secrecy. Instead, as he put it in his July 1945 report Science, The Endless Frontier, by pursuing “research in the purest realms of science” scientists would build the foundation for “new products and new processes” to deliver health, full employment, and military security to the nation.

From this perspective, the lie as Bush told it was perhaps less a conscious effort to deceive than a seductive manipulation, for political aims, of widely held beliefs about the purity of science. Indeed, Bush’s efforts to establish the conditions for generous and long-term investments in science were extraordinarily successful, with U.S. federal funding for “basic research” rising from $265 million in 1953 to $38 billion in 2012, a twentyfold increase when adjusted for inflation. More impressive still was the increase for basic research at universities and colleges, which rose from $82 million to $24 billion, a more than fortyfold increase when adjusted for inflation. By contrast, government spending on more “applied research” at universities was much less generous, rising to just under $10 billion. The power of the lie was palpable: “the free play of free intellects” would provide the knowledge that the nation needed to confront the challenges of the future.

To go along with all that money, the beautiful lie provided a politically brilliant rationale for public spending with little public accountability. Politicians delivered taxpayer funding to scientists, but only scientists could evaluate the research they were doing. Outside efforts to guide the course of science would only interfere with its free and unpredictable advance.

We are, of course, free to agree or disagree with what he says. I’m inclined to agree, particularly since I have always found that unless you have some sort of a destination in mind for any endeavor, well, how will you know you’re making progress.

Steve also says that this sort of nonsense is even more prevalent in social science. I’ll easily forbear from arguing with that thesis.


About NEO
Lineman, Electrician, Industrial Control technician, Staking Engineer, Inspector, Quality Assurance Manager, Chief Operations Officer

12 Responses to The Beautiful Lie

  1. the unit says:

    “There you go again” Representative Joe Wilson. Visiting South Africa these days? You’ve softened your “you lie” to “it’s not true.”
    Same result.

    Liked by 1 person

    • NEO says:

      Yes, sir, it is.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. the unit says:

    Science, oh yes. Gotta have it. What was thought and proven yesterday may be different today or tomorrow. Without the curiosity bringing forth research and trial and error, how would we know stuff? Bought a new battery powered tool the other day. Came with the battery and charger. Last one bought I had to buy the battery and charger separate. Anyway sales guy instructs me to completely discharge battery before charging. Battery life will be longer he said. Hasn’t that been thought and advised for years now? I had my reasons to look into that. Sure enough internet says to “perform shallow discharges” then charge. That was my reason. Cell phone and battery is ten years old, never replaced. Kept it charged, never totally discharged in it’s life. Ten years, who could ask for better? Maybe it’s thought that this shallow business for the lithium. I doubt old cell battery is lithium. So I better check tomorrow, could be changed.
    This curiosity is catching. Curiosity for exploration of the unknown. My new ear phones are marked left and right. How could they know? I don’t want to be trapped in a self-destructive vortex. So I’m gonna switch’em and see. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • NEO says:

      LOL Good idea 🙂 Yep it’s been true for a while with batteries, and it really matters.

      Liked by 1 person

      • the unit says:

        Yeah. And I’ve been looking at a gas motor power tool by Echo. Dealer wants me to buy Echo premixed gas and oil @ $7.97 a quart. Says that’s good to keep warranty in force. Duh?

        Liked by 1 person

        • NEO says:

          I don’t see it anymore, unless you’re going to run it 6+ hours a day. I did learn though that Stihl’s own oil was worth the money, using cheap oil burned up one of our saws, course we were running it about 7 hours a day. Thing is, they may be right, small engines don’t like unleaded gas, but I’d buy cordless electric for anything I have enough ambition to do anymore! 🙂

          Liked by 1 person

        • the unit says:

          Yeah. To get something done ambition is a fleeting thing for me. Except lately getting my three acre lot in shape. Spent many hours computing around during the Clinton years and since with other presidents. Would you believe I’ve worn out three or four, probably more, pair of jeans fooling around on the computer. More than actually physically working. Yes, it’s true. Because I sit sort of low in a cushion chair with my laptop on a little even lower table so that I see the screen through my bifocals without tilting my head back to keep from crooking my neck. That stretches my jeans over my knees and causes a ripple in the fabric from knees to inner thighs. That constant bending of the fabric in the same place wears until the threads split in the ripple. To never give up I’ve ironed on more $ Store patches than new Wranglers @ Walmart cost per pair. That’s got be only me. No history repeated. 🙂

          Liked by 1 person

        • NEO says:

          Sure, I believe it, I tend to wear out the seats of mine, and my 32 inch monitor is below eye level as well, course it’s also my TV these days.

          Liked by 1 person

        • the unit says:

          You need to provide protection for the seats of those pants or jeans. Something more between bone and seats. 🙂

          Liked by 1 person

        • NEO says:

          Sadly, pretty well padded, anymore! 🙂


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