Intellectuals and Society

Intellectuals and Society, by Thomas Sowell. Some excerpts. This is quite a good explanation of how the culture of climate research went astray.

Even the most rigorous scientist is not objective as a person or impartial in scientific pursuits. Scientists studying the growth of cancer cells in human beings are clearly not impartial as between the life of those cancers and the lives of human beings. Cancers are not studied just to acquire academic information but precisely in order to learn how best to destroy existing cancers and, if possible, prevent new cancers from coming into existence, in order to reduce human suffering and prolong human life.

There could hardly be any activity more partial. What makes this activity scientific is that it uses methods devised to get at the truth, not to support one belief or another. On the contrary, scientific methods which have evolved to put competing beliefs to the test of facts, implicitly recognize how ill-advised it would be to rely on personal objectivity or impartiality among scientists.

Although J.A. Schumpeter said, “The first thing a man will do for his ideals is lie,” he also said that what makes a field scientific are “rules of procedure” which can “crush out ideologically conditioned error” from an analysis. Such rules of procedure are an implicit recognition of the unreliability of personal objectivity or impartiality.

A scientist who filtered out facts contrary to some preferred theory of cancer would [should?] be regarded as a disgrace and discredited, while an engineer who filtered out certain facts in building a bridge could be prosecuted for criminal negligence if that bridge collapsed as a result, with people on it. But those intellectuals whose work has been analogized as “social engineering” face no such liability —  in most cases, no liability at all —  if their filtering out of known facts leads to social disasters.

That so many intellectuals could use the unattainability of personal objectivity and impartiality as a reason to justify their own filtering of facts— and make their argument seem plausible— shows again that they have much intellect and much verbal virtuosity, even if they do not always have much wisdom.

Ultimately, the issue is not, as so often misstated, a question of being “fair” to those on “both sides” of an issue. What is far more important is being honest with the reader, who after all has usually not paid to learn about the psyche or ideology of the writer, but to acquire some information about the real world.

Intellectuals who take it upon themselves to filter facts, in the interest of their own vision, are denying to others the right they claim for themselves, to look at the world as it is and reach their own conclusions. Having an opinion, or expressing an opinion, is radically different from blocking information from reaching others who could form their own opinions. …

Truth is an impediment to certain intellectuals:

Truth — empirical facts or compelling logic — is an enemy of dogmas, and one dealt with as an enemy by small but growing numbers of modern intellectuals, demonstrating again the divergence between intellectual standards and the self- serving interests of intellectuals.

It is not simply particular truths that are attacked or evaded but in many cases the very concept of truth itself. The discrediting of truth as a decisive criterion has been attempted systematically by some with deconstruction, or ad hoc by others with assertions of what is “my truth” versus “your truth”— as if truth could be made private property, when its whole significance is in interpersonal communication.

For example, when Robert Reich was challenged on the factual accuracy of his published accounts of various meetings that had been videotaped by others, showing situations radically different from what he had described in his book, his reply was: “I claim no higher truth than my own perceptions.”

If truth is subjective, then its entire purpose becomes meaningless. However, that may seem to some to be a small price to pay in order to preserve a vision on which many intellectuals’ sense of themselves, and of their role in society, depends.

The seeming sophistication of the notion that all reality is “socially constructed” has a superficial plausibility but it ignores the various validation processes which test those constructions. Much of what is said to be socially “constructed” has been in fact socially evolved over the generations and socially validated by experience. Much of what many among the intelligentsia propose to replace it with is in fact constructed that is, created deliberately at a given time and place — and with no validation beyond the consensus of like- minded peers.

If facts, logic, and scientific procedures are all just arbitrary “socially constructed” notions, then all that is left is consensus — more specifically peer consensus, the kind of consensus that matters to adolescents or to many among the intelligentsia.

In other words, throw out truth and what replaces it is “might makes right.”

hat-tip Chris