If governments followed science

Let me first return to Francis Bacon’s New Atlantis, which I’ve mentioned a couple of times before, and especially here (hat-tip to Clinton Ohlers’s work), since it can be used to explore many aspects of modern science, especially in relation to faith.

Part of its appeal to the scientific mind, I think, is the idea of a society ruled by reason, and consequently by the empirical truths of scientific discovery. So it could be seen as a kind of endorsement for those not infrequently expressed sentiments down the years (most recently by Greta Thunberg) that if scientists ruled, or if governments listened to them, things would go a lot better. Science is not always right, goes the meme, but has the means to correct its mistakes, unlike politicians (though people who propose this have obviously never heard of impeachments, resignations or elections!).

Actually, though, New Atlantis, being both short and utopian, gives little support for the “philosopher-king” approach. As I mentioned in my last piece on it, virtually all the scientific wonders explained are in the nature of “useful gadgets”: some of what is described has ethical problems which Bacon does not even consider, but none of it really has a great bearing on the nature of the political or moral world in which it arises, for that is a given. In Atlantis, the scientists’ oath of secrecy simply enables them to keep secret from the state any discoveries they think it injudicious to reveal. Bacon’s philosopher writes:

And this we also do: we have consultations, which of the inventions and experiences which we have discovered shall be published, and which not: and take all an oath of secrecy, for the concealing of those we think fit to keep secret: though some of those we do reveal sometimes to the state and some not.

But in New Atlantis it is easy to miss, in our secular age, the one scientific theory on which not only the organisation of Salomon’s House depends, but that of the whole state. And that is the official pronouncement by their chief scientist, 1600 years before, that the pillar which appeared off the shore of their land, together with the scriptural revelations it contained, were an undoubted miracle. By this pronouncement, the entire nation was converted to Christianity, and it was Christian ethics and faith, based on a scientific assessment that therefore underpinned both the research of the scientists, and their dealings with government and people. It’s an interesting spin on natural theology when it falls to scientists to validate miracles, but what I want to draw attention to here is more the simple concept of an entire society built on a single scientific finding.

Now, it has been observed before, even by me, that Bacon in this way indicates that at root, modern science is dependant on Christianity. But that’s not the point I want to make here. Suppose that, a little after the encounter with Europeans described by the narrative, a meticulous member of the House of Salomon, versed in scientific historical methods and textual analysis, had reached the incontrovertible conclusion that the story of the pillar, and its authentication by the chief scientist, was in fact a later forgery, like the Donation of Constantine, or the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. Its purpose was to consolidate the influence of the Christian convictions of the early scientist-priests who, as we know from Bacon, had acquired a monopoly on all knowledge and were considered essentially infallible. Perhaps their motives were good, in that they wanted to build a philosophical utopia, but the foundation was, in fact, a lie.

But consider this: the discovery of the faked miracle account would suddenly place the entire scientific authority of the caste on a non-scientific footing. Immediately, the internal workings of the House would be undermined by the knowledge that all their scholarly and moral virtues were based not on knowledge, but on a myth. One would surely begin to see one or two black sheep produce fraudulent results for gain or kudos, and this would be especially successful at first, when the high ethics of the establishment remained habitual. But after a while would such things not become endemic, and require ever more sophisticated methods of peer-review and replication? The academy would begin to rot from within – and at the same time the world would know it had false roots to begin with.

And how does a sacked scientist make a living – especially when the job market is flooded with them? In England the dissolution of the monasteries caused huge levels of poverty and vagrancy, and some of the main (but now forgotten) concerns of abolitionists regarding American slavery were about the flooding of America with jobless and  resentful ex-slaves.

But in government and society more generally, the damage would be even greater. The great bastion of the Christian state, its foundation myth, would have turned out to be a lie concocted by the very scientists whose power and influence on the king was established by it. Perhaps there were other lies in what the House if Saloman passed on to him. Perhaps kings could rule without philosophers. As for the people, perhaps they would reason that they could live perfectly well without either philosophers or a king, taking over by force if necessary. And certainly without religion and its restrictive morality.

And so, imagine that you are one of the Fathers of Salomon’s House, the senior scientist to whom the historian who has discovered the fraudulent history reports his findings. You are appalled by the paper he presents, and not just because it demolishes all you have built your life upon: it threatens the whole culture. You have a choice of publishing his article according to the dictates of truth, and so completely destroying your own profession, the government’s source of authority and the foundations of the nation-state itself; or suppressing the result, and making sure that the historian is discredited should he try some other means of publication. Does the philosopher-king go where the evidence leads him, even if it causes the state to crumble?

Now, I mention this because the Bristish Parliament has just, I’m told, announced that we are in a state of Environment and Climate Emergency. Even though it’s such a gorgeous spring day outside – that’s an illusion. We are told that climate change is to become the first priority of government – no doubt resonating with the USA’s Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, far more informed and persuasive to our leaders than several climate summits with scientific summaries were, who said we must treat climate change as we treated World War II.

Now it occurs to me, as a Briton, that our experience of World War II was six bloody years  that bankrupted us, lost us our Empire, indebted us financially and politically to America, and made us the “sick man of Europe” for half a century. Increasingly, the entire world’s economy is being built around climate change, in keeping with the computer models that predict that the world is warming from anthropogenic CO2, and that there will be a tipping point when positive feedback destroys the planet.

Personally, I think there are good reasons for doubting that – not least that for most of geological time since the carboniferous the world prospered at levels of CO2 several times higher than ours, and yet temperatures in those times were self-limiting. But to put things more cautiously, the degree of the climate’s sensitivity to CO2 has not yet been fully established, and the better scientists and politicians are talking about making changes on the precautionary principle that extreme heating is likely, and doing nothing therefore potentially catastrophic.

But as a thought experiment, just imagine that some bright IPCC physicist were to discover a mathematical way of removing the uncertainty about the feedback effect of greenhouse gases, and that his calculations showed beyond a shadow of doubt that the feedback was self-limiting, and that the earth has been warming mainly from natural causes, that greenhouse-gas precautions are unnecessary, and that we should all breathe a sigh of relief and light a coal fire without worrying about frying or drowning from sea-level rise. I don’t say this is the case – I just ask you to consider what would happen if the science changed to the extent of clearing up any uncertainty in the models.

The question is this: now that the world is working towards spending trillions annually on renewable energy industries, with power generation and transport industries already expensively reconfigured, with even the global oil companies finding a way to change horses and make it pay; now that governments national and regional have set up multiple ministries and committees with vast budgets and huge staffs to implement it; now that tens of thousands of scientists have invested their entire careers in the truth of global warming, whilst the reputation of science itself has been put on the line by the claims by, it is said, a vast majority of scientists that the science is settled; now that the press and other media, and the Hollywood movers and shakers, and every mainstream political party has committed itself to the agenda; and now that an entire environmental industry from documentary makers to mass-protests is pushing it and demonising all gainsayers…

…Since all that is true, what then are the chances that our physicist’s paper – hypothetically, remember, as impeccable as the New Atlantis discoveries – would change anything whatsoever? What are the chances of it passing peer-review or the IPCC’s bureaucratic scrutiny? Who would cite it if it were even published?

For how much would the much-vaunted self-correcting nature of science count, when science has been politicized to the point that its assured predictions have now put the whole world on a war-footing? Even leaving aside the UN’s ambition of harnessing  climate change to engineer the re-ordering of the world at the expense of the western nations, to stop the juggernaut now, even on the best of evidence, would throw the societal pieces into the air more hazardously than twenty ISIS caliphates – and the blame would fall on the scientists more than anyone else. And therefore, such evidence cannot, and must not (from many stakeholders’ point of view), exist.

And so on psychological grounds, I suggest that even if, from hereon in, the climate started to cool rapidly and evidently, the very last people to recognise the fact would be leading climate scientists.

Why many ordinary people would still experience persistent warming under such circumstances is the subject of another post!

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About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
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