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Friday, January 27, 2006

Warning Flares

I keep reading pontifications by pundits about the awful influence of "outdated religious morality" and the horrible effects of the "fundamentalist war on science". But I'm not buying it. What I see is that we have a larger problem with politically correct science, and it is coming from all sides of the political spectrum.

Take this DU thread started by a Texas teenager outraged by the fact that her gay friend was not allowed to give blood because he answered "Yes" to the question about having sex with other men. Quite a few people try to explain why certain groups are not allowed to donate, and that it is about screening about high-risk groups, not discrimination.

No one can penetrate her self-righteous ignorance. She has been taught in school that 50% of new AIDS cases occur among women, and she seems unable to figure out that women far outnumber men who have sex with other men, therefore making MSM a much higher risk group. She believes with all her heart that anal sex is not a more risky sexual behavior than straight sex. Eventually several people end up cussing at those who are trying to explain. Read it and weep for her friend, because if this is what she was taught, this is what he was taught - so he doesn't have enough information to protect his own health.

Politically correct science is just as dangerous as religiously-dominated science. The forces of unreason are gaining on us. Also see Carl's excellent post regarding environmental fundamentalism as promulgated by Nature. Note that Nature would not print a critical response.

You say that politically correct science is just as bad as religiously motivated science. You are absolutely right. That's because political correctness is a form of religion:

1) certain basic assumptions held on faith? check.
2) factual challenges to those assumptions responded to by appealing to other facts? No. Responded to by righteous appeals to morality instead and condemnations of those who would question them? Check.

Everybody has a religion. There are very few absolute nihilists in the world, and most of them are dead through drug use or recklessness. Perhaps none are more fundamentalist nowadays than those who are militant about their lack of religion.
I think most people do have principles and rules by which they live. Some people aren't self-righteous about them though.

The difference between a real scientist and this sort of pseudo-science is that real science is constrained by a formal set of rules of evidence and formally subjects assertions of fact to test by others.

It's the same thing with history too. Some study, some set out to prove their own point.
As a future historian (OK, so history isn't really a "science"), I would argue that it's even OK to set out to prove something you believe, a priori, to be true. In fact, sometimes that's a necessary starting point, because it points you in the direction of the kind of evidence you need to search for. It's the whole purpose of having a "hypothesis."

The line needs to be drawn, then, afterwards. I have a hypothesis, but a true scientist needs to be honest when that hypothesis is not borne out by the evidence.

Politicized "science" takes the scientific method backwards: rather than prove a hypothesis true or false, they cherry-pick evidence to help argue for a conclusion that is already presumed to be true or false. And if the evidence doesn't fit, it is either ignored or "discredited." Indeed, I find that the vast majority of Boomer professors in the social sciences no longer seek the truth; their entire academic enterprise consists in finding creative ways to discredit evidence that obviously contradicts those things they take on faith. (Hence the postmodern de-emphasization of antiquated concepts such as "truth" and "facts" -- and the explosion in the use of "scare quotes" in academic publications.)
Pedro, you make excellent points, but a few quibbles, if I may.

History is not a science, but worthwhile history is based upon fact. And yes, a historian may set out to do research to prove a point, but like a scientist, must be willing to examine evidence that disputes the hypothesis.

But Pedro, the willingness to be constrained by fact is even more essential in fields such as history and sociology. Hard science deals with physical realities that can be constantly be reobserved and retested; history deals with the past and that past is gone forever.

To distort history corrupts the knowledge base of humanity far more than to distort biology, for example. The biological error will eventually be found to be untrue, but once someone controls historical fact there is no way to check it.

That is why the malignant regimes all have their own historical dogmas, and ferociously attack all those who would dispute them. They also attempt to control access to basic resources and all means of disseminating knowledge about thpose resources.

That's why China has blocked text messaging on cell phones, and has gotten Google and Blogger to do their censorship for them. They have to in order to survive.

So your responsibility as a historian is great.
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