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Does Science Have a Magisterium?

Original Article

At National Review Online, conservative curmudgeon John Derbyshire has weighed in on the Climategate scandal by encouraging conservatives not to jump on the anti-science bandwagon. I share his worry and find his advice is good so far as it goes; but I think Derbyshire’s defense of science might actually encourage the skepticism he wants to prevent. Most of the trouble comes from his invocation of the word “science,” and his claim that science has a magisterium.

His article is called “Trust Science.” I’m not sure what that means. What is “science,” and how do we “trust” it? Imagine if someone said: “Trust philosophy” or “Trust humanities” or “Trust religion.” The command in each case is far too vague to inspire confidence. “Science” isn’t a person or a finite set of propositions that can be tested or divine revelation. It’s not even a single institution. So how exactly do you trust it?

What we should trust is solid conclusions derived from valid reasoning based on publicly available empirical evidence, especially when it leads to reliable results—such as getting your 737 from Seattle to New York. But the abstract noun “science” is too vaporous to capture that. Perhaps “science at its best” would be a better substitute.

A related problem is that Derbyshire appeals to a scientific magisterium: “Science contains a core magisterium, which we can and do trust.” This should give anyone who has followed the climate change debate the creeps—a reaction Derbyshire anticipates in the column. But he seems blind to why talk of a scientific magisterium is creepy; so let me spell it out.

Other than listing the things Derbyshire thinks are settled and “without serious competitors,” he doesn’t really even identify what the magisterium is. This gives the impression that the magisterium is the subjectively determined list of things that people with power claim are settled. And that impression encourages the postmodern doubters of truth that Derbyshire hopes to keep back from the gates.

Science is different from the Catholic Church, which has a magisterium. This refers to the settled teaching authority of the Church, based on Scripture, the divine traditions reliably passed down from the apostles, guided by the Holy Spirit, and represented in the bishops in communion with the Bishop of Rome. And even this magisterium is only considered infallible under certain narrow circumstances. Although the Catholic explanation of the magisterium is subtle, the basic teachings of Catholicism—and the distinctions between negotiable and non-negotiable teachings—are contained in texts such as the Catechism. The magisterium is easily identified with a single institution, which one is free to trust or not to trust.

But science has none of that, and doesn’t claim to. It’s not a single institution. It doesn’t claim to be based on divine revelation or be guided by the Holy Spirit. It doesn’t have a priesthood or a central authority. It doesn’t even have a settled body of teachings. Science isn’t, and ought not to be, a surrogate religion.

Of course, most of what we believe to be scientifically verified truth is based on the testimony of scientists, textbooks, and journalists. In fact, most of what we all believe about most things is based on testimony. That’s okay. But anyone with a passing acquaintance with the history of science knows that every age has had a reigning intellectual orthodoxy or orthodoxies, declared to be “settled science” (a term Derbyshire summons) that were later seen to be erroneous. It doesn’t follow that because most scientists believe something to be true, or hold to a “consensus,” it ought to be doubted. Sometimes there are well-founded consensuses. But if you have good reason to be suspicious of a claim made by scientists, including lots of scientists, then you’re not under an intellectual obligation to submit to it.

In fact, no one appeals to consensus on the really solid stuff. Have you ever heard anyone cry consensus when talking about the Periodic Table of the Elements? More often than not, “consensus” is used to intimidate and silence dissenters. A scientific magisterium sounds like consensus-on-steroids, and brings to mind the big, state-funded “science” of which philosophers of science like Michael Polanyi have rightly been suspicious. It’s reminiscent of the way the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is often invoked to silence debate about the causes of climate change.

Derbyshire is right that no one, conservative or not, should infer from the collusion and evidence manipulation of leading climate scientists that science is just one more political power trip. But in light of Climategate and the previously known shenanigans confirmed by the scandal, it’s up to scientists and the journalists who serve as their megaphones to rise to the defense of science at its best—science based on solid, publically available evidence, valid arguments, and reasonable conclusions. We’ll see if they do that. In the meantime, invoking the authority of a scientific magisterium looks too much like an extreme form of an appeal to consensus, which may be one of the reasons for public skepticism in the first place.