[This article appeared in the November 1990 issue of Conservative Review, pp. 26-27, 29.] 


How Committed Are We, Really, to Science? 

Dwight D. Murphey 


            The twentieth century can justifiably be called “the century of science.”  Science plays an enormous and beneficial role in modern civilization, both intellectually and in its ubiquitous applications.  But how much do we all, including many of our academics and professionals, really understand and identify with true science?  There is so much pseudo-science and ideologized misapplication of science that the genuineness of our commitment to it, even in the most scientific century of all time, must be considered doubtful.

            There is an unforgettable scene in Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged where mankind loses its ability to run a locomotive.  (In the context of the novel, the much-exploited creative people of the world have “gone on strike,” taking off for the sanctuary of “Galt’s Gulch”—a fictional place inspired in real life by the glorious beauty of Ouray, Colorado—and have let the world crumble around all of the complainers and practitioners of the “politics of envy.”)

            In a passage of great philosophical depth, Rand explains that a locomotive embodies far more knowledge than any one person possesses.  It represents, in effect, the accretion of vast sums of knowledge accumulated through the efforts of many thousands of creative men over long spans of time.  Each valve, each mechanical principle, each component of the locomotive represents distilled rationality, “man’s capacity to grasp reality.”

            Ayn Rand’s image of the locomotive illustrates quite powerfully our dependence, in an advanced civilization, and indeed as human beings generally, on rationality and science.  The proper functioning of the mind is so important to us that we could hardly live without it.  And it is so important to us that one would think that we would have cultivated a deeply engrained understanding of, and adherence to, its essential principles and spirit.

            Accordingly, it is amazing that so much that has passed for “science” in the twentieth century has in fact been pseudo-science (sometimes called “scientism”), and that in so many ways we repudiate the processes of rational inquiry.  We owe it to ourselves to do better—much better.  In magnificent ways, this has been a “century of science”; but it has also been a century in which true science has had to co-exist with much that, though operating under the same banner, has had little to do with science as best conceived.

            In a brief column I can do no more than point to a few examples of the widespread deviations from a scientific mentality.  As we will see, some abuses are due to an unintelligent and often pretentious imitation of science (thus, “pseudo-science”).  Others are due to ideology’s twisting of science to its own ends.  Still others result from the suppression of inquiry, even (or most especially) by an intellectual culture than fancies itself the champion of free inquiry. 

Bad Science—The Asbestos Hysteria

            We all know how vast has been the alarm over the dangers of asbestos.  One result has been that Congress enacted the Asbestos Hazard Emergency Response Act in 1986 requiring the Environmental Protection Agency to get the ball rolling toward industry’s removal of asbestos from some 773,000 buildings.  The cost estimates for such removal vary from 53 to 150 billion dollars.

            But now the September 1990 issue of the AIM Report, published by Reed Irvine’s splendid organization Accuracy in Media, Inc., unmasks the asbestos scare as just another example of selective and ideologically-influenced “science.”

            It turns out, according to AIM, that the alarmist studies of the effects of asbestos on shipyard workers have “two serious flaws.  First and foremost, they failed to distinguish between three different types of asbestos.”  The blue type, which is highly dangerous, amounts to about 2.5 percent of the asbestos used in the United States.  A less dangerous type, the brown, amounts to another 2.5 percent.  The other 95 percent is white asbestos: “Its fibers are long and curly.  They don’t penetrate the lungs deeply, and they are expelled or dissolved.”  This asbestos—the overwhelming preponderance of the asbestos used in the United States—creates very little risk.

            The second “flaw in the shipyard studies was the failure to take account of the role of smoking.  Nearly all the workers studied smoked.  They were 50 to 90 times as likely to get lung cancer as those who didn’t smoke.”

            As long ago as 1984, a Canadian Royal Commission “concluded in a three-volume study” that “asbestos in building air will almost never pose a health hazard to building occupants.”  If that is true, Congress has been misled into a most serious loss of proportion: the enormous expense of removal need not be undertaken; simple containment is virtually all that’s needed.

            A fascinating thing in the AIM Report is that the Challenger disaster might well have been caused by our misguided hysteria over asbestos.  A less effective putty had to be substituted around the O-rings when the earlier asbestos-based putty was prohibited.

            If it is true that the studies that created the asbestos alarm were based on a failure to differentiate between unlike things (the three types of asbestos) and to control against such an obvious variable as smoking, they were based on bad science.  That in itself is neither surprising nor particularly distressing (other than for its immediate effects), since we all know that errors can be made in any human endeavor, and future studies will presumably correct them.

            What is distressing is threefold: (a) that the flaws in the original studies may well have been induced by the rampant anti-technological bias that pervades some of our scientific community today; (b) that our society’s dominant ideological-political apparatus accepts alarmism with such alacrity, and so greatly loses its sense of proportion that it is willing to impose enormous costs without a solid foundation for doing so; and (c) that the alarmist studies receive so much more media coverage than the later reports that correct them.  AIM tells us that the corrective studies have received absolutely no attention on the TV networks’ evening newscasts.

            It is time that science itself, and society in general, become especially wary of the form of science that wears ideological blinders.  The world intellectual community years ago very justifiably took offage at Nazi-inspired theory that attempted to bifurcate science into “Aryan science” and “Jewish science”; and it was thoroughly to the credit of the same world intellectual community that it was scandalized as it was by the Soviet Union’s application of “class struggle” to science.  This especially came to a head when in 1948 the Lenin Academy of Agricultural Sciences embraced Trofim D. Lysenko’s repudiation of Mendelian biology and began a suppression with the Soviet Union, which lasted until the mid-1960s, of any teaching of Mendel’s principles on the ground that they represented “bourgeois science.”           

Pseudo-science: A Century of Freud

            The asbestos hysteria illustrates the neurotic fix that dominates so much of our public discourse today.  When, however, we look back over the century during which the teachings of Sigmund Freud have towered over psychiatry, we see the problem in another form: a willingness by a great many intelligent people, and indeed by the intellectual culture at large, to accept in the name of science something that made no effort whatsoever to justify itself in terms of scientific methodology.

            Thirty-five years ago, I had occasion to read Freud’s book The Interpretation of Dreams.  What struck me most about it was that Freud put forward his explanations of dreams without the slightest concern over proof; i.e., over the evidentiary or logical basis upon which his interpretations could be demonstrated to be superior to other differing interpretations.  The book rested its case on bald assertion.  Nothing tied the theory to reality.  Even the subjects’ introspection wasn’t available to confirm or deny a given interpretation, since Freud would never admit that introspection would amount to more than a masking of the underlying psychic forces that he asserted were at work.  Nor was there any attempt at prediction and verification, or at studies through control groups.

            Accordingly, I was delighted recently to read Hans Eysenck’s excellent book Decline and Fall of the Freudian Empire, published in 1990 by Scott-Townsend Publishers in Washington, D.C.  It happens that Eysenck is a true scientist; and his critique of Freudianism is devastating.  “For the scientist,” he says, “truth is the statement of testable generalizations of universal validity, subject to proof and experiment.”

            He points out, also, that “criticism is the life-blood of science.”  This is a procedural and social premise that constitutes a first pillar of science.  Eysenck observes, however, that “psychoanalysts, and particularly Freud himself, have always disliked and discouraged any form of criticism.”  Hence, their mental totalitarianism has been profoundly at odds with the open inquiry that must typify science.

            “The second great weapon in the scientist’s armamentarium is the putting forward of alternative hypotheses… [U]sually there are several possible explanations, and the experimentalist has to design empirical tests to decide between them.”  But, again, Freudians “have simply refused to recognize the existence of such alternative hypotheses, and have never seriously discussed them, or produced evidence to decide which theory could explain the facts better.”

             No doubt it can be argued (as it has been) that “none of this matters”—that “psychoanalysis works,” in that “it cures people.”  This would be a pragmatic measure of its truth, and would in fact constitute an empirical test of it.  But the fact is that Freud opposed any such demonstration of whether it “works.”  Eysenck makes it clear that he “opposed the use of clinical trials, with experimental and control groups.”  And in recent years, Eysenck points out, studies conducted by others show that “there is no substantial evidence that psychoanalysis or psychotherapy have any positive effect on the course of neurotic disorders, over and above what is contributed by meaningless placebo treatment.” 

Playing with Real Money with Pseudo-Science

            While Freud was for many years acclaimed as “scientific” without the slightest effort to be so, many of the contemporary abuses of science come from an uncritical mimicry, in practice, of the methods and outward accoutrements of science.

            This even intrudes into so practical, dollars-and-cents a subject as real estate investment analysis, where the money of a great many seemingly “rational investors” is at stake.  Here’s what Michael and Joseph Flannery tell us in the Fall 1990 issue of the Real Estate Review:

            “The use of quantitative (computerized) models to forecast future cash flows and to project values led many to the misconception that investment analysis is an exact science… It led to the acceptance of pseudo-scientific certainties.

            “Computer models rarely focused on downside assumptions.  Many analysts ‘massaged the numbers’… When projects did not yield the desired results, their advocates worked and reworked the numbers…. All models start with a series of underlying assumptions.  Problems of validating the underlying assumptions have proved insurmountable… The textbooks all state that the assumptions used to develop the model… must reflect the project’s potential as realistically as possible.  The failure of projects to adhere to the assumptions in the models demonstrates that the complex mathematical manipulations of the analysts have merely juggled shaky new data.”

            This reminds me of so much of the “social science” I have seen in master’s theses.  The theory behind social science research is pretty well worked out, and is stated in learned tomes on methodology.  But the application is almost universally warped beyond recognition—while still parading all the verbiage, mathematics and statistical display, in which great delight is taken—by a lack of concern over proper sampling, by dressing up meager data in ostentatious curves and bar graphs, by a trivialized selection of subject-matter, and by the drawing of inferences that go far beyond anything the data would justify. 

Where Do We Go From Here?

            Maybe, the essentially humorous side of human nature being what it is, our “century of science” has accomplished about all it can, with much real science shining through from under the heap of fools’ gold.  What wonders we would behold, though, if we could increase our commitment to true science by even a small increment!  (I’ll resist the temptation to include a graph comparing the projected differences in productivity and human well-being.)

             It is time that we—and especially our intellectual culture—looked in the mirror and took note of how much the image that’s staring back looks like Trofim D. Lysenko.