Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Daniel Engber - Radical Skepticism

Slate recently posted a three-part article on "radical skepticism" that I thought was kind of interesting.

The Paranoid Style in American Science
By Daniel Engber

Part One: A Crank's Progress

Evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins has a name for all those books that aim to refute his popular treatise on atheism: With a nod to Yeats, he calls them "fleas." The latest flea at which he deigns to flick his tail is The Devil's Delusion: Atheism and Its Scientific Pretensions, published (in earnest) on April 1. But this one may have more legs than its Bible-press kin. Billed as "the definitive response to the New Atheists," it's the first such book to come from a mainstream publisher, the Crown Forum division of Random House. An extended excerpt has already earned a prominent spot in the April issue of Harper's. And its author—the erudite and infuriating David Berlinski—isn't anything like a Christian doctrinaire.

Berlinski is a critic, a contrarian, and—by his own admission—a crank. But he is not a religious man. He's a zealous skeptic, more concerned with false gods than real ones. According to The Devil's Delusion, the emergence of the New Atheists—i.e., Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, and the others who have lately ridiculed the belief in God—marks the consolidation of science as its own religion, a hateful "militant church" that demands strict adherence to the First Commandment. The scientists speak of incontrovertible fact, but Berlinski wants to show otherwise; he subjects scientific belief to his own rigorous investigation and finds it riddled with uncertainty. Like the theorists of intelligent design, he sees little in the fossil record that would account for sudden leaps in biological complexity. He considers the evidence for the Big Bang and learns nothing about the origins of the universe. In short, he assesses the evidence for the death of God and reports back with reasonable doubt. This is his book-jacket promise: to "turn the scientific community's cherished skepticism back on itself."

Read more.

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Part Two: An Uncertain Truth

In 1969, a series of historic memorandums began to circulate at a tobacco company in Kentucky. The documents addressed growing public concern over the health risks associated with smoking and outlined a brazen response: The cigarette manufacturers would "establish—once and for all—that no scientific evidence has ever been produced, presented or submitted to prove conclusively that cigarette smoking causes cancer." To support this ludicrous assertion (which the tobacco executives knew to be false) would require a spin campaign of monumental proportions. That campaign's inaugural words have now become a slogan for corporate connivery: "Doubt is our product," read one infamous memo, "since it is the best means of competing with the 'body of fact' that exists in the mind of the general public."

This corporate strategy of "manufactured uncertainty" has become only more refined in the last 40 years. According to former Assistant Secretary of Energy David Michaels, whose startling new book, Doubt Is Their Product: How Industry's Assault on Science Threatens Your Health, comes out this week, manufacturers routinely hire "product defense" firms to challenge scientific findings and stave off government regulation. Scientific consultants are brought in to dust off and reanalyze data sets, group and regroup subject pools, and dream up confounding variables—all so that a given study can be discredited as inconclusive or, worse, labeled as "junk science."

Read more.

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Part Three: Contrary Imaginations

Until Richard von Sternberg took over as the editor of the tiny, peer-reviewed Proceedings of the Biological Society of Washington, no argument for intelligent design had ever appeared in a respectable scientific journal. In the summer of 2004, Sternberg published just such an attack on the theory of evolution, and—in the midst of a controversy over whether he was fired as a result—became a cause célèbre for the religious right. Now the Sternberg affair has become the centerpiece of a documentary feature film to be released in theaters around the country this Friday.

Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed takes the form of Michael Moore agitprop, with Ben Stein playing the rumpled and outraged interlocutor. As Stein presents it, the dangerous notion of a created universe has been suppressed by the overlords of mainstream science. He intersperses snippets of dialogue with evolutionary biologists with public-domain footage of goose-stepping fascists. In the movie version of reality, the mild-mannered Sternberg dared to challenge the power structure of American academia and soon "found himself the object of a massive campaign that smeared his reputation." The same fate befalls others who question the Darwinian dogma: According to the Expelled blog, "Big Science's elite brands them as heretics and their careers are systematically destroyed." That is to say, they've been subjected to "the unseen silent hand of repression." (Click here for more information on the Sternberg affair and other exaggerated claims from the film.)

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