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Science Needs Skeptics, Not Magisteria

Anika Smith

Does science have a magisterium?
That’s the question Jay Richards puts to NRO’s John Derbyshire today at The American, where he aptly notes:

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.

Richards makes the rather obvious point (obvious to everyone but Derb, perhaps?) that science is not the Catholic Church, which does have a magisterium, “a single institution, which one is free to trust or not to trust.” (nota bene, the actual Magisterium of the Catholic Church John Derbyshire does not trust, being an admitted anti-Catholic.)

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.

Read the whole thing here.

Anika Smith