Robin Craig, scientist, philosopher, and author, graduated in molecular biology (BSc [Hons 1, Univ. Medal], PhD), and is now an owner and COO of Australia’s longest surviving private biotechnology company. He has a long-term interest in both science and Objectivist philosophy and has hosted private monthly philosophy salons for over 15 years. His publications are wide ranging and include numerous scientific papers in genetics; philosophically-themed, near-future, science-fiction novels (the Just Hunter series) and short stories; the chapter “Good Without God” in The Australian Book of Atheism; philosophical essays on Amazon; and twenty years of Philosophical Reflections, a popular and controversial column in TableAus (the magazine of Australian Mensa). His website robin-craig.com includes essays and debates on numerous philosophical topics.
Dr. Craig (RC) took time off his busy schedule to engage with Savvy Street’s Vinay Kolhatkar (VK) on the impact of philosophy on science, research funding, and on “peer-reviewed” conformance.
VK: Is there a postmodernist assault on the physical sciences?
RC: Postmodernism is all about pretending that subjective feelings are truth, so they don’t like science, which is all about objectively discovering the truth. So there is certainly an assault in the sense of postmodernists claiming that there is no objective truth, or that science is an oppressive construct of white males. Given how much science and technology have advanced human life, anyone who looks at the evidence would wonder how postmodernists can be so willfully blind to it: but looking at evidence is the first thing they dropped.
But I think postmodernism is more an effect or example than a primary cause. It is part of a wider degradation of philosophy into subjectivism and feelings as the source and validation of knowledge, hence subjectivism and feelings as the source and validation of ethics, rights, and politics. Specifically, the validation of feelings is not individual but collective, e.g. based on ethnicity, gender, or sexuality: and increasingly (and bizarrely consistently), your subjective feelings about your group identity whatever the facts.
Some scientists swallow bad philosophy wholly, and they can cause disproportionate damage by claiming things are based on science when in fact they are opinions based on their philosophy, not on the actual science. You see that kind of thing when people claim that free will or even consciousness itself is an illusion, or that quantum mechanics proves that reality is subjective.
Scientists are usually poor philosophers. While that is not necessarily a criticism—it isn’t their primary job, it is a problem. It is even understandable: most philosophy that budding scientists are exposed to, is drivel, so scientists often dismiss the whole field out of hand. Unfortunately that leaves them disarmed, whether because they don’t have any good defense or they can’t take the opposition seriously. Worse, some scientists swallow bad philosophy wholly, and they can cause disproportionate damage by claiming things are based on science when in fact they are opinions based on their philosophy, not on the actual science. You see that kind of thing when people claim that free will or even consciousness itself is an illusion, or that quantum mechanics proves that reality is subjective, or that we live in the Matrix. Of course that sensationalism is encouraged because such claims make good, exciting press. The scientists who say them probably think they are doing science a favor!
So I don’t think there’s any kind of organized assault from within. It is more that when it comes to philosophy, scientists are like most other people, and they simply absorb their philosophy from the culture around them without really questioning it. That works when the prevailing philosophy is good, but not so much today.
VK: Is research funding used as a carrot and stick to implant a postmodernist anti-reason perspective into the physical sciences? Are there other weapons (ostracization, career enhancement etc.) in use as well?
RC: Science is like all human activities: run by people. And people can be good or bad, rational or irrational, doing their best to seek the truth or motivated by political considerations or other hidden agendas. Research funding is limited compared to the number of potential research projects competing for that money. So it is always going to be beholden to the opinions of those evaluating the proposals. At any time, research viewed as more important or more likely to achieve useful results is going to be favored.
If an orthodoxy has become established, especially an orthodoxy widely regarded as having moral or global implications, then this process obviously causes difficulties for pioneers, dissenters, and mavericks. We can never get rid of errors in judgement, so the main protection is the wisdom, integrity, and open-mindedness of the judges.
So I don’t think there is any conscious intent to implant anti-reason perspectives. Nobody is looking at research proposals and thinking, “How effective will this be in promoting anti-reason?” Any effect is more indirect. People always apply their philosophy to their actions, whether they do it consciously or not. To the extent that their philosophy is bad, their decisions will be bad.
In other words, I think the primary problem is poor philosophy in the culture at large, absorbed unthinkingly by most people including scientists. That problem is amplified when it is also embodied in those who rise to positions of power and influence.
VK: Which sciences are the least susceptible to such an invasion? Which are the most susceptible?
RC: There are two aspects to that: resistance to corruption, and motivation for corruption.
There is a limit to how far you can stray when you are forced to face the results of observations or experiments that give clear answers. So sciences that are closest to reality—to definitive, objective tests of its theories and claims—are the most resilient. Or if nobody is trying to impose an agenda beyond the truth, you are reasonably safe just following the clues where they lead.
Experimental physics is one of the most rigorous sciences, and the facts rule. Yet speculative theoretical physics is often unbounded by even the possibility of an experiment, and can run wild.
But where the facts are more debatable, there is both the temptation to claim more certainty than you have, and the temptation to bend them to an agenda (whether that is monetary, political, or philosophical). So a field with big political implications—big implications for someone’s power—is more easily corrupted, both by pressure from outside (e.g. funding) and pressure from within (e.g. luminaries who agree with the political ends or are chasing the bandwagon).
Physics is a good example. Experimental physics is one of the most rigorous sciences, and the facts rule. Yet speculative theoretical physics is often unbounded by even the possibility of an experiment, and can run wild. And even with experimental physics, we have to distinguish between the facts and their interpretations, and know where one ends and the other begins.
Dare I mention climate science? Here we have an immature science—I’d put it around the level of geology before the proof of continental drift. Its greatest experts are experts in … computer modelling. What real world data there is, is ambiguous, and explanatory theories have big unknowns. Couple that with the advantages to a variety of groups to either talking up the certainty and threat or simply going along with it, and the field is ripe for corruption.
VK: What can the citizen not in a position of power do about this assault?
RC: Inform yourself as best you can on objective philosophy and relevant science. This can give you the thinking and factual tools to counter nonsense when you encounter it. Do your best to teach your children that reality is real and can be understood by applying reason to the evidence of your senses, and that science is the pinnacle of that process. Whatever power you do have, e.g. voting, use it as best you can. And to the extent you are able, argue against subjectivism, political correctness, and attempts to make science a tool of political power.
VK: Has the attack on Reason in Science reached high schools? Or is it limited to universities and research institutes?
RC: I wouldn’t say it has reached high schools, I’d say it has been living there for years already! High schools have suffered for decades from politically correct “education”—from environmentalism, to “indigenous rights,” to revisionist, selectively anti-European history, to Leftist causes in general. They still teach the basics of real science. But modern educators rightly believe that knowledge has real world implications. And when that meets an underlying poor philosophy, the result is bending facts to serve propaganda.
Schools should teach children how to think, not what to think. But too many teachers see it as their duty to inculcate what they consider to be socially desirable thinking.
VK: Was “peer-reviewed” ever the stamp of genuine credibility? Or was it always a way of ensuring conformance?
RC: Peer review is a bit like what Churchill said about democracy: the worst system except for all the others. Peer review is meant to screen out nonsense and to improve what is published, not screen out disagreement, and when it is working properly that is how it works. But it is done by people, and there have always been cases where it has been used as a weapon against disagreement (whether we’re talking an Establishment view or the personal opinion of the reviewer).
Peer review is a bit like what Churchill said about democracy: the worst system except for all the others. Peer review is meant to screen out nonsense and to improve what is published, not screen out disagreement.
Peer review is a stamp of credibility in the sense that at least some other experts in the field found your work worthy of publication. But how much that is worth depends on the credibility of those experts, which is harder to judge. In fact some studies (see here, here, and here) have shown that peer review can be no better than chance as a way to evaluate manuscripts!
Basically, the problems with peer review have the same cause as problems with funding: the process is only as good as the people with the power.
So I have mixed feelings about peer review. On the one hand it has the weakness of anything based on human opinion. On the other hand, do we want the scientific literature to be filled with the same degree of ignorance and illogic we see on the internet? Perhaps for a better system we will have to wait for AI to be good enough to judge such matters objectively, based solely on properly weighted, existing knowledge, and the rules of reason.
If we can trust the people who program the AIs!
VK: Do you have an opinion on the scientific “advances” made by Stephen Hawking or Albert Einstein?
RC: Einstein was brilliant and his physics still stands as a remarkable achievement. Something as mundane as GPS (how quickly we get used to miracles, and start calling them “mundane”!) depends on both his Special and General Theories of Relativity, for example. Einstein was not a great philosopher—few scientists are—but that does not detract from his scientific advances.
I consider him [Stephen Hawking] merely a mid-range physicist, lionized because of his remarkable adaptability in the face of a terrible illness.
I am less impressed with Stephen Hawking. Apologies to his fans, but I consider him merely a mid-range physicist, lionized because of his remarkable adaptability in the face of a terrible illness, and his public books and profile.
To return to one of my earlier comments, we have to disentangle science from philosophical interpretations of it. Specifically, we should always bear in mind that the mathematical equations of a physical theory are not necessarily the causal explanation. We know this because the same physical phenomenon (from quantum mechanics to the refraction of light) can have multiple, quite different mathematical treatments, all equally accurate and valid. So, in the case of Relativity, just because its mathematics is incredibly accurate and is built on concepts like curved space-time, that doesn’t imply mass can bend nothingness. In other words, just as we need to distinguish between science and its interpretation in general, so we need to distinguish between mathematical systems and conceptual, causal understanding.
VK: Is it possible that either Betsy DeVos or someone influential enough in the Trump Administration knows of the incursions that go well beyond “climate scientology” and can actually do something about it?
RC: I place little faith in the ability of any politician or bureaucrat to achieve much! But reversing the more egregious politicization of science will go a long way. Just as the problems of imposed orthodoxy increase the more power its representatives accumulate, so cutting off their power base (whether that is bureaucrats allowed to run wild or bureau heads allowed, or even directed, to overreach for political ends) has a snowball effect on reducing them. Also, if funding is not tied to an agenda—that removes a lot of motivation to serve the agenda rather than following where the evidence leads.
The best thing the government can do is to reduce regulation, reduce the bureaucracy and shift the balance toward individual rights and decisions. Whether any government today has either the understanding or the will to do that is the question.
VK: If a young person with flawless integrity considering a career in academe in the physical sciences approached you for advice, what would you say?
RC: I’d tell them to go for it but to choose their institution with care: the institution itself and especially, later, the person they choose for their doctoral supervisor. You want both to have as much of their own integrity as possible, and be primarily focused on the truth, not on being politically correct or achieving fashionable social ends that aren’t actually worthy. I don’t think things are so bad that good places are impossible to find. Selling your soul for your career is never a good move, so don’t.
VK: Is one way to save the physical sciences through the humanities, specifically by teaching the philosophy of science in high school?
RC: That is one of those things where you should be careful what you hope for, because you might get it!
Teaching a bad philosophy would be worse than not teaching philosophy at all—and these days, what you’re likely to get is bad philosophy.
In theory, yes. Not only for science, but for the individual students themselves and society at large, philosophy should be taught at school. The problem is: which philosophy? Teaching a bad philosophy would be worse than not teaching philosophy at all—and these days, what you’re likely to get is bad philosophy. For the same reason as the problem you are trying to address: the generally accepted philosophy of the age, especially among the intelligentsia, is pretty poor. The philosophy taught in schools is only going to be as good as the underlying philosophy of the intelligentsia.
The problem is wider than the philosophy of science. Philosophy is the broadest, most abstract kind of knowledge, and its influence filters down through many areas of knowledge: not only science, but history, “social sciences,” ethics, and politics. So despite my caution, certainly educators of the better kind should attempt to integrate an objective philosophy into school curricula. And not as an optional extra, but one of the core subjects, informing all the rest.
VK: We thank you for your time and wish you the best in all your endeavors.