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Wall Street Journal opinion video: “The Arrogance of the Sciences”

8 April 2014
David Berlinski calls most climate researchers “intellectual mediocrities and pious charlatans.”

Amid the international technocivic discussion of the latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), consider the recent contributions of the opinion pages of the Wall Street Journal.

On 7 April, the editorial “Second climate thoughts” appeared, with this thumbnail summary: “The latest U. N. report tones down the alarmism but ramps up the bad economics.” The WSJ editors see “intellectual progress” beyond what they call “the usual alarmist headlines,” one of which they cite—“Climate panel sees global warming impacts on all continents, worse to come”—without revealing that it’s from the New York Times.

They call the IPCC report’s summary for policymakers “sexed up for mass media consumption,” but observe that in the main report, “a much more cautious picture of the state of climate science comes into view.” They quote the report’s acknowledgment that “the innate behavior of the climate system imposes limits on the ability to predict its evolution.”

Overall, the editors believe the new report “vindicates” something they wrote in 2007 in response to the IPCC: “Beware claims that the science of global warming is settled.” But they also condemn what they call a strongly leftist IPCC political agenda and a failure to recognize that the “best environmental policy is economic growth.” On the day after their editorial appeared, they printed an op-ed arguing that “steady indoctrination” in leftist academe is steering able students away from career-preparation choices in fossil-energy fields.

On the online opinion page, the editors have also been making available the 30-minute video interview “David Berlinski on the Arrogance of the Sciences,” presented in partnership with the Hoover Institution, which offers a 42-minute version.

Berlinski might have a certain level of physics-community credibility. The physicist, writer, and MIT professor Alan Lightman included one of Berlinski’s articles in The Best American Science Writing 2005. The New York Times reviewed Berlinski’s book about calculus not once but twice. One of the reviewers ranked it with works by Steven Weinberg and Stephen Hawking.

But it’s also important to note that Berlinski serves as a senior fellow at the Discovery Institute’s Center for Science and Culture, which says of itself that it challenges “various aspects of neo-Darwinian theory,” supports research to develop the theory of intelligent design, and advocates teaching students about evolution’s “scientific weaknesses as well is its strengths.” In 2012, Berlinski scoffed at the Higgs boson in an article in Evolution News and Views, where he has published at least 17 times. At the top of the page in his online article, that publication says of itself that it “provides original reporting and analysis about the debate over intelligent design and evolution, including breaking news about scientific research.”

The online interviewer introduces the interviewee in part by showing the viewer some of Berlinski’s books, including The Deniable Darwin and Other Essays and The Devil’s Delusion: Atheism and Its Scientific Pretensions. The interviewer also invokes “The Emperor's New Clothes” to introduce Berlinski’s attacks on Darwin, global warming, and what the interviewer calls “other scientific pretensions.”

Early on, the video displays a text screen containing this quotation from Devil’s Delusion:

A great many men and women have a dull, hurt, angry sense of being oppressed by the sciences. They are frustrated by endless scientific boasting. They suspect that the scientific community holds them in contempt. They are right to feel this way.

When asked about that, Berlinski responds by asserting that it’s obvious. Setting aside “the low-level scientists, the bottom feeders,” he explains, it’s physicists and mathematicians who “really don’t waste any time telling you how much smarter they are than you.” Because they’re indeed quite smart, and he adds, “they have accepted as an obligation and as a pleasure the prerogative of telling the rest of us what to think not only about the sciences but about everything. And that is oppressive.” The issue, he asserts, “is the overall intellectual omnipotence that is assumed by the scientific community.”

A second displayed quotation comes from a 2013 Berlinski article that’s apparently no longer available online. Climate science, it charges, is “in the hands of intellectual mediocrities and pious charlatans.” Berlinski excludes Richard Lindzen of MIT. Then he offers a declaration about the famously revealed East Anglia climate-science e-mail messages, which the moderator, no doubt inviting dispute with his choice of verb, calls “leaked.” Berlinski charges that the messages show that climate scientists’ “entire scientific position is, ‘Well, we’ve got a very weak theory supported by so much gibberish in the computer record; let’s just hide that from criticism and suppress those people who don’t agree with us.” Berlinski then stipulates that things have improved, but adds that the real issue remains that “global warming is an imponderable.”

Another of the video’s displayed quotations brings up the widespread charge that climate scientists are only in it for the grant money:

What is so striking is the tendency of the scientific community both to an extravagant boastfulness and to a barely concealed eagerness to help itself to an ever larger portion of national wealth.

Berlinski emphasizes that not just part of scientists’ motivation concerning human-caused climate change, but all of it, is money—and that it’s a huge amount. “Affirm . . . that you've got a red-hot proof that global warming is increasing,” he asserts, “and you can go to the very best Parisian restaurants the next day.” He also claims that the “dominating motivation of the sciences is to help themselves to ever more swag.” Soon he calls as well for ending federal support of basic research. Why, he asks, “should the taxpayer be billed for a $16 billion superconducting collider in Texas,” or for costs at the Large Hadron Collider once the Texas project ended?

The discussion then moves on to Darwin and related issues. These occupy the bulk of the video’s time. But at the end, physics reenters. When asked about the origin of the universe, Berlinski responds, “Boy, are you making a mistake if you want the sciences to answer that question. The physicists are not going to give you any help.”


Steven T. Corneliussen, a media analyst for the American Institute of Physics, monitors three national newspapers, the weeklies Nature and Science, and occasionally other publications. He has published op-eds in the Washington Post and other newspapers, has written for NASA's history program, and is a science writer at a particle-accelerator laboratory.

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