What’s the difference between a theoretical physicist, evolutionary biologist, anthropogenic climate change scientist and a Supreme Court jurist? 

 The adjudicative history of the US Supreme Court and the present status of scientific inquiry in these areas would suggest not a lot.   Let’s start by taking an example from one of the Supreme Court’s school integration cases.

 In 1964, President Lyndon Johnson orchestrated the passage of the Civil Rights Act. Among other things, the Act specifically prohibited assigning students to schools according to race. “Desegregation” of school systems was to be a color-blind affair. The legislative record clearly reflects the necessity for prohibiting racial identification in desegregation in securing the bill’s passage. The US Supreme Court, riding its wave of activism initiated with the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision providing that separate was not equal (overturning Plessy v. Ferguson from 1896) so far as public education was concerned, was hardly interested in taking orders from Congress. So it basically disregarded the legislatively-negotiated limits of remedies for public school integration included within the Act. Here’s an example of its reasoning, from Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg (1971):   

 ” `Desegregation’ means the assignment of students to public schools and within such schools without regard to their race, color, religion, or national origin, but `desegregation’ shall not mean the assignment of students to public schools in order to overcome racial imbalance.”  

Section 2000c-6, authorizing the Attorney General to institute federal suits, contains the following proviso:   

“nothing herein shall empower any official or court of the United States to issue any order seeking to achieve a racial balance in any school by requiring the transportation of pupils or students from one school to another or one school district to another in order to achieve such racial balance, or otherwise enlarge the existing power of the court to insure compliance with constitutional standards.” 

On their face, the sections quoted purport only to insure that the provisions of Title IV of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 will not be read as granting new powers. The proviso in 2000c-6 is in terms designed to foreclose any interpretation of the Act as expanding the existing powers of federal courts to enforce the Equal Protection Clause. There is no suggestion of an intention to restrict those powers or withdraw from courts their historic equitable remedial powers. The legislative history of Title IV indicates that Congress was concerned that the Act might be read as creating a right  under the Fourteenth Amendment in the situation of so-called “de facto segregation,” where racial imbalance exists in the schools but with no showing that this was brought about by discriminatory action of state authorities. In short, there is nothing in the Act that provides us material assistance in answering the question of remedy for state-imposed segregation in violation of Brown I. The basis of our decision must be the prohibition of the Fourteenth Amendment that no State shall “deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.”

Get that? Essentially the Court says it will ignore the law and do what it wishes, providing as its justification that the very issue the law concerns is not actually what the law concerns, and anyway the law could not possibly be meant to limit the Court’s fashioning of remedies. So, indeed, the Court ultimately prescribed exactly what the law prohibited–assignment to schools in Charlotte, North Carolina on the basis of race to overcome racial imbalance, along with transportation to achieve such racial balance, and in the process greatly enlarged the authority of the federal judiciary throughout the land. By the end of the decade, Federal District Courts would in many jurisdictions be the de facto school board.  

School desegregation by dint of Supreme Court decree was an unmitigated disaster that, along with the Court’s ruling in Roe v Wade in 1973 finding a “penumbra” of rights in the First Amendment to the Constitution that had never before been visible, ruined the Court’s legitimacy for decades to come. Even today, the Supreme Court stands as chastened and mostly irrelevant, preferring to limit its incursions into everyday life to the mostly mundane, ruling on things like the details of permissible school prayer and Ten Commandment displays, but staying away from stridently immediate issues such as whether embryonic stem cells constitute “life” which the 5th and 14th Amendments provide some protection.  

Of the last three decades, the Court’s boldest ruling, but decided upon straight political lines, came when it stopped the recount of Florida ballots in the 2000 presidential campaign, still a sore point with the side that lost, but hardly irreversible. Elections come and go every four years. Had the Court’s decision been a travesty of justice, it could easily have been overturned in the next election cycle. But Supreme Court decisions interpreting the contours of constitutional rights stand as settled law until they are overturned, and then only by constitutional amendment or Supreme Court fiat. Plessy stood for over half a century until the Court revisited the issue in Brown. With the recount ruling the exception proving the rule, the Supreme Court has slipped further and further into despondency and irrelevancy since its activism of the sixties and seventies proved it had no great respect for the plain meanings of the laws it was charged with interpreting and applying. Perhaps its most courageous ruling of the past decade is Hamdi v Rumsfeld (2004), where the Court actually had the guts to rule that indeed, the US Constitution applies to citizens of the United States.  

But what does this have to do with science? The scientific enterprise is apt to similarly suffer despondency and irrelevancy if scientists continue, like Supreme Court jurists in the sixties and seventies, to make things up to suit their political and professional whims. Once people realize that science, like Supreme Court jurisprudence, is best understood by understanding the motivations of the scientists and not the objective realities they purportedly explain, the enterprise will be finished. Scientists will become nothing more than sorcerers and shamans.    

Rigorous application of the scientific method of inquiry has provided marvelous insights into the world around us. The Enlightenment ushered in the idea that cause and effect relationships in the universe could be rationally understood through the process of hypothesis formulation and testing. Rationalism could break the bondage of superstition. The giants of science, from Galileo to Newton to Einstein observed, hypothesized, and tested. Skepticism and falsifiable results drove the enterprise. Not so much anymore. There are at least three areas of inquiry where scientists today have bastardized and abused the trust earned by the giants upon whose shoulders they purport to stand: Theoretical physics’ quest for a theory of everything; Darwinism as the biological version of a theory for everything, and the theory of anthropogenic climate change.    

In the realm of theoretical physics, whose modern quest for a theory of everything now stretches almost a century–since Einstein first proposed the Theory of Relativity–things are truthfully no closer to resolution today than when the quest first started. Einstein went to his grave working on the problem, with no resolution. Relativity and Quantum Theory are not complementary. Each does a fair job in its realm (although some would argue that Quantum Theory is tremendously more effective and relevant in explaining the very small than is Relativity at explaining the very large, but we’ll ignore questions about Relativity’s viability for these purposes). But neither can grasp the whole. Enter String Theory, which requires extra dimensions and multiple universes, making it a nice exercise in applied math, but a completely unfalsifiable foray into abstract rationalization, so what’s the point? Yet Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow in their new book, “The Grand Design”, don’t stop at exuberantly proclaiming, again, that a theory of everything is just around the corner–probably based on some variation of String Theory. They extend their speculative conclusion to say that when finally we turn that corner, we’ll need not look for God anywhere close by because the fundamentals of quantum physics upon which the universe is founded mean that the universe could have arisen from nothing–one of many possible quantum states. Such arrogance and hubris–the summary disposition of God to the ash heaps of physical history– floating on such a thin reed of unfalsifiable speculations surely means the science of theoretical physics is nearing intellectual bankruptcy. They went further. Hawking and Mlodinow not only dispensed with God, but also declared philosophy dead. But they did plenty of philosophizing in making their case against God in The Grand Design, not unlike their Renaissance and Enlightenment antecedents did in including God in their metaphysics. God is out of favor now relative to the Renaissance. Not much else is new. String Theory seems like little more than half-baked extensions of the metaphysics of the Renaissance philosopher, Gottfried Leibniz’s idea that everything was made of tiny, indivisible Monads, each reflecting an entire universe of pre-established harmony. Of course, Leibniz said God caused the pre-established harmony, but then it wasn’t de rigueur to claim no need for God as it is now.    

God again comes under attack by the evolutionary biologists, particularly Richard Dawkins, a devout Atheist. (Incidentally, whether or not one wishes to believe in God, one has to admit that everyone but everyone believes in something, even if, as in Hawking’s possible quantum states, that something is nothing. It still is a belief to believe that there is nothing). Evolution by natural selection due to random mutations in the genetic code is supposed to be all that is necessary for explaining the multitudinous variety of flora and fauna of the world. But is it possible? Many scientists say no, and not because they believe that God necessarily had a hand in the matter. It is simply a matter of time and mathematics. If life has been around on earth for roughly two billion years as the geologists and paleontologists tell us, some scientists, having done the appropriate calculations, explain that there simply has not been enough time for enough mutations for descent by random mutation of the genetic code to alone explain the density and variety of speciation that we see. Something else must have been at work. Exactly what, we don’t know. Yet, there is another problem. We still haven’t any idea how life actually got started so that it could start evolving. For a scientist to honestly evaluate what we know about the origins and evolution of life against what we don’t know and thereby conclude that we have proved the superfluousness of God is to read into the evidence what our heart wishes to see, not unlike a Supreme Court jurist concluding that a prohibition against racial quotas demands them. It is the essence of disregard for the scientific method, making the discovery of truth so far as life’s origins and evolution that much more difficult to obtain. It is politics parading as science, just as Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg was politics parading as adjudication.     

Then there is the uber-political science of anthropogenic climate change. Here’s a realm where scientists would do well to pay homage to their philosopher brethren rather than dismissing them as dead. Occam’s razor demands that we always seek and rule out the simplest and most obvious explanation for natural phenomenon before settling on deductions that are complex and arcane. Yet climate scientists looked at the evidence and virtually immediately reached the conclusion that mankind was a) causing carbon dioxide in the atmosphere to increase, and b) that the increased carbon dioxide in the atmosphere was causing the warming trend seen over the last several decades. There are significant logical issues with the scientists’ causation analysis. First, there is no way of knowing for sure where increased levels of carbon dioxide recorded on an observatory on Mauna Lao, Hawaii are coming from. They could be man-made, or they could be the result of natural processes. Like, say, volcanoes. Second, the measured level of carbon dioxide has increased every year since measurements began (all of about fifty years worth), but temperatures haven’t. Correlation doesn’t prove causation, but is minimally necessary if there is to be a causative relationship established. Most importantly, get back to Occam’s razor. Are there other, less esoteric explanations for the temperature rise? Indeed, the earth has been cycling cool and hot for the last several hundred million years, long before man cranked up his cars and factories. Could this apparent warming trend be part of some planetary cycle? Less than 20,000 years ago, most of North America and Europe were covered in glaciers. The glaciers started melting and the earth warmed long before we arrived as a force of nature. Do we know why? No. Yet we still feel safe in concluding that man is now causing the earth to grow a bit warmer? This sort of tortured logical deduction is of the type that led federal courts to impose school busing. With no evidence whatsoever that integrated schools would improve the academic performance of any of the students, the Court simply decided upon integration as the means to achieve equality in educational outcomes. The theory turned out to be dismally wrong, but like the anthropogenic global warming hypothesis, it was untestable before the fact. Scientists that try to sell anthropogenic global warming as conclusively proved are best understood as having a political, instead of scientific, agenda, much as the Supreme Court opinions of the sixties and seventies make no sense without understanding the politics.     

Science is today inching ever closer to becoming a strictly political enterprise, just as law and the judiciary did half a century ago. The judiciary at one time enjoyed status as something of a “cult of the robe”, where people genuinely believed that it was possible for men and women to put on the judicial robe and become something like dispassionate gods, setting aside their political biases and deciding cases–even appellate cases–by objectively weighing the evidence and applying the law. The Warren Court of the sixties and seventies revealed that lie and dispensed with the notion.   The Florida recount vote, strictly along political lines, sealed the deal.  Not much consideration is afforded the robe anymore.     

Scientists still enjoy much the same consideration today as judges once did. Put a Ph.D behind someone’s name, and their opinions on matters apparently scientific are considered weighty and profound. Add a Nobel Prize, and virtually anything they say is sacrosanct truth. The incentive for abuse is great, as theoretical physics, evolutionary biology and climate science stand in testament. Too much abuse, and the whole enterprise stands to suffer a wholesale loss of confidence in its objectivity, much the same as has the judiciary in the last three decades or so.    From there, it’s only a few more steps backward until priests are again selling indulgences and astrologers are again considered the best hope we have for discerning the future.    

References and further reading:      

Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg (1971)   

Hamdi v. Rumsfeld (2004)    

The Economist book review of The Grand Design    

The Wall Street Journal Book Review of The Grand Design

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