November 25, 2009

"Perverse... even to imagine so heinous a crime"

Here's a little insight into how attitudes towards scientific fraud have changed since I was a boy.

In 1957 Isaac Asimov was still a professor of bio-chemistry at Boston University Medical School. His science fiction was popular, but SF was then a marginal genre that wouldn't support a man with a family. He was also starting to branch out into other sorts of writing.

He wrote a mystery novel, a A Whiff of Death, which he had a hard time getting published, and which was not a commercial success. This quote is from his autobiography, In Joy Still Felt:
...I sent it to several publishers of mystery novels, such as Harper and William Morrow. and it kept coming back. Apparently Doubleday's decision as to its unworthiness was part of a general notion.

That bothered me, for I was convinced the murder mystery was a good one. Of course the setting of a graduate chemistry department was an esoteric one, but that should have been a point in the book's favor.

I discovered eventually, that the chief flaw in the book from the standpoint of the publishers was the inadequacy of the motive for the murder. It involved a Ph.D. student faking results, and that seemed a tiny sin to most editorial readers.

When I gave fellow professors an inkling of the plot, however, they shuddered and turned away, obviously suspecting some deep-seated perverse element in my nature even to imagine so heinous a crime. Too little for one group of people, too much for another!...
[My emphasis]

I took quite a few science classes in high school and college, and I'm pretty sure the subject of scientific fraud was never mentioned. I don't think anyone considered it even possible. That's certainly a contrast with what we've seen in the CRU e-mails. Or in many other things, such as the years of frustration Steve McIntyre had trying to get a look at Keith Briffa's tree-ring data. Wow!

And it is all of a piece with the meta-theme of this blog in recent years, that much of what we see around us can be explained as results of the slow draining away, over generations, of habits inherited from the Christian and Jewish faith and culture of Western Civilization. Religious faith has been declining for several centuries, but Christian habits of mind have long lingered. And we tend to just take them for granted, until one day they are gone!

One of those habits has been the intense respect we once had had for honesty in the practice of natural science. It used to be so common that no one even imagined a different possibility... (except one science fiction writer!). What we call "science" (really just one example of science; the scientific study of the natural realm) is a product of Medieval European Catholic faith and culture. It was not invented by Newton or Sir Francis Bacon—they just popularized a philosophical tradition that had been growing for centuries before them.

This tradition grew out of Catholic beliefs, including that the created realm is good, and real, and intelligible. And that there is Truth, and we are called to be servants of Truth.

(I'll try to find time to post a bit more to support this, though it is a subject that is far vaster than me! 'Till then, a couple of quotes: Link, Link.)

[I've posted below the fold a quote from Chesterton on Aquinas, describing St Thomas's epic battle with Siger of Brabant on the nature of scientific truth. Just to give you the flavor of what I'm hinting at....]

...Nevertheless, it was never the existence of atheists, any more than Arabs or Aristotelian pagans, that disturbed the extraordinary controversial composure of Thomas Aquinas. The real peril that followed on the victory he had won for Aristotle was vividly presented in the curious case of Siger of Brabant; and it is well worth study, for anyone who would begin to comprehend the strange history of Christendom. It is marked by one rather queer quality; which has always been the unique note of the Faith, though it is not noticed by its modern enemies, and rarely by its modern friends. It is the fact symbolised in the legend of Antichrist, who was the double of Christ; in the profound proverb that the Devil is the ape of God. It is the fact that falsehood is never so false as when it is very nearly true. It is when the stab comes near the nerve of truth, that the Christian conscience cries out in pain. And Siger of Brabant, following on some of the Arabian Aristotelians, advanced a theory which most modern newspaper readers would instantly have declared to be the same as the theory of St. Thomas. That was what finally roused St. Thomas to his last and most emphatic protest. He had won his battle for a wider scope of philosophy and science; he had cleared the ground for a general understanding about faith and enquiry; an understanding that has generally been observed among Catholics, and certainly never deserted without disaster. It was the idea that the scientist should go on exploring and experimenting freely, so long as he did not claim an infallibility and finality which it was against his own principles to claim. Meanwhile the Church should go on developing and defining, about supernatural things, so long as she did not claim a right to alter the deposit of faith, which it was against her own principles to claim. And when he had said this, Siger of Brabant got up and said something so horribly like it, and so horribly unlike, that (like the Antichrist) he might have deceived the very elect.

Siger of Brabant said this: the Church must be right theologically, but she can be wrong scientifically. There are two truths; the truth of the supernatural world, and the truth of the natural world, which contradicts the supernatural world. While we are being naturalists, we can suppose that Christianity is all nonsense; but then, when we remember that we are Christians, we must admit that Christianity is true even if it is nonsense. In other words, Siger of Brabant split the human head in two, like the blow in an old legend of battle; and declared that a man has two minds, with one of which he must entirely believe and with the other may utterly disbelieve. To many this would at least seem like a parody of Thomism. As a fact, it was the assassination of Thomism. It was not two ways of finding the same truth; it was an untruthful way of pretending that there are two truths. And it is extraordinarily interesting to note that this is the one occasion when the Dumb Ox really came out like a wild bull. When he stood up to answer Siger of Brabant, he was altogether transfigured, and the very style of his sentences, which is a thing like the tone of a man's voice, is suddenly altered. He had never been angry with any of the enemies who disagreed with him. But these enemies had attempted the worst treachery: they had made him agree with them.

Those who complain that theologians draw fine distinctions could hardly find a better example of their own folly. In fact, a fine distinction can be a flat contradiction. It was notably so in this case. St. Thomas was willing to allow the one truth to be approached by two paths, precisely because he was sure there was only one truth. Because the Faith was the one truth, nothing discovered in nature could ultimately contradict the Faith. Because the Faith was the one truth, nothing really deduced from the Faith could ultimately contradict the facts. It was in truth a curiously daring confidence in the reality of his religion: and though some may linger to dispute it, it has been justified. The scientific facts, which were supposed to contradict the Faith in the nineteenth century, are nearly all of them regarded as unscientific fictions in the twentieth century. Even the materialists have fled from materialism; and those who lectured us about determinism in psychology are already talking about indeterminism in matter. But whether his confidence was right or wrong, it was specially and supremely a confidence that there is one truth which cannot contradict itself. And this last group of enemies suddenly sprang up, to tell him they entirely agreed with him in saying that there are two contradictory truths. Truth, in the medieval phrase, carried two faces under one hood; and these double-faced sophists practically dared to suggest that it was the Dominican hood.

So, in his last battle and for the first time, he fought as with a battle-axe. There is a ring in the words altogether beyond the almost impersonal patience he maintained in debate with so many enemies. "Behold our refutation of the error. It is not based on documents of faith, but on the reasons and statements of the philosophers themselves. If then anyone there be who, boastfully taking pride in his supposed wisdom, wishes to challenge what we have written, let him not do it in some corner nor before children who are powerless to decide on such difficult matters. Let him reply openly if he dare. He shall find me then confronting him, and not only my negligible self, but many another whose study is truth. We shall do battle with his errors or bring a cure to his ignorance."

The Dumb Ox is bellowing now; like one at bay and yet terrible and towering over all the baying pack. We have already noted why, in this one quarrel with Siger of Brabant, Thomas Aquinas let loose such thunders of purely moral passion; it was because the whole work of his life was being betrayed behind his back, by those who had used his victories over the reactionaries. The point at the moment is that this is perhaps his one moment of personal passion, save for a single flash in the troubles of his youth: and he is once more fighting his enemies with a firebrand. And yet, even in this isolated apocalypse of anger, there is one phrase that may be commended for all time to men who are angry with much less cause. If there is one sentence that could be carved in marble, as representing the calmest and most enduring rationality of his unique intelligence, it is a sentence which came pouring out with all the rest of this molten lava. If there is one phrase that stands before history as typical of Thomas Aquinas, it is that phrase about his own argument: "It is not based on documents of faith, but on the reasons and statements of the philosophers themselves."
Posted by John Weidner at November 25, 2009 10:23 AM
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