Modern science can’t give an account of itself.
A Sad New Epoch
Even the field of geology is rejecting science in the name of making political statements.
The Anthropocene Working Group of geologists, featured on the front page of the New York Times, is poised to announce the discovery/invention of a new epoch in the Earth’s history, beginning in the middle of the 20th century. Whereas seven previous epochs ranged from 4.6 billion to the most recent one, the “Holocene” (11,700 years since the end of the last ice age), during which homo sapiens evolved, scientists in the working group claim that no broad numbers are needed to date the Anthropocene since developments caused by humans, such as the increased use of nitrogen fertilizers, global warming, “the proliferation of plastics, garbage, and concrete across the planet,” and potential nuclear war, are directly visible to us. The group claims that the effects of the new age “will be discernible in the rocks for millenniums.”
Certification of the new epoch will require a 60% vote by four committees. If it fails to receive such a vote from any of the committees, the Times warns it “might not have another chance to be ratified for years.”
But of course this isn’t how science develops, properly understood. As Stanley C. Finney, the secretary-general of the International Union of Geological Sciences, has observed, the notion of the Anthropocene has become a way for geologists to make a “political statement.” One advocate of the statement (a historian of science, not a geologist) explains that whereas she had once been taught “that geology ended when people showed up,” the Anthropocene designation signifies that “actually, the human impact is part of geology as a science.” Another expresses the fear that failing to recognize the Anthropocene would have “political reverberations,” as if the “geological community is denying” that human beings “have changed the planet drastically.” As another proponent of what we might term geological mission creep puts it, “I always saw [the designation] not as an internal geological undertaking, but rather one that would be greatly beneficial to the world at large,” as “a call to attention.” In other words, let’s mend our sinful ways!
The term “Anthropocene” is reported to have been coined and popularized by biologist Eugene Stormer and Nobel Prize-winning chemist Paul Crutzen in 2000. It has since been put to wider use by political activists as a way of indicating that humanity’s presence is just one more passing stage. In fact, some even look forward to the end of that stage so as to restore Mother Earth to her pristine, pre-human condition.
Instead of simply accepting widespread climate change dogma, shouldn’t geologists be aware of the transition from the sometimes devastating Little Ice Age, variously defined by scientists as running from the 14th or 16th centuries through the mid-19th century, to more moderate worldwide climates, which began long before the invention of the internal combustion engine? (The Little Ice Age, confined largely to areas of northern Europe, followed a preceding Medieval Warming period.) Scientists have attributed those changes to such causes as cyclical lows in solar radiation, heightened volcanic activity, changes in the ocean circulation, and variations in Earth’s orbit and axial tilt.
Have those forecasting devastation from a warming climate considered the significance of millennia-old corpses, like Ötzi, sometimes discovered under many feet of snow in areas like the Alps, suggesting a longer-term cooling trend? And why dismiss the likelihood that scientific research will uncover means of combating detrimental effects from excessive heat: should that occur, would the geologists have to reverse their announcement of the new epoch?
This politicization of science encourages an unjustified suspicion or rejection of real science. Look no further than Anthony Fauci’s sometimes contradictory, and admittedly sometimes purposely misleading, pronouncements regarding the causes of and appropriate responses to COVID, which have eroded public trust in the institution of public health. Also, as politically appealing “discoveries” win the attention and respect of science educators, they will inevitably be integrated into science curricula, starting at the elementary or middle school level. Students will not only be indoctrinated into the latest, politically correct dogmas, but they will be misled as to the nature of the scientific enterprise.
The enormous progress made by modern natural science since the 16th century is not the result of dogmatic pronouncements issued by those claiming authority, whether the Catholic Church denouncing Galileo’s heliocentric theory of the universe or modern academics wanting to lead political movements. Science has advanced through a combination of controlled experimentation, as espoused by Francis Bacon, and the development of hypotheses that best explain the data that experiments supply.
Given their subject of expertise, geologists are probably less equipped than physicists, chemists, and biologists to conduct controlled experiments in the Baconian sense. That fact does not make their undertaking any less a science but only confirms the observation made by Aristotle that different objects of study require different sorts of scientific approaches. But it does not excuse them from the need to offer rebuttable hypotheses, always subject to revision or even refutation in light of further data or a more comprehensive explanation. Yet how can they possibly document the prediction reported in the Times that the effects of the human activities they cite will be discernible for millennia?
Announcing the “discovery” that the world has suddenly reached a new epoch, within living memory, resembles nothing so much as the pronouncements once issued by Christian millenarians that “the end is near.” In fact, one advocate quoted in the Times views the authorization of the new epoch as its “canonization.”
Note the ominous claim that the new era will “bring the previous chapter of the Earth’s history to a close.” But how can any human being, lacking divine guidance, be qualified to pronounce such a change? If we have just embarked on the Anthropocene era, what could follow it? If there is a post-Anthropocene epoch, there won’t be any human beings left to record it. Geologists, please curb your eagerness to grab the world’s “attention” or make it comply with your political-theological wishes, and stick to your cores and samples. The world will be the better for it.
The American Mind presents a range of perspectives. Views are writers’ own and do not necessarily represent those of The Claremont Institute.
The crisis of modern liberalism and science requires skeptical political philosophy—but skeptical political philosophy is itself undergoing a crisis.