The Magazine


Dec 22, 1997, Vol. 3, No. 15 • By NICHOLAS EBERSTADT
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My great-grandfather Eduard, who had the fine judgment to make America his home, is still vividly remembered in family lore. He was, among other things, a very modern man. His opinions -- he had many of them -- were typically progressive, sometimes strenuously so. He had studied at Heidelberg University, then one of Europe's better-known centers for research in the natural sciences, and ever after fashioned himself a champion of knowledge, reason, and critical inquiry.

He also had a particular theory about automotive transportation: He was firmly convinced that the horseless carriage, running as it did off a volatile and highly flammable fuel known as gasoline, was a contraption liable to explode at any moment. He lived long enough to see his theory put to the test. The mass manufacture of passenger cars took place during his lifetime. As it happened, in America during the Roaring Twenties, there were few instances of spontaneously exploding automobiles -- if any. Even so, to the end of his days he traveled by car only under protest -- and only if the gas tank were left as close as possible to empty, since that condition, in his estimate, lowered the probability of vehicle detonation.

My great-grandfather's eccentric personal relationship with the internal- combustion engine did not, I would submit, make him any less modern a man. Quite the contrary: One might instead see in his perspective something quintessentially modern -- or at least, representative of our era. We might even say that, in his own modest way, he was a pioneer. For the very sort of reasoning that shaped his behavior towards the automobile now promises to be embraced on an immense scale, guiding -- or more accurately, misguiding -- the actions of governments around the world. It is the sort of reasoning that gave rise to the global-climate agreement in Kyoto, Japan, last week. It is a style of reasoning that has been embraced by the U.S. government's environmental apparatus -- from Vice President Gore on down; indeed, it inspires much -- perhaps most -- government activity involving what we now call the "global environment." This reasoning sails under the flag of " scientific knowledge," but that is a false flag.

Two generations ago, Friedrich Hayek offered a penetrating examination of a peculiarly modern version of "the abuse of reason": a syndrome he labeled " scientism." As Hayek described it, "scientistic" thinking garbed itself in the trappings of science (including the jargon of science) while neglecting, ignoring, or even defying the approach to the pursuit of knowledge that is at the very heart of the scientific method. "Scientism" nicely captures the outlook of our new global thinkers, who are busily engaged today in saving the planet through far-reaching demographic and economic therapies.

Just as my great-grandfather offered seemingly technical explanations to justify his premonition of exploding jalopies, today's global thinkers bring a pretense of science into combat with the systems that obsess them -- systems which they nevertheless ultimately do not understand.

In fairness to our contemporary global thinkers, the systems they worry about appear immeasurably more complicated than the internal-combustion engine. The interplay between demographic, economic, and environmental changes looks extraordinarily complex even at the national level, and still more difficult to apprehend when the whole world is the object of study. But for this very reason a truly scientific approach to these issues would be alert to the limits of available data, to the potentially conflicting interpretation of observations, and perhaps above all to the possibility that facts and knowledge at our disposal might allow us to test -- and thereby falsify -- some of the theories or hypotheses that we currently entertain. The most ardent proponents of far-reaching action in the name of the "global environment," however, also seem to be the least willing to examine critically the scientific evidence that purportedly necessitates the policies they recommend.

My great-grandfather refused to give up on his crotchet just because evidence piled up against it. He adopted what the philosopher Karl Popper once termed "immunizing tactics or stratagems" for protecting his cherished theory against falsification. The result was, in the main, mild entertainment for the people who knew him.

When the modern state, on the other hand, subscribes to an ambitious agenda for the "global environment" and employs those selfsame immunizing tactics and stratagems to protect its supposedly rationally established policy priorities, the results are likely to be neither amusing nor harmless.