For several years I had had a subscription to the erudite British magazine The Spectator. One article from 2002, Making A Virtue Of Vice, that if I recall correctly (it is behind a paywall) contended that in our current culture the traditional virtues are now vices and the vices are virtues. The Seven Virtues as listed in Wikipedia are given below. It is worth pondering how each of them and the associated sin (or vice as used in the Spectator article) are integrated into our culture and even our own lives.

Virtue Latin Gloss Sin Latin
Chastity Castitas Purity, abstinence Lust Luxuria
Temperance Temperantia Humanity, equanimity Gluttony Gula
Charity Caritas Will, benevolence, generosity, sacrifice Greed Avaritia
Diligence Industria Persistence, effortfulness, ethics Sloth Acedia
Patience Patientia Forgiveness, mercy Wrath Ira
Kindness Humanitas Satisfaction, compassion Envy Invidia
Humility Humilitas Bravery, modesty, reverence Pride Superbia


Here I want to consider briefly just one of these old outmoded virtues in terms of one field of endeavor; that is, humility as applied to science. Science, that is scientists and those who wield science for various political, economic, and social projects, take great pride in the power and truth of their science.

In this interview Richard Dawkins exemplifies this pride, or rather arrogance.  While Dawkins emphasizes evidence based truth, his science; his historical, social, and cultural evidence is more obviously questionable. It is not my purpose here to refute all of his statements (I don’t object to all of them), but to make the point that he takes them as unquestionable. That is, he doesn’t seem to examine his own beliefs as he counsels others to do. In fact, if an examining spotlight were shined on the reality of modern scientific practice, the true humanity, the foibles,  of science would be evident. Because living in cohabitation with a pure search for evidence based truth there are all of the nasty things humans do (think Climategate), like lie for funding, steal the ideas of others, and fabricate results for reasons of ambition, power, wealth, and even sex. For example, listen to this interview of Bret Weinsten by his brother Eric, where he accuses a Nobel prize winner of stealing his own scientific glory. In a general critique, Eric believes there is a 50 year period where great ideas have been buried (DISC,distributed ideas suppression complex) because they were highly disruptive to an institutional order. The Weinsteins are credible enough in discussing science (they drop names and know vocabulary) such that their sour grapes sound credible to me.

Those using science as the sole arbiter of truth should own up to, what in my opinion are recent failures of science. In general, there is a Reproducibility Crisis in science that everyone should know about. Even the king of the sciences, physics, has its string theory debacle. The food pyramid, which was purported to be scientific, has truly been a plague on Americans. Regular LRC contributors such as Dr. David Brownstein and Bill Sardi have provided ample evidence of the ambiguity of medical science and practice. Besides the outright fraud and perverse incentives, there is just the ambiguous nature of human knowledge. As finite beings we can only have a finite understanding. In my own experience “talking science” with colleagues the phrase that I always feel the inclination to correct is “we know that ….” with “the current consensus of some people in interpreting the known data is ….”   As for so many things, C.S. Lewis was able to describe superbly this problem of science in his book The Discarded Image:

In every age it will be apparent to accurate thinkers that scientific theories, being arrived at in the way I have described, are never statements of fact. That stars appear to move in such and such ways, or that substances behaved thus and thus in the laboratory—these are statements of fact. The astronomical or chemical theory can never be more than provisional. It will have to be abandoned if a more ingenious person thinks of a supposal which would ‘save’ the observed phenomena with still fewer assumptions, or if we discover new phenomena which it cannot save at all. This would, I believe, be recognised by all thoughtful scientists today. It was recognised by Newton if, as I am told, he wrote not ‘the attraction varies inversely as the square of the distance’, but ‘all happens as if’ it so varied. It was certainly recognised in the Middle Ages. ‘In astronomy’, says Aquinas, ‘an account is given of eccentrics and epicycles on the ground that if their assumption is made (hac positione facta) the sensible appearances as regards celestial motions can be saved. But this is not a strict proof (sufficienter probans) since for all we know (forte) they could also be saved by some different assumption.’ The real reason why Copernicus raised no ripple and Galileo raised a storm, may well be that whereas the one offered a new supposal about celestial motions, the other insisted on treating this supposal as fact. If so, the real revolution consisted not in a new theory of the heavens but in ‘a new theory of the nature of theory’.

So please to all of those like Richard Dawkins (or even Al Gore and Greta Thurnberg), concede the truth that science is far from infallible about the truths espoused in its name; and when using some scientific fact, exhibit some humility.

For those interested, a conversation I have had on this topic with Karen Wong will appear on her Youtube channel The Meaning Code.

Political Theatre

LRC Blog

LRC Podcasts