Science, And Politics

Some thoughts from John Derbyshire:

That’s the spirit of scientific humility. You get a conceptual model that works — fits known data, and has strong explanatory and predictive power — and you work with it to uncover new truths, always understanding that it might yield to some better theory.

It’s an ideal, of course. The guys who perpetrated the great scientific frauds didn’t adhere to it, and it doesn’t look as though the EAU climate researchers did, either. That’s humanity for ya.

Ideals matter, though, and this one is peculiar to science. You will never — I guarantee it! — hear an imam say: “Can we really be sure that Muhammed was the Messenger of God? Will new discoveries overthrow this idea and replace it with some other theology?” Nor will you ever hear a Marxist economist begin a sentence with: “If some day the Labor Theory of Value is replaced by a better theory, …”

And always in science, as the decades roll by, the fraudsters, cranks, and political entrepreneurs fall by the wayside and the scientific spirit triumphs at last. We then know more true facts about the world than our fathers did. And that’s a very wonderful thing. Which I extol.

And it is very clear now that what many of the leading “scientists” in the climate-change fiasco weren’t doing science at all, and had little interest in it.

Tom Blumer notes one of the most absurd, and egregious failures to follow the science this morning, by Trenberth:

He can protest until the methane-generating cows come home, but the following implication of Trenberth’s trembling response is inescapable: “Even though we’ve relied on them all along to build our case, we suddenly can’t rely on temperature measurements to prove or disprove the existence of global warming. Our models nonetheless simply have to be right.” His backup argument if the temps are indeed correct — which would mean that the model generating “the CERES data” and other similar simulations will have been proven to be flawed — would be, “Well, even if the models are wrong, we still have proof in melting Arctic sea ice, rising sea levels, etc.”

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, whose work Trenberth cites in a recent paper to support his belief that “global warming is unequivocally happening,” doesn’t name any other factors beyond temperature, ice, and sea levels in the pull quote of its “Summary for Policymakers”: “Warming of the climate system is unequivocal, as is now evident from observations of increases in global average air and ocean temperatures, widespread melting of snow and ice, and rising global average sea level.”

So unless Trenberth has something meaningful in the “lot of other indicators” he casually cites in his response to his email’s release, he and his brethren are in a heap of trouble. That’s because by his own logic, temperature measurements must be rejected as credible evidence. Further, his presumptive, supposedly settled-science arguments about Arctic sea ice and rising sea levels melt upon only a cursory review.

Who are you gonna believe, me and my Charlie Foxtrot of a model, or your lying thermometers?

Along those lines, William Briggs explains what is and isn’t evidence for global warming.

And Ian Plimer says that we should be angry. Very angry.

I know I am, and anyone who cares about science (at a minimum) should be.

[Update a few minutes later]

Ilya Somin on the social validation of knowledge:

Most of us, however, lack expertise on climate issues. And our knowledge of complex issues we don’t have personal expertise on is largely based on social validation. For example, I think that Einsteinian physics is generally more correct than Newtonian physics, even though I know very little about either. Why? Because that’s the overwhelming consensus of professional physicists, and I have no reason to believe that their conclusions should be discounted as biased or otherwise driven by considerations other than truth-seeking. My views of climate science were (and are) based on similar considerations. I thought that global warming was probably a genuine and serious problem because that is what the overwhelming majority of relevant scientists seem to believe, and I generally didn’t doubt their objectivity.

At the very least, the Climategate revelations should weaken our confidence in the above conclusion. At least some of the prominent scholars in the field seem driven at least in part by ideology, and willing to use intimidation to keep contrarian views from being published, even if the articles in question meet normal peer review standards. Absent such tactics, it’s possible that more contrarian research would be published in professional journals and the consensus in the field would be less firm. To be completely clear, I don’t think that either ideological motivation or even intimidation tactics prove that these scientists’ views are wrong. Their research should be assessed on its own merits, irrespective of their motivations for conducting it. However, these things should affect the degree to which we defer to their conclusions merely based on their authority as disinterested experts.

At the same time, it’s important not to overstate the case. I don’t think we have anywhere near enough evidence to show that the academic consensus on global warming is completely bogus, or even close to it. Nor has it been proven that all or most prominent scientific supporters of global warming theory are as unethical as those exposed in this scandal.

On balance, therefore, I still think that global warming exists and is a genuinely serious problem. But I am marginally less confident in holding that view than I was before. If we see more revelations of this kind, I will be less confident still.

I’ve always been an agnostic on these issues, but willing to accept the notion that the planet is warming and that we are causing it. Where I’ve dug in my heels was on the notion that the proposed cures weren’t worse than the disease, and I agree with Bjorn Lomborg, who (almost alone among the people discussing this) seems to have his head screwed on straight in terms of the economics. But this episode has increased my skepticism about not just the proposed policies, but the science itself. I would say that, at this point, the burden of proof has shifted in the extreme, and is now on those who demand that we impoverish ourselves (at least in relative terms, and don’t fool yourself that this isn’t exactly what they’re demanding) in the name of the science. The science is flawed.

There are no doubt sincere scientists working on this in good faith, but the charlatans in East Anglia and other places have had an inordinate influence on the work of the entire community, and we can’t know to what degree others’ work was affected by it and the false consensus. All climate science is suspect at this point, and the notion that we should be making global policy on it has to be seen now as completely absurd. It will be interesting to see how heretical people will feel comfortable in being in Copenhagen.

7 thoughts on “Science, And Politics”

  1. I can’t say I’m hugely surprised. Climate science is very close to my own area of expertise, so I’ve known many of them at a bit of a distance. Unfortunately, the folks who go into climate science tend to be (1) not the best in the underlying fields, e.g physics, chemistry or computer science — because if they were they’d have gone into physics, chemistry, or computer science, and (2) a bit more evangelical, interesting in doing science not for the sake of science, or for the personal satisfaction of Knowing Stuff before other people do, but in order to Change The World.

    For both reasons I’ve long suspected climate science would hatch some credibility explosions like this. It’s a sad thing that they will damage the credibility of the good people in the field as well as the fools.

    And let us not overreact. Humans behave like humans in all fields. I had occasion at one time to shoot down a beautiful experiment that seemed to offer direct proof of the most popular, and dominant, theory in a particular subbranch of condensed matter physics. That is, I could offer mathematical proof that the experiment did not prove what people had thought it proved. All the human foibles on display in this climate science fiasco were on display in my little teapot tempest. Just not as magnified by the political implications.

    Indeed, I’d be surprised if any professional here could not relate similar stories. People are people, in all fields.

    What strikes me as the really salient warning sign here is not that people are going to be human, even in science, but that any time you inject large quantities of political weight and power into a debate, you magnify the consequences of human foibles past the point where they are easy to forgive.

    The moral for people in science and engineering is: if the press and politicians and lawyers ever come knocking on your door — Gee! Looks like you’ve found something Really Important, let me help get the word out…get legislation passed…help you Change The World — then the rational thing to do, if you value your reputation and sanity, is to firmly show them the door. Hitting them over the head with the nearest shovel is unnecessarily harsh, and besides leaves you the problem of disposing of the bodies.

  2. “Where I’ve dug in my heels was on the notion that the proposed cures weren’t worse than the disease, and I agree with Bjorn Lomborg, who (almost alone among the people discussing this) seems to have his head screwed on straight in terms of the economics. But this episode has increased my skepticism about not just the proposed policies, but the science itself.”

    Exactly. So Obama’s traipsing into Copenhagen to apply a ‘cure’ with huge negative potential, irrespective of the email revelations.

    Of course, he seems to think that running a country is like running a graduate seminar, because that’s the only model of society he really understands. And his ego won’t let him hear, let alone understand any other.

  3. It’s striking how the same policies that the Socialists the Left have been promoting since the 1880s are exactly what is needed to cure Global Climate Warming Change. To quote our Community-Organizer-in-Chief’s head kneecapper: “Never let a crisis go to waste.”

    any time you inject large quantities of political weight and power into a debate

    You let out money. Lots of money. How else did St.Algore become a billionare in less than a decade?

  4. So Obama’s traipsing into Copenhagen to apply a ‘cure’ with huge negative potential, irrespective of the email revelations.

    Obama is consistent in always doing the wrong thing. Often the wrongest possible thing.

  5. Carl,

    I usually find your viewpoints very salient, but this time I find your last paragraph to be almost poignant. I read Atlas Shrugged like most people. In that book, most of the characters are quite allegorical. I found Dr. Robert Stadler to be the most tragic of all of them. You are quite right. Much like government and the church, when science relies on government for its power, only bad things happen.

    The truth has a power all its own. It is something that most Christian churches learned the hard way, it is something that muslims are in the midst of learning. It is something that space scientists, high-energy physicists, and climate scientists would do well to learn. The sooner the better.

  6. How can they not believe Climate Change is not occuring? Certainly the Ice is melting on the North and South Poles…but we are also seeing frigid and extreme cold in areas that were not so cold before….such as in the United States and in North China.. There are 2 phenomenons happening at once.

    The earth has moved in concern to it’s tilt…thus making the colder poles warmer while making warmer cold regions more cold. The hole in the ozone is said to have contributed to the earth’s tilt occuring….hence the warming effect pressurized the earth into moving….heat does that…and now with the earth in its new tilt position it has given colder results to the southern inlands, while warmer results to the Northern and South Poles.

Comments are closed.