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Trust Science
A few general truths to keep in mind in the wake of Climategate.


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John Derbyshire

The ninth commandment is: trust science. By this we mean a true science, based on objectively established criteria and agreed foundations, with a rational methodology and mature criteria of proof — not the multitude of pseudo-sciences which, as we have seen, have marked characteristics which can easily be detected and exposed. Science, properly defined, is an essential part of civilization. To be anti-science is not the mark of a civilized human being, or of a friend of humanity. Given the right safeguards and standards, the progress of science constitutes our best hope for the future, and anyone who denies this proposition is an enemy of science.

Paul Johnson, Enemies of Society (1977)

Well, of course we all do trust science. We trust Bernoulli’s Principle every time we get on a plane; we trust celestial mechanics when we take the kids outside to watch a scheduled lunar eclipse; we trust subatomic physics when we relax with an iPod; we trust the laws of chemistry every time we strike a match; we trust the theories of Special and General Relativity when we consult a GPS gadget; we trust natural selection when we fret about drug-resistant disease strains or pesticide-resistant crop infestations; we trust molecular biology every time we pop a pill. Our trust in science is well-nigh unbounded. We hardly draw a breath without trusting science. Paul Johnson’s injunction would seem to be superfluous.

How odd, then, that some high proportion of readers bristled when reading Johnson’s words — or, very likely, just on seeing my title. Why get heated at being told to do something you have done a hundred times a day, all your life?

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This is, of course, in the context of leaked e-mails from the Climate Research Unit at an English university — which is itself in the context of the climate-change panic (née the global-warming panic) that has been promoted by a subset of Western elites for a dozen or more years now. The scientists who generated those e-mails have all been helping to promote the climate-change thesis — the notion that humanity faces some great climatic catastrophe if we don’t radically change the way we use energy.

The normal thing at this point would be for the writer to declare a position on that underlying thesis. Is the earth’s climate changing to humanity’s dire detriment, or isn’t it? If it is, are the changes due to human activity, or aren’t they? In either case, is there anything we can do about it at acceptable cost and without unforeseen harm?

I have to cop out on that. As best I can judge, our planet probably is enjoying a long-term warming trend, though with much local variation and temporary lulls and reversals sometimes lasting for years. The Arctic certainly seems to have been losing ice these past 30 years, for instance (Figure 3 here). That these changes are human-made is not clear to me. The argument that they are rests largely on theories about the overall effect of changing CO2 levels, but those theories themselves are open to reasonable doubt. There is even more doubt about the consequences of any change that might be happening; and even where doubt is minimal, the consequences are counterintuitive. It is generally thought, for example, that an ice-free Arctic will leave Europe colder (by killing the Gulf Stream).

And the science is heavily polluted by politics. The climate-change legions are recruited mainly from the Western Left-intelligentsia, their kitbags stuffed with all the sub-Marxist and ethno-masochist flapdoodle of the modern academy. They hate capitalism, they hate Western civilization, and they hate their own ancestors. The kind of dramatic social engineering implicit in the phrase “combating climate change” is emotionally appealing to them.

Downstream from these ideologues are opportunist politicians (if you’ll pardon a pleonasm), too dimwitted to understand the ideology — let alone the science! — but eager to ride the climate-change wave to power and wealth. These pols find the gimcrack formulas of postmodernist Hesperophobia mighty handy for whipping up support from Bobo academy graduates and aggrieved ethnic groups. They control departments of state, which hand out grants and jobs to ideologically friendly researchers, corrupting the whole scientific process.

Nor is climate-change skepticism free of politics. There are big, rich, powerful interests hostile to the climate-change cult: Big Coal, Big Oil, and the Big BRICs. Given the stakes, it would be astonishing if they did not have their own paid shills in the game. I’d guess that there has been some busy deleting of e-mails these past few days at Mogul corporate HQ and BRIC embassies.

Now, somewhere under that political scrum is a rugby ball of scientific truth. Which side will get possession at last, is beyond my ability to figure. Hence the cop-out. I can, though, point out a number of general truths worth bearing in mind when relating this present flap to the larger business of science. My hope here is to wipe away the scowl you scowled at my title and P. J.’s opening remarks.



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