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On Trusting Science



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Just a couple on my “Trust Science” piece (which also appears in a shorter, de-webified version in the current (December 21) issue of National Review).

*  Many readers pointed out that the examples in my first paragraph (mine, not Paul Johnson’s) are not so much of science as of technology, and it’s technology that people trust, not the underlying science.

That’s a good point. Our trust in science is implicit. We drive over the bridge in confidence that it won’t fall down, because we trust that the engineers who designed it worked from sound scientific principles. Even though we (those of us who are not structural engineers) don’t understand the underlying principles, we trust them because we perceive a direct connection between them and the bridge; and the bridge (a) has been standing for 80 years, and (b) is of high utility to us.

[That (b) introduces an element of wishful thinking into our decision; but some component of wishful thinking is hardly ever, perhaps never, absent from human thought. In my opinion.]

The trust breaks down when there is no obvious bridge-to-principles connection, perhaps no bridge at all. We are willing to trust science when it cashes out as technology. Prior to that, our normal inclination is not to trust science. I know as much about string theory as I do about structural engineering (not much in either case), but my strong inclination is to trust the second more than the first.

For one thing, with no technology — nothing of utility to us — wishful thinking is not engaged. The most powerful reasons for believing in an abstract idea are, what? Evidential? Ha ha ha ha! The most powerful single reason for believing in an abstraction is that we want to. I am keenly desirous of getting to Denver before tomorrow night; I’ll trust theoretical aerodynamics to take care of it.

For another thing, science has more epistemic depth than most of us can cope with. That water quenches thirst and puts out fires, I can confirm by experience. That it is composed of hydrogen molecules bonded to oxygen molecules by electromagnetic forces, I take on trust. “What the deuce is it to me?” I take it on trust because water’s real useful (see above). I’d likely be skeptical about the hydrogen/oxygen business if it were detached from the thirst-quenching and fire-extinguishing. It sounds improbable on the face of it, and one can easily think up folkish objections, of the kind that creationists make against evolution. (Hydrogen’s highly flammable. If there’s hydrogen in water, why isn’t water flammable? Etc., etc.)

When unmoored from utility, abstract ideas have to appeal to the human mind on their merits; and the human mind is so structured that the only abstract ideas it regards as having merit are those that concord with the “naïve duality” that is our default metaphysic — “medium-sized dry goods” being acted on by human wills, or by invisible spirits possessed of human-like wills. That’s as much epistemic depth as most of us can handle. Abstract ideas at odds with that schema just irritate us. And of course, an abstract idea widely held among people we dislike for personal, social, or tribal reasons, is doubly unappealing.

As a very great (though shamefully under-recognized) writer once said:

The ordinary modes of human thinking are magical, religious, social, and personal. We want our wishes to come true; we want the universe to care about us; we want the approval of those around us; we want to get even with that s.o.b who insulted us at the last tribal council. For most people, wanting to know the cold truth about the world is way, way down the list.
                    — We Are Doomed, pp.147-8

*  Physicist Russell Seitz has chid me quite vigorously for having linked to John McLaughlin’s American Thinker piece on the Gerlich/Tscheuschner paper in the International Journal of Modern Physics, and to the denialist petition. Here, with his permission, is what Russell says:

Dear John;

The link you adduce as providing “reasonable doubt” as to the mechanism by which gases like CO2 alter the radiative balance, and hence the surface temperature of the Earth connects to a defense of a work that illustrates what lurks in the scientific “penumbra” to which you refer. In some astute scientific opinion, evidence of tinkering with peer review that has scandalized many readers of the CRU files is even more in evidence in the solicited review article uncritically discussed by Mr. McLaughlin in his American Thinker piece …

You go on to shrewdly observe that “Scientists are human and subject to the same weaknesses, failings, and fixations as the rest of us … Math and science people usually don’t care much about politics. Their subjects are too difficult, demand too much in the way of mental resources, to leave anything over for thinking deeply about politics.” [This is] a stricture that certainly does not apply to Mr. McLaughlin, who seems blessedly innocent of ever having perpetrated a scientific publication, which, one gathers from the search engines that keep track of the scientific pop charts over a spectrum 7,000 journals wide, is equally true of all but 37 of the “31,000 scientists who think that there is no convincing scientific evidence that human release of carbon dioxide, methane, or other greenhouse gasses is causing or will, in the foreseeable future, cause catastrophic heating of the Earth’s atmosphere and disruption of the Earth’s climate.”

That 99.88 percent of the petition’s signatories are relatively clueless is however less interesting than the fact that they outnumber the world’s supply of actual atmospheric scientists by toughly an order of magnitude — not even the junketeering delights of Nice and Bali have enabled the UNEP to dragoon more than 1,500 of those rare birds into the IPCC fold. Could it be, as with the most viciously contested of faculty meetings, because the stakes are so low? Only those able, as well as willing, to read the scientific literature can answer the question for themselves, Too bad none of the regulars at NR’s climate blog seems to answer to either criterion.

I am sorry if I used poor examples; but there certainly is reasonable doubt that increased CO2 levels will do what the climate alarmists say they will do, and some of that reasonable doubt is nursed by respectable climatologists.

*  This all illustrates why wise science bloggers are reluctant to engage with the climate-change business. Even Steve Sailer, the political Right’s most accomplished number-cruncher, is giving it a wide berth. Says Steve:

I know enough about statistics to realize how much effort would be required for me to develop an opinion worth expressing. Nor is it obvious that, even if I invested years of work, I would be able to add much value to the discussion.

After all, both sides in the debate over anthropogenic global warming debate are lavishly funded …

I feel the same way. Try subtracting out the following elements from the climate-change debate:

1   The attraction of apocalyptic visions to great numbers of people. To borrow a trope from G.K. Chesterton, when people stop believing in hell fire and the Tribulation, they’ll believe in anything equivalent that anyone can come up with:  “Nuclear winter” … Y2K … climate-change catastrophe …2   The mighty yearning among cognitive-elite Westerners to cringe in guilt and shame before the Third World, and to transfer over there as much of their nations’ wealth as electorates will allow, in expiation for real or imagined historical crimes. The amounts transferred increase potlatch-style as Western elites compete with each other in the guilt’n’sensitivity stakes. It has been interesting to see the Copenhagen climate summit degenerate into a classic shakedown of successful populations by unsuccessful ones. Our president will feel right at home there.3   Routine matters of cold interest (in the tenth meaning here). Was anyone surprised, for instance, to hear the sharpest remarks about the CRU scandal uttered at Copenhagen by … the Saudi delegate.4   Instinctual resistance to (2), for both social, fiscal, and political reasons, among non-elite or conservative Westerners.

Once you’ve subtracted all that science-neutral matter, there isn’t much left to talk about, unless you want to spend a year or so, at no likely advantage to yourself (unless someone’s paying your bills), immersing yourself in a very contentious field of scientific enquiry that rests on data that can be gathered only with great difficulty, and on theories about the dynamics of a fantastically complicated planet-sized system of interacting phenomena.

The results out of that field are not sufficiently dispositive to justify colossal international programs of action, designed and executed by (and, career-wise, for) plump, unaccountable globalist bureaucrats. Without dispositive evidence, such programs should be resisted on principle by everyone who cares about individual liberty and national sovereignty.

Hell, I’d be inclined to resist them anyway. Better dead than REDD.



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