The Corner

The Climate-Change Scandal

Jonah:  Not sure what to make of your post.

In the past you’ve been sometimes perceived as keen on extolling the authority of scientists and science as something apart and above and beyond the worlds of politics and, of course, political correctness.

I don’t know about “extol” (“to praise highly” — Webster’s Third). I’ve never had any illusions that scientists are other than human, often wrong and silly, and occasionally guilty of deliberate fraud. (I recently wrote about a recent major scientific fraud here, and there have of course been many others.) Science is a human enterprise, so that’s what you’d expect.

You’d particularly expect it in a field where (1) the data is extraordinarily difficult to collect and interpret, and (2) big political interests are vested in the results. Climate change meets both criteria. I have stayed clear of the topic for just those reasons. I’m pretty sure I have never written anything about GW. When it first came to prominence I looked through some of the claims, said to myself: “Youse guys are going to measure the mean temperature of the entire atmosphere to a tenth of a degree, then make corresponding estimates for twenty, fifty, . . . years ago? Uh-huh.” I also noticed the things everyone else who looked at the numbers noticed: e.g. that they showed the planet actually cooling from 1945 to 1965, when big swathes of the world were industrializing like gangbusters and pumping out corresponding amounts of CO2. Uh . . . huh.

This has always seemed to me an area where nothing much definite could be said — certainly nothing definite enough to commit great tranches of public money. If I’ve ever said anything about GW, that’s probably what I said, since it’s what I think.

As for science being “apart and above . . . politics” — well, it is trivially true that science and politics have different subject matters. One deals with the principles governing the natural world, the other deals with the acquisition and use of social power. So certainly, taken as human activities, they are “apart.”

That one stands higher than the other in the great scale of things, is a value judgment, based probably on one’s temperament. I could argue it either way. Without rational politics and a stable social order, not much science would get done. Without some true understanding of the natural world, politicians would commit gross errors and fail.

The two fields are connected of course. For the first couple of centuries of modern science, some great work was done entirely privately, though governments always had an eye on military applications, exploration, mining (for currency metals), etc. Since the mid-20th century, practically all science has needed some public funding, so politics has been unavoidable. I think this is common knowledge.

Does the political connection corrupt science? Yes it does, though in different ways in different areas of science. It has the biggest corrupting effect on the softest science — things like GW, where the data is indecisive enough (it seems to me) to be open to easy political manipulation. Politics also corrupts the human sciences, suppressing research in areas where it’s feared results will crash up against what Bill Buckley called “the prevailing structure of taboos”:  widespread entrenched beliefs and emotions — in psychometry, for example, or population genetics. It’s much less corrupting elsewhere. I doubt if planetary astronomers, or entomologists, or paleontologists, care much what politicians think or do, or what the regnant social fad tells people they should believe (or pretend to believe) if they wish to avoid losing caste.

What I admire, and indeed extol when I get the chance, is the scientific spirit. Here’s Steven Weinberg in The First Three Minutes, a classic popular exposition of cosmology, pages 9 and 10:

Can we really be sure of the standard model? [i.e. of cosmology] Will new discoveries overthrow it and replace the present standard model with some other cosmogony, or even revive the steady-state model? Perhaps. I cannot deny a feeling of unreality in talking about the first three minutes as if we really know what we are talking about.

However, even if it eventually supplanted, the standard model will have played a role of great value in the history of cosmology … If some day the standard model is replaced by a better theory, it will probably be because of observations or calculations that drew their motivation from the standard model.

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.

There is no case against science. We have no other way to investigate the world. At any time, in any particular field, there is usually a scientific consensus, and there are contrarians arguing against it. Occasionally the contrarians will turn out to be right, and the consensus wrong: but even that is a determination only science can make, and the contrarian will then be appropriately honored. As Robin Hanson says of the EAU scandal:

It is a shame that academia works this way, and an academia where this stuff didn’t happen would probably be more accurate. But even our flawed academic consensus is usually more accurate than its contrarians, and it is hard to find reliable cheap indicators saying when contrarians are more likely to be right.

I occasionally (though not occasionally enough) get emails from people telling me that science and scientists are all wet. My advice to these people is always the same: feel free to check out the Law of Gravitation next time you find yourself near a high window. Please.

We don’t know much about the natural world; what we don’t know is vastly more than what we do know; and there are squishy areas where we aren’t sure whether we know or don’t know. The things we do know to high probability, though, we know through methodical inquiry, observation, measurement, classification, discussion, comparison of results, consensus — through science. The rest is wishful thinking, power games, social fads, and the sleep of reason.


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