Magazine | December 21, 2009, Issue

Trust Science

As, indeed, you already do

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 . . . 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.

– 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 the theories of relativity when we consult a GPS gadget; we trust natural selection when we fret about drug-resistant disease strains; 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.

It sounds less so, of course, in the context of leaked e-mails from the Climate Research Unit (CRU) at the University of East Anglia. The scientists who generated those e-mails have all been helping to promote the anthropogenic climate-change thesis — the notion that humanity faces some great climatic catastrophe if we don’t radically change the way we use energy.

What of that 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 with minimum chance of unforeseen harm?

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. That these changes are manmade is not proven. 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. Such science as we have thus far is an unacceptably flimsy foundation for multi-trillion-dollar economic transformations.

And the science is heavily polluted by politics. Climate-change catastrophism has been taken up by the Western left-intelligentsia, their heads 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 eager to ride the climate-change wave to power and wealth. These pols control government departments that hand out grants and jobs to ideologically friendly researchers, further corrupting the scientific process.

Nor is climate-change skepticism free of politics. There are big, rich, powerful interests hostile to aspects of the climate-change cult: the fossil-fuel lobbies and the BRIC nations (Brazil, Russia, India, China), for example. Given the stakes, it would be astonishing if they did not have their own paid shills in the game.

Somewhere under that political scrum is a rugby ball of scientific truth, and which side will get possession at last is beyond my ability to figure. I can, though, point out a number of general truths that are worth bearing in mind when relating this present flap to the larger business of science:

1. Settled vs. Unsettled Science

The examples in my first paragraph are all settled science — theories sufficiently well tested and robust that we can be confident they model the real world to high accuracy. These theories have no competitors. You can, of course, always find a contrarian, even on such thoroughly settled topics as heliocentrism or relativity, but no working scientist is losing any sleep over their arguments. Contrarianism in this zone is a social and psychological (occasionally psychiatric) phenomenon, not a scientific one.

Science is a lighted clearing in the forest. Beyond the well-lit central area is a penumbra of more or less shadowed ground. Beyond that is the infinite dark domain of our ignorance. Scientists toil to enlarge the lighted area — the zone of settled science. This is the science Paul Johnson wants us to trust. This is the science that we do trust. Beyond it, though, in the penumbra, there is dimness enough for all kinds of malarkey. This is the preferred playground of ideologues, politicians, and crooks. This is where the climate-change battles are being fought.

2. Trust Science, But Don’t Trust Scientists

Scientists are human, with the same weaknesses, failings, and fixations as the rest of us. Most science research goes on in the universities of the Western world, where the dominant ideology is the leftist, anti-Western one noted above. Math and science people, most of whom are not very politically engaged, breathe in the atmosphere of the academy, and it poisons their blood, the more easily just because they don’t think about it much.

Scientific fraud is common enough. There have been many famous cases. Eugenie Samuel Reich’s book Plastic Fantastic describes a recent one. An important thing to remember here is that practically all scientific cheating is done to “improve” results the researcher believes to be true, not to put over something he believes to be false. (Gregor Mendel, the father of modern genetics, has been accused of “improving” his data in this way.) It follows that, as reprehensible as the behavior of the CRU e-mailers surely was, by itself it tells us nothing about the truth or falsehood of climate change.

Science contains a core magisterium, which we can and do trust. In the penumbra of unsettled science, it is wisest to withhold trust — and major government-directed upheavals — until the smoke of battle has cleared.

3. Consensus vs. Contrarians

For theories solid enough to be part of the magisterium, contrarianism is out at the social fringes, as noted. In less-settled areas, the contrarians themselves are working scientists, able to challenge the consensus data on its own ground.

This is certainly the case with climate science. At the website PetitionProject.org, for example, you will find more than 31,000 American 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.

Conservatives, always suspicious of bossy technocratic elites, are sometimes tempted to side with the underdogs, the contrarians. In general, this temptation should be resisted. Contrarians do indeed sometimes turn out to be right, but that’s not the way to bet. Consensus exists for a reason, and a consensus should put up spirited resistance to being overthrown. When the orbit of Uranus violated the Newtonian consensus, astronomers did not discard Newton. Instead they went looking for a previously unseen body disturbing the data, and found the planet Neptune.

Contrarians should be made to fight for their victories. If they have truth on their side, they will eventually win and become the new consensus. Kepler, Newton, Lavoisier, Faraday, Darwin, Pasteur, Planck, Einstein, Hubble, and Wegener are not revered for their defense of a consensus. As Planck noted, contrarianism is a young person’s game. Older scientists may settle for tenure, rank, political patronage, and a quiet life, but there will always be younger ones ready to fight the contrarian corner.

4. The Mills Grind Slow

You may say: “That’s all very well; but plainly we need some better method for weighing the claims of contrarians against the claims of the consensus.” Perhaps we do, but don’t hold your breath waiting for it. It takes nine months to have a baby; there’s no shortcut. Nor is there any way to shorten the process by which scientific truth emerges — a process at least as messy and painful as parturition, and lasting a great deal longer. It took 300 years (Copernicus to Bessel) to resolve the issue of stellar parallax, the last serious flaw in heliocentrism.

*   *   *

Slow as they grind, the mills of science deliver the goods at last. And what goods they are! Compare the amenities of our lives now with those of our ancestors. Compare, too, the world-wide condominium of shared understandings — the detribalization of thought that science has brought about. Time was, not so long ago, that educated people in Beijing, Bombay, Berlin, and Bogotá had different creation myths, different explanations for natural phenomena, different treatments for bodily failings. Now we all share the same knowledge of the natural world.

Those are the accomplishments of science, modern Western civilization’s great gift to humanity. To turn against science would be folly, a lurch back towards superstition, tribalism, and barbarism. For a person of the West to turn against science is also cultural treason, a form of ethno-masochism as shamefully deplorable as the postmodernist rejection of reason and language that has poisoned the faculties of arts and humanities in our universities. “To be anti-science is not the mark of a civilized human being, or of a friend of humanity,” says Paul Johnson. I completely agree.

John Derbyshire — Mr. Derbyshire is a former contributing editor of National Review.

In This Issue

Articles

Politics & Policy

Trust Science

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 ...

Features

Politics & Policy

Shifty Shifting

‘This,” said Eric Holder, “is almost a ‘Trust me’ thing.” The attorney general of the United States was trying to reassure Alice Hoagland, whose 31-year-old son, Mark Bingham, lost his ...
Politics & Policy

Lani’s Heir

  Washington Post columnist Michael Gerson has called Eric Holder “the most destructive member of Barack Obama’s Cabinet.” The description is apt. The attorney general’s questionable judgment extends far beyond the ...
Politics & Policy

VAT Attack

The U.S. has a smaller government than most rich countries do, but we don’t have much lower corporate tax rates or top income-tax rates. That’s one conclusion to be drawn ...

Books, Arts & Manners

Politics & Policy

One of Us

When Sarah Palin was announced to the world as John McCain’s vice-presidential running mate in summer 2008, she was almost completely unknown outside Alaska. She had made a few feisty ...

Sections

Politics & Policy

The Long View

To: (undisclosedrecipients)@ InstitutiAstronomica.it From: Cardinal.Bianchi@ InstitutiAstronomica.it Date: Dec. 6, 1632 Subject: Housekeeping before the big Revolving Sun conference Guys: Please delete all e-mails you’ve got in re: the Sun’s revolution around the Earth and our ...
Politics & Policy

Poetry

THE MEDAL Bear, would you like to see my purple heart? Terrified, I followed Uncle Eddie up the stairs, expecting to see—God knows, what hideous thing, what awful hidden wound from the Great War. He ...
Happy Warrior

Rising Tide

The Swiss minaret ban and the leaked climate e-mails are really the same story — or, more precisely, are symptoms of the same disease. In the Times of London, Oliver ...
Politics & Policy

Letters

The Talented Mr. Moto Terry Teachout should be sorry! How can he discuss John P. Marquand and his works (“Be Careful What You Ask For,” November 23) without any mention of ...
Politics & Policy

The Week

‐ Tiger is probably glad he didn’t give his wife any pointers on how to swing a 9-iron. ‐ On a party-line vote, the Senate decided to start debating Harry Reid’s ...

Most Popular

White House

The Impeachment Clock

Adam Schiff’s impeachment inquiry is incoherent. Given the impossibility of a senatorial conviction, the only strategy is to taint the president with the brand of impeachment and weaken him in the 2020 election. Yet Schiff seems to have no sense that the worm has already turned. Far from tormenting Trump and ... Read More
White House

The Impeachment Clock

Adam Schiff’s impeachment inquiry is incoherent. Given the impossibility of a senatorial conviction, the only strategy is to taint the president with the brand of impeachment and weaken him in the 2020 election. Yet Schiff seems to have no sense that the worm has already turned. Far from tormenting Trump and ... Read More
Film & TV

Frozen II Is a Fjord Fiasco

Since Frozen was a nearly perfect Disney feature, Frozen II brings with it the expectation of magic. Magic is really hard to pull off, though, and this time the sparkle is gone. In Frozen II, the story is strange, the jokes are terrible, the romance is nonexistent, and the songs are clunkers. Fairy tales that end ... Read More
Film & TV

Frozen II Is a Fjord Fiasco

Since Frozen was a nearly perfect Disney feature, Frozen II brings with it the expectation of magic. Magic is really hard to pull off, though, and this time the sparkle is gone. In Frozen II, the story is strange, the jokes are terrible, the romance is nonexistent, and the songs are clunkers. Fairy tales that end ... Read More
Elections

Warren’s Wealth Tax Is Unethical

Senator Warren would impose a 2 percent annual tax on wealth above $50 million, and a 6 percent annual tax on wealth above $1 billion. These numbers may seem small, but remember that they would be applied every year. With wealth taxes, small numbers have large effects. Applied to an asset yielding a steady ... Read More
Elections

Warren’s Wealth Tax Is Unethical

Senator Warren would impose a 2 percent annual tax on wealth above $50 million, and a 6 percent annual tax on wealth above $1 billion. These numbers may seem small, but remember that they would be applied every year. With wealth taxes, small numbers have large effects. Applied to an asset yielding a steady ... Read More