On Being Anti-Science

“A thing is not proved just because no one has ever questioned it. What has never been gone into impartially has never been properly gone into. Hence skepticism is the first step toward truth. It must be applied generally, because it is the touchstone.” — Denis Diderot

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Recently in an email conversation among about a dozen ideologically diverse people, I made a throwaway comment that in some ways, many of those researching climate change actually strike me as anti-science. I got called on it by one of the participants, a scientist himself, and in response I wrote the following.

I should clarify what I mean about why those who talk about climate change are anti-science, since that’s a strong word. It’s not because I think they’re necessarily wrong — it’s not difficult to wrap one’s brain around the idea that human activity can affect the environment; it clearly can.

Science is a process through which we learn about the world about us by impartial research and a fearless willingness to follow data wherever it leads. But my observation, admittedly as a layman, is that most of those involved in climate change are completely disinclined to hear from naysayers. The worst example of this is how naysayers are habitually shouted down as being “denialists”, a word specifically designed to equate them with Holocaust deniers. Even if the naysayers are wrong and are utter fools, this cynical approach to skeptics is completely anti-scientific, a black mark on the respectability of anyone who considers himself a scientist.

This ties in with what I think may be the greatest requirement for true science, that it calls for humble skepticism — what Diderot rightfully referred to as the the first step toward truth. The history of scientific progress is a history of different theories leaping ahead and falling back, with progress being the overall result, yes, but not without many mistakes being made in the process. We are blind men in a maze, and while the scientific method gives us a powerful tool to feel our way toward the exit, it doesn’t guarantee we won’t go down wrong paths in the process.

While I’m not a scientist by training, I’ve spent ten years working for various universities, and from this have developed a a healthy disregard for experts’ self-evaluations of their own intellectual indispensability. For example, many climatologists seem breathlessly eager to make sweeping public policy suggestions, as though they had complete understanding not only of climate issues but also such issues as public health, economic development, demography, and political philosophy. They do not, and by pushing political agendas they earn a critical eye toward the actual climatological research that is supposed to be why we should respect them in the first place.

Obviously, this last criticism also applies to most of those who are skeptical that climate change is occurring. My point here is not to defend them, for as I said I find it plausible that climate change is a real phenomenon. But the way that mainstream climatologists have supported their consensus being politicized makes that harder for laymen like me to accept, not easier.

Note: I’m actually pretty interested in responses from people, especially well reasoned disagreements. Since this is an issue that pushes a lot of people’s buttons, though, I should add that welcomeness doesn’t extend to responses from anyone who is simply angey that I’m toeing one line or the other.

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