science Archive

On Being Anti-Science

Posted November 2, 2012 By Steve

“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

McMaster Institute: 3 out of 3 Scientists Agree - Using Three Fingers Improves Your Life_0267
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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Climate Change Education?

Posted December 22, 2010 By Steve

“There is something fascinating about science. One gets such wholesale returns of conjecture out of such a trifling investment of fact.” — Mark Twain


a factory

When it comes to climate change, I have to admit that I don’t really know what’s going on. I know that both sides are cocksure and have incentive to promote their positions, meaning that neither should be trusted out of hand. It seems that more experts believe that the climate is changing than not, but that’s only so helpful to me, as I’ve worked with university faculty, and have seen firsthand how impressed with their own infallibility they can be, and how rarely they change their mind once it’s made up. There’s good reason for the saying that science advances one funeral at a time.

The way I see it, the climate change issue is really a series of three questions, all of which must be answered affirmatively for dramatic action to be warranted:

  1. Is the climate really changing?
  2. If so, are we causing it?
  3. If we are, is it worse for us than de-industrialization would be?

While I’m no climatologist and don’t claim to know for sure, I expect the answer to the first one is probably yes. I realize there are some issues with the data that are used to support this theory, but given that the climate has always been dynamic, it’s not so difficult to believe that the average global temperature is on an upswing.

I can also believe that the second one is at least partially yes. The long list of species that we’ve hunted to extinction show that humans can affect the environment to its detriment. If there are enough of us, we don’t even need advanced technology to do it — ask a woolly mammoth.

I think the third one is a lot more iffy, though. Many of the apocalyptic predictions are based on worst case scenarios, and computer models rather than direct observation. I work with computers, and one thing I know is that the problem with them is that they always do exactly what you tell them. Unless the model is strikingly accurate, there’s always that cause for uncertainty. Moreover, whatever negative consequences there may be should be weighed against the benefits that have come from industrialization, like average lifespans that are decades longer now than they were when we first started burning coal. I’m fine with moving to an economy that uses less carbon, but in the meantime do we really want to do without modern technology? If we tried, how many people would die earlier than they would otherwise?

I’m thinking about all this today because of a piece I read in The Hill saying that Todd Stern, the top climate negotiator for the U.S., is calling on scientists and policymakers to orchestrate an educational effort to change the public’s perception about climate change. Regardless of what the answers to those three questions are likely to be, is it really the government’s place to tell people what to think? Clearly not. But even if it is, would it do any good? Natural selection has been taught in American schools for a century, yet a recent Gallup poll shows that four in ten Americans believe that Creationism is literally true, and that only one in six Americans believe that humans evolved without divine intervention. With ignorance like that, what chance is there to educate the American people on a scientific topic that’s so complex there is still reasonable uncertainty about important details?

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