Science is doing just fine, thank you very much.

December 10, 2009

Via Slashdot, I arrived at an editorial by Daniel Henninger at the Wall Street Journal discussing science as being on the “credibility bubble”.  His argument seems to be that the “Climategate” nonsense has put the reputability of science in such a precarious position that any little push will render it completely irrelevant to the world around us. The article is fairly short, so I’m going to address it bit by bit.  Let’s start with the first three paragraphs.

Surely there must have been serious men and women in the hard sciences who at some point worried that their colleagues in the global warming movement were putting at risk the credibility of everyone in science. The nature of that risk has been twofold: First, that the claims of the climate scientists might buckle beneath the weight of their breathtaking complexity. Second, that the crudeness of modern politics, once in motion, would trample the traditions and culture of science to achieve its own policy goals. With the scandal at the East Anglia Climate Research Unit, both have happened at once.

I don’t think most scientists appreciate what has hit them. This isn’t only about the credibility of global warming. For years, global warming and its advocates have been the public face of hard science. Most people could not name three other subjects they would associate with the work of serious scientists. This was it. The public was told repeatedly that something called “the scientific community” had affirmed the science beneath this inquiry. A Nobel Prize was bestowed (on a politician).

Global warming enlisted the collective reputation of science. Because “science” said so, all the world was about to undertake a vast reordering of human behavior at almost unimaginable financial cost. Not every day does the work of scientists lead to galactic events simply called Kyoto or Copenhagen. At least not since the Manhattan Project.

Now, I can’t speak for all “serious men and women in the hard sciences”, but as someone trained in psychology and biology, I can tell you that I’ve never had anyone in either field wander up to me and say “Gee, those climatologists are sure dragging us down”.  Perhaps Henninger is right, and somewhere out there is a horde of reputable scientists who still believe that climate change is bunk.  This doesn’t matter in the slightest, of course, because science is based on evidence, and not the opinions of random scientists from other fields.

Now, apparently, science is at risk, or so Henninger tells us.  Firstly, “the claims of the climate scientists might buckle beneath the weight of their breathtaking complexity”.  Huh.  If Henninger considers the claim that the Earth is experiencing an increase in average global temperatures to be a claim of “breathtaking complexity”, then he needs to stop writing editorials and head back to elementary school for some remedial education.  But let’s be charitable:  perhaps he was speaking of the evidence used to support those claims.  Indeed, the evidence for climate change is based on complex data, used by scientists who have trained most of their adult lives to properly collect, analyze, and interpret such data.  This is why we rely on a scientific consensus:  when many people, trained in the methodology of science, collect, analyze, and interpret climate change data and come up with the same answer, we call that strong evidence.  But hey, Henninger is just spouting the same easily spotted gibberish as most climate change deniers are:  the idea that hundreds of scientists across the globe have spent their entire careers laboriously faking terabytes of data, writing thousands of papers, and constantly battling deniers to maintain an elaborate fiction of climate change without a single one of them saying “To hell with all of this work, I’m going to sell my story to the tabloids and make millions” is far more plausible to these people than the idea that climate change is real. Secondly, we should fear that (or so Henninger says) “the crudeness of modern politics, once in motion, would trample the traditions and culture of science to achieve its own policy goals”.  Well, I suppose that’s fair enough:  politics routinely tramples science in the mad dash to deny what it doesn’t wish to believe or deal with.  Science is routinely misused for all sorts of things, from quantum healing woo to “intelligent design” nonsense and everything in between.  But this is a failure of science communication, not the practice of science itself.

And lo, we should fear, for climate change is the face of science!  (This will be unwelcome news to just about every other scientific discipline, but let’s leave that aside).  Most people can’t name three other disciplines!  Well, I don’t have any data on that, though I am in serious doubt that people on the street couldn’t name three other disciplines if they have any idea what climate change is.  But even if he is right that the collective reputation of science hangs on the outcome of climate change, so what?  Climate change is a verifiable, demonstrable fact.  It’s not in doubt by anyone who has an informed opinion on the matter.  What we do about it, if we can even stop it, these are (as yet) unknowns.  But climate change has happened, is happening, and will continue to happen.  What the public believes cannot change that, it can only change what we do about it.  The strongest case that Henninger can make here is that “climategate” will hamper the efforts of sane and reasonable people to sit down and decide what to do about the crisis that faces us;  this is definitely a possibility, and as has been pointed out elsewhere, the timing of the CRU hack seems likely to have been timed in an effort to disrupt the Copenhagen talks.  This is a major problem of itself, but it confounds the first two issues that Henninger raised into one by confusing the process of science  (the “claims” of climate change in point one) with the communication of science (the trampling of science by politics in point two).

What is happening at East Anglia is an epochal event. As the hard sciences—physics, biology, chemistry, electrical engineering—came to dominate intellectual life in the last century, some academics in the humanities devised the theory of postmodernism, which liberated them from their colleagues in the sciences. Postmodernism, a self-consciously “unprovable” theory, replaced formal structures with subjectivity. With the revelations of East Anglia, this slippery and variable intellectual world has crossed into the hard sciences.

This has harsh implications for the credibility of science generally. Hard science, alongside medicine, was one of the few things left accorded automatic stature and respect by most untrained lay persons. But the average person reading accounts of the East Anglia emails will conclude that hard science has become just another faction, as politicized and “messy” as, say, gender studies. The New England Journal of Medicine has turned into a weird weekly amalgam of straight medical-research and propaganda for the Obama redesign of U.S. medicine.

No, Daniel, you’re doing it wrong.  In fact, though the impacts on climate change discussion is entirely regrettable, the East Anglia affair is actually valuable for pointing out to lay people that science isn’t what you see in Hollywood.  It affords people a glimpse into the true world of science, which is messy and full of drama.  It works despite us, not because of us.  This was expressed best by an essay I read from Dr. Peter Watts:

Science doesn’t work despite scientists being asses. Science works, to at least some extent, because scientists are asses. Bickering and backstabbing are essential elements of the process. Haven’t any of these guys ever heard of “peer review”?

There’s this myth in wide circulation: rational, emotionless Vulcans in white coats, plumbing the secrets of the universe, their Scientific Methods unsullied by bias or emotionalism. Most people know it’s a myth, of course; they subscribe to a more nuanced view in which scientists are as petty and vain and human as anyone (and as egotistical as any therapist or financier), people who use scientific methodology to tamp down their human imperfections and manage some approximation of objectivity.

But that’s a myth too. The fact is, we are all humans; and humans come with dogma as standard equipment. We can no more shake off our biases than Liz Cheney could pay a compliment to Barack Obama. The best we can do— the best science can do— is make sure that at least, we get to choose among competing biases.

That’s how science works. It’s not a hippie love-in; it’s rugby. Every time you put out a paper, the guy you pissed off at last year’s Houston conference is gonna be laying in wait. Every time you think you’ve made a breakthrough, that asshole supervisor who told you you needed more data will be standing ready to shoot it down. You want to know how the Human Genome Project finished so far ahead of schedule? Because it was the Human Genome projects, two competing teams locked in bitter rivalry, one led by J. Craig Venter, one by Francis Collins — and from what I hear, those guys did not like each other at all.

This is how it works: you put your model out there in the coliseum, and a bunch of guys in white coats kick the shit out of it. If it’s still alive when the dust clears, your brainchild receives conditional acceptance. It does not get rejected. This time.

Read the essay in full:  it’s bloody brilliant.

Henninger’s accomplishment, if he’s achieved anything at all, is to point out that lay people need to be better informed about how the process of science really works as opposed to how it works on TV.  As my wife pointed out to me, anyone who thinks that there is a global conspiracy to push climate change on the public has never met a grad student or practicing scientist;  if we could climb over the smoldering corpses of our fellows with actual evidence against climate change in hand, there isn’t a scientist in the world who would hesitate to step all over the faces of anyone who got in his or her way.  The general public should know this, they should be brought into our world to see how it works, so that they can understand that anything which garners an approval as widespread as climate change has is the result of battles so epic that they would leave the bards speechless.  Henninger’s misunderstand of the process of science only deepens in the next two paragraphs:

The East Anglians’ mistreatment of scientists who challenged global warming’s claims—plotting to shut them up and shut down their ability to publish—evokes the attempt to silence Galileo. The exchanges between Penn State’s Michael Mann and East Anglia CRU director Phil Jones sound like Father Firenzuola, the Commissary-General of the Inquisition.

For three centuries Galileo has symbolized dissent in science. In our time, most scientists outside this circle have kept silent as their climatologist fellows, helped by the cardinals of the press, mocked and ostracized scientists who questioned this grand theory of global doom. Even a doubter as eminent as Princeton’s Freeman Dyson was dismissed as an aging crank.

Henninger seems desperate to live in a world where men and women in white coats stare down from the heavens and proclaim “The Truth”;  the world of uncertainty where we gather the best evidence we can and make decision on it seems to be his worst fear.  Because if Freeman Dyson says it ain’t so, than that’s good enough for Henninger.  Of course, this is just another logical fallacy, the argument from authority:

  • Freeman Dyson is a brilliant scientist.
  • Freeman Dyson says that climate change isn’t happening.
  • Therefore climate change isn’t happening.

Note the complete lack of reference to the evidence in there.  Even Dyson himself has admitted that he knows little about the technical aspects of global warming (“My objections to the global warming propaganda are not so much over the technical facts, about which I do not know much, but it’s rather against the way those people behave and the kind of intolerance to criticism that a lot of them have.” source), and the fact that Dyson is a brilliant scientist in his field has nothing to do with the validity of his thoughts.  After all, people believed Linus Pauling about vitamin C because he was a brilliant scientist, even in the face of a complete lack of evidence to support his claims.  How many times does it have to be said:  this is a mistake.

I would spill more ink on the misuse of Gallileo as well, but surely you can see where I’m going with this by now.

I’ll deal with one more paragraph of Henninger’s editorial, and then the reader can disassemble the rest as an exercise:

Beneath this dispute is a relatively new, very postmodern environmental idea known as “the precautionary principle.” As defined by one official version: “When an activity raises threats of harm to the environment or human health, precautionary measures should be taken even if some cause and effect relationships are not fully established scientifically.” The global-warming establishment says we know “enough” to impose new rules on the world’s use of carbon fuels. The dissenters say this demotes science’s traditional standards of evidence.

Again, Daniel, you’re doing it wrong.  And again, you demand that lab coats from On High speak the Word of Truth, that there is no room for converging evidence and uncertainty.  The debate over climate change mirrors one that is closer to my heart, the debate over evolution, and the issues are the same.  The fact that climate change (evolution) has occurred is undeniable to even a cursory examination of the many lines of evidence that converge on the same answer.  The uncertainty over the exact mechanisms of climate change (evolution) and the changes needed to deal with it is not the same as saying that climate change is not real.  Both can be true:  we can be as certain as it is possible to be that climate change is happening, but still fight over how to fix it.

And so, Daniel, I implore you to learn a little bit more about what science is and how it actually works before you have the gall to instruct us on how to do it.  kthxbye.