Rare Insight

Here is an excellent article by Jerome Ravetz. What happened with Climategaate dovetails with his theories about modern science. The combination of dealing with unknowns and then having the science thrust out into public policy can hurt scientific objectivity. Here are some quotes:

We can begin to see what went seriously wrong when we examine what the leading practitioners of this ‘evangelical science’ of global warming (thanks to Angela Wilkinson) took to be the plain and urgent truth in their case.  This was not merely that there are signs of exceptional disturbance in the ecosphere due to human influence, nor even that the climate might well be changing more rapidly now than for a very long time.  Rather, they propounded, as a proven fact, Anthropogenic Carbon-based Global Warming.  There is little room for uncertainty in this thesis; it effectively needs hockey-stick behaviour in all indicators of global temperature, so that it is all due to industrialisation.

In retrospect, we can ask why this particular, really rather extreme view of the prospect, became the official one.  It seems that several causes conspired.  First, the early opposition to any claim of climate change was only partly scientific; the tactics of the opposing special interests were such as to induce the proponents to adopt a simple, forcefully argued position.  Then, once the position was adopted, its proponents became invested in it, and attached to it, in all sorts of ways, institutional and personal.  And I suspect that a simplified, even simplistic claim, was more comfortable for these scientists than one where complexity and uncertainty were acknowledged.  It is not merely a case of the politicians and public needing a simple, unequivocal message.

Even worse, for the warming case to have political effect, a mere global average rise in temperature was not compelling enough.  So that people could appreciate the dangers, there needed to be predictions of future climate – or even weather – in the various regions of the world.  Given the gross uncertainties in even the aggregated models, regional forecasts are really beyond the limits of science.  And yet they have been provided, with various degrees of precision.  Those announced by the IPCC have become the most explosive.

As all these anomalies and unsolved puzzles emerged, the neat, compelling picture became troubled and even confused.  In Kuhn’s analysis, this would be the start of a ‘pre-revolutionary’ phase of normal science.  But the political cause had been taken up by powerful advocates, like Al Gore.  We found ourselves in another crusading ‘War’, like those on (non-alcoholic) Drugs and ‘Terror’.  This new War, on Carbon, was equally simplistic, and equally prone to corruption and failure.  Global warming science became the core element of this major worldwide campaign to save the planet.  Any weakening of the scientific case would have amounted to a betrayal of the good cause, as well as a disruption of the growing research effort.  All critics, even those who were full members of the scientific peer community, had to be derided and dismissed.  As we learned from the CRU e-mails, they were not considered to be entitled to the normal courtesies of scientific sharing and debate.  Requests for information were stalled, and as one witty blogger has put it, ‘peer review’ was replaced by ‘pal review’.

Even now, the catalogue of unscientific practices revealed in the mainstream media is very small in comparison to what is available on the blogosphere.  Details of shoddy science and dirty tricks abound.  By the end, the committed inner core were confessing to each other that global temperatures were falling, but it was far too late to change course.  The final stage of corruption, cover-up, had taken hold.  For the core scientists and the leaders of the scientific communities, as well as for nearly all the liberal media, ‘the debate was over’.  Denying Climate Change received the same stigma as denying the Holocaust.  Even the trenchant criticisms of the most egregious errors in the IPCC reports were kept ‘confidential’.  And then came the e-mails.

We can understand the root cause of Climategate as a case of scientists constrained to attempt to do normal science in a post-normal situation. But climate change had never been a really ‘normal’ science, because the policy implications were always present and strong, even overwhelming.  Indeed, if we look at the definition of ‘post-normal science’, we see how well it fits:  facts uncertain,values in dispute, stakes high, and decisions urgent.

Consideration of those protective plausibilities can help to explain how the illusions could persist for so long until their sudden collapse.  The scientists were all reputable, they published in leading peer-reviewed journals, and their case was itself highly plausible and worthy in a general way.  Individual criticisms were, for the public and perhaps even for the broader scientific community, kept isolated and hence muffled and lacking in systematic significance.  And who could have imagined that at its core so much of the science was unsound?  The plausibility of the whole exercise was, as it were, bootstrapped.

There is an important philosophical dimension to Climategate, a question of the relation of personal scientific ethics to objective scientific facts.  The problem is created by the traditional image of science (as transmitted in scientific education) as ‘value-free’.  The personal commitments to integrity, that are necessary for the maintenance of scientific quality, receive no mention in the dominant philosophy of science

The total assurance of the mainstream scientists in their own correctness and in the intellectual and moral defects of their critics, is now in retrospect perceived as arrogance.  For their spokespersons to continue to make light of the damage to the scientific case, and to ignore the ethical dimension of Climategate, is to risk public outrage at a perceived unreformed arrogance. If there is a continuing stream of ever more detailed revelations, originating in the blogosphere but now being brought to a broader public, then the credibility of the established scientific authorities will continue to erode.

My final comment is to read the whole thing and then apply it to how the scientific community is handling the evidence being presented for Intelligent Design. Remember even as this man writes this, the crusaders for “saving the planet” don’t realize that the evidence that supposedly backed up their commitments has proven faulty, as even expressed today by Prince Charles of England.

About hansston

Pastor a church in Sparta.
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