This is more of an itch I need to scratch.
I am a recovering/reformed computational physicist. I really enjoyed doing work in modeling semiconductors, and I had hoped to post-doc modeling dynamics of proteins among other things. Of course, my academic career ran head first into the deluge of physicists from the former soviet union, all with 20+ year seniority, all willing to work for less money. A generation of young physicists were lost to this onslaught; I decided to do something else after finishing up. I am glad I did.
But this isn’t about that.
This is about a number of ‘controversies’ I’ve seen in the news recently and on blogs I occasionally read.
This post is about a fundamental problem in scientific literacy, or more precisely, scientific illiteracy, about political agendas, and the damage and disservice to knowledge, to our policy makers, and to the general public we do when we don’t correct the mistakes we see.
Two major things are on my mind. First is the recent climate research emails. Second is the creationism/intelligent design problem.
In one case, it is hard to deny that there is a fundamental bias in the researchers minds. Its obvious there is.
And that is fine. I’ll explain in a moment.
In the other case, there is a bias to avoid accepting data and current interpretation of observations supporting the theories, which is considered well understood by most credible practioners.
In both cases, mixtures of scientific illiteracy, with language couched in the prose of activists and lawyers, is used to attempt to “score points”.
Notice, that I haven’t indicated which is which. There is a reason, and I’ll get there in a moment.
Ok. Onto bias.
No scientist … ok, no real scientist, (e.g. a scientist who would not reject data an objective information source as being unreal without an extremely good and defensible reason) is going to let their personal feelings color their research.
The problem is when the scientists give the appearance of having done exactly this. It feeds a political side of this debate.
Again, notice I haven’t indicated which element is related to the climatological research, and which is related to the biological research. Its remarkable that up to this point, we cannot disambiguate which issue is which.
But I’ll do that now.
Contrary to what we hear activists say, the science of AGW is definitely not settled. It never, ever is. It is a fundamental fallacy to claim that it is settled, as any scientific theory must be falsafiable to be considered a possible scientific theory. It must contain predictions that can be tested/measured, and if an experiment or measurement comes along which provides something that the theory cannot explain … and this is a doozy … the theory MUST be discarded for a more correct/complete theory. That is, you can’t claim that the theory is correct, that it is “settled”, if there ever is a possibility that there are alternative explanations for observations that do as good a job at explaining the observations, with the fewer/no missing pieces.
To claim otherwise is to take the theory out of science, and turn it into a religion.
A scientist is supposed to be a skeptic. A hard-nosed, stubborn skeptic. A (real) scientist does not, and cannot believe in a theory. This implies that they suspend their objectivity, their skepticism … their acceptance of the scientific process and method.
Moreover, a scientist should present all their observations and data so that others can check their work, and compare their work to what was published. Full transparency, full disclosure.
It goes downhill, hard and fast, when we hear the language of activism applied to people correctly acting as skeptics. Calling them “climate deniers” is an ad-hominem, and is unworthy of inclusion in the discussion. It effectively politicizes the debate, takes it out of the realm of science, and turns it into a cause, with agendas.
And it gets worse.
Take some of these activists, and have them badger the funding agencies to fund studies that appear more likely to agree with their particular agendas. Get some of your troops in there, control the funding. Exactly what is a skeptical scientist to do when the funding is all going towards one of the now polar extremes?
Yes, this is where we are now. We have people misusing science for promotion of an agenda, when the underlying science is not only, not settled, but, by definition, can NEVER be settled. Well, never be settled in the realm of science. Outside, maybe.
Notice I haven’t indicated my own personal thoughts on this yet. I’ll do so at the end of this.
What we have now are a bunch of emails that basically suggest an adherence to an agenda, rather than a fully transparent scientific inquiry. This should concern anyone/everyone.
Could you imagine, oh, I dunno, 80 years ago, if we went around calling Albert Einstein a “quantum denier”? He was tremendously skeptical of quantum mechanics, decrying “spooky action at a distance”, and imploring us to remember that God does not play dice with the universe.
Thanks to Einstein and co-workers skepticism, and attempts to poke holes in the theory, we have a number of things. First, we have a stronger theory, as he and his group showed where there were weaknesses that needed to be addressed. Second, he created many gedanken experiments, some of which are bearing fruit today in the form of quantum teleportation. Look up EPR for the basis for this. What is tremendously interesting is that, courtesy of his careful and studious objections, the science was improved. The benefits to society of the advent of quantum mechanics are beyond measure. I won’t go into them in depth, other than to point out that material science, and the Kronig-Penny model of metals/semiconductors is a quantum model. From there you can start inferring computing systems, and so forth.
We derive strength for theories from the challenges they have survived. Turning skepticism into a political or religious battle is simply wrong, at many levels.
And therein lies the next problem. Scientific illiteracy.
Take the word “theory” for example. As with many words, it has a context sensitive meaning. A scientific theory means something very very different than a legal theory.
Take gravity for example. There is something that most of the public likes to call “The Law of Gravity”. Somewhat more well read public will know this implies Newtonian Gravity.
The Law of Gravity. Built by our friend Issac Newton in England. Ok, others came up with similar ideas, and Newton wanted to explain the Keplerian orbits and observations better than the system in place at the time.
Hey, does that sound familiar? Maybe we should call Newton, Halley, Leibniz, and others “epi-cycle deniers”.
All they had to do was come up with a better idea, one that made more accurate predictions, one that better explained the data, without invoking difficult and seemingly arbitrary things. Like epicycles did.
Newton and others invented calculus to provide the mathematical language basis for their better idea.
The science was settled. Right? I mean it is the “Law of Gravity” …
Turns out there was a Law of Gravity denier, who realized that an entirely different set of principals was at work, and he set out to demonstrate this to be the case. And he, well, Sir Arthur Eddington, did so in 1920 or so.
The law of gravity, as Newton had postulated it predicted a particular deflection of a stars image near the surface of the sun during a total solar eclipse.
This young ruffian, this trouble maker’s theory predicted double that deflection. And he had to use an entirely different geometry to express his concepts. A new language.
Turns out he was right. Newtonian gravity is known to fail.
The young upstart’s name? You might have heard of him.
But back to the illiteracy portion. Notice how I used words such as “law” and “theory”. This is decidedly NOT how a lawyer, or an activist would use them.
Moreover, data which seemed to contradict the prediction was measured by other astronomers. Eddington himself had a very hard time making the measurement. But all of this was published all of it in the scientific record, for all to see and think about. Eddington managed to finally perform a very thorough analysis on the data, and was able to explain every element which influenced it. Thus leaving the prediction well within the error bounds of the measurement.
No where in there did people say “but its just a theory … its not like its a law or nothing”. They use words such as “fact” not quite understanding what it does and does not mean and imply in scientific discourse. And as a result of this, the jump to wrong conclusions, in large part due to their belief systems, their agendas, their activism.
They do say that with evolution. Evolution is a theory which makes specific predictions which may be observed in various past historical records, as well as in the laboratory. These observations to date, have been supportive of the underlying concepts. Skepticism over the mechanisms has resulted in deeper research into them, as well as a discovery of genetics, and its impact on evolution.
These in turn have provided society with tremendous benefit, again.
Strange, real science is a very good investment, even if you don’t see an ROI in 5-10 years. Its longer term, and its in most cases I am aware of, a positive benefit.
Yet, again, we have people with an agenda demanding we do something to appease their wishes, which has nothing to do with the fundamental scientific basis of evolution. This is wrong.
But we also have the activists on the other side of the debate talking how they “believe” in evolution. This is as damaging to the discussion as is the “disbelief” in evolution. You can’t believe in a scientific theory … you can accept that the evidence to date supports it, you can have no opinion, or you can not accept that the evidence supports it and supply counter examples. If you can’t supply counter examples that reasonable skeptical scientists can accept as being a legitimate challenge to the basis of the science, then you really can’t attack the science per se.
This was the basis for the things called irreducible complexity and other … phenomenon … in this discussion. You have to provide a measurement or observation that the existing theory cannot explain or explain correctly, or make a correct prediction about in order to unseat the theory. I haven’t seen anyone do this.
Yes, there is money pursuing these agenda on one side. Sadly they tend to congregate on one particular side of the political spectrum. Which enables the activists on the other side, doing as much disservice to the discussion, to paint pictures with broad strokes. No, the pictures are not necessarily accurate.
As I like to (recursively) joke, broad sweeping generalizations tend to be incorrect.
In the case of evolution, most of the scientific establishment have accepted that the evidence to date does in fact support the underlying theory. A better theory comes along (punctuated equilibria?), which explains more stuff, or does it more simply but as accurately, and it is possible to see a change in peoples minds as they consider the impact of such things.
In the case of climate change, no, most of the scientific establishment have not accepted one particular theory. There is a great deal of activism, political pressure, and so forth in support of on particular theory (AGW), but again, activism and political pressure have, IMO, no place in scientific processes.
What we need for climatology is more money. A great deal more money. Going to help gather more data, create better, more accurate models, run them longer, harder, faster. Take into consideration all the effects people are looking at.
The primary research I’ve read to date suggests that the simplest model for the variations in the climate could be more heavily influenced by factors such as solar variability, the inherent chaotic nature of our orbit about the sun, and other factors. Climate change, extinction, and related have been going on on this planet for far longer than we or our ancestors have been around. It is anthropocentric, and requiring something of a stretch to believe that we have had such a drastic influence in such a short period of time, when there are simpler explanations that seem to fit the data somewhat better.
Call me a climate denier if you will, I am a skeptic of the current pronouncements I see made. Come up with a non-ad hominem manner of addressing the concerns that I see in the primary literature. Using the language of isolation (X denier) does nothing to further the debate, and only engenders a digging in of heals.
Scientists are human after all, and subject to human follies and foibles. Attack someone, and they will become defensive. Engage with them, and they may share their concerns.
The damage done by the exposure of the emails is to an agenda in some aspects, but it is also very much to scientific credibility. We must as scientists, not let our own personal biases get in the way of what we see, what we measure. There we saw the biases writ large.
Not BTW in the phrases “trick for the data”. That is a generalized colloquialism on how you perform your analysis. Which you have to report when you report your data. And you have to be explicit about it. And that gets attacked as much as the data does. A weak analysis will show poorly over time.
What we need is lots more money going to look at everything. This is too important to get wrong. If we screw up by acting when we didn’t need to, we might bankrupt our economies. If we fail to act when we need to, we can destroy our environment. This is why getting it right is so important. This is why activism and political agendas need to be divorced from this process. Lets get the science right, so we can tell the policy makers the most accurate and reasonably likely correct information. Hysterics, as we see throughout the media, again, concentrated on one specific agenda’s side, do nobody any good.
Of course my own self interest in this is seeing enough money flow in to this area that more people need clusters and fast storage for said clusters … but I am being transparent about that. I do think there should be a great deal more (money/time/effort) invested into understanding this.
I am also concerned as a small business owner about additional financial implications that the policies I hear being bandied about, would have a drastic negative influence upon us. And if we have to take that step, if we really do need to go that route, I want to know with a very high certainty that we need to go that route. We aren’t there yet.
More to the point, there has been a fairly wide scale pushback in the scientific community against the agenda holders. The editorial leadership of the American Physical Society came out strongly in favor the agenda holders for AGW in an article, and the resulting backlash was unprecedented. I seem to recall demands for resignation, demands for retraction, apologies, etc. Does this sound like the “science is settled” in a learned scientific community? It shouldn’t, and for good reason.
So call me a climate denier if you wish. Albert Einstein was a Newtonian Gravity denier. I think we “deniers” are in good company. We are fulfilling our roles as skeptics, pointing out the holes, and flaws in the theories presented. Active researchers in the field are presenting alternative theories. Which are roundly decried with the “denier” label.
Sad. I wonder if these activists realize the damage they do. Probably not. Its exhilarating fighting for a cause you can believe in, isn’t it … which also shows that, since they believe in it, it ceases to be something we can falsify and discard when we need to. It has become a religion. AGW as a basis of belief.
This is wrong at so many levels. It is wrong for exactly the same reasons as pushing creationism or intelligent design in the schools is wrong. You can’t believe in a theory. A theory makes predictions, and if its wrong it gets discarded. You can’t test and discard creationism, intelligent design, or AGW. The latter because of the activists who found that a cause they can believe in.
Ok, long winded rant over. Back to your regularly scheduled clusters.