Anti-Science part II, Science under attack

I bring up the issues raised in my last post….

…as a result of another programme put out by Horizon recently which dealt with this rise in people adopting anti-scientific positions on issues such as Climate change, AIDs, Vaccines, GM crops, and of course Creationism.

That more than 40% of people in America can take Creationism in anyway seriously, or that up to 25% in Britain can doubt the official position on climate change is worrying indeed.

So it begs the question, after all the benefits that science and technology have given us over the last few centuries why are so many people now distrustful of it, and the scientists themselves? I would break the answer to this question down into several factors:

– A lack of understanding of the matter of scientific uncertainty
– Inability to put information in its proper context (the guy you met down the pub saying aliens have landed should not get the same level of credibility as the White House Press office saying the same thing!)
– A general backlash against the more negative aspects of scientific progress
– Vested interests, with a small army of PR people & spin doctors determined to make the truth what ever they want it to be.
– And finally a general suspicion of the motives of those at the helm of the scientific establishment

Scientific Uncertainty….
My first point relates to a lack of understanding by many people of the matter of scientific uncertainty. For example, let us suppose, I present you with 2 identical beakers of water and ask you to tell me which is warmer? Now if you pop a thermometer into jar A and it reads 10’C, while jar B reads 90’C, well the answers all but obvious. Just to be on the safe side, one might swap around the thermometers to make sure they are working (or calibrate them properly!), but barring some serious mix up, it’s almost certain you’d have to conclude that B is warmer than A.

Now let us suppose that Jar A reads as 20’C and Jar B is 21’C, which is warmer? I might throw in the fact that within the temperature range you’re working, the margin of error of the thermometers is +/- 0.5’C. On balance, Jar B is still probably warmer, but we really couldn’t say so with any degree of scientific confidence.

We could resolve this problem by repeating the experiment multiple times, using multiple instruments which use different means to record temperature (e.g a platinum resistance thermometer, or a Copper/Constantan thermocouple) over an extended period. Also, what are the ambient conditions? Are they both under similar ambient conditions? (e.g is one facing a window and its warm/cold outside) If the ambient conditions are not similar and steady, this could throw off our instruments by a degree or more. Is it a transient problem or steady state? (i.e is this a changing temperature change or flat and constant).

Anyway, to cut a long story short after multiple experiments, with a variety of different instruments, under careful controlled ambient conditions having been established, if we are still faced with the results A = 20’C and B = 21’C we’d have to conclude that the balance of evidence says jar B is warmer than jar A, but we’d have to tuck a couple of caveats into our report to cover ourselves, as after all there is still a possibility that they are both actually at equal temperature, or indeed that Jar A is in fact warmer. This is an example of scientific uncertainty. A good film about is “how long is a piece of String“, in which the narrator literally attempts to answer this question.

Needless to say, if it’s that complicated to establish how long a piece of string is, or which of two jars is warmer you can imagine how difficult it can be to get ones head around a scientific study of something far more complex – such as the global climate.

Science is, in essence as much about dealing with what you don’t know, as it is a matter of dealing with what you do know. I think the problem here is that when people hear scientists talking about “uncertainties in our climate models” that what the actually hear is “we’re just guessing but we reckon that if we say the world’s warming we’ll get more money”. Actually what the scientists are saying is “we’re very confident that our models are correct, but it’s an issue of accuracy, the actual rate of warming may be slightly slower or even higher than we’re predicting and there is always the slight risk that our model is in error, thought this could still mean warming anyway”

…has to be put in Context
Part of the problem is I think, most people don’t appreciate how we have to put scientific reports in context. If a report comes out that seems to contradict the general consensuses of the IPCC on climate change, it has to be put in context against the hundreds of reports coming out each year which support the theory of anthropogenic Climate change, and the many reports in the past. One string of weather balloon readings saying a slowing in the rate of warming (or cooling), does not make a trend, especially when thousands of other weather stations worldwide using more balloons (as well as ground stations, satellite readings, surface instruments, and other vectors such as tree rings or ice core data) all say the complete opposite.

It could be that this downward trend in temperature represents a localised cooling phenomenon (that’s why scientists don’t like using the term global warming) driven by climate change or something else entirely. It is also well known that the sun does influence climate, and to what degree is uncertain (remember what I said above, that doesn’t mean climatologists don’t know, they have many theories with good evidence to support them, with many well established and supported models, but there’s just some uncertainty as to they’re validity) although the current consensus is that the Sun cannot be responsible for the current phase of warming.

Also there’s the strength of the relevant research. If we are dealing with a graph which is a mass of points which can barely be resolved into a downward trend, then one has to question the accuracy of the data. And as noted above, if the methodology is flawed (e.g doing a study of the Sun over a period of a few years and neglecting to account for its well known 11 year cycle or using uncelebrated instruments) then the conclusions are also flawed. Obviously if the writer of the report is a known critic of Anthropogenic Climate Change (whose research is widely known to be funded by the oil industry) well then, while not dismissing his research out of hand, you have to take it with a pinch of salt.

“Reading might not be your strongest suit”
But global warming deniers of course, don’t put things in context, nor with a pinch of salt. Many, it should be said, don’t even have any relevant qualification, and so have little understanding for the scientific method. Like the creationists, they shout as loudly as they can that they’ve found “proof” that they are right and the entire scientific establishment is wrong. When the peer review process kicks in and points out that, well actually if you reanalyse graph C using an appropriate curve fitting algorithm you get a warming trend not a cooling one, they yell “Conspiracy!” and “Censorship!” then continue to present their work as “fact” long after the scientific community has moved on. For good examples of this behaviour see here and here.

The Lenski dialog a classic example of what happens when a respectable scientists finds himself confronted by someone (in this case Andy Schlafly, the founder of Conservapedia…a “conservative” version of Wikipedia…founded because wiki is too full of “liberal bias”…or what the rest of us call “facts”) with no formal scientific education and a particular agenda (in this case creationism) and a determination to make the evidence fit his pre-existing conclusions:

Seriously, thought I’d give the last one a read, it’s a good laugh! I especially like the “reading doesn’t appear to be your strong point” quip (a slightly cruel thing to say to someone who was home schooled me thinks!). But it does demonstrate a problem, unfortunately some people rank what Little John says in the Mail on Sunday about global warming or what Sarah Palin says about evolution above of what tens of thousands of international experts say about the same subject.

The above examples all demonstrate how false rumours and myths can get going about some facet of established science. There are, for example, many of these false and long since debunked theories about climate change still doing the rounds on the internet. Before anyone wastes both of our time e-mailing me with the usual “but recent measurements show cooling” line take a look at this.

In reference to the statement above, yes you can produce a trend showing recent cooling, if you pick 1998 as you’re start date and 2004 as the end date…Of course you’d be neglecting the fact that 1998 was a strong El Nino year, and 2004 a La Nina year. Extend said graph to the present day (or between two El Nino years) and you still get a warming trend. This is what’s known as “cherry picking” data, and it’s not scientific as, like creationism, it involves starting off with a theory and generating “facts” to support you’re theory, while ignoring every fact that contradicts you’re conclusions, in other words anti-science.

A common debating tactic used by the global warming deniers is to list out the myths listed above one after another (without leaving they’re opponent any time to debunk them), a tactic often referred to as “the Gish Gallop” so named after a known creationists habit of dishing out numerous, falsehoods and half-truths (and utter BS) in an effort to drown out the scientific facts.

Its Just a Theory!
Global warming/evolution is just a theory, is something you often hear. While this is true, it merely demonstrates a lack of understanding of the word “theory”. I might also mention that Gravity is also just a “theory”. Anyone doubting its reality take a jump off something high and you’ll be pleasantly surprised to learn that 90% of what we know about gravity is correct! However, there are admittedly, holes in our knowledge, as our current theories of gravity have difficulty coping with the very large scale and the very small, and more importantly, linking these two extremes together. Now while there are various hypotheses doing the rounds, and there is good evidence to support some of them, it would be unscientific to say science can completely explain the workings of gravity…hence its just a theory!

Similarly when the IPCC says they are 90% certain that the world is warming up and humans are responsible for it, that 10% mostly accounts for various uncertainties:

-Something about the climate that they’ve not yet discovered
-That something else could emerge in the future to drive the climate in a different direction (possibly worsening the situation or easing it)
-That the Earth is warming up, just not at the rate expected, it could be quicker or slower
-That our fossil fuel emission might be having less of an effect as thought, or even a greater effect
-What will happen to the major carbon sinks in the future? Will they help stabilise the current trend or kick us into a runaway greenhouse effect?
-What will happen to the various weather patterns of the earth? Such as the Gulf Stream, will it divert its course or stop?
-If weather patterns change, would this enhance the warming effect globally/regionally or diminish it?

All perfectly valid questions, but to say “its a theory, lets do nothing” is at odds with reality. The only time we’ll know for certain that Anthropogenic Climate Change is definitely a reality (and the IPCC says they know they are 100% right) is probably about the same time they issue a warming that it’s now too late to do anything. And even this is unlikely, remember that we’ve been studying things like evolution and gravity a lot longer than climate, and scientists still can’t even achieve consensus on these issues.

The Horizon film also dealt with the whole Climategate controversy (or lack there-off actually!). The most serious allegation against the scientists was that they spliced several graphs together to create a single trend using a statistical algorithm. This, to be fair, isn’t a very scientific thing to do. The correct procedure would be to put all the graphs together (in this case tree ring data temperature trends) and explain why you had confidence in the measurements of trend A here, but were less certain over here, but that hypothesis is supported by this graph B, from J. Blogs et al 1998, etc. This is exactly what the scientists in question did when the published the research (and put it through peer review) and presented it to the IPCC.

It is also worth remembering that the data in question is but one of many different temperature “vectors” which show past and recent climate behaviour. However, they were (during the e-mail discussion published) now creating a graph for a publication that would be read by a largely non-scientifically literate audience and were obviously fearful that this hard science approach would either sail over everyone’s head, or worse, put them all to sleep. So they opted for this less than scientifically accurate solution of splicing the graphs together. So in that context you have to understand (so called) climategate.

Dumb and Dumber
The above climategate example itself represents another problem for scientists, in order to make ourselves understood by the general public, and indeed other scientist who aren’t specialists in a particular field, it’s often necessary to dumb down ones work. Not because scientists believe that everyone without PhD is stupid, no! but because we realise that, well to be blunt, much of what scientists talk about is kind of BORING! Give most people the choice between gnawing ones own leg off or reading all 2,000 pages of the IPCC 4th assessment on climate change and most people, including quite a few scientists, would choose the former. Of course by dumbing down it opens the door for the critics to swoop in and launch various attacks suggesting our methodology is flawed. Referring them to Mann et al 2001 or Lenski et al 2008 where they will find all the relevant data that will refute they’re criticism simply falls on deaf ears (as again the Lenski dialog above shows).

Of course the fact that there are many vested interested who stand to profit from distorting the truth on such issues doesn’t help. Remember the whole debate about the harmful effects of smoking? All those “scientific” reports that came out saying it wasn’t so bad after all, we’ll the same people who wrote them are still around and they’ve moved on to other causes….such as climate science.

Rise of the Experts
The problem with issues such as climate change, or evolution, or fears by parents over the safety of vaccines is it involves deferring to the experts, and many people just don’t like to do this as they are naturally suspicious of “experts” especially the kind who tell them to do things they’d rather not do (eat less fatty foods, drive more carefully in future sir, smoking is bad for you’re health, etc.) But in a technologically advanced age deferring to the experts is a necessary evil of our time. In the world today we have hired a bunch of climate experts to give us their expert opinion on climate change so it’s a bit late now complaining when they tell us the answer we’d rather not hear. If you hired a plumber to fix your heating system and you then started hoping around peering over his shoulder telling him how to do his job, chances are he’ll either tell you to get lost or walk out on the job.

Unfortunately it’s a fact of life these days that we are increasingly forced to trust to small groups of increasingly specialised experts in our daily lives. For example, it would be incorrect to say a pilot flew you to your destination last time you were in a plane. Strictly speaking the pilot sat in the cockpit and monitored the computer as it flew the plane for him – a computer designed and programmed most likely by some distant experts in a foreign country, then assembled by some other expert half a world away. So we are ever more frequently these days asked to trust ever smaller and more distant groups of experts, or in some cases mindless machines, with our very lives/health/financial well being.

Clearly with climate change a small group of scientists has risen to a very prominent and powerful position in geopolitics and if you ever get a global warming denier drunk you’ll often find they let slip the real reason for their scepticism of climate change (and I suspect this applies to creationists too…problem is half of them are tee-totallers!). The sceptics fear that the many experts on climate have some sort of left wing agenda to push, and much as the creationists fear that if they give into the evolutionists, the global warming deniers are convinced that if the scientists win this argument, we’ll be on the slippery slope towards compulsory gay marriage of all conservatives to gay Muslim terrorist asylum seekers (only over here to live the lazy life on our benefits system…while working hard at stealing our jobs), with guns, meat, religion and cars banned (and them then being forced to cycle everywhere), recycling become compulsory and them all be subject to random euthanasia by communists death panels (who are also fascist in their spare time), while knife wielding yobs freely roam the streets (I think that roughly sums up you’re average Daily Mail edition!) A few typical examples of such right wing paranoia can be found here and here.

An international climate treaty would be the first step towards GLOBAL GOVERNMENT!” is another one you often hear. Of course what these people fail to realise is that we already have a form of global government, in the form of the WTO (an organisation which was largely the idea of many right-wing politicians and libertarian free-market acolytes). By contrast the various proposed global climate treaties often leave it up to the individual Nation States to decide how to meet their targets (by cutting overall energy consumption, using CCS, switched to more renewables, buying carbon credits, or a combination of all of these).

Indeed I don’t see the countries which have signed up to Kyoto (and met their targets) living under the Yoke of the UN or NWO nor the Club of Rome. In fact there have been a number of positive aspects to pursuing Kyoto targets in the form of new job creation and innovation.

Indeed if there’s anything that could lead to global government, it’s a failure to tackle climate change before its too late. As I pointed out in a previous post there is a danger in certain future (worst case) scenarios that the impact of climate change may simply overwhelm some governments, including possibly even the US.

Obviously in such a scenario tackling climate change as currently proposed (i.e. a market let solution with democratic buy-in and nations allowed to dictate their own strategy as they see fit) would no longer be an option. There is a good chance the only way to cope with the crisis at this future date would be through some sort of planet wide program that would inevitably involve many governments giving up some of they’re sovereignty for the sake of coping with the crisis – and we’d have the global warming deniers to thank for it!

The Gospel according to Dawkins
Science has become the new religion! that’s another one you here banded about, that science is now a religion with James Hansen, Al Gore and Richard Dawkins cast as the new high priests of science. Well if science is a religion it’s a strange sort of a one. The opening line of the gospels would read like this I suspect:

“In the beginning there was a scientist with a piece of paper…but he knew sweet FA about nothin…so he went to write that down, well it would be a start…but realised he didn’t even know how to write yet either…so he dith say “feck it!” then did he crumble up said paper and sunder thy pencil, then useth thy remains to undertake some research into fire, cos it was gettin kinda chilly”

Or as Bill Maher put it Science is the “church of we don’t know all the answers”. It’s a church which holds nothing sacred, aside from what facts can be supported by verifiable evidence, and even those “laws” of science will hold sway only as long as the evidence supports them. If new information leads to a radically different conclusion, the whole doctrine can change overnight. Of course, to the many religions of the world, who claim they do have all the answers, and hold many things sacred, even with no evidence to support these beliefs, such a questioning and skeptical mindset is seen as quite threatening.

Opt Out
Either way, I think the real reason for this rise in anti-science is a combination of a lack of understanding of the scientific method, many political, commercial and other vested interests who seek to dupe the public on this matter, and a general anti-scientific backlash as people feel they are being increasingly trapped by the science and technology that controls our lives.

Unfortunately such beliefs are at odds with reality and if you’re not prepared to trust the experts then my advice is – don’t! Abandon the technological world, and do a Kaczynski (without the bombings mind!), go live in a log cabin in the mountains and whatever the governments does as regards coping with climate change, peak oil, global population, or how stem cell research should be utilised, won’t affect you anymore as you’ll be out of the system and beyond such concerns….and too busy trying to make ends meet to care….and likely dead at 35 mind….as life without science and technology was in the old days cruel, hard and short!

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One thought on “Anti-Science part II, Science under attack

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