A Most Dangerous Door
Even at its best, science is not guaranteed to produce truth because of some real or imagined feedback process. And the story gets worse in practice because of the many nonscientific influences at work. Scientists have religious, philosophical and political biases as much as anyone else, and too often they are under pressure to conform. Bucking the trend doesn’t usually win the funding grant.
Yet the Warfare Thesis, the myth that in its objective search for truth science is opposed by religion, has persisted and has fueled a strong trend of scientism—the view of science as dispassionate truth giver. It was constructed and promoted by evolutionists to frame the debate in their favor, and it worked.
So the idea that evolution is true because science “says so,” and after all science can’t be wrong, continues to enjoy broad traction. It is for these reasons that Matt Ridley’s brilliant article in Quadrant Online is important. Ridley begins:
For much of my life I have been a science writer. That means I eavesdrop on what’s going on in laboratories so I can tell interesting stories. It’s analogous to the way art critics write about art, but with a difference: we “science critics” rarely criticise. If we think a scientific paper is dumb, we just ignore it. There’s too much good stuff coming out of science to waste time knocking the bad stuff. Sure, we occasionally take a swipe at pseudoscience—homeopathy, astrology, claims that genetically modified food causes cancer, and so on. But the great thing about science is that it’s self-correcting. The good drives out the bad, because experiments get replicated and hypotheses put to the test. So a really bad idea cannot survive long in science. Or so I used to think.
Ridley’s main concern is the highly politicized idea of anthropomorphic global warming (AGW):
Now, thanks largely to climate science, I have changed my mind. It turns out bad ideas can persist in science for decades, and surrounded by myrmidons of furious defenders they can turn into intolerant dogmas.
This piece by Ridley is important because it is a cogent and direct challenge to the dominant and damaging ideas of scientism and the Warfare Thesis. And it is an admission that the problem is rather obvious:
This should have been obvious to me. Lysenkoism, a pseudo-biological theory that plants (and people) could be trained to change their heritable natures, helped starve millions and yet persisted for decades in the Soviet Union, reaching its zenith under Nikita Khrushchev. The theory that dietary fat causes obesity and heart disease, based on a couple of terrible studies in the 1950s, became unchallenged orthodoxy and is only now fading slowly.
Ridley has shed the mythology of the objective scientist driven simply by a pursuit for the truth:
Scientists are just as prone as anybody else to “confirmation bias”, the tendency we all have to seek evidence that supports our favoured hypothesis and dismiss evidence that contradicts it—as if we were counsel for the defence.
And Ridley has learned about scientific hegemony:
What went wrong with Lysenko and dietary fat was that in each case a monopoly was established. Lysenko’s opponents were imprisoned or killed. Nina Teicholz’s book The Big Fat Surprise shows in devastating detail how opponents of Ancel Keys’s dietary fat hypothesis were starved of grants and frozen out of the debate by an intolerant consensus backed by vested interests, echoed and amplified by a docile press.
Ridley observes that global warming has now joined this infamous list of dubious yet dangerous sciences:
This is precisely what has happened with the climate debate and it is at risk of damaging the whole reputation of science. The “bad idea” in this case is not that climate changes, nor that human beings influence climate change; but that the impending change is sufficiently dangerous to require urgent policy responses.
Ridley explains how climate science was hijacked by partisans some 15-20 years ago and since then dogma, not data, has controlled the research:
These huge green multinationals, with budgets in the hundreds of millions of dollars, have now systematically infiltrated science, as well as industry and media, with the result that many high-profile climate scientists and the journalists who cover them have become one-sided cheerleaders for alarm, while a hit squad of increasingly vicious bloggers polices the debate to ensure that anybody who steps out of line is punished. They insist on stamping out all mention of the heresy that climate change might not be lethally dangerous. Today’s climate science, as Ian Plimer points out in his chapter in The Facts, is based on a “pre-ordained conclusion, huge bodies of evidence are ignored and analytical procedures are treated as evidence”. Funds are not available to investigate alternative theories. Those who express even the mildest doubts about dangerous climate change are ostracised, accused of being in the pay of fossil-fuel interests or starved of funds; those who take money from green pressure groups and make wildly exaggerated statements are showered with rewards and treated by the media as neutral.
It is not difficult to imagine how this plays out:
Look what happened to a butterfly ecologist named Camille Parmesan when she published a paper on “Climate and Species Range” that blamed climate change for threatening the Edith checkerspot butterfly with extinction in California by driving its range northward. The paper was cited more than 500 times, she was invited to speak at the White House and she was asked to contribute to the IPCC’s third assessment report. Unfortunately, a distinguished ecologist called Jim Steele found fault with her conclusion: there had been more local extinctions in the southern part of the butterfly’s range due to urban development than in the north, so only the statistical averages moved north, not the butterflies. There was no correlated local change in temperature anyway, and the butterflies have since recovered throughout their range. When Steele asked Parmesan for her data, she refused. Parmesan’s paper continues to be cited as evidence of climate change. Steele meanwhile is derided as a “denier”. No wonder a highly sceptical ecologist I know is very reluctant to break cover.
Ridley explains that this abuse of science is justified and enabled by the propagation of a false dichotomy that casts skeptics as dangerous or ignorant extremists:
These scientists and their guardians of the flame repeatedly insist that there are only two ways of thinking about climate change—that it’s real, man-made and dangerous (the right way), or that it’s not happening (the wrong way). But this is a false dichotomy. There is a third possibility: that it’s real, partly man-made and not dangerous. This is the “lukewarmer” school, and I am happy to put myself in this category. Lukewarmers do not think dangerous climate change is impossible; but they think it is unlikely. I find that very few people even know of this. Most ordinary people who do not follow climate debates assume that either it’s not happening or it’s dangerous. This suits those with vested interests in renewable energy, since it implies that the only way you would be against their boondoggles is if you “didn’t believe” in climate change.
And given this false dichotomy, the next step is the vilification of the skeptic in a full-scale demagoguery:
But the commentators ignore all these caveats and babble on about warming of “up to” four degrees (or even more), then castigate as a “denier” anybody who says, as I do, the lower end of the scale looks much more likely given the actual data. This is a deliberate tactic. Following what the psychologist Philip Tetlock called the “psychology of taboo”, there has been a systematic and thorough campaign to rule out the middle ground as heretical: not just wrong, but mistaken, immoral and beyond the pale. That’s what the word denier with its deliberate connotations of Holocaust denial is intended to do. For reasons I do not fully understand, journalists have been shamefully happy to go along with this fundamentally religious project.
And behind all the demagoguery, politics, fallacies and manipulation is just plain old bad nineteenth century science:
Joanne Nova, incidentally, is an example of a new breed of science critic that the climate debate has spawned. With little backing, and facing ostracism for her heresy, this talented science journalist had abandoned any chance of a normal, lucrative career and systematically set out to expose the way the huge financial gravy train that is climate science has distorted the methods of science. In her chapter in The Facts, Nova points out that the entire trillion-dollar industry of climate change policy rests on a single hypothetical assumption, first advanced in 1896, for which to this day there is no evidence. The assumption is that modest warming from carbon dioxide must be trebly amplified by extra water vapour—that as the air warms there will be an increase in absolute humidity providing “a positive feedback”. That assumption led to specific predictions that could be tested. And the tests come back negative again and again. The large positive feedback that can turn a mild warming into a dangerous one just is not there. There is no tropical troposphere hot-spot. Ice cores unambiguously show that temperature can fall while carbon dioxide stays high. Estimates of climate sensitivity, which should be high if positive feedbacks are strong, are instead getting lower and lower. Above all, the temperature has failed to rise as predicted by the models.
Ridley chronicles the long sordid history of manipulating evidence and mindless predictions that, though one after the next turned up false, never mattered and even though they failed ridiculously were used anyway as confirmations of AGW:
Excusing failed predictions is a staple of astrology; it’s the way pseudoscientists argue. In science, as Karl Popper long ago insisted, if you make predictions and they fail, you don’t just make excuses and insist you’re even more right than before.
In the end all of this will ultimately harm science. Its hard won reputation can withstand only so many religious and political intrusions. For Ridley himself, it gets personal:
That complacency has shocked me, and done more than anything else to weaken my long-standing support for science as an institution. … I feel genuinely betrayed by the profession that I have spent so much of my career championing.
But this goes far beyond feels of personal disappointment and betrayal. The consequences are enormous:
None of this would matter if it was just scientific inquiry, though that rarely comes cheap in itself. The big difference is that these scientists who insist that we take their word for it, and who get cross if we don’t, are also asking us to make huge, expensive and risky changes to the world economy and to people’s livelihoods.
Ridley’s article is a must read for anyone who is true to science. But for all of its import, it is only the beginning. Ridley is obviously a discerning man but there has been another misadventure and abuse of science that dwarfs climate science. Virtually everything he points out in this excellent piece could be restated, but to even greater extremes, regarding evolution science.
Ridley was once an AGW proponent who now has pulled himself out of its mire. He has stepped back and now the landscape has become all too clear. It is not that there is no warming, or that carbon dioxide has no effects. That’s hardly the point. The problem is in the misrepresentations of the science, the control of the funding, the publication control and blackballing, the demonization, the false dichotomies, the political intrusions, the dangerous impact on public policy, and so forth. This is not science, it a hijacking of science for nonscientific purposes.
Ridley sees all of this. He sees how it really is, and he doesn’t like what he sees. What Ridley does not yet see is that evolution science is all of this, but on a grander scale. Ridley has opened a door, but he is focusing on the first step. It is a most dangerous door, for behind it are all manner of truths people prefer to avoid.
Religion drives science, and it matters.