I keep telling myself that the unwinding of the greatest scientific hoax since Piltdown Man is proof of the power of Science, that no matter how hard conspirators try to hide it, eventually the Truth comes out. As an anthropogenic global warming (AGW) skeptic (not a climate change denier – I don’t deny that climate changes; a basic understanding of natural history is enough to prove that) I’ve been relieved to see reality justify my faith in Science on the topic. But I’m wondering how much damage the AGW alarmists have caused.
We’re not talking about the failures of one man but of rationality itself as an entire generation of intelligent, educated, and hardworking people were fooled into perpetuating what is at heart not a simple mistake but a bald lie. As the supposed scientific evidence for that lie falls one domino after another I’m beginning to wonder where the domino chain will end and how scientists will rebuild the trust squandered by the politicization of their discipline. Those of us who grew up on a steady diet of Isaac Asimov always believed that a world run by scientists would be a better world than we have today, that the banishment of irrationality by those steeped in the tools of logic could lead us into a Golden Age.
What we believers ignored was the dark side of science, the venality of faculty meetings, the anonymous character assassinations in journal refereeing, the naked power present from faculty advisors forcing their graduate students to work on their own pet projects and ignoring the needs of their charges all the way up the food chain to science committees advising presidents and prime ministers. The global warming alarmists have made it impossible for us to ignore the dark side of science, and in so doing all science becomes suspect.
The issue is not that science changes. Science itself is dynamic, and to reflect that change scientists must never forget John Maynard Keynes’s statement to a questioner who claimed his position on monetary policy flip-flopped during the Depression: “When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?” Each should strive to keep an open mind, but balance that need with healthy skepticism. When that skepticism is lost, and as in the case of anthropogenic global warming used as a pejorative, scientists debase their own discipline and become no better than the propagandists and politicians they believe themselves better than.
The CIA claimed that Saddam Hussein was building nuclear, chemical and biological weapons. The claim was used to justify the invasion and occupation of Iraq, but those weapons were never found. Two years ago the CIA claimed that Iran was not building nuclear weapons. Yet even Iran’s sympathizers in the IAEA say that Iran has an active nuclear weapons program. How can we trust the CIA anymore? Since bad information is worse than no information it would be better for the CIA to be disbanded after its 60 year run and replaced by a more effective intelligence tool.
It’s interesting to note that the CIA’s recent mistakes stem from its increasing politicization (the intelligence leaks that undermined the Bush administration’s foreign policy) just as the global warming alarmists have exchanged the laboratories and lecture halls for UN negotiating tables and Congressional hearings.
The trouble is that we can replace the CIA but it’s nearly impossible to replace the alarmists. We can embarrass them and cause a few resignations here or there but for the most part we’re stuck with them for the foreseeable future. They will just continue to politicize science and people will tune them out just as they tune out other political voices. And in the end when there is truly an emergency that scientists agree on – say a future collision of an asteroid with the earth for example – they will be ignored.
It’s rare these days to see the term “global warming” preceded or followed by the the term “consensus” as if this word alone makes global warming unassailable. Besides being a fallacy the usage of a subjective term “consensus” to describe a scientific hypothesis merely suggests its weak underpinnings. We don’t talk about the consensus of Newtonian physics or the quantum physics consensus. We don’t have to appeal to popularity in order to prove these ideas. We have solid experimental evidence supporting them. Historically science has had numerous agreements on principles and ideas that were later proven wrong. Steady state universe consensus? Wrong. The consensus supporting the geosyncline theory of that explained sea animal fossils on mountain tops? Replaced by plate tectonics.
Science isn’t about perfection. The people who believed that the stars and planets moved through ether weren’t fools or bad scientists. Their work advanced Science until it reached a point where a new idea explained the universe better than existing ones; in the case of the ether theory, Einstein’s Theory of Relativity. It’s not as important to be right than it is to be methodical and skeptical of one’s evidence and results. This is a basic tenet of science that today’s climate scientists have lost. These people should be stripped of the term “scientist” to protect the reputation of scientists who don’t fall victim to fads.