08 February 2010

Scientists' Fear

In my previous post on the future durability of the AGW scare, I mentioned the reason why scientists tend not to view climate sceptics as presenting a legitimate scientific viewpoint. I took the opportunity of a wild kick at my other favourite target, democracy:

"If scientists treat creationists and the like with respect, and argue honestly and fairly, they will be screwed by elected politicians."

Because I was off on a tangent, and not giving the argument the separate post that it deserves, I didn't provide any evidence that this attitude really exists among scientists.

As it happens, I picked up Dawkins' "The God Delusion" from the library at the weekend. Imagine my smug self-satisfaction, then, when I read the following this morning on page 91

In parts of the United States, science is under attack from a well-organized, politically well-connected and, above all, well-financed opposition, and the teaching of evolution is in the front-line trench. Scientists could be forgiven for feeling threatened, because most research money comes ultimately from government, and elected representatives have to answer to the ignorant and the prejudiced, as well as to the well-informed, among their constituents.

Dawkins is putting that forward as an excuse for scientists to make public statements that they don't believe - in this case for being overly sympathetic to Christianity, in order to keep moderate Christians as allies against creationists. He considers it an insufficient excuse - "The real war is between rationalism and superstition", but he believes that some scientists are concealing their real views for tactical reasons in the war against fundamentalists and "elected representatives". I think he is right.

The fundamental point, which I've touched on on a number of occasions, is that if you want to be a scientist in a democracy, where "most research money comes ultimately from the government", as Dawkins says, then you have to be a bit of a politician. That comes through just as strongly in Phil Jones' cri de coeur in today's Times - "I am just a scientist. I have no training in PR or dealing with crises."

I really don't believe that more than one in ten of the warmist scientists would spin, lie and conspire in the way they have just to support their pet theory against scientific opponents - even with the stakes as high as they are in terms of funding and career opportunities. They would see that as a betrayal of science, and their consciences would not allow it.

But The Discovery Institute is not a scientific opponent - it is an anti-scientific opponent. Its dishonesty and ulterior motives disqualify it from participating in the normal scientific process according to the normal rules, and in dealing with it, scientists subordinate the scientific process to political tactics.

The key fact about the climate debate is that, because of where the initial scepticism came from, many scientists saw it in the same light as intelligent design. As I wrote yesterday, once they had made that assumption, they were trapped: if you believe your opponents are enemies of science, then stronger arguments from the enemy spur you not to greater doubt, but to greater determination. Also, since the more politically aware bodies in science closed ranks against climate sceptics, they found support largely among that minority more accustomed to working with the political right. The association of climate sceptics with minor right-wing think tanks and a Republican senator confirms in the mainstream scientists the view that they are dealing with a political enemy, not a scientific opponent.

I wrote in my giving-up-on-politics post, "not only do my good arguments not win against my opponents' bad arguments, my good arguments do not even win against my allies' bad arguments."

The problem that causes is that the arguments most likely to persuade the public that you are right, are likely at the same time to persuade the well-informed that you are wrong.

We are seeing the knock-on effect of that situation. In order to win over the ignorant and indifferent, prominent people on both sides of the dispute are employing arguments that are weak, irrelevant, or downright dishonest. Such techniques achieve successes, but at the cost, on both sides, of convincing the opponents more strongly of their own rightness. And, both convinced of their own rightness and dismayed by their opponents' undeserved popular successes, each side becomes more unscrupulous still in response.

The really difficult question is; does all this mean that the scientists were wrong to 'go political' over evolution? Once they had arrogated to themselves the right to decide that evolution was true and they needed to do whatever was necessary to keep teaching it, was an overreaching such as is happening over climate inevitable?

I don't have to answer that question - I can just blame the problem on democracy, the only system which makes convincing the ignorant and indifferent an essential part of everything from studying the climate to putting on a museum exhibition.


neil craig said...

I don't think you can really say that Professor Fred Singer was not quite obviously a well qualified scientist & climate scientist at that. Cinsrquently there can be no excuse for pretending that this was not a scientific dispute (at least on the sceptical side). Since they have clearly lied massively the onus must be on Jones, Mann, Pachauri & all the eco "experts", who have after all bused knowingly false personal insults against opponents to prove that they are, in some way, far more honest than they appear.

I think that this is simply a more extreme version of the way that government funded science is normally of negative value & encourages dishonesty. http://a-place-to-stand.blogspot.com/2009/01/government-funding-of-r-has-negative.html

Tony Sidaway said...

Global warming thrives because there is no credible scientific critique. That's how the cookie crumbles.