»  National Review Online

November 30th, 2009

  Trust Science


The ninth commandment is: trust science. By this we mean a true science, based on objectively established criteria and agreed foundations, with a rational methodology and mature criteria of proof — not the multitude of pseudo-sciences which, as we have seen, have marked characteristics which can easily be detected and exposed. Science, properly defined, is an essential part of civilization. To be anti-science is not the mark of a civilized human being, or of a friend of humanity. Given the right safeguards and standards, the progress of science constitutes our best hope for the future, and anyone who denies this proposition is an enemy of science.
                    —  Paul Johnson, Enemies of Society (1977)

Well, of course we all do trust science. We trust Bernoulli's Principle every time we get on a plane; we trust celestial mechanics when we take the kids outside to watch a scheduled lunar eclipse; we trust subatomic physics when we relax with an iPod; we trust the laws of chemistry every time we strike a match; we trust the theories of Special and General Relativity when we consult a GPS gadget; we trust natural selection when we fret about drug-resistant disease strains or pesticide-resistant crop infestations; we trust molecular biology every time we pop a pill. Our trust in science is wellnigh unbounded. We hardly draw a breath without trusting science. Paul Johnson's injunction would seem to be superfluous.

How odd, then, that some high proportion of readers bristled when reading Johnson's words — or, very likely, just on seeing my title. Why get heated at being told to do something you have done a hundred times a day, all your life?

This is, of course, in the context of leaked emails from the Climate Research Unit at an English university … which is itself in the context of the climate change panic (née the global warming panic) that has been promoted by a subset of Western elites for a dozen or more years now. The scientists who generated those emails have all been helping to promote the climate change thesis — the notion that humanity faces some great climatic catastrophe if we don't radically change the way we use energy.

The normal thing at this point would be for the writer to declare a position on that underlying thesis. Is the earth's climate changing to humanity's dire detriment, or isn't it? If it is, are the changes due to human activity, or aren't they? In either case, is there anything we can do about it at acceptable cost and without unforeseen harm?

I have to cop out on that. As best I can judge, our planet probably is enjoying a long-term warming trend, though with much local variation and temporary lulls and reversals sometimes lasting for years. The Arctic certainly seems to have been losing ice this past thirty years, for instance (Figure 3 here). That these changes are human-made, is not clear to me. The argument that they are, rests largely on theories about the overall effect of changing CO2 levels; but those theories themselves are open to reasonable doubt. There is even more doubt about the consequences of any change that might be happening; and even where doubt is minimal, the consequences are counter-intuitive. It is generally thought, for example, that an ice-free Arctic will leave Europe colder (by killing the Gulf Stream).

And the science is heavily polluted by politics. The climate change legions are recruited mainly from the Western left-intelligentsia, their kitbags stuffed with all the sub-Marxist and ethno-masochist flapdoodle of the modern Academy. They hate capitalism, they hate Western civilization, and they hate their own ancestors. The kind of dramatic social engineering implicit in the phrase "combatting climate change" is emotionally appealing to them.

Downstream from these ideologues are opportunist politicians (if you'll pardon a pleonasm), too dimwitted to understand the ideology — let alone the science! — but eager to ride the climate-change wave to power and wealth. These pols find the gimcrack formulas of postmodernist Hesperophobia mighty handy for whipping up support from Bobo academy graduates and aggrieved ethnic groups. They control departments of state, which hand out grants and jobs to ideologically-friendly researchers, corrupting the whole scientific process.

Nor is climate-change skepticism free of politics. There are big, rich, powerful interests hostile to the climate-change cult: Big Coal, Big Oil, and the Big BRICs. Given the stakes, it would be astonishing if they did not have their own paid shills in the game. I'd guess that there has been some busy deleting of emails this past few days at Mogul corporate HQ and BRIC embassies.

Now, somewhere under that political scrum is a rugby-ball of scientific truth. Which side will get possession at last, is beyond my ability to figure. Hence the cop-out. I can, though, point out a number of general truths worth bearing in mind when relating this present flap to the larger business of science. My hope here is to wipe away the scowl you scowled at my title and P.J.'s opening remarks.

1.  Settled vs. Unsettled Science.   The examples in my first paragraph up there are all of settled science — theories sufficiently well-tested and robust that we can be confident they model the real world to high accuracy. These theories have no competitors. You can of course always find a contrarian, even on such thoroughly-settled topics as heliocentrism or Relativity, but no working scientist is losing any sleep over their arguments. Contrarianism in this zone is a social and psychological (occasionally psychiatric) phenomenon, not a scientific one.

Science is a lighted clearing in the forest. Beyond the well-lit central area is a penumbra of more or less shadowed ground. Beyond that is the infinite dark forest of our ignorance. Scientists toil to enlarge the lighted area — the zone of settled science. This is the science Paul Johnson wants us to trust. This is the science that we do trust. Beyond it, though, in the penumbra, there is dimness enough for all kinds of malarkey. This is the preferred playground of ideologues, politicians, and crooks. This is where the climate-change battles are being fought.

2.  Trust Science, But Don't Trust Scientists.   Scientists are human and subject to the same weaknesses, failings, and fixations as the rest of us. Most science research goes on in the universities of the Western world, where the dominant ideology is the leftist, anti-Western one noted above. Math and science people usually don't care much about politics. Their subjects are too difficult, demand too much in the way of mental resources, to leave anything over for thinking deeply about politics. They breathe in the atmosphere of the academy, though, and it poisons their blood, the more easily just because they don't think about it much.

Even without the political pressures of the climate-change game, scientists are often dishonest. The dishonesty occasionally slops over into downright crookedness, but discreet data-diddling is much more common. An important thing to remember here is that practically all of this is done to "improve" results the researcher believes to be true, not to put over something he believes false. (Gregor Mendel, the father of modern genetics, was accused of "improving" his data in this way.) It follows that, as reprehensible as the behavior of the CRU emailers surely was, it tells us nothing about the truth or falsehood of climate change.

Science contains a core magisterium, which we can and do trust. It also contains a hinterland of more or less "open" enquiries, where you need to peer very carefully at the numbers before extending trust — where, indeed, it is wisest to withhold trust altogether until the smoke of battle has cleared. Public funds should likewise be withheld, though any particular problems arising from climate change should be dealt with if and when they show up.

3.  Consensus vs. Contrarians.   In any region of science there is usually, at any given time, a consensus position, and a contrarian position. For theories solid enough to be part of the magisterium, contrarianism is out at the social fringes, as noted. In less settled areas, the contrarians themselves are working scientists, with data they can bring forward to challenge the consensus data. This is certainly the case with climate science. Here, for example, are thirty-one thousand scientists who think that:

There is no convincing scientific evidence that human release of carbon dioxide, methane, or other greenhouse gasses is causing or will, in the foreseeable future, cause catastrophic heating of the Earth's atmosphere and disruption of the Earth's climate.

The temptation for outsiders is to side with the underdogs, the contrarians. The temptation is especially strong for conservatives, who are suspicious of bossy technocratic elites possessed of esoteric knowledge. We are inclined to think that the shape of our light bulbs, the capacity of our toilet cisterns, and the axle weight of our automobiles should be decided between ourselves and the relevant vendors, on market principles, not dictated to us by bureaucrats.

The temptation should be resisted. Contrarians do indeed sometimes turn out to be right, but that's not the way to bet. Consensus exists for a reason, and a consensus should put up some spirited resistance to being overthrown.

Newtonian mechanics says that the orbit of Uranus ought to look like this. In fact, it looks like this. Eeek! Newtonian mechanics must be wrong! Actually, no; it's just that there is a hitherto-unseen planet disturbing the data. A well-established consensus doing useful work should not be blown over by a puff of breath, or by scattered cases of contradictory data. Neptune-style possibilities have to be exhausted. There should be longstanding problems defying explanation. There needs to be a coherent alternate theory available — as there was when Newtonian mechanics was modified by Einstein.

Contrarians should be made to fight for their victories. If they fight on fair ground, wielding superior data and arguments, they will win, and become the new consensus. There have been scientific revolutions a-plenty, and there will surely be more. Galileo, Kepler, Newton, Lavoisier, Faraday, Darwin, Pasteur, Planck, Einstein, Hubble,and Wegener are not revered for their defense of a consensus. To overthrow a consensus, or force major changes on it, is the dream of every young scientist. Older scientists may settle for tenure, rank, political patronage, and a quiet life, but there will always be younger ones ready to fight the contrarian corner.

4.  Small stakes.   Let me deflate that last parallel a little. While the political and financial stakes in the climate-change controversy are huge — power, jobs, money, economic transformation — the scientific stakes are small.

Climate change is not an overarching theory like Newton's mechanics or Faraday-Maxwell electromagnetism. It's an interpretation of some data — data fuzzy and uncertain enough to be capable of other interpretations. The intellectual stakes here are small. Dogged defense of the phlogiston theory of combustion post-Lavoisier would make you look like an idiot; dogged defense of one plausible interpretation of iffy climatological data, against another one equally plausible, just makes you look mistaken. It is correspondingly easier on the conscience of researchers.

5.  The mills grind slow.   You may say: "That's all very well; but plainly we need some better method for weighing the claims of contrarians against the claims of the consensus."

Perhaps we do, but I wouldn't be holding your breath waiting for it. It takes nine months to have a baby; there's no shortcut. Nor is there any way to shorten the process by which scientific truth emerges — a process at least as messy and painful as parturition, and lasting a great deal longer. It took three hundred years (Copernicus to Bessel) to resolve the issue of stellar parallax, the last obstacle to the dispositive establishment of heliocentrism.


Paul Johnson is right: we should trust science. We have no other way to find out truths about the natural world, and the successes of science, both epistemic and practical, are tremendous.

That is to speak of science as a magisterium, though: as a core of settled knowledge, of theories — heliocentricity, the circulation of the blood, electromagnetism, natural selection, the Periodic Table, continental drift, cosmic expansion — supported by great masses of evidence and contradicted by none, fruitful in prediction, and without serious competitors.

The mills of science grind slow, too slow for political enthusiasts. They deliver the goods at last, though. And what goods they are! Compare the amenities of our lives now with those of our ancestors 350 years ago before the scientific revolution. Compare, too, the world-wide condominium of shared understandings — the de-tribalization of thought that science has brought about. Time was, not so long ago, that educated people in Beijing, Bombay, Berlin and Bogotá had different creation myths, different explanations for natural phenomena, different treatments for bodily failings.

Now we all share the same knowledge of the natural world, the same systematic and clear understandings. Those are the accomplishments of science, Western civilization's great gift to humanity. To turn against science is folly, a lurch back towards superstition, tribalism, and barbarism. For a person of the West to turn against science is also cultural treason, a form of ethno-masochism as shamefully deplorable as the postmodernist rejection of reason and language that has poisoned the faculties of arts and humanities in our universities. "To be anti-science is not the mark of a civilized human being, or of a friend of humanity." I completely agree.