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Wednesday, December 16, 2009
On the Nature of Science

. . . And the sort of suspicions which are justified when people push science as something it is not.

Red Flags and Certainty

Climategate, so called, is one more reminder of the nature of science. Or perhaps it signals the need for one more reminder.

Science consists of theories which haven't been disproven yet, not truths which are fully proven, settled, and established. Science progresses by questioning itself, by trying to disprove all or part of an existing theory. This has some important implications for our contemporary politics.

Any assertion of scientific consensus should make us suspicious that (a) the person asserting doesn't understand science, and (b) there is something other than science at work. Any attempt to enforce scientific consensus, such as the misdeeds Climategate is underscoring, is a dead giveaway that something other than science is going on. Hence my view that we would be fools to take grave, expensive measures at this juncture to mitigate human-caused climate change.

I'm not enough of a scientist to have mastered all the evidence and studied all the computerized climate models, but what I've already said here about the nature of science tells me something fundamental. In fact, it throws up a big, bright, red flag. Whether or not anthropogenic (human-caused) climate change is happening to any meaningful degree -- I'm inclined to suspect heliogenic (sun-caused) climate change is a better explanation -- the non-scientific motives at work here are enough to make me an opponent of the political movement to subordinate the world to carbon allotments and the tyrants who would rule them.

A Lesson from History

Certainty is contrary to the nature of scientific inquiry. A century and a half ago, nothing was more certain in science than the physics of Newton and the geometry of Euclid. Then, as the nineteenth century struggled on, we began to learn that both these systems were merely good approximations of reality, which were useful in most ordinary situations. To be sure, they were close enough to reality that many fine things could be built upon them, but they were not the absolute truth.

Others set the explosives, but Einstein detonated them, and the shock waves were keenly felt well beyond the bounds of math and physics, even in philosophy and literature. (I blogged about this in some detail a few years ago.) Understandably, a lot of smart people had placed their faith -- which is not the same as provisional acceptance -- in the earthshaking, incalculably valuable work of Newton and Euclid and the many who built productively on their efforts. These believers had forgotten the nature of science, and, as a result, they were shaken to the core, when theories which had proved so useful proved not to be absolutely true.

Had they accepted science provisionally, as useful theories which have not yet been disproven, but which are subject to refinement or disproof at any time -- in other words, had they not engaged the faith we place in what we believe to be absolute truth -- their faith would not have been shaken by Einstein and the others. Science would still have progressed, but more smoothly, possibly more quickly, and certainly without shaking the foundations of other disciplines.

The Point

What I'm saying is this: It is unwise to place one's bedrock faith in good science, on the assumption that it is completely proven to be absolute truth. It is sheer folly to place one's faith in bad science. And when we have people running around crowing about scientific consensus, let alone acting to suppress scientific doubt and dissent, we have a foundation so shaky that only fools would build an economic and political revolution upon it. The warmists would have you think that science is informing their politics, when the reverse is true. Their politics have corrupted and subjugated science, and now the science itself deserves to be regarded with even greater skepticism.

I'm earnestly hoping that when Climategate shakes out, we can go back and look with a dispassionate, scientific eye at climate change and seriously consider the plentiful data and theories which don't fit the current party line. The results of that scientific process might be solid ground on which to base some serious decisions about policy and lifestyle. You see, we generally cannot wait to act upon knowledge until it is proven absolutely true, because that happens too late, if it ever happens. So we act on the best data and theories we have -- but first we make sure, for our own safety, that the science which produced them was unfettered and conscientious and is uncorrupted by a political agenda.

It's possible that anthropogenic climate change will end up merely as a massive embarrassment, much larger than, but of a piece with, cold fusion. What the sages of Copenhagen want to happen would vault it well beyond this shameful category, if theirs proves to be bad science. Decades hence, if they have their way, we may look back on it as a new analog to twentieth-century communism. That allegedly scientific ideology impoverished billions of humans and killed tens of millions before finally slinking away into the historical night.

Meanwhile, may I say it one more time? Science which has to be protected from further scientific inquiry -- as in doubt and dissent -- by censorship, deception, and other misbehavior is bad science. And the people who presume to protect it are bad scientists, if they deserve to be called scientists at all.

One More Note About Science

I am a political conservative, and I am religious, but I don't quite fit the Big Media Acronyms' stereotype of religious conservative. For one thing, though I don't believe that humans evolved from lower life forms -- my preferred account involves God -- I am perfectly willing to believe that other species evolve. Moreover, I am quite comfortable with evolution -- even the human part which I don't believe -- being taught in school science classes. But I did not state that strongly enough. Actually, I think evolution should be taught in the appropriate school science classes.

If that science teacher is properly qualified and basically honest, he or she will not be teaching that science is absolute, demonstrated, proven, established, settled truth. Science teachers who are doing their jobs teach that any given bit of science is merely our best current theory, based on the data we have. It may be a very good theory, but it is subject not only to revision but even to disproof, as we gather more data and learn to think in new ways about the data we already have. A given scientific theory may actually be absolute truth, but science cannot prove that and is not justified in proclaiming it.

So go ahead, public schools, and teach my children in their science classes that science's best current theory of human origins is evolution. That's the science of the matter at present; in a hundred years we may or may not think differently. But be careful. As soon as you teach them that any scientific theory is the absolute truth, you have stopped teaching science -- stopped doing your job -- and have trespassed on religion or philosophy, something you are not hired or licensed to teach and are probably not qualified to teach, either.

Science is a fabulous, fascinating, superbly powerful tool. So is a screwdriver, if you use it to drive screws or -- purists, forgive me -- to pry or to poke or to scrape. If you try to light a fire with a screwdriver or use it to flavor soup, you will probably be disappointed. Likewise, if you miscontrue as-yet-undisproven scientific theory as absolute truth and place anything resembling religious faith in it, you will likely be disappointed in the end (if not much sooner).

Brian Rawlings comments (12/17/09):

Well stated, David. Now, who is going to listen?

David Rodeback comments (12/17/09):

Not the true believers, I'm sure -- and I regret that I find myself using that term as negatively as Eric Hoffer generally did. Firm faith is not easily shaken by reasoned opposition, even when the reasoning is sound. But perhaps enough fellow travelers can be swayed to prevent a majority-inflicted national cataclysm -- a real "man-caused disaster" more profound and destructive than any act of terrorism yet perpetrated.

I mean no injustice to Eric Hoffer, by the way, who was an exceptionally keen mind blessed with uncommon power of expression -- of which I just reminded myself by reading some Eric Hoffer quotations, including this one:

People whose lives are barren and insecure seem to show a greater willingness to obey than people who are self-sufficient and self-confident. To the frustrated, freedom from responsibility is more attractive than freedom from restraint. They are eager to barter their independence for relief of the burdens of willing, deciding and being responsible for inevitable failure. They willingly abdicate the directing of their lives to those who want to plan, command and shoulder all responsibility. (from The True Believer).

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