Wednesday, July 13, 2016

On disagreement's role in science

Some discussion has arisen about whether or not meteorologists who are not climate scientists can contribute to the discussion regarding global climate change.  A while back, I wrote a series of short essays about religion that I called "Leading Horses to Water".  This is one of those essays that I believe represents something we meteorologists who are not doing climate research can contribute to any discussion of global climate.
Previously, I’ve talked about the apparent controversy surrounding the science of global climate.  The media have put out so much misinformation regarding this topic, it’s hard to imagine how the communication between the scientists and the general public can ever recover.

One of the most egregious pieces of misinformation being put forth in the media is that there is much controversy within the science regarding the main issue:  that the global average temperature is increasing, and that the human contribution (the so-called anthropogenic part) through the emission of greenhouse gases is a major causative factor in that temperature increase.  This alleged controversy is being used to support the notion that the consensus science somehow is bad science.  The level of scientific agreement about these basic ideas is nearly unanimous.  But of course, what most people don’t know, and what the media seem incapable of grasping and thereby conveying to the consumers of their rubbish, is that disagreement is an essential and never-ending component of any science!  Disagreement continues within the science, even among those who agree about the consensus findings regarding anthropogenic global warming (AGW).

Any rational argument must come out of a basis of agreement.  Without that, all one has is people talking past one another.  The basis of agreement in science can be referred to as the scientific consensus.  It establishes certain principles and bodies of evidence as having a special status.  Most scientists accept the consensus.

In a very real sense, every scientist is a salesman for his/her own ideas, competing in a “marketplace” of ideas, with the winners being given credit for improving our understanding of the natural world, and the losers being left to try to salvage what they can.  This is a perfect example of a rational free market, actually.  Ideas compete not on the public relations image, or a catchy advertising gimmick, or on pandering to the psychology of investors, but on the evidence that supports them.  If one idea provides a better fit to the evidence, then it wins a temporary victory.  I say temporary because new evidence can revive old, discarded ideas and push them to the forefront long after they were first proposed.

Science makes progress precisely because there is disagreement.  Without internal disagreement, a science is cold and dead.  Just because an individual’s idea is discarded in the marketplace of ideas (from which the so-called “consensus” emerges), this doesn’t mean that he/she slinks away utterly defeated.  A “loser” in the marketplace can redouble their efforts to uncover more compelling evidence, seek to devise an experiment that can provide a more stringent test of the ideas, or try to make a slight modification to their discarded idea to provide an improved fit to the evidence.  Ideas may be defeated now but can emerge later as new (but still provisional!) winners.  When no clear winner emerges, a host of competing ideas clash in the marketplace.  This is healthy, not some sort of scientific malaise.  Scientists improve their ideas by the criticism of their peers, and the science advances through that process.

Science establishes no idea on an absolute basis – science is not a religion, after all.  There are no sacred truths, no meaningful arguments by authority, no ultimate arbiter.  Its most respected ideas are promoted from their original status as  hypothesis to theory to law, but even laws can be superceded.  Newton’s Law of Gravity was supplanted by Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity, for example.

The AGW deniers, a tiny minority within the global climate science community and most confined to non-participants in global climate science, have failed to gain much traction in the traditional media for scientific controversy: peer-reviewed scientific journals.  Thus, they’ve resorted to using the public media, advancing themselves as the true scientists, being victimized by a vast conspiracy within the global climate change scientific community.  There are political and economic ramifications to maintaining the illusion of a scientific controversy regarding AGW, so there are others seeking to promote the deniers as persecuted champions of truth, when the fact is the whole campaign is a tissue of lies and deceit.  There is no scientific controversy regarding AGW, per se! 

The disagreement you read and hear from demagogues disguised as pundits in the media is not the wholesome, necessary conflict among those scientists who are pushing the frontiers of our understanding of the natural world forward.  The disagreement being promoted by the media springs from those who dislike the reality of AGW for their own reasons, often pecuniary or political or both.  The mere existence of disagreement in science is not news, nor does it indicate anything wrong with the science.  It’s the natural state of a healthy, active science.  But this public conflict, outside the traditional place for the marketplace of scientific ideas (in refereed journals and scientific conferences), is not about the normal scientific disagreement.  It’s about personal agendas, about politics, and corporate greed advancing its interests above the public good.  Remember the pseudo-scientific conflict about the health effects of smoking?  Perhaps you should ask yourself who gains from the promotion of claims about non-existent scientific controversy!  Is it the science?  Is it the public?  I think not.

The public has a right, nay, a need to know the truth, but people have to work and think to separate truth from falsehood, science from pseudo-science, real disagreements from manufactured false controversy.  They need to learn how to recognize the demagogues and reality-distorters from those who are attempting to help us all make important decisions for the future.