Leading Horses to Water

Ancient Greeks began the way of thinking originally known as natural philosophy but which we now call science.  Science emerged as we know it during the Renaissance, in an age dominated by fear, superstition, injustice, and brutality.  In other words, pretty much like the present.  These musings are aimed at explaining how science works, and how science can serve even nonscientists in their efforts to make sense of the world.  I can try to explain things but it’s up to you to decide whether or not you wish to drink from these waters.

#2 - Science and, by inference, rationalism, under attack

American Heathen:  aired: 22 July 2011

In the midst of a blistering summer heat wave in many parts of the USA, the anthropogenic global warming (AGW) deniers are, not so strangely, mostly silent.  It’s a lot easier to deny global warming when temperatures plunge and the snow flies, although in both cases (a heat wave or a cold wave) what people are seeing is the weather, not the climate.  This is simply another tactic that AGW deniers use to cast their spell of confusion on the American public.

Emotion-laden pandering to public ignorance has been characteristic of the AGW deniers now for several years.  They aren’t carrying out their denials in the refereed scientific literature, where any real scientific debate is conducted.  Rather, they use the media to trumpet their message through the blogosphere and other public media, including journalists who duly and solemnly report “both sides” of this pseudo-debate as if the two sides carry equal weight.  Right-wing stooges for the corporate elite continue to accuse the climate scientists of engaging in a conspiracy to misrepresent climate science for their personal gain.  No matter that no substantive evidence for misrepresentation of the science has ever been found.  Just a lot of warped interpretation of such non-events as “Climategate” – which has been called the most important scandal in the history of science by some these AGW denier zealots, even though the reality is that no significant misdeeds have been established in any of the several investigations into the case.

The worst part of all of these histrionics is that it taps into a deep undercurrent of anti-intellectualism that always has run just below the surface here in the USA.  The attack on climate science is simply a manifestation of the growing ignorance of many Americans when it comes to science.  They didn’t take to the subject in school and they simply don’t trust those “pointy-headed intellectuals” whom they accuse of elitism and arrogance, spurned on by know-nothing spokespersons for corporations who are unhappy with the scientific findings of climate science.  Those findings make it clear that humans are  influencing the global climate through their vast outpourings of greenhouse gases.  That looks like bad publicity for many of those corporations (especially including the extremely wealthy “energy” sector, which is primarily about the consumption of fossil fuels).  What better way to undermine the credibility of those findings than to discredit the scientists and to spread lies, innuendos, accusations of misdeeds, and misrepresentations far and wide.  Politics has shown the vulnerability of the American public to such underhanded tactics, and the AGW deniers have become quite adept at the process.  These deniers are conspicuously absent from the scientific journals and conferences where the vast majority of climate scientists conduct their science via well-proven pathways of peer review and frank, honest interchanges between people operating on the cutting edge of their science.  If one wants to find a conspiracy, it’s not at all likely to be among the vast majority of climate scientists.  Better to search for conspiracy within the AGW deniers and their corporate sponsors.  It’s a common tactic of demagogues to accuse their opponents of the very tactics and misdeeds that they themselves are using.

The AGW deniers have even gone so far as to try to undermine the very notion of scientific consensus.  Dictionary.com defines consensus:

1. majority of opinion,
2. general agreement or concord; harmony.

So when AGW deniers scream the mantra that “Consensus science isn’t science!” without any comprehension of what consensus represents in science, what they’re evidently saying is that anything that most scientists agree upon is no longer science!  The reason they attack consensus science, of course, is that they need to deny the consensus, since that consensus is overwhelmingly in favor of AGW.  If they are climate scientists (most AGW deniers aren’t scientists of any sort, of course), then they’re taking a position on the fringes of that science.

So what does consensus science look like?  Ever buy a freshman level college science textbook?  Virtually all of the content therein is “consensus science” – it’s the formal, intellectual basis for the entire topic under consideration.  It’s in that textbook because virtually everyone in the field agrees that it’s an accurate representation of what scientists in that field consider to be the core of their understanding.  You likely can find a few individuals who might disagree with some parts of that textbook, perhaps with good reasons or perhaps not with good reasons.  In any case, the consensus in science isn’t immutable, but changing it requires a substantial effort.  No one likes to have to change their core principles, so scientists will be very hesitant to change the consensus just because someone disagrees with some of it.  But, over time, that consensus does evolve.  New ideas supplant some of the former consensus as the consensus changes.  That’s the way science moves forward and that’s how scientists make a name for themselves – by contributing something that forces a change in the consensus.  Therefore, no true scientist has a vested interest in the consensus.  The slow evolution of science is punctuated by occasional major revolutions within the core, such as the relativity and quantum mechanics in physics, plate tectonics in geology, or numerical solutions for the otherwise unsolvable mathematics of atmospheric science.

Science at the cutting edge, on the other hand, is much more volatile and laced with disagreement.  Despite their agreement with the consensus, scientists on the frontiers of knowledge clash often and heatedly at times over issues on those frontiers.  This lack of agreement about new ideas is normal in science, not a sign of something going wrong.  But if you ask the participants in such clashes about the core, they would agree on the vast majority of the consensus.  Without that consensus as the basis, their disagreements would be futile!  If an argument is to be fruitful, there must always be an extensive basis of agreement on fundamental principles.

The American public, already being victimized by various assaults on public education, is increasingly vulnerable to the anti-intellectual smearing of people who stand for a rational, scientific approach to understanding and problem-solving.  Ignorance seems to be expanding, even as science moves forward.  Slogans and anti-science mudslinging work because many people choose not to think for themselves, choosing insted to follow demagogues who promise the world but will deliver something very different if they win the day.  The attacks on climate science are attacks on all of science, and in fact on all rational, empirical thinking.  AGW deniers can be seen as a portent of a new Dark Age that could descend on the USA.

Science is not a religion but rather a tool for those who wish to think for themselves about the natural world.  Its primary characteristic is its willingness to entertain questions from those who wish to obtain believable answers.