Evolution, Global Warming, and How Scientific Sausage Is Made

Are you a skeptic of evolution and global warming? I’m not particularly skeptical of either of these two ideas, at least in their broad outlines, but there is an article in the most recent Popular Mechanics that gives me less confidence about the way that scientists arrive at conclusions. The subject of the article is “Climategate”—the controversy surrounding e-mails exchanged among climate scientists at “the Hadley Climatic Research Unit (CRU) at Britain’s University of East Anglia.” The article is written by Peter Kelemen, a geologist who, though not a global warming skeptic, has nevertheless followed the controversy closely. Here’s what Dr. Keleman says toward the beginning of his article: 

Among the hundreds of e-mails, 10 to 20 messages seem to indicate that scientists at CRU and their correspondents considered deleting information requested by critics in the context of British and American freedom of information laws, and in at least two separate cases discussed how to have associate editors of peer-reviewed journals removed from their posts because they accepted critics’ papers for publication. We do not know the detailed context of these messages, nor do we know if ideas discussed in these e-mails were actually implemented.

Deleting contrary data? Driving associate editors from peer-reviewed journals? That’s pretty bad. Here’s Kelemen on the latter:

It was even more troubling for me to read messages in which, in at least two instances, scientists discussed how to get associate editors removed from journals that published papers critical of their work. . . . I am quite familiar with the second journal that was discussed in this context, Geophysical Research Letters (GRL), published by the American Geophysical Union (AGU). Like other reputable journals, it’s an institution where editors and associate editors are chosen for their willingness and ability to strive for an objective review process, which entails seeking a range of advice from competent reviewers across the spectrum of opinion. Decisions by associate editors are subject to review by one or more editors in chief. Some of the stolen CRU e-mails state that if an associate editor of GRL was “in the greenhouse skeptics camp” he should be “ousted,” suggesting that the e-mail authors viewed any critic of their work, no matter how ethical or well-informed, as incompetent. If so, this is a remarkable instance of hubris, and an implicit attack on the basis of the peer-review process, not a normal part of the give-and-take of scientific debate.

And I like Kelemen’s attempt to step back, in the light of this incident, and think about science philosophically:

In the book Magic, Science and Religion, Bronislaw Malinowski defines magic as beliefs based on confirming cases alone, and science as beliefs supported by a rigorous accounting of both confirming and nonconfirming data. In the actual practice of scientists, there is plenty of magic by this definition. It looks like this: “Yes, the data don’t look quite the way we predicted, but that’s because of other factors that we didn’t include or anticipate, and they don’t invalidate our overall theory.” Almost all scientists adopt this viewpoint at one time or another. Sometimes such an inference is correct, sometimes not. An excellent piece of journalism that shows scientists grappling with this dilemma, with regard to predictions and data on global temperature, appeared recently in Der Spiegel. Eventually, as long as people are honest about the data, the amount of non-confirming data becomes so large that most people abandon or modify an incorrect hypothesis. There’s a cynical joke among scientists that this process often takes a generation, because people will rarely agree that a hypothesis that they personally have proposed is wrong, so you have to wait until they retire or die. In any case, bias does exist and people do have opinions, but honest accumulation and reporting of data can eventually correct this.

In other words, accumulated data, according to Kelemen, ultimately overcomes intellectual intransigence (though it might take a while). In the case of Climategate, however, it appears that at least some scientists really don’t want to deal, at least in public, with defending any data that is contrary to their hypothesis:

In the context of the stolen CRU e-mails, one can infer that some key scientists were uncomfortable with providing basic data to their critics, partly because they did not wish to explain and defend various filtering techniques.

Still, Kelemen emphasizes, at the end of his essay, the unprecedented urgency behind the global warming debate, and why prudent policy measures should still assume the worst, not the best:

It is really almost impossible to prove beyond all doubt that nothing important is missing from a theory. As a trail sign in Yosemite used to say, “Caution, unknown hazards may exist.” In addition, the ecological, economic and social consequences of global warming are also uncertain, adding another layer of unpredictability to this whole scenario. Most scientists know and acknowledge these uncertainties, and reason as follows. We’re in an unprecedented situation, with regard to the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere and the rate at which it is rising. Because this is unprecedented, we are not sure what is going to happen. But global warming is very likely, and reasonably probable outcomes could be fatal. Ignoring it would be like Russian roulette. Want to play? I do not.

The lesson? Scientists are people, too:

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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