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December 29, 2008

Science, Perverted

Donald Pittenger writes:

Dear Blowhards --

It's almost New Year's. Pretty quiet on the Web. Here too. Good time to sneak in a rant.

The subject is science and how it's misunderstood and perverted these days. For example, Instapundit called my attention to this item from a left-leaning British newspaper about celebrities not quite getting it.

And then there's Australian newspaper columnist and blogger Tim Blair who, in this post, tosses off the following jabs:

Of course, for these people -- who’d struggle to explain the workings of a simple internal combustion engine but somehow know how to reorganise the entire planet’s energy supply -- “science” includes everything from feng shui and numerology to the healing power of crystals.

Ignorance of science is something that, in principle, is curable by tweaking the educational system. One needed ingredient is a couple of hours dealing with the philosophy of science at the start of each high school level science course. More specifically, it would be helpful to present the thinking of Karl Popper, who held that science advances by disproving flawed hypotheses and theories, not by attempting to "prove" things.

I happen to agree with Popper, so therefore grind my teeth in anger and frustration when Al Gore and other Global Warming True Believers assert that their beliefs on the subject represent "settled science." Popper would contend that nothing is settled in science; the best that can be done is, by testing a variety of falsifiable hypotheses, reduce to a minimum plausible alternatives to a theory.

By making the "settled science" assertion, the Algore crowd is simply trying to stifle opposition to its political agenda. And any scientists who go along with that claim have become politicized to the point that they have betrayed their scientific calling.

Or so I think.

Commenters please note: Nowhere above did I say that scientists should never speak out on public issues. My concern is about some politicians and scientists who want to stop other politicians and scientists from speaking out on public issues.



posted by Donald at December 29, 2008


Amen, brother.

Posted by: susan on December 30, 2008 3:29 PM

Here's another Brit who's fed up with it...

Posted by: Charlton Griffin on December 30, 2008 4:18 PM

I was a K. Popper groupie in my youth, and remain an admirer. I do have some serious reservations about falsifiability as the criterion of science, and about Popper's view that he had solved the problem of induction (a pseudo-problem that grows out of Hume's faulty theory of knowledge and which therefore does not require a solution).

Nonetheless, of all the philosophers of science out there, Popper was one of the few that scientists actually believed had put his finger on how they, scientists, really do the job of advancing scientific knowledge. So sure, I dig Popper, too.

But Al Gore and the eco-armageddonists are much more problematic to a Popperian than dogmatic defenders of an outmoded scientific paradigm (to borrow from T. Kuhn for a moment). They are not in any way scientific, despite the superficial falsifiability of their positions.

Take the following armageddonist proposition: sea levels will rise x feet in so many years, blahblahblah. That's falsifiable, surely. But it's still not a scientific position. Because the armageddonists will not allow it to be falsified.

By failing to consider the psychology, motivation and politico-religious agendas of the armageddonists, a contemporary Popperian fails to see that while a position can be falsifiable, a belief system is not.

A defender of science needs to set his sights higher (or lower, I suppose) than the falsifiability of specific predictions to decide whether or not something is scientific.

Oh, and parenthetically, the funniest title of any book published in recent years is Al Gore's The Assault on Reason. Al isn't a very funny guy, but that...that is a real rib-splitter.

Posted by: PatrickH on December 30, 2008 4:37 PM

I disagree that lack of scientific understanding is fixable even in principle. Tweaking schools doesn't take into account that there is a whole bunch of people who simply are incapable of understanding the scientific method, no matter who much teaching they are exposed to.

I think even moderately smart people, like 110-120 IQ, never really truly are going to get science. They can be taught the words, but they won't actually apply the method, or understand why it is the best we can do knowledge-wise.

Posted by: JohnF on December 30, 2008 4:37 PM

Something that would foster scientific skepticism would be the designation of Central Kempsey Caravan Park to accomodate all future climate conventions. There are a few small shops nearby, and several pubs. Meals and snacks are available at some pubs before about 8pm. Nuts, both salted and unsalted, can be purchased at the counter after 8pm.

Delegates could be housed in a low-energy, minimum-footprint fashion, three or four to a caravan, meetings could be held under trees, a totally natural air-con system. Nearby cow-paddocks, also with shade trees, could be rented for larger gatherings.

It is my suspicion that, after one such convention, delegates would question the urgency of many climate issues, and be less eager to return for further discussion than if the destination were Bali, Rio etc.

"Eppure si muove!" they might mutter with relief, as their bus finally lurches out of Kempsey for the Port Macquarie airport. True Galileos!

Posted by: Robert Townshend on December 30, 2008 4:37 PM

At one time in my benighted youth, I was a physics major. I still love science. But I cannot imagine taking a philosophy of science course. I can see, maybe a history of science course. But scientists do science. Philosophers do nothing.

That said, although I am skeptical about many issues related to global warming, the "anti-Gore" crowd have a bug up their butts regarding politics, but have no intelligent grasp of either science or economics (the real cost of doing "something" about global warming, if anything needs to be done at all). And the straw man here is that attacking or even mocking Gore is not the same thing as critiquing any scientist who contends that global warming is a significant issue.

Lastly, to say that "nothing is settled in science" is mighty weak tea. Does this mean, for example, that evolution is just a high falutin' idea, but nothing more? I don't think so. Or that the germ theory (which sometimes comes under attack by the anti-vaccination boneheads) is just fuzzy thinking?

Posted by: Alec on December 30, 2008 5:38 PM

"Ignorance of science is something that, in principle, is curable by tweaking the educational system."


Posted by: gcochran on December 30, 2008 6:00 PM

Politicians want more control over, well, everything. Thus, they're trying to control the debate over global warming by claiming the issue's been settled. And, it follows, if the issue has been settled, the politicians can now control the spending of the money to solve the problem.

The politicians already control "big science" (as opposed to applied science, which is controlled by big business), thus it's not surprising the scientists have betrayed their calling. They know who's buttering their bread.

Posted by: Bill on December 30, 2008 6:35 PM

I think that the ability to grasp scientific principles is beyond 90% of the population, maybe 95%. I know it's beyond me. That's not false modesty, just the truth.

Really first rate minds, FvB and Donald are examples on this forum, get it. But really first rate minds by definition are rare.

I see that I'm seconding JohnF's post, so I'll leave it at that.

Posted by: ricpic on December 30, 2008 10:16 PM

Very few of the global warming skeptics are climatologists or earth scientists of any type. Most of them are economists, futurologists, ideologues, and so on. Sorry, but I think that the ignorant starlet here is you.

Posted by: John Emerson on December 30, 2008 11:02 PM

Since science is a way of thinking that involves rigorous self-discipline (indeed, involves disciplining a part of the self that many of us don't even know is there), ignorance of science can have deep characterological sources, not easily remedied.

Posted by: Lester Hunt on December 30, 2008 11:23 PM

Folks, you don't seem to have noticed that the target has moved.

Obama has now embraced the term "climate change" instead of "global warming."

This tactical sidestep means that governmental intervention is critical no matter whether the globe gets warmer or colder.

The eco-loonies have moved on from global warming, guys. It's climate change.

Posted by: Shouting Thomas on December 30, 2008 11:25 PM

Popper's idea of falsificationism was subjected to devastating critique by other philosophers of science (e.g. Hilary Putnam in "The Corroboration of Theories", many others as well). Near the end of his life Popper himself was forced to admit its failure and modified his views accordingly (see this Stanford Encyclodedia of Philosophy article on Popper, particularly the last paragraph). Scientific theories are not conclusively proven or disproven through some dramatic single "falsification". The gradual accumulation of predictions and the way in which these predictions accord with reality (including the inevitable anomalies -- all scientific theories have anomalies) leads to a consensus among scientists over time. If too many elaborate auxiliary hypotheses need to be introduced to explain too many anomalies, then scientific consensus gradually moves away from the theory.

Al Gore is not a scientific authority on global warming; however the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is. Each IPCC report includes the contributions of hundreds of climate scientists and is designed to represent the broad consensus of the global climate science community.

The right-wing attack on global warming science basically works by hyping any apparent anomaly they can find to death on blogs, in the press, and other places where there's a non-scientific audience. Since all scientific theories will have either genuine anomalies or at least cases that *appear* to be anomalies to a non-expert, this is an effective propaganda technique. It is much the way the creationist attack on evolution worked. Of course, global warming is much newer and I think significantly less established than the theory of evolution (although I'm hardly an expert). And it's good to subject it to criticism. But the consensus among the great majority of climate scientists on the issue is pretty damn scary at this point. (The economic costs and benefits are another issue).

Posted by: MQ on December 30, 2008 11:45 PM

There's a new snobbery getting about. You imply that your info comes from serious sources, while other people are merely googling, blogging and searching wiki etc.

It's a bit like teen masturbation in a Catholic boarding school: do it yourself on the sly, ridicule those who get caught, and abhor those who do it openly.

I, for one, love and appreciate the net, and use its resources frequently. (I also read lots of books in different languages, but that doesn't give what the net can give.) So you don't have to peer over the cubicle to catch me at my naughty business of searching, blogging etc. I do it!

In the case of the IPCC document, it is such a hopelessly compromised and politicised mess that the AGW believers would do better with re-runs of An Inconvenient Truth to up their cred.

Climate change is real. Historic warm phases haven't had the negative effects of, for example, the Dalton and Maunder Minima, but such peaks as occurred in the thirties and nineties of last century would certainly be worth exhaustive study, not least because these were periods of extreme drought in my part of Oz.

Lower solar irradiance and a negative (cool) PDO such as we are now seeing could mean much...or very much. The cooling of the mid-twentieth century produced its own panic (now denied or down-played by AGW religionists), but a more radical cooling will involve far great challenges to humans. It always has.

Posted by: Robert Townshend on December 31, 2008 7:17 AM

MQ, no fair inserting facts into a debate about global warming! What the Anti-Al Gore crowd seem to not be able to grasp is that they're the only people who pay any real attention to him. He can make all the calls that end the debate all he wants, but the science of testing hypotheses and eliminating anomalies continues on. Dissenters are still entitled to dissent, the burden of proof is on them just as fully as it is on the assenters. They can't simply say "I disagree". Like everyone else, they have to offer proof of what they're saying. They just have a more difficult time as their dissents don't match the data.

"Philosophers do nothing"

Not entirely true. The philosophy departments in universities are seeing a increase in students in recent years. Modern philosophy isn't about studying your bellybutton, it's about skeptical thinking and understanding logic and argumentation. In other words, just what the world needs right now.

Posted by: Upstate Guy on December 31, 2008 10:03 AM

Popper may have become unfashionable, but I've found his proposition very helpful when designing my own experiments and when criticising proposed or published work by others. Of course, that's a mere empirical observation.

Posted by: dearieme on December 31, 2008 11:28 AM

I'll start believing AGW is for real when the proponents of AGW start to live and act like it is real. No more driving in motorcades or taking flights around the world to tell everyone how bad driving and flying is.

And Shouting Thomas is right about the subtle, but telling switch from Global Warming to Climate Change. Why the change? Either people are making the world world warmer or they aren't. Which is it? Or are people making the world cooler?

And the "right wing attack" on global warming? Hysterical. Oh, the persecution! That is standard language that liars and leftists(same thing really) use when being criticized in an effective manner. They also move the goalposts(see Global Warming to Climate Change above.)

Posted by: Bring a Sweater on December 31, 2008 11:31 AM

Back in grad. school days, I noticed that scientists tended to think a lot more highly of Popper than philosophers did. I think that was because Popper's idea of falsification described the way scientists actually worked (or liked to think they worked) on a day-to-day basis; the nitty gritty of most scientific work is the acceptance or rejection of small, specific hypotheses. Philosophers seemed more likely to discount Popper because... well, I was never really sure why, other than he seemed like an old uncool fuddy-duddy compared to Lakatos and Feyerabend.

Posted by: David Fleck on December 31, 2008 12:06 PM

"I think even moderately smart people, like 110-120 IQ, never really truly are going to get science. They can be taught the words, but they won't actually apply the method, or understand why it is the best we can do knowledge-wise."

Actually, the comment about science requiring discipline is closer to the mark than science requiring high IQ. High IQ is the ability to process information quickly. The scientific method is a way of processing information more effectively. Combined, the two can be extremely potent. I personally know a high (175) IQ person who believes that in a conflict between a biblical statement and an observable fact, the fact must be a lie. On the other end of the spectrum, there is John Boyd, who applied disciplined, fact based, falsifiable thought processes to combat flying, aircraft design, tactics, and eventually to the nature of sentient thought. The only reference I've seen to an IQ test for Boyd puts his IQ at 75.

Whether discipline is genetic or not is an interesting question, but whether application of scientific method is based on IQ or discipline? Not so much.

Posted by: KC on December 31, 2008 12:56 PM

I think working scientists like Popper because he does a decent intuitive job of describing the way individual scientists think about their experiments when doing the "normal science" that incrementally moves a theory forward. Come up with a little hypothetical twist on the accepted theory to make a new prediction and then design an experimental situation in which one can see if that prediction comes true or not. Most scientists don't think very much about the auxiliary assumptions that are accepted in the discipline, they are focused on their own incremental contribution. But philosophers have rejected him because he doesn't do a good job of describing how the scientific community as a whole accepts or rejects an entire theoretical framework. Like I said, he conceded the problem in his later work.

I, for one, love and appreciate the net, and use its resources frequently. (I also read lots of books in different languages, but that doesn't give what the net can give.)

me too. Where do you think I got the IPCC document from? I just give more cred to the consensus of people who professionally study stuff than I do random blog commenters, more cred to hard scientists than soft, etc. Using the net for research is a skill, it's very easy to just use it for stuff that confirms your already existing prejudices.

In the case of the IPCC document, it is such a hopelessly compromised and politicised mess that the AGW believers would do better with re-runs of An Inconvenient Truth to up their cred.

I suppose the American Academy for the Advancement of Science, the American Meteorological Society, the U.S. National Research Council, and all the dozens of other major scientific organizations who endorsed the IPCC findings are hopelessly politicized as well. So are the great majority of randomly surveyed climate scientists and the entire peer-reviewed climate literature . Conspiracies are everywhere!

The issue of human-induced climate change is not a yes/no thing anyway, it's a question of risk of harms. It might definitely be happening but not severe enough to make it worth major costs to prevent it, we might not be certain if it's happening but there might be a high enough chance that it is and the impact will be catastrophic that we should take strong action, etc. Frankly, I don't have the qualifications to judge between all those positions, but based on the scientific consensus I think anyone who doesn't take the issue seriously is an ideologue who is just locked inside a denialist echo chamber. Of course, taking it seriously does not mean you cripple the economy -- there are cost/benefit questions which the science does not seem advanced enough to fully answer. But you know, right now there isn't even a penny a ton tax on carbon emissions. A tradeoff of taxes on carbon for tax reductions elsewhere seems sensible.

And the "right wing attack" on global warming? Hysterical. Oh, the persecution! That is standard language that liars and leftists(same thing really) use when being criticized in an effective manner.

There's a lot of propaganda, but there's no persecution and no really effective criticism. The believers in human-caused climate change control the debate and have pretty much won over policymakers and the public on the existence of the problem. Not so sure there's a consensus to really spend a lot on it though.

Posted by: MQ on December 31, 2008 1:48 PM

There's a lot of propaganda, but there's no persecution and no really effective criticism. The believers in human-caused climate change control the debate and have pretty much won over policymakers and the public on the existence of the problem. Not so sure there's a consensus to really spend a lot on it though.

So there is no attack by the right? I though not. More leftist AGW hysteria. Attacks(or threats of trials and jail time) seem to come from AGW cultists:,2933,370521,00.html

Remember Bjorn Lomborg?

And you ignored the part about "global warming" becoming "climate change." How come the change? Don't tell me the true believers have started to doubt themselves or are hedging!

And if you believe in AGW, have you modified your lifestyle?

But this was the best:

"Not so sure there's a consensus to really spend a lot on it though."

That was a joke, right? If not, I'm sure you could find plenty of calls for spending lost and lots of money from many leftists. Try "carbon tax"

Posted by: Bring a Sweater on December 31, 2008 4:50 PM

The number of climatologists, meteorologists, physicists, earth scientists etc who are skeptics or deniers was always large and is only growing.

My interest was sparked some years ago when I read an article about a solar physicist having her research inexplicably stifled. I did not keep the article, since it meant little at the time, but it stuck in my mind as a curiosity. I'm a little wiser now.

Most interesting is someone like Philip Lloyd, IPCC co-coordinating lead author on the Technical Report on Carbon Capture & Storage. A full-on skeptic, he is amazed at how the final report and summaries have, in his words, "distorted the science". He's not alone among IPCC authors, and I'm sure everyone must be aware of the hundreds of scientists involved in the Senate Minority Report.

I agree that, on the political/admin level, most organisations, from the tiddly-winks club to NASA, are committed to the AGW faith and cap-and-trade tithing. (Are you game to tell Hansen or the Girlie-Governor of California that they're wankers, but can you please have your funding anyway?)

Financial institutions, unable to raffle off any more crap-credit, can't wait for the carbon-trading show to start in earnest. Enron and Lehman Bros pioneered this stuff. Gore buys carbon-credits from himself. Alarm-bells audible?

As a pure layman, all I can gather is that we're between ice-ages, big and little, and have experienced a warming from the seventies to the end of the century little different from that experienced between the two world wars. Let's just hope the next cooling phase is like the one from the forties to the global-cooling panic of the seventies. That was mild.

Of the major cooling periods we know about, every single one has been catastrophic for human beings.

Posted by: Robert Townshend on December 31, 2008 6:04 PM

I knew karl popper and a more false person i never knew.

he was a fake. a mouthbreather that revelled in the types that would read karl popper wearing a rug in oxford square.

i hereby falsify karl popper.

yours etc..


Posted by: Ramesh on January 1, 2009 4:14 PM

The philosopher of science David Stove made a pretty good argument in a number of his books that Popper (and some of the others mentioned above like Feyerabend) were actually the beginning of the postmodern irrationalist movement. See here:

and here:

Posted by: Yeyepes on January 4, 2009 4:11 AM

Oh, and I forgot to add, LOL@philosophers do nothing. It's not about philosophers, it's about philosophy. Give me someone who has studied philosophy, ethics, and logic with whatever other degree they are doing over someone with a plain science, engineering, or business degree any day. The level of broad and deep critical thinking skills of the former students is far beyond the latter.

Posted by: yeyepes on January 4, 2009 4:16 AM

Didn't the Bush administration try to shut down James Hansen and defund weather satellites?

I'm sorry, I don't see why conservatives can't accept that science has proved them wrong on one thing. Most of the conservative values like loyalty and tradition aren't scientific anyway (and as Jim Kalb says, that's the point).

Posted by: SFG on January 4, 2009 10:36 AM

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