Saturday, June 02, 2007

Global Warming and "Scientific" Consensus

Michael Griffin, Administrator of NASA, is taking a load of flak for questioning in an NPR interview the "fact" that climate change is a bad thing. Here's a selection from the interview:

I have no doubt that … a trend of global warming exists. I am not sure that it is fair to say that it is a problem we must wrestle with. To assume that it is a problem is to assume that the state of Earth's climate today is the optimal climate, the best climate that we could have or ever have had and that we need to take steps to make sure that it doesn't change. First of all, I don't think it's within the power of human beings to assure that the climate does not change, as millions of years of history have shown. And second of all, I guess I would ask which human beings — where and when — are to be accorded the privilege of deciding that this particular climate that we have right here today, right now is the best climate for all other human beings.1 I think that's a rather arrogant position for people to take.

Of course NPR paraded through a number of scientists to give the "correct" word and of course all of the scientists interviewed for the story disagreed with Griffin's evaluation. The firestorm that these remarks have stirred up signal a radical misunderstanding of science. Science only tells us about the world; it doesn't decide what's good and what's bad. Ethics and political philosophy tell us what's good and bad in human action, and the arts (in the broad sense) tell us what's good in production. The proper understanding of science as purely speculative (descriptional) is reflected in NASA's charter, as Griffin describes it:

Nowhere in NASA's authorization, which of course governs what we do, is there anything at all telling us that we should take actions to affect climate change in either one way or another. We study global climate change, that is in our authorization, we think we do it rather well. I'm proud of that, but NASA is not an agency chartered to, quote, battle climate change.

NASA's authorization is to do science, that is, only to tell us the actual fact of the matter, and not evaluate what's good or the bad. Scientists too easily forget that while as human beings (all of whom are implicitly philosophers) they can speak about the good and bad, when they do so, it is outside their expertise, and not as scientists. To claim special expertise in the good and the bad is like a lawyer claiming expertise in medicine.

Michael Crichton has been a consistent and articulate opponent of the global warming fad. His 2003 speech "Aliens Cause Global Warming" upholds his tradition. I recommend reading the full speech for his insightful words on climate change, but the remarks on "consensus science" are of particular interest to this forum, as they have much broader applicability:

I want to pause here and talk about this notion of consensus, and the rise of what has been called consensus science. I regard consensus science as an extremely pernicious development that ought to be stopped cold in its tracks. Historically, the claim of consensus has been the first refuge of scoundrels; it is a way to avoid debate by claiming that the matter is already settled. Whenever you hear the consensus of scientists agrees on something or other, reach for your wallet, because you're being had.

Let's be clear: the work of science has nothing whatever to do with consensus. Consensus is the business of politics. Science, on the contrary, requires only one investigator who happens to be right, which means that he or she has results that are verifiable by reference to the real world. In science consensus is irrelevant. What is relevant is reproducible results. The greatest scientists in history are great precisely because they broke with the consensus.

There is no such thing as consensus science. If it's consensus, it isn't science. If it's science, it isn't consensus. Period.

In addition, let me remind you that the track record of the consensus is nothing to be proud of. Let's review a few cases.

In past centuries, the greatest killer of women was fever following childbirth . One woman in six died of this fever. In 1795, Alexander Gordon of Aberdeen suggested that the fevers were infectious processes, and he was able to cure them. The consensus said no. In 1843, Oliver Wendell Holmes claimed puerperal fever was contagious, and presented compelling evidence. The consensus said no. In 1849, Semmelweiss demonstrated that sanitary techniques virtually eliminated puerperal fever in hospitals under his management. The consensus said he was a Jew, ignored him, and dismissed him from his post. There was in fact no agreement on puerperal fever until the start of the twentieth century. Thus the consensus took one hundred and twenty five years to arrive at the right conclusion despite the efforts of the prominent "skeptics" around the world, skeptics who were demeaned and ignored. And despite the constant ongoing deaths of women.

There is no shortage of other examples. In the 1920s in America, tens of thousands of people, mostly poor, were dying of a disease called pellagra. The consensus of scientists said it was infectious, and what was necessary was to find the "pellagra germ." The US government asked a brilliant young investigator, Dr. Joseph Goldberger, to find the cause. Goldberger concluded that diet was the crucial factor. The consensus remained wedded to the germ theory. Goldberger demonstrated that he could induce the disease through diet. He demonstrated that the disease was not infectious by injecting the blood of a pellagra patient into himself, and his assistant. They and other volunteers swabbed their noses with swabs from pellagra patients, and swallowed capsules containing scabs from pellagra rashes in what were called "Goldberger's filth parties." Nobody contracted pellagra. The consensus continued to disagree with him. There was, in addition, a social factor-southern States disliked the idea of poor diet as the cause, because it meant that social reform was required. They continued to deny it until the 1920s. Result-despite a twentieth century epidemic, the consensus took years to see the light.

Probably every schoolchild notices that South America and Africa seem to fit together rather snugly, and Alfred Wegener proposed, in 1912, that the continents had in fact drifted apart. The consensus sneered at continental drift for fifty years. The theory was most vigorously denied by the great names of geology-until 1961, when it began to seem as if the sea floors were spreading. The result: it took the consensus fifty years to acknowledge what any schoolchild sees.

And shall we go on? The examples can be multiplied endlessly. Jenner and smallpox, Pasteur and germ theory. Saccharine, margarine, repressed memory, fiber and colon cancer, hormone replacement therapy…the list of consensus errors goes on and on.

Finally, I would remind you to notice where the claim of consensus is invoked. Consensus is invoked only in situations where the science is not solid enough. Nobody says the consensus of scientists agrees that E=mc2. Nobody says the consensus is that the sun is 93 million miles away. It would never occur to anyone to speak that way.

But back to our main subject.

In other words, a lack of scientific evidence hides behind the plea of "consensus." "Consensus" tells us to pay no attention to the man behind the curtain, but (to mix media quotations) there is a truth out there and honesty demands we find it.


1. Of course one might wonder whether or not it's arrogant for people to decide virtually—as a by-product of their actions—what the climate will be, assuming the climate scare is apt.

"NASA Chief Questions Urgency of Global Warming," Morning Edition (May 31, 2007).

Michael Crichton, "Aliens Cause Global Warming" (Caltech, Pasadena, CA, January 17, 2003). (I emailed Crichton's rights department some time ago and never heard back. Silence implies consent, so I assume it's okay to reproduce part of his speech here.)

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