“Science is Dying” and “When Scientists Become Politicians”

Today, an update on my recent Climategate-related post: “Climategate and faith in ‘science'”

Two items out of the Wall Street Journal today have made powerful points related to my post, and I thought them worth passing on.

The first is an opinion piece by WSJ deputy editor, Daniel Henninger: “Climategate: Science Is Dying.” The subtitle: “Science is on the credibility bubble.”  His main contention is that Climategate is potentially impacting the credibility of “science” in general and as an institution.  In his own words, “What is happening at East Anglia is an epochal event.”  I think he is right on the mark.  Here are some selections…

I don’t think most scientists appreciate what has hit them. This isn’t only about the credibility of global warming. For years, global warming and its advocates have been the public face of hard science. Most people could not name three other subjects they would associate with the work of serious scientists. This was it. The public was told repeatedly that something called “the scientific community” had affirmed the science beneath this inquiry. A Nobel Prize was bestowed (on a politician)…

This has harsh implications for the credibility of science generally. Hard science, alongside medicine, was one of the few things left accorded automatic stature and respect by most untrained lay persons. But the average person reading accounts of the East Anglia emails will conclude that hard science has become just another faction, as politicized and “messy” as, say, gender studies. The New England Journal of Medicine has turned into a weird weekly amalgam of straight medical-research and propaganda for the Obama redesign of U.S. medicine.

The analogy he draws with Galileo is quite punishing:

The East Anglians’ mistreatment of scientists who challenged global warming’s claims—plotting to shut them up and shut down their ability to publish—evokes the attempt to silence Galileo. The exchanges between Penn State’s Michael Mann and East Anglia CRU director Phil Jones sound like Father Firenzuola, the Commissary-General of the Inquisition.

For three centuries Galileo has symbolized dissent in science. In our time, most scientists outside this circle have kept silent as their climatologist fellows, helped by the cardinals of the press, mocked and ostracized scientists who questioned this grand theory of global doom. Even a doubter as eminent as Princeton’s Freeman Dyson was dismissed as an aging crank.

(His comment about the shameful treatment of Freeman Dyson reminds me of the comments that followed when former atheist Anthony Flew changed his mind and began acknowledging that the evidence at hand points to the existence of God.  Shameful.  But I digress…)

Mr. Henninger’s article is worth reading in full by those who care about such things.  Click here to hop on over.

The second WSJ piece I referred to is in James Taranto’s “Best of the Web Today.” (I know I refer to this feature frequently.  I admit it: Though I do not always agree with him, I am a James Taranto junkie.)

He asks a question that is increasingly on the minds of many: “These days, what’s the difference between politicians and scientists?”  Actually, it makes it more condemning in that he calls it a rhetorical question — as if the implied answer (“yes”) is clear and the question is only being asked to point the reader to his illustrations of the fact.

And the illustrations he provides are good ones — “good” in the sense that they illustrate the point well, not “good” in their implications.

Today’s BOTW section on the matter is titled “When Scientists Become Politicians” — you’ll have to scroll down about one-third of the way to get to it.

I am reminded of something one of my former heroes, Carl Sagan, once said in the well-worn pages of my copy of his 1980 book Cosmos (p.333): “[Science] has two rules.  First: there are no sacred truths; all assumptions must be critically examined; arguments from authority are worthless.  Second: whatever is inconsistent with the facts must be discarded or revised.”  Much faith has been placed by the public into “Science” as an institution, on the assumption that these rules are being followed.  And under that, still, are additional assumptions, such as the assumption that they can be followed.

Climategate has folks questioning the first of these assumptions.  And this isn’t the worst of things, as it reminds them of another comment made by Mr. Sagan on the same page: “[Science] is not perfect.  It can be misused.  It is only a tool.”  He goes on to mention his belief that it is the best tool we have and that it is “applicable to everything,” and I could almost agree with him, except that I suspect he and I will differ on both the reach of science, the assumptions at the foundation of scientific work (and there are always assumptions at the foundation), and other matters, but that is a tale for another day.  I look forward to discussing it with him in the second resurrection.

(Personally, I think Climategate touches on both of the public’s two assumptions I mentioned above, but that, too, is a tale for another day.)

The East Anglia Climate Research Unit Climategate scandal is a real opportunity for people to learn to see “science” — as a whole — in a proper light as a very wonderful but very human discipline.  I hope that rather than the shuttering the ivory tower’s windows, the result will be doors flung wide open, allowing folks to walk around inside and see the practice of science for what it is in actuality as opposed to the religion it is sometimes made into.  It would be healthier both for the discipline itself and for those who want to benefit from it.

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7 thoughts on ““Science is Dying” and “When Scientists Become Politicians”

  1. I had to laugh today when the Christian radio network SRN News aired a soundbite from an “expert” on this topic.

    He said the “mainstream media” doesn’t seem to care about this issue.

    That’s strange — the Wall Street Journal is the leading U.S. newspaper in circulation. And NPR’s “All Things Considered” has aired two full-length pieces on “climategate” in the last two weeks. If they’re not mainstream, what is?

  2. Howdy, Richard, and I agree with you for the most part except for the fact that the major TV news networks — ABC, NBC, and CBS — have said virtually nothing about the matter at all. That the NYT brought it up is an encouraging sign, though. Still, without the “Big Three” covering the topic, many (most?) will hear nothing about it.

  3. Norbert

    Years ago I read a magazine article about those gender studies, the reporter was strictly asked to maintain a non-biased stance on the issue. One thing he wrote I found very profound and has stuck with me through the years.

    He mentioned that after closely examining the evidence, both sides diligently maintained scientific procedures and standards. They were NOT fabricating or falsefying the evidence they used to come to support their theories. Which leads to a puzzling question.

    Why were the scientists on both sides, due to their desire to prove their own theory finding evidence that supports two different and contradicting conclusions?

    I do believe science is a noble profession but it also has its’ limits to provide definitive answers about life. And seeing that the question was pointed out, “These days, what’s the difference between politicians and scientists?”. It could be said the behavior of some groups of scientists can also be compared to clergy. Because just like religion, concidering the example of “Climategate” and also “Ben Stein Expelled”. That science also has its’ version of a “Papal Primacy” and who gets to Pontificate the truth. Albeit the heirarchy of scientists is somewhat obscure.

  4. Turns out both ABC and NBC mentioned “climategate” in the Sunday evening newscasts, previewing the Copenhagen conference.

    We all sometimes have need of patience — even with news outlets.

  5. Thanks, Richard, but I can’t quite agree. If they showed such “patience” with other stories, I would understand, but they do not. This was incredibly newsworthy — scandalous even. And compared to the Tiger Woods stuff? Please. I’ll happily show them more patience when they begin to show a little more journalistic integrity and a little less negligence. Meanwhile, I will continue to hunt elsewhere for news.

    Thank, for the update, though. It’s nice to know that at least 2 out of 3 discovered a bit of news, even if it was a week old. 🙂

  6. For the record, ABC News is promising a full report on the “Inconvenient Mess” (Charles Gibson’s phrase for it) on World News this evening.

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