Do you believe in science?

The image above is from the Heartland Institute, an advocacy group which receives funding from a number of conservative sources (Scaife, Olin, Koch, for example) to promote doubts about climate change, the health risks of cigarettes, the dangers of fracking, and of taxation–among other issues.  In addition to supporting the production of papers, it also engages in public relations efforts.  The billboard above links the acceptance of climate change to an obviously suspect source.

Almost all scientists who work on climate accept the reality that the climate is changing, largely because of human impact–and it’s not benign.  But there are others…. One is Wei-Hock Soon, who holds an appointment at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, but has to raise his salary and support for his work from grants (New York Times story).  He’s been reasonably successful at doing so; Greenpeace filed a Freedom of Information Act request to trace it and found that he’s accepted more than $1 million from the fossil fuel industry, which likely finds some utility in his consistent findings that the sun is generating any observed changes in climate on earth.  Given that Dr. Soon’s work gets little support from his colleagues or other working scientists, he’s fortunate to have found corporate benefactors.  And the companies are glad to have someone with a doctorate and publications whose findings don’t undermine their business model.

But academics who may have a financial stake in a particular finding are obligated to disclose that potential conflict of interest in their publications; Dr. Soon has not routinely done so.  He may not be tailoring his findings to suit his funders, but readers want to know if there’s reason to be suspicious.  [When I tell you that I support funding for the collection of data and support of public universities, you know that I draw a salary from a public university; you can consider interest when you evaluate my arguments.  You want to know when research supports the favored position of the people paying for it, no?]

Opponents of concerted action to ameliorate climate change will no doubt find other people with Ph.D.s to support, but they’ll be looking for the result before they pick the scientist. Alas, when one-time climate skeptics begin to join the scientific consensus, they lose both the financial support and political support of their former sponsors (discussed here).  Don’t worry, interests will find someone else to fund.

If you’re invested in a particular outcome beyond truth, it’s not science.

And science is almost always big and diverse enough that you can find someone who looks credible enough to support your beliefs about climate change, evolution, or vaccines, to cite a few examples.  Sometimes, as on nutrition, the scientific consensus has been historically inconsistent, which makes it harder to find useful guidance.  Most of us are not well-equipped to adjudicate disputes among epidemiologists about population samples, for example, so we fumble trying to find reliable information, or just pick the result we like and put the scientist who generated it on our poster.  Not so great.

But belief in science is belief in a method of discerning truth.  It may not produce readily usable results, but our commitments are contingent upon evidence, and we want to be open to new evidence that might undermine them.  It’s tough.

The Dr. Soon story reminds us that interested parties will cultivate authorities who substantiate what they want us to believe.  Skepticism is appropriate, but ultimately we need to make decisions, and it’s better if they’re informed.  The scientific consensus, if it can be found, is hardly infallible, but it’s likely to be a better guide than an outlier supported by someone with a vested interest in a particular conclusion.

Our values should pose questions, but we really want to find honest answers that come from somewhere else.


About David S. Meyer

Author and professor of Sociology and Political Science at the University of California, Irvine
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2 Responses to Do you believe in science?

  1. Jason Werbics says:

    Excellent post Professor Meyer.

    You have dissected almost every important intellectual thread within the climate debate with logic and reason, while leaving sophistry and the use of the non sequitur as the weapon of others.

    In many respects, to those intellectually inclined, the climate debate really is not a debate at all.

    Seriously, who in their right mind does not believe that the climate is in constant change?

    We live on a planet.

    A planet so diverse in its make-up – from its unique complex systems, its biological and physical structure, too the planets interaction and reaction with events within the rest of our solar system – a set of facts reinforced and refined very day, as we add a hundred books, research papers and articles to the tens of thousands that already exist, in our attempt to understand this word EARTH.

    But the problem is not about climate change, it is about a theory called global warming introduced into the American lexicon about 27 years ago.

    And in this scientific theory, the premise was very simple. As the amount of carbon increases in the atmosphere the temperature of the planet rises.

    And in the proceeding years from its introduction, science has now shown that this correlation set out in the theory of global warming – this relationship between carbon and climate warming – is at best weak and at its worst, it is nonexistent. Simply put, with carbon continuing unabated into the atmosphere the anticipated and correlate warming predicted by the scientific community (through their use of computer modeling), has not appeared.

    This divergence is confirmed by science, by recording the actual amount of carbon in the air and the real statistically gathered temperature record of the planet over these past 27 years. When this scientific evidence is analysed, it has caused many in scientific circles to acknowledge a divergence within the theory that they have termed the warming pause.

    This result has now forced many advocates of global warming and others to realize the limitations of science itself; it is a tool that like us, is bound to the rules and laws of time. And it is this barrier which prevents science from being a prognosticator of future events.

    In simpler terms….science cannot and does not predict the future. Science can tell you why something happened yesterday and today, but it is impossible for science to tell you about anything that is going to happen tomorrow – or 70 to 100 years from now, as many global warming activists would have us believe.

    And just as an aside to you and your readers, I am of the opinion that computer modeling is not the appropriate tool for telling us about future events either, but it does seem to have potential in giving us insight into the rules and laws that govern complex systems, including the issue of climate, which now preoccupies so many minds on this planet.

    J.R Werbics is a Canadian writer and philosopher

    • Thanks for your post. On the matter of climate change, I’m inclined to follow the science and lead of people who spend all of their professional time thinking about the earth and climate, on which there is a remarkable expert consensus.

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