How Science (Really) Works

October 9, 2012 at 1:55 pm

A new report argues that alternative perspectives are vital to the scientific process. Expecting dispassion from individual researchers is probably a lost cause.

Before I began researching the global warming debate I was a fan of science and scientists. Carl Sagan’s Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark left a monumental impression on me years ago. More recently, I’d been impressed and inspired by Freeman Dyson’s The Scientist as Rebel.

But something unfortunate happened as I began delving into the climate debate. My opinion of science – and of the scientific establishment represented by bodies such as the academies – diminished. Dramatically.

The conduct of so many of the big names in the climate debate falls so short of what I thought it meant to be a scientist that my opinion of the profession as a whole is unlikely to recover.

On reflection, I was apparently too idealistic, too naive. It now seems that only a small percentage of practitioners actually display the rigorous dispassion I ‘d assumed was the starting point for anyone claiming to be a scientist.

This argument is made eloquently and persuasively in a new, 16-page report issued by the Global Warming Policy Foundation and written by science writer Matt Ridley.

Titled The Perils of Confirmation Bias, it reminds us that scientists are merely human – and that it is human nature to seek out evidence that confirms our expectations.

We may cling to the myth that scientists “love proving themselves wrong” says Ridley, but in the real world many have become famous by ignoring contradictory evidence in favour of their preferred theory. In his view, Charles Darwin, Albert Einstein, and Stephen Hawking all belong on that list.

Science’s saving grace, says Ridley, is that rival scientists have traditionally managed to keep their colleagues honest. In his words:

The solution to confirmation bias in science, then, is not to try to teach it out of people, for that goes too much against the grain of human nature…the reason that science progresses despite confirmation bias is…that it prevents monopoly.

Which bring us to the heart of the climate non-debate. The story of climate science in recent decades is one in which powerful forces – such as science academies, science funding bodies, and the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) – have all promoted a single point-of-view. Ridley explains:

Every important new idea in science is…tested by another team than the one that put forward the idea. And it is this process that has gone missing in climate science.

Constructive climate skeptics, he says, don’t regard the dominant, mainstream view of climate change as a conspiracy but rather as

a monopoly that clings to one hypothesis (that carbon dioxide will cause dangerous global warming) and brooks less and less dissent. Again and again, climate sceptics are told they should respect the consensus, an admonition wholly against the tradition of science. [bold added]

It should be obvious even to a child that, as Ridley says:

When a discipline defers to a single authority, and demands adherence to a set of beliefs, then it becomes a cult.

The way out of the current mess is for governments to fund skeptical scientists, to support teams of researchers pursuing alternative climate explanations.

Until and unless this happens nothing the IPCC or anyone else says about climate science has actually been properly tested.

Read the report here.

See discussion about it at the BishopHill blog here.

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Entry filed under: ethical & philosophical, historical perspective, IPCC. Tags: , , , , .

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