[flickr width=200 align=right float=right]3980267537[/flickr]So some hackers hacked some scientists’ email accounts and found that science is messy. The scientists can be petty, personal, wounded, angry, and are not always nice people. The science in question is the hot (heh heh) topic of human influence on global warming. Those who done the hacking, or at least done profited from it, claim they’ve found evidence of a global conspiracy. I doubt it. Scientists don’t cooperate enough to pull off a conspiracy of that size.
What seems to have been found is a lot of good science and a little bad science, with plenty of human foibles thrown in. Of course the negative aspects are exaggerated on websites run by climate change skeptics, and minimized by people on the other side of the debate, but it’s really just science in its underwear.
Humans make judgments based on the wrong kinds of information in many circumstances. For example, we sometimes base our judgments of the quality of a group’s arguments on our perception of how consistent the group is in communicating those arguments. That is, we decide how right people are by how consistently they agree. Many groups, aware of this bias, have learned to emphasize consistency and consensus above almost all other virtues. Civil rights groups have implemented this principle for decades. Nancy Pelosi imposed it on the Democrats, after seeing the political benefits of the Republicans’ emphasis on party loyalty. Science has also felt the pressure to unite behind a single message, knowing that the public would find the science itself to be more credible if there were fewer visible disagreements among scientists. Keep the arguments in the family. Don’t air your dirty laundry.
But that’s stupid. People disagree, and their disagreements, per se, have nothing to do with the quality of the ideas they are discussing. In fact, in areas where we don’t actually know for certain what’s going on (e.g., all of science), the disagreements themselves are an important element of the method for approximating the truth more and more closely. Science can never be perfectly certain about anything, but imperfect certainty is not the same as total ignorance; imperfect certainty leads to working suspension bridges, space shuttles that don’t always blow up, cures for diseases, and therapies for mental disorders. Science doesn’t discover Truth, really; it formulates working models. And the models, in most fields, have worked better and better over time.
Sadly, the way many members of the general public see science seems more like religion or theistic monarchy, and that creates problems. Scientists are supposed to be the infallible high priests handing down wisdom from on high. With that setup, any perceived inconsistency is assumed to invalidate the entire enterprise. Always h the baby with the bathwater.
- A skeleton is found with weird features: throw out a century of evolutionary research.
- Climatologists can’t explain ten years’ tree ring data: throw out half a century’s findings on climate change.
- Red wine drinkers in the Mediterranean live longer than other people elsewhere: throw out all we know about the negative effects of alcohol.
Scientists don’t think like this; only certain non-scientists do. Individual findings almost never invalidate an entire body of work (though there are notable exceptions). Science cannot be held to some arbitrary rules of consistency completely divorced from the realities of what science is. Science, although sometimes requiring quite a lot of expertise and knowledge to carry out, is inherently mundane. The steps are humble and unpretentious. You change one thing to see if another changes. You measure two things and see if they are related. You seek the opinions of other people who understand the issues and look for a consensus. Sometimes you find it, sometimes you don’t, but you almost never find unanimity.
Finally, heed the wisdom of Gavin A. Schmidt, a NASA climatologist: “Science doesn’t work because we’re all nice. Newton may have been an a**, but the theory of gravity still works.”