The Republican War on Science: Tierney and Bethell

by John Quiggin on March 5, 2008

One of the big problems with talking about what Chris Mooney has called The Republican War on Science is that, on the Republican side, the case against science is rarely laid out explicitly. On a whole range of issues (evolution, passive smoking, climate change, the breast-cancer abortion link, CFCs and the ozone layer and so on) Republicans attack scientists, reject the conclusions of mainstream science and promote political talking points over peer-reviewed research. But they rarely present a coherent critique that would explain why, on so many different issues, they feel its appropriate to rely on their own politically-based judgements and reject those of mainstream science. And of course many of them are unwilling to admit that they are at war with science, preferring to set up their own alternative set of scientific institutions and experts, journals and so on.
So it’s good to see a clear statement of the Republican critique of science from John Tierney in this NY Times blog piece promoting global warming “skepticism”. The core quote is

climate is so complicated, and cuts across so many scientific disciplines, that it’s impossible to know which discrepancies or which variables are really important.Considering how many false alarms have been raised previously by scientists (the “population crisis,” the “energy crisis,” the “cancer epidemic” from synthetic chemicals), I wouldn’t be surprised if the predictions of global warming turn out to be wrong or greatly exaggerated. Scientists are prone to herd thinking — informational cascades– and this danger is particularly acute when they have to rely on so many people outside their field to assess a topic as large as climate change.
Both this quote and the rest of Tierney’s article are notable for the way in which he treats science as inseparable from politics, and makes no distinction between scientific research and the kind of newspaper polemic he produces. Like most Republicans, Tierney takes a triumphalist view of the experience of the last thirty years or so, as showing that he and other Republicans have been proved right, and their opponents, including scientists, have been proved wrong (illustrated by his blithe dismissal of complicated problems like population and energy as “false alarms”). Hence, he argues, he is entitled to prefer his own political judgements to the judgements (inevitably equally political) of scientists.


Of course, there’s nothing new about the general viewpoint, that science is just another type of ideological system. It was until recently, widely held on the left. But it’s now far more common among Republicans, where it is now the dominant fiewpoint. Some of its surviving leftwing adherents, such as Steve Fuller, have taken the logical step and joined the Republicans, notably in the Dover case on the teaching of Intelligent Design.

I’ll point out some of the more obvious problems with Tierney’s analysis. Of the three issues he mentions, only one (the “cancer epidemic”) involves a debate in which natural or physical science issues were central. And most proponents of a “cancer epidemic” are non-scientists who see themselves in much the same light as the global warming skeptics Tierney is promoting. The most prominent single advocate of the “cancer epidemic” story is Samuel Epstein, who describes himself as the leading critic of the “cancer establishment” consisting of the American Cancer Society, National Cancer Institute and mainstream scientific journals such as Science also a favorite target of GW conspiracy theorists.

It’s clear that the notion of a “cancer epidemic” has never been supported by mainstream science. But, if you accept Tierney’s politicised view of science, it makes sense to lump ACS and NCI together with critics like Epstein. The scientific evidence produced by the cancer establishment has supported lots of restrictions on smoking, air pollution, the use of synthetic chemicals and so on, all of which are opposed by Republicans. In political terms, the more extreme position represented by Epstein helps the establishment defend themselves against rightwing critics.

Also noteworthy is the idea that when faced with a complex problem, the best thing to do is to fall back on your own prejudices, rather than, say, attempt a comprehensive investigation of all aspects of the problem.

Apart from Tierney, about the most comprehensive exposition of the Republican critique of science is Tom Bethell’s Politically Incorrect Guide to Science, part of the Regnery series of the same name. Here’s a summary of his position, arguing that scientists operating through journals like Science manufacture spurious problems to get research funding and that scientific research is fatally flawed because of its commitment to materialism.Bethell has impeccable qualifications as a leading Republican commentator on science (gigs at the Hoover Institute and American Spectator, for example) but I think some Republicans find he is a bit too thorough in his rejection of science, going beyond the standard topics (evolution, global warming, stem cell research) to reject relativity and embrace AIDS reappraisal.The problem here is that Republicans are torn between a war on science and a war over science. What they would like is a scientific process that produced all the technological goodies of which they are enamoured, but could be constrained to the reliable message discipline expected of all parts of the Republican machine. Some of the time this leads them to engage in debate over particular scientific issues with a rather cargo-cultish attempt to mimic the trappings of scientific methods. At other times, they attack science more directly. But Bethell’s overt rejection of science, and embrace of obviously cranky ideas, gives the game away a bit too much

{ 114 comments }

1

Kathleen 03.05.08 at 11:05 pm

wait wait – there’s no population crisis, energy crisis, or cancer epidemic? If by this one means “demographic transitions eventually seem to happen everywhere”; “we haven’t run out of oil yet” and “not everybody has cancer”, okay, but otherwise??????

2

John Quiggin 03.05.08 at 11:21 pm

I’ve edited the post a little bit to make the point that in the triumphalist viewpoint espoused by Tierney, all these complex problems were just false alarms.

3

rea 03.05.08 at 11:28 pm

they rarely present a coherent critique that would explain why, on so many different issues, they feel its appropriate to rely on their own politically-based judgements and reject those of mainstream science.

The underlying epistemololgical differences necessarily renders most arguments made by opponents of science “incoherent” to those who accept the principles of science. Their arguments don’t make sense to us precisely because they reject logic and the scientific method. Don’t expect attacks on rationality to be rational.

4

francis 03.05.08 at 11:39 pm

Apparently there’s a GCC skeptic conference going on this week, where Al Gore jokes are de rigeur and the keynote speaker was a standup comedian. I wonder how the long-suffering soles at RealClimate feel about not being invited.

5

terence 03.05.08 at 11:47 pm

That the Times could have a deniersceptic as their science columnist is a pretty damning indictment of the supposed liberal paper of record.

6

Troll 03.05.08 at 11:51 pm

deleted

Sk – Please go away, JQ

7

terence 03.05.08 at 11:52 pm

hmmm…having read his full column I think it’s perhaps unfair to group Tierny with the rest of the ‘sceptic’ gang. Nevertheless he seems to have a pretty poor grasp of the science for a science columnist…

8

John Quiggin 03.06.08 at 12:04 am

Tierney isn’t really a science columnist – he was on the general Op-ed page until a couple of years ago. NY Times did give the sceptics some proper coverage, “from Andrew Revkin”:http://www.nytimes.com/2008/03/04/science/earth/04climate.html?_r=1&oref=slogin, who gave them a pretty thorough serve. Money quote at the end

The meeting was largely framed around science, but after the luncheon, when an organizer made an announcement asking all of the scientists in the large hall to move to the front for a group picture, 19 men did so.

9

kerry 03.06.08 at 12:06 am

I love your commentary here, and I hate to see you debase yourselves like this. Deepen the debate. Respond, don’t react. I wonder what is accomplished by such an incendiary response to Tierney’s polemic. Personal satisfaction? Anyone here ever read about extinction events? You know, the ones like the Ice Ages that wiped out 50% of the species on the planet. I’m no Republican, but I am a scientist, a logician, and a rational being. And I am offended by those who muckrake and mudsling under the banner of reason and rationalism, criticizing others’ reason with an equal dearth of such.

Pointing out the inadequacy of another’s golf shot does not get you any closer to par.

10

Stuart 03.06.08 at 12:09 am

One that is missed out in the list above, which I found instructive, was the ozone hole issue. I have seen in several different places this being referred to as a ‘false alarm’. Which raises the point that if you fix a problem foreseen by science before its worst impact is felt, then it gets to be used by the anti-science factions as fodder to decry science to the gullible, lazy and unknowledgeable parts of the public.

Another one has been DDT – even with the instructive examples India and many other places where resistance to DDT was rapidly gained when its use was widespread, you see often repeated junk about some mythical ‘DDT ban’ causing ‘the death of millions’, when in fact the restriction in its use for agricultural purposes is the only reason it is of any use today in the limited areas it still has enough benefit to justify its use.

11

Steve LaBonne 03.06.08 at 12:13 am

Jebus. Every time I think the NYT has hit bottom, they manage to find an even lower level.

12

Jeet Heer 03.06.08 at 1:12 am

It’s interesting the degree to which Bethell takes an contrarian, consensus-denying stance on such a wide range of issues, not just scientific ones: he also denies that William Shakespeare wrote the plays attributed to him, preferring the claims of authorship made on behalf of the Earl of Oxford. And of course he’s anti-Darwin as well as being anti-Einstein, a global warming denier and an HIV-causes-AIDS denier.

13

John Emerson 03.06.08 at 1:21 am

Add to the Times Death Watch file.

Which raises the point that if you fix a problem foreseen by science before its worst impact is felt, then it gets to be used by the anti-science factions as fodder to decry science to the gullible, lazy and unknowledgeable parts of the public.

Population is a similar case. Warnings four or five decades ago led to major policy and behavior changes, making the problem less alarming and more tractable.

Even when Cassandras are listened to, they get no respect.

14

Jobi 03.06.08 at 1:40 am

This reminds me of a Tierney Times blogpost (I’m not sure if this was in the print edition or not…it was maybe a week ago) about how pedicabs (and indeed walking) had a larger carbon impact than driving the same distance. This was “shown” by making all kinds of absurd assumptions (the dishonesty of the “reasoning” boogled the mind). What was unclear to me was whether it was trying to prey on the numerical illiteracy of the readers or if it was meant as some form of preaching to the choir.

Though I guess that counterfactual bullshiting of this sort is the whole basis of (the weirdly pervasive) glibertarian/contrarian thought (and the “middlebrow” in general), at least in as much as it appears in the popular media.

15

Consumatopia 03.06.08 at 1:48 am

Perhaps it’s less an attack on science, and more an attack on the delegation of science–on the very notion of lay persons and politicians relying on predictions obtained by asking experts one trusts and respects.

16

strategichamlet 03.06.08 at 1:52 am

“Of course, there’s nothing new about the general viewpoint, that science is just another type of ideological system. It was until recently, widely held on the left.”

When did this stop? I know, sure, that Republicans hate science, but I hadn’t gotten the good news that the left had stopped. I would like to believe you, but personally I haven’t really seen it. Can you point me to any statements by prominent leftist academics repudiating either their or other leftists’ previous positions? When did this happen?

17

Matthew Kuzma 03.06.08 at 2:31 am

I’ve always thought it was obvious that critics of scientific conclusions are so wrapped up in their own notion that ideology exists to serve your own interests that they are simply incapable of imagining or believing that other people actually believe verifiable truths regardless of the consequences.

Having been educated within the scientific establishment, I can say unequivocally that young scientist are at least educated to abandon all attachment to specific results and to treat data as sacred. Obviously those attitudes don’t always persist into PhD-hood, or even stick with every undergrad, but the effort is made. I found the notion that one would ignore facts because they were inconvenient to one’s belief system as initially incomprehensible, later (and to this day) patently evil. But after talking personally to some fruitcakes so with world-views so thoroughly ungrounded as to be worthless outside of matters entirely human, I’ve come to realize there are some people who just don’t care about truth at all. Facts don’t concern them and they assume that everyone else is exactly the same – pushing a system of belief that best suits their goals or whims. They have no respect for science because they assume scientists are every bit as conniving and self-serving as they are.

Reality has a well-know liberal bias, so it’s no mystery to me that many conservatives are forced to reject as biased those who report on reality (namely journalists and scientists and to a lesser degree, teachers).

18

joseph duemer 03.06.08 at 3:01 am

An “epistimo-social” conjecture: One reason that people are susceptible to the sort of vulgar relativism of the anti-science right when it comes to climate, mercury/autism, evolution, cancer causes, the ozone hole, etc., is that scientists are often guilty of scientism, which I define as the belief that science can in principle answer all human questions. A close corollary of this is a naive & often teleological belief in the ideology of progress. A survey of Science Blogs — which I read daily with profit — will reveal instance after instance of such simplistic thinking, in which scientists presume that they work outside history and culture.

19

Dan S. 03.06.08 at 3:46 am

on the very notion of lay persons and politicians relying on predictions obtained by asking experts one trusts and respects.

The Republican War on Expertise, (Which I may have stolen from Kevin Beck’s review of Mooney’s book).

“Population is a similar case. Warnings four or five decades ago led to major policy and behavior changes”

And also: nobody expects the Green Revolution . . .

Phillip Johnson is another one – one of the fathers of resurrected ID creationism, and for some time an HIV-denier.

Tierney isn’t really a science columnist

Yep. I assume it’s simply more efficient for his occasional scriblings on why women are inferior to be called “science”, just as it’s more efficient for Charlotte Allen’s to be called “humor,” and for Willy Saletan to gasp out how he never, never realized, when researching his article on how black people are stupid, that the fellow whose work was so helpful somehow just happened to be a notorious racist whose contribution to the shadowy world of scientific racism was the claim that black people had little brains and big genitals, Asians have big brains and little genitals, and whites are just right!, and who was reprimanded by his university for wandering around the local mall paying people of different races to tell him about their sexual habits (granted, what he was reprimanded for was not clearing it with the ethics board first . . . )

20

Dan S. 03.06.08 at 3:54 am

scientists are often guilty of scientism, which I define as
{yawn}.

One reason that people are susceptible to the sort of vulgar relativism of the anti-science right when it comes to climate, mercury/autism, evolution, cancer causes, the ozone hole, etc., is that scientists are often guilty of scientism

Nah, not seeing it. Would you care to explain the connection you see between these two things?

21

R. Vangala 03.06.08 at 4:14 am

The New York Times should be ashamed of itself for hiring someone sympathetic to global warming skepticism to write for its Science section. If that is the cost of “objectivity” in the media, then I am fine with advocacy journalism.

22

nick s 03.06.08 at 4:43 am

The New York Times should be ashamed of itself for hiring someone sympathetic to global warming skepticism to write for its Science section.

He was hired to be the successor to Safire on the op-ed page, and bullshit glibertarianism wasn’t cutting it (hence Smirking Bill Kristol). One can only assume that a) his contract isn’t up; and either b) Bill Keller owed the Culture desk a favour; c) the Science section had a spare desk.

(The assumption is that people who care about science don’t really need to read it in their papers, and that people who want to read about science in their papers want to read bullshit. Why? Because bullshit sells.)

23

senderista 03.06.08 at 4:45 am

Man, that relativity link was a hoot. “A says B’s clock runs slow, and B says A’s clock runs slow. They can’t both be right! Ergo, contradiction!”

How someone can feel qualified to write an article condemning special relativity without even the most rudimentary understanding of the subject (i.e., what “moving clocks run slow” actually means) is beyond me. I’m pretty well convinced that expecting intellectual credibility on any subject from the conservative press is a forlorn hope. (And I say this as someone with strong libertarian, if not “conservative,” sympathies.)

24

Chris 03.06.08 at 4:50 am

I don’t think you all should discredit ‘group think’ in Science as quickly as you do. Not to trivialize science, but it takes a long time (depends on field, but particle physics takes tens of years) to verify if some “good idea” is correct. Scientists have to wait those many years for data to come up with an even better idea.

Think: the lumenerious ether. Blood letting. Etc. Good ideas are hard to come by, as are good experiments, and climate modeling is *incredibly* complicated and chaotic.

He just sounds like somebody who has been a scientist.

25

Chris 03.06.08 at 4:53 am

I just think that people idealize science too much, which normally means they haven’t worked in a lab. Science only works because you get to call people liars and the concept of repeatability means you can prove people wrong.

26

Evan 03.06.08 at 6:23 am

Like senderista, I was tickled at his relativity article too. The part that stood out for me was his dismissal of of Michelson-Morley, for the reason obviously the Earth is dragging around its own aether, problem solved! Gosh, if only people back in the 19C were smart enough to think about stuff like that.

This willful refusal to even try to understand the concepts being discussed is just — astonishing.

27

voyou 03.06.08 at 6:37 am

That relativity article is awesome: “Another possibility is that Einstein saw to it that he got the result needed to “explain” Mercury’s orbit, but that it doesn’t apply elsewhere.”

How did Einstein “see to it” that Mercury’s orbit obeyed his predictions? By using his cosmic Einstein powers?

28

terence 03.06.08 at 7:39 am

The shorter New York Times science columnist:

Gosh climatology is a tricky business. I don’t really understand it. Therefore, I doubt that climatologists understand it either. Fred Singer though, now he’s a responsible bloke.

29

Scott Hughes 03.06.08 at 8:13 am

If the activists trying to curtail global warming are successful at reducing pollution and all, I wonder if the conservatives will look back and call the whole thing a sham. If humankind fixes the problem, I could see the right-wingers claiming that it never existed.

30

Chris 03.06.08 at 8:49 am

Terence:

Climatology is hard, and scientists don’t understand the physics of much simpler dynamical systems. Climatologists do good work, but you shouldn’t trust them as much as you seem to do because the problem is hard and nobody knows the answer.

I’m not argument-mongering, but I’m utterly shocked by the amount of disdain here.

31

Chris 03.06.08 at 8:51 am

If anything, this guy is trying to understand both sides of the argument! He even seems critical of the skeptics:

“But what, specifically, is wrong in this new report? What’s right in it? I welcome substantive comments — by which I don’t mean denunciations of “deniers” or “ecoNazis,” or lazy ad hominem attacks and conspiracy theories about who’s being paid off by whom. Let’s stick to the science, or lack thereof, in this particular critique.”

32

Great Zamfir 03.06.08 at 8:57 am

Isn’t this too harsh on the guy? Right after the quote above he says:

But scientific uncertainty doesn’t necessarily imply doing nothing. Given the sum of the evidence today, I think the risk of global warming is sufficient to warrant buying insurance. The question then becomes how much insurance and what kind, and here I think the skeptics are especially useful in challenging what’s mistakenly called “the scientific consensus”:

He claims to be in favour of accepting global warming even if he is not fully convinced of the evidence. After that he appears to be in the “let’s get rich, then we will have the money to fight the effects” camp. That might be much closer to the scientific consensus than he realizes. It’s not as if the IPCC believes we’re really going to cut CO2 emissions enough to make a serious difference.

33

bad Jim 03.06.08 at 9:55 am

A useful and descriptive abbreviation for anything advertised as a “Politically Incorrect Guide” is its acronym, PIG.

Pig science doesn’t only have difficulty with the last 150 years of progress (besides evolution and relativity, they have issues with uncertainty as well, and not a clue as to how flash memory works). Their objections go at least as far back as Linnaeus classing humans as primates circa 1750.

The only reason they give astronomy a pass is our quotidian reliance on geostationary satellites.

34

Dan S. 03.06.08 at 12:30 pm

After that he appears to be in the “let’s get rich, then we will have the money to fight the effects” camp. , , It’s not as if the IPCC believes we’re really going to cut CO2 emissions enough to make a serious difference.

Wow. Move over, Mr. Killed-your-parents-and-then-asked-the-court-to-have-mercy-on-a-poor-orphan; there’s a new champion on the Chutzpah Olympics! First the global warming-denial lobby spends precious time denying, delaying, and obfuscating. When that stops working quite well enough, they declare that – in part as a result – by now there’s probably no way to avoid some degree of climate change, we might as well not do anything until some future date when “we will have the money to fight the effects“.

It’s amazing (though of course quite understandable) that one would have to explain to fully-functioning adults with some degree of responsibility why – in essence – the ‘having put off seeing the doctor about [progressive condition] this long, some degree of damage and painful surgery is probably inevitable, and it will cost enough to bite into my leisure budget, so I might as well wait another few years until I save enough that it won’t matter.’

And indeed, it might not.

(It’s even better if, say, the issue involves – say – heart damage from stress caused by overwork, and the ‘solution’ is to work harder . . .)

35

joseph duemer 03.06.08 at 1:18 pm

@20: When someone {yawns} in one’s face, one is not inclined to further the conversation.

Nevertheless: Scientists very often make or imply totalizing claims for science as a practice with an exclusive purchase on the truth & deny that it is embedded in history and culture; many people find such claims implausible, leading them to be suspicious of science in general (as well as well-established scientific information) especially when that science contradicts their favorite policy or ideological position.

36

Dan S. 03.06.08 at 1:58 pm

When someone {yawns} in one’s face, one is not inclined to further the conversation..”

Indeed. But nevertheless, most of the time someone invokes the specter of scientism, it usually involves a deeply boring and nonproductive complaint,* very often seeming to deny science any epistemological status beyond that of just another completely subjective ‘way of knowing’, and at this point, I honestly just can’t help starting to nod off.

So I guess one could say that one reason for my ignorant and boorish behavior is that certain groups of thinkers are often guilty of a kind of ‘anti-scientism’.

* which is not to deny genuine issues that are clumped together under the mantle of ‘scientism’, but the word’s invoked with much greater frequency for far more petty and particular concerns, perhaps.

37

Steve LaBonne 03.06.08 at 2:00 pm

Nevertheless: Scientists very often make or imply totalizing claims for science as a practice with an exclusive purchase on the truth & deny that it is embedded in history and culture; many people find such claims implausible, leading them to make their own, even more “totalizing” claims for their particular slant on “history and culture”, which they never ever subject to the same kind of scrutiny.

There, I fixed that for you.

38

joseph duemer 03.06.08 at 2:06 pm

@36: I don’t know what I’d do without all the assistance I’ve found here, but sure, Steve, I don’t have a problem with your reformulation, though I was emphasizing why some people reject scientific findings as partly the result of the way science presents itself politically and philosophically. I’m not excusing the denialists, as my original post (I thought) made clear.

39

Slocum 03.06.08 at 2:07 pm

Hence, he argues, he is entitled to prefer his own political judgements to the judgements (inevitably equally political) of scientists.

Of course, there’s nothing new about the general viewpoint, that science is just another type of ideological system. It was until recently, widely held on the left. But it’s now far more common among Republicans…

I don’t think that’s accurate in that I don’t think Tierney is arguing, pomo style, that science is everywhere and always just another another ideological system where only power relations matter and any claim to objective truth is a mirage. Rather I think the claim is that, in some cases (but certainly not all), certain topics and fields are heavily influenced and distorted by political considerations. And that the academy being what it is, when this happens, it is invariably leftist politics generating the influence. Setting aside current hot-button issues, consider the politically-motivated Darkness in El Dorado controversy of a few years ago.

I find the gambit of trying to lump creationism and global warming ‘denialism’ into the same category interesting. I would quite cheerfully bet my life that convincing evidence will not emerge that the earth is <10,000 years old, that dinosaurs were killed in the great flood, etc. But I would certainly not make the same bet with respect to global warming. I’d say the theory is more likely generally correct than incorrect, but I’m not going to be shocked if it turns out that solar activity turns out to be a more powerful factor than CO2 levels and a new ‘little ice age’ is in the offing. Is anybody really asserting that their level of certainty with respect to anthropocentric global warming is now as high as their certainty with respect to evolution or an ancient earth?

BTW, I’m pondering my own creationism parallel/slur:

Creationism Protectionism

‘Intelligent Design’ ‘Fair Trade’

In light of the whole Obama/Goolsbee/Canada thing, it’s interesting how Democratic politicians now handle protectionism the way Republican politicians handle creationism (trying to signal one thing to the unsophisticated while making reassuring whispers on the side).

And I think it’s a pretty fair bet that quite a few of those ‘NAFTA is the root of all evil’ voters are also creationists of one stripe or another.

40

Barry 03.06.08 at 2:07 pm

Joseph, you weren’t furthering the conversation.

Chris in #24 – it’s always amazing to see people use that argument. Global warming had to fight its way into the consensus, by means of data and predictions. It is a theory which successfully broke through the previous group-think, which was that the Earth’s climate was too large and and had too many negative feedback loops for mankind to alter it.

41

Dan S. 03.06.08 at 2:08 pm

@34 – although to be fair, it’s a decent argument for examining this sort of thing as a possible contributing factor to war-on-science-ism, especially in terms of playing off the kind of misplaced anti-elitism that probably drives some of it.

My initial reaction is to place a lot more of the recent blame on things like, for example, big tobacco, – in that case for the one-two punch of 1) helping build the ‘junk science!’ industry, which encourages confusion and this kind of vulgar relativism whenever it can, and 2) enlisting scientists both actual and fictive in defense of false and harmful claims, encouraging doubt (utterly healthful, indeed vital, in proper amounts, dangerous if abused) of all scientific claims and authority.

42

Dan S. 03.06.08 at 2:14 pm

re: creationism and economics –

I do tend to think that the kind of arrangements that emphasize free trade very well may tend to encourage creationism, actually.

43

Bruce Baugh 03.06.08 at 2:42 pm

Dan S. touches on something important with the mention of big tobacco. One of the really fascinating and appalling developments of recent years is the revelation from court cases that the tobacco industry did in fact deliberately set out to increase public distrust in and confusion over science in general, to protect themselves from claims anchored in medical evidence. Tim Lambert has good updates on it from time to time. The crusade to rehabilitate DDT and make Rachel Carson look bad turns out to have originated in a more or less random decision that DDT could be used this way and wasn’t obviously connected to tobacco, so why not? Continuing public exposure of tobacco company documents shows other such cases, too.

There is nothing at all comparable on the side of those accused of “scientism”. What we have here, in other words, is yet another case of projection. Child-abusing, wife-abusing, wedding vow-breaking, sadomasochistic closet cases denounce others for lacking family values, and scandal-manufacturing, evidence-hiding, fraud-championing cheats accuse others of insufficient commitment to honest research and policy. In both cases, deceived followers fall in line. But in both cases, the followers have been used as fools.

44

bi 03.06.08 at 2:59 pm

francis:

“Apparently there’s a GCC skeptic conference going on this week, where Al Gore jokes are de rigeur and the keynote speaker was a standup comedian. I wonder how the long-suffering soles at RealClimate feel about not being invited.”

Ka-boom.

Somehow it seems to me that take-home message from this “conference” isn’t supposed to be anything about the science itself. Rather, the take-home message is that John Coleman is going to sue Al Gore.

(Which brings me to the question: Why are global warming denialists so obsessed with Al Gore?)

45

Dan S. 03.06.08 at 3:40 pm

he crusade to rehabilitate DDT and make Rachel Carson look bad turns out to have originated in a more or less random decision that DDT could be used this way and wasn’t obviously connected to tobacco, so why not?

Every now and then – usually when I haven’t been getting quite enough direct sunlight – I start wondering if one day researchers digging through industry archives will find records of funds being funneled through some front group to creationist organizations like ICR, AiG, and the Discovery Institute . . .

46

harold 03.06.08 at 3:41 pm

In their fight against science Republicans use trial lawyer tactics rather than reasoned argument. This is consistent with their style of argument overall.

47

strategichamlet 03.06.08 at 3:47 pm

@35 “Scientists very often make or imply totalizing claims for science as a practice with an exclusive purchase on the truth & deny that it is embedded in history and culture”

Scientists are embedded in history and culture, and most would probably admit it, but their data is not. For instance, how is the Hubble Ultra Deep Field distorted by history or culture?
Also, as I alluded to in 16 (and have yet again seen in this thread) I think that the anti-science left is still alive and well.

48

jcasey 03.06.08 at 4:04 pm

Someone said about William F.Buckley that he loved his own ideas more than he hated theirs (liberals I guess). I think that’s probably false. But that phrase characterizes the critical tenor of the anti-science types. They hate what science produces, but they have no basis on which to do so, and no alternative method of gathering and evaluating evidence. Thus, this claim:

they rarely present a coherent critique that would explain why, on so many different issues, they feel its appropriate to rely on their own politically-based judgements and reject those of mainstream science.

Makes a good deal of sense.

Besides this, they perpetually confuse “reporting about science” with actual science. Those are different things.

49

geo 03.06.08 at 4:57 pm

#39: I think it’s a pretty fair bet that quite a few of those ‘NAFTA is the root of all evil’ voters are also creationists of one stripe or another.

Oh, please. It takes a fair amount of intellectual independence to resist the unceasing stream of pro-NAFTA commentary from mainstream pundits and academics. It takes none to close your eyes and hug your Bible.

And if you’re suggesting (except in sly jest) that heterodox economists are no more intellectually respectable than creation scientists … well, choose your weapons.

50

c.l. ball 03.06.08 at 5:38 pm

#32 (Zamfir) is right. Tierney goes on not to deny that global warming is a problem but to deny that one must accept Kyoto+ as the solution. He endorses a carbon tax! That doesn’t undercut Quiggen’s larger point that the Republican-led anti-science campaign (I’m getting tired of people calling things “wars” all the time) rests on treating scientific findings in a bizarrely relativistic way.

But there are two things overlooked in this discussion. First, certainty is a red-herring. To say that we cannot take action on an issue because we are not “certain” about the cause or the prediction is to say we should do nothing. Scientific methods rarely can be provide “certain” answers. It usually can provide probabilities; it is a political decision to decide what risk levels to accept or to act on. For example, during the Eisenhower presidency, the ability to verify test ban compliance was debated. Scientists could not guarantee with certainty that any test would be detected, but they could guarantee that it would be improbable they would miss one. The amount of risk to accept, they argued, was a political decision. Over global warming, denying the results of modeling and experiments is anti-scientific, but being scientific means recognizing the degree of uncertainty in the findings. The IPCC findings do not say: we have absolute confidence that catastrophic effects from warming will occur in 50 years unless we enact a Kyoto+ system in the next 10 years. Although they do come close, and the issue is more what counts as ‘catastrophic’ rather than merely ‘harmful.’

The political question is: given the results, what degree of response and what kinds of actions are appropriate (from do nothing to eliminate all possible global warming-causing gas emissions)? Should there be a carbon tax and cap-and-trade, or just a carbon-emission cap? These are not scientific questions outside of the estimates of their effects on mitigation. Tierney is saying that we are at this stage, with the feasible set starting at no-regrets measures and extending upward. Doing nothing is not an option.

The second issues is complexity. James Burke had noted in his original PBS series “Connections” — only the claim is hardly novel — that the increased complexity of modern technology (and the accompanying science) made democratic decisionmaking about it hard because real knowledge about how it works is beyond the ken of anyone but experts in those fields. Most of us believe what the climate-science modelers tell us. And Tierney is right that climate science is complex. But that cuts both ways: the limits of the models could mean that the effects will be far worse that has been predicted. We lack the expertise to evaluate the models. In the late 80s and early 90s, the models were far less precise; greater computing power has helped increase confidence in their estimates.

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joseph duemer 03.06.08 at 6:06 pm

@40: Thanks Berry, I guess I’ll just STFU, since you say so.

52

roger 03.06.08 at 7:58 pm

“For instance, how is the Hubble Ultra Deep Field distorted by history or culture?”

I can’t imagine that any scientist simply pores over all the data from the Hubble. The first thing you would do is clean up the data – decide what is important and what isn’t. There’s a beautiful book by Lorraine Daston and Peter Galison about this, Objectivity, which traces the notion that any impinging on the ‘data’ is ‘distortion’. Are there any scientific papers that simply consist of a stream of data? I doubt it. The data is subjected to various methodological grids – it is compared to other data – inferences are made connecting one data set to the other – and so on. There’s no divine revelation from raw data, and never will be. Describing science as an ongoing (and thus necessarily incomplete) process of discovery is not an insult to science, or some lefty way to discredit science. On the contrary, it gets to the very heart of the scientific process, pointing to the continuity that is laced through the whole enterprise even though, at every epoch, scientists are dealing with incomplete theories, false assumptions (for instance, of aether), and the contingencies that afflict any social enterprise. To make Steve Fuller, of all people, representative of the lefty view of science is preposterous. Much closer would be Stephen Jay Gould, who showed, again and again, how certain supposedly innocent assumptions about evolutionary theory were not only pernicious in terms of the theory, but were connected to dubious social assumptions.

The global warming consensus is a great example of the way science works. The consensus is not that we will surely have a warmer climate for sure in 2100, but that we have introduced variables into the climate, notably CO2, that will have a radical volatile effect on the world’s climate such that if we don’t have a warmer climate in 2100, this will only because the unexpected result of our pushing the atmosphere will have produced some other worldwide event. For instance, the faint possibility exists that the Gulf Stream will be effected by the addition of cold water from the arctic area ice melt so that it stops, which would certainly create catastrophic conditions of cold in Europe.

There is no scenario, so far, that doesn’t attribute to the increase in CO2 increasing global climactic effects. Global warming is the simplest way to describe them because so far those effects have clustered around global warming. It seems pretty clear to me that the denialist are fighting a hopeless battle – one in which they claim, in effect, that the addition of massive amounts of CO2 to the atmosphere will have no perverse climactic effect. So far, we know what the perverse effect is – warming – and there is no reason to think that it will be anything but warming until we cease pushing the CO2 frontier. There is no scenario in which this has null effect.

In this way, it is much like the tobacco company battle of yore, which was that inhaling smoke, tars and resins, and the various chemicals in cigarettes would have no effect on your body. Even before we had good epidemiological evidence that it did, we had common sense suspicions that probably cigarettes were bad for you. The denialists are as nutty as they are in part because their position forces them to oppose both common sense and science.

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Uncle Kvetch 03.06.08 at 8:50 pm

Given the sum of the evidence today, I think the risk of global warming is sufficient to warrant buying insurance. The question then becomes how much insurance and what kind, and here I think the skeptics are especially useful in challenging what’s mistakenly called “the scientific consensus”

IOW: In deciding what to do about global warming, we should devote special attention to the solutions proposed by those people who deny that global warming exists, as they are “especially useful.”

Gotta admit, I couldn’t have come up with that one. I guess that’s why he writes for the Newspaper of Record and I don’t.

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Rich B. 03.06.08 at 8:51 pm

I agree with almost every point regarding the “Republican War on Science,” except for the claim that it is primarily a Republican thing. I mean . . . it has been for the past 8 years, but that’s because the Republicans have all of the executive authority.

Liberals, meanwhile, believe in an autism/ themiserol link, believe in the dangers of “Frankstein foods” (agricultural biotech), believe that power lines cause childhood leukemia, and other variations of the theme “corporate pollution causes X disease in the poor” that have no scientific evidence supporting them.

There is a war on science, but it is a war of all interest groups (including, but not limited to, Republicans.)

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joseph duemer 03.06.08 at 8:55 pm

@52: Roger, thank you for putting eloquently what I was awkwardly trying to suggest earlier in the discussion.

Also: Data is meaningless without interpretation. What’s necessary are effective and useful and self-critical methods of interpretation.

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strategichamlet 03.06.08 at 10:10 pm

@52, step back for a second. Take this quote from the original post:

“Of course, there’s nothing new about the general viewpoint, that science is just another type of ideological system. It was until recently, widely held on the left.”

I would hate for this to descend into a discussion of what constitutes “widely” and “the left”, but I think it is pretty fair to say that John Quiggin’s view (and mine) of how a large portion of the left sees (or according to John recently saw) science is pretty far from that of Stephan Jay Gould.

“The data is subjected to various methodological grids – it is compared to other data – inferences are made connecting one data set to the other – and so on. There’s no divine revelation from raw data, and never will be.”

Where to start with this? Sure scientists do lots of things with their data, but they are usually pretty careful to justify them or else once their data is public someone will refute them. Healthy science fields have their own internal skeptics who are much better than outsiders at spotting unstated assumptions, unrecognized statistical errors, etc.

“The first thing you would do is clean up the data – decide what is important and what isn’t.”

Different scientists (and scientific subfields) decide that different things are important and pursue them accordingly. As far as I can see what culture does to science is to encourage (or discourage) certain fields relative to one another or to change where scientists come from in a society, but the ultimate conclusions are largely free of any cultural bent. How would General Relativity, say, be different if our culture were different? We might not have an accurate theory of gravitation if society suppressed research on it, but how could it be equally sophisticated and different? It would still have to fit the same data regardless of who the scientist is.

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Hank Roberts 03.06.08 at 11:19 pm

> Republican War on Expertise

See also:
http://www.davidbrin.com/otherculturewar.html
and
http://davidbrin.blogspot.com/

“… to reiterate. This general pattern — the general pattern of the entire Bush Administration — has been aimed at eliminating the United States Civil Service, and other professional services, as credible centers for shining light and accountability throughout our civilization. …
It could be the issue of the election, of the decade. It could turn a millions professionals from brutalized victims into fiercely effective allies, in the restoration of our republic.”

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Chris 03.06.08 at 11:29 pm

Barry in 40:

That’s not how science works though: ideas don’t just one day get enlightened to the realm of fact. Climate modeling, compared to other fields of science, is a experimental data limited field: we can’t turn carbon emissions on or off to see what happens. And I argue that on a more fundamental level, we don’t understand some of the basic physics that underlies climate dynamics since we have still a lot to learn about the non-linearities of fluid dynamics (ie. weather).

I’m just utterly shocked by the response to this article by somebody who said that he wanted to understand the climate models to see if they made sense. I would say that climate models with carbon emissions provide strong evidence that there is global warming, but anybody who listens to a panel of scientists clearly has never been on such a panel.

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roger 03.06.08 at 11:37 pm

“How would General Relativity, say, be different if our culture were different?”

Well, if our culture was different, say – we had no Newton, we had no physics – we wouldn’t have any idea about General Relativity. If you are asking, well, the truths supplied by the theory of General Relativity would be there regardless, I take that to mean that physical phenomena would be governed by the laws of General Relativity no matter if we had formulated them or not. Who doubts it? And who doubts that, if some day we have to modify General Relativity (as Einstein expected we would), those modifications would be about the way the physical world is, now, even though we don’t know it? The truths of science aren’t performative.

But of course, in this way we slowly go towards the the ideal truth that no science ever really captures. On that level – a science that doesn’t exist, at the end of the history of science that does exist – yes, perhaps we will have achieved some perfect harmony with the things that are. I don’t see much point in contemplating this ideal harmonic convergence, however. In physics, biology, all the natural sciences, in my opinion, the notion of certainty has given way to the notion of probabilities that destroys the idea of truth as correspondence, and I believe that this uncertainty will still be there when all of Schrodinger’s cats have resurrected to cat heaven.

All of which means that science is an imperfect social instrument for finding out the truth about the world. It is the best instrument we have for certain truths. In other areas – for instance, in economics – I don’t think we’ve really made much headway, and borrowing the methods of the positive sciences hasn’t yielded the truths that were once hoped for. Now, the hypocrisy of such people as Tierney consists in trying to reverse this state of affairs – pretending, when the topic is economics, that the neo-classicals have proved various things from their models about free trade and such, and, when the topic is climate change, suddenly going all skeptical about models and assumptions.

That, I think, may be the difference between the left and right when it comes to science.

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Dan S. 03.06.08 at 11:41 pm

Liberals John McCain, meanwhile, believe[s] in an autism/ themiserol link . . . .

. . . believe in the dangers of “Frankstein foods” (agricultural biotech), believe that power lines cause childhood leukemia, and other variations of the theme “corporate pollution causes X disease in the poor” that have no scientific evidence supporting them.

Well, there are some extreme attitudes here – for example, some of the OMG! We are meddling in the forbidden by creating GMOs! Mother Nature will strike us down!’ that I think are scientifically foolish and ignorant. But much of this list also reflects not particularly unreasonable precaution and healthy skepticism towards corporate actions – especially as they get to play an ever greater role in writing their own regulations and policing their own behavior. One certainly doesn’t have to imagine that people working in large corporations are somehow inherently and especially evil – it’s a very simple issue of incentives, and known track records.

And of course, while these things doubtlessly do skew left, we really can’t say ‘liberals belive’ – 38% of Democrats believe “humans and other living things” existed in their present forms since the beginning of time, a number that only drops down to 29% if you single out “liberal democrats” [2005 Pew Survey].

More importantly, the difference at the political level is that neither the Democratic Party nor major Democratic/liberal organizations are working towards banning biotech or tearing down power lines or promoting anti-vaccination hysteria or etc. (Indeed, you’ll find anti-vaxxers both on the left (quasi-magical natural living) and right (homeschoolers, etc.)

As a 2006 Science article on attitudes about evolution noted, “In the 1990s, the state Republican platforms in seven states included explicit demands for the teaching of “creation science.”.” In contrast, the (for example) 2006 Platform of the Democratic Party of Colorado had these insanely radical things to say about biotech:

We support . . . .ensuring fairness to farmers and ranchers in their dealings with biotech companies that sell genetically engineered seeds, plants, and animals;
full disclosure of all ingredients, especially genetically engineered organic substances, in commercial products . . .

Crazy, right? Actually providing accurate label information so the free market can work . . .

They also, I notice, supported:
returning the freedom of inquiry to scientists, appointing qualified scientists to panels without regard to political or religious beliefs, and allowing scientists to publish their results without political interference in order that we may have open, honest debate on public policy;

(and the “adequate funding of all public and academic libraries“. I’m pretty much a single-issue library funding voter,* but sadly we don’t have much clout. Maybe we need to wave horrifying signs and billboards of worn-out books and empty shelves . . .)

* Ok, not exactly true. But surprisingly close.

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terence 03.06.08 at 11:51 pm

(Zamfir) is right. Tierney goes on not to deny that global warming is a problem but to deny that one must accept Kyoto+ as the solution.

Yes, but he’s also being disingenuous – outright denial is absent but an emphasis on uncertainty is present and this does little justice to the knowledge and understanding currently possessed by climatologists. There are numerous other areas of science where complexity is present and consensus less; yet Tierney feels fit to write about thse without such hand-wringing. Why?

Chris,

This gets very tiring very quickly so forgive me as I don’t intend to bang my head against your brick wall for very long:

1. Climate models are not the only reason we have to believe in AGW or that we need to take action. A basic understanding of atmospheric physics, combined with observed trends does quite enough to provide this impetus.

2. Climate modeling is most certainly very complex and climate models are not perfect, but when you use them to hindcast (that is, start them in 1920 say and run them over the subsequent 30 years using existing data on relevant inputs) they actually do a reasonble job of predicting climate as observed.

In short, you are welcome to join Fred Singer in his search for nits but don’t delude yourself about the overall state of knolwedge on climate change.

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Dan S. 03.06.08 at 11:56 pm

Now, the hypocrisy of such people as Tierney consists in trying to reverse this state of affairs – pretending, when the topic is economics, that the neo-classicals have proved various things from their models about free trade and such, and, when the topic is climate change, suddenly going all skeptical about models and assumptions.

Well said. Not just economics, though – pop evolutionary psych, as well. Odd, how it works out like that.

I’m just utterly shocked by the response to this article by somebody who said that he wanted to understand the climate models to see if they made sense

Ok. Are you also utterly shocked when promoters of ‘teach the controversy!’ turn out not to be clear-eyed skeptics but quasi-theocratic drawers-up of secret ‘wedge strategies’ aimed at “to reverse the stifling dominance of the materialist worldview, and to replace it with a science consonant with Christian and theistic convictions,” and who babble to carefully selected audiences about how “Indeed, intelligent design is just the Logos theology of John’s Gospel restated in the idiom of information theory“?

Science isn’t politics. But politics is politics.

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Hank Roberts 03.07.08 at 12:46 am

> Climate modeling, compared to other fields of
> science, is a experimental data limited field:
> we can’t turn carbon emissions on or off to see
> what happens.

There are ‘natural’ experiments. Remember the big surprise after the 3-day airplane lockdown (starting 9/11/2001) revealed a distinct measurable effect of the lack of contrails on temperature?

I’m waiting eagerly to see if the Chinese government will have been smart.

If so they have instrumented the area around and downwind of the Beijing Olympics carefully enough soon enough to have a good baseline against which to measure the result of shutting down all the vast number of air pollution sources, as they’ve promised to do for the athletic events. If they also record fuel delivery across the time span as a check on how much fossil fuel isn’t burned, that will be helpful.

And I certainly hope the rest of the scientific world will be sailing and flying offshore and targeting satellite instruments on the area, again, to see what effect it has.

Experiments happen, sometimes. Data collection is a choice.

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John Quiggin 03.07.08 at 12:51 am

Rich B All of the views you mention are much more marginal to the mainstream left (Democrats in the US, social democrats elsewhere) than is GW delusionism for Republicans.

Your first example on autism/thimerosal(sp?) is striking. AFAIK, the only prominent US politician to endorse this link is John McCain. This is pretty disappointing given that he’s the only prominent Republican who clearly rejects GW delusionism. More generally anti-vaccinationism is at least as common on the fringe right as on the fringe left, and not all common in the mainstream left.

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Chris 03.07.08 at 3:52 am

Terence 61:

I find your comment about “banging your head against [my] brick wall” offensive. I think you have a deep misunderstanding of the way science works, and unless you actually are currently researching some form of climate science, I find your level of confidence disturbing. This isn’t like some field of physics like relativity where one can conduct some experiment to verify the cause of some phenomenon: this is much closer to cosmology where we only get one universe and have to extrapolate known laws of physics.

My first strong objection is that there is a difference between “function fitting” and saying that a model for carbon emissions fits the data, and being able to conclusively demonstrate that it is carbon emissions. It’s the classic causation versus correlation argument.

I never stated we should disregard climate science because there are a lot of good physicists in climate science. However, I’m still skeptic of their models just like I’m skeptic of cosmological models, because there are still “emotional trends” in science that people should be weary about.

My point is only that if your reasoning for why you believe climate scientists is because a committee said so and they’re just building off of basic physics, then dear sir, you’ve never served on a science committee or done physics. However, if you are currently engaged in climate research, then I have no qualms with you.

My issue is non-scientists who’s intellectual snobbery makes them discuss issues they don’t understand because they’ve just decided to trust some group of scientists when you shouldn’t even trust the good ones.

If you want to discuss the finer points of climate science, fine, but this stubbornness against skepticism is getting annoying.

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Chris 03.07.08 at 4:10 am

Not everybody who criticizes is stupid or doesn’t understand science. I just remembered reading or hearing something by Freeman Dyson ages ago (one of the most famous physicists alive):

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Freeman_Dyson#Criticism_of_global_warming_studies

if you’re curious. I don’t support everything he says, but I firmly believe in his lack of faith in scientists because science is still a human endeavor.

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Chris 03.07.08 at 4:16 am

I’m vehement in my objections because my impression of this argument is that there is a hive-mindedness here. which may be wrong, but if it’s right is incredibly unhealthy.

68

Anna Haynes 03.07.08 at 5:03 am

Tierney’s presence in the science section may perhaps be explained in this PressThink post (on an inferred NY Times attempt to present itself as being “Iconoclastic toward its own perceived liberal image”)

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John Quiggin 03.07.08 at 8:02 am

Chris, if you’re doing anything other than reiterating the analysis I’ve noted from Tierney, I’m failing to see it. No-one in the thread above has suggested that science is infallible.

The problem is the idea that, having noted the fallible and provisional nature of current scientific understanding, you’re free to substitute whatever appeals to you for ideological, religious or self-interested reasons.

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strategichamlet 03.07.08 at 3:23 pm

roger @59,

I don’t think we disagree too much about how we view science, I think we disagree about whether our view is dominant on the left. Basically I would say that you, me, and most working scientists tend to think about science in a way that was best described by Karl Popper. Many academic leftists, on the other hand, seem to prefer the views of Thomas Kuhn (or worse), which I tend to think are both wrong and destructive.

What I meant about the General Relativity example is that yes a different culture might not have GR, I cannot deny the ability of culture to destroy science, but that if any culture does have an advanced theory of gravitation, it will look a lot like GR. Basically that culture can either promote or impede scientific research, but that it cannot dictate what the results can be. You see this as a trivial point (as do I), but not everyone does.

71

PHB 03.07.08 at 4:16 pm

There is an intellectual slight of hand that takes place in these arguments, a claim that is 85% true in circumstance A is applied to circumstance B to arive at a falsehood.

Most academic work product is redundant, most of what is not redundant is wrong. We only hear about the occasional misfit who went against received wisdom and was subsequently vindicated, most are just proven more wrong over time.

For every Tim Berners-Lee who gets his paper on a networked hypertext system rejected by an academic conference as ‘uninteresting and not novel’, there are a hundred or more whose idea is in fact uninteresting and not novel.

The entire GOP ‘thunk tank’ infrastructure is an extended example of going against common wisdom and getting it wrong. They are deliberately constructed to follow the form of academia without the sunstance, they give themselves themselves academic sounding titles ‘Fellow’ but their function is essentially theological, they are paid to find evidence to support the position of the interests who pay them, regardless of whether or not it is right. They are not about thinking, they exist to propagate what others have already thunk for them.

The individual scribbler (academic or thunk-tank) is quite likely to be boring or wrong, but the consensus amongst an ensemble of open minded scribblers is more likely to be right (in the sense of correctly predicting outcomes) than the individual scribbler.

So what they do is the switcheroo, they take the consensus view and insist that it should be judged according to the standard we might apply to the individual scribbler, then cherry pick the odd-balls whose ideas support their paymaster’s interests and claim that they should be afforded equal or greater status.

What they are really attempting to achieve is not to convince others of their view but agenda denial, prevent the use of scientific evidence to support a policy position by creating an astroturf ‘controversy’ where none actually exists.

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roger 03.07.08 at 4:42 pm

On the comment thread to Tierney’s column, I proposed a nice bet – reproducing that stupid bet made by Jules Simon and Paul Ehrlich involving a basket of commodities. You’ll remember that bet was about the price of those commodities ten years hence – and that Ehrlich lost (he should have held out for another decade and a half – that basket of commodities has been going up in price by leaps and bounds over the past eight years).

The bet would be similar. Take a basket of effects – ground temperatures in the tundra zone, areas of glaciation in mountain regions, species creep from the South to the North – and have the Heartland Institute put money on the land temperatures staying as they are now or going down, the glacial area staying as it is now or increasing, the species invasion of Southern species into Northern climes (you can chose your species) being stopped or eliminated in ten years time. Have heartland bet some nominal sum – $50,000 – on its skeptical take.

Actually, no way they would do this. It would be a sucker bet. They are liars and propagandists, not suckers. In every domain I’ve mentioned – all effects of the CO2 pushing of the atmosphere – we will see worse numbers in ten years. That’s pretty much guaranteed.

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Walt 03.07.08 at 4:47 pm

strategichamlet: You are misinformed on this point. Science skepticism had a brief heyday in the 80s, but has long since died out. At this point, the strongest claim you would find is that scientists are naive to the extent in which they are influenced by ideology.

Also, there’s nothing in Kuhn that is anti-science, or even all that incompatible with Popper.

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joseph duemer 03.07.08 at 5:24 pm

And Popper’s view of science is incomplete, at best. That there are scientists out there who reject Kuhn out of hand simply confirms the point I made earlier about scientists’ own philosophical naiveté leading them to sometimes make insupportable claims about the nature of science. In consequence, idiots like Tierney get to make politically driven critiques for free, as it were.

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Slocum 03.07.08 at 5:51 pm

The bet would be similar. Take a basket of effects – ground temperatures in the tundra zone, areas of glaciation in mountain regions, species creep from the South to the North – and have the Heartland Institute put money on the land temperatures staying as they are now or going down, the glacial area staying as it is now or increasing, the species invasion of Southern species into Northern climes (you can chose your species) being stopped or eliminated in ten years time.

I wouldn’t take either side of that bet, because neither outcome would surprise me very much and I don’t feel like there’s a good way for even the most knowledgeable experts (which I am not) to estimate the probabilities with any real accuracy.

But I do think that agreeing on a set of benchmarks and scaling the response (carbon tax levels, carbon credit costs) to the observed changes is an excellent idea — something both those who are certain that GW will proceed rapidly and those are more skeptical should be able to agree on. Something along these lines seems pretty reasonable. And if such a system were in place, then we could have futures market in future carbon tax or credit costs and all the betting you liked.

Lastly, I think that a lot of the commenters here are missing the U.S. politics of GW. When we see the level of nativist demagoguery on NAFTA in the Democratic primaries, consider that free trade is a policy that is a net benefit to the U.S. (even when it’s not reciprocated). An economically beneficial policy is nonetheless being treated as a bete noire — because, like Bastiat’s candlemakers, some interest groups suffer from the competition.

If that’s the case, imagine how these same interest groups would respond to a Kyoto-style treaty that really did send U.S. money and/or jobs to China and other developing countries because emitting carbon (and, therefore, manufacturing) would be so much cheaper in those places. The bottom line is that the Kyoto process and the economic nativism we’re seeing among the Democrats in the U.S. are fundamentally at odds.

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Barry 03.07.08 at 6:08 pm

Roger: “Now, the hypocrisy of such people as Tierney consists in trying to reverse this state of affairs – pretending, when the topic is economics, that the neo-classicals have proved various things from their models about free trade and such, and, when the topic is climate change, suddenly going all skeptical about models and assumptions.

That, I think, may be the difference between the left and right when it comes to science.”

I was going to point this out, that economics is a very complicated subject, in which many factors are simultaneously operating, and for which data is limited. It’s also (for many areas) a limited-data field, for which a certain small number of historical time series are available.

Also, economists are notorious for being both arrogant, and not working with other experts well, or at all (psych, history, sociology, poli sci, etc.).

But I’m willing to bet that global warming denialism and ‘faith-based’ acceptance of neoclassical economics are strongly and positively correlated.
but this doesn’t stop

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roger 03.07.08 at 6:28 pm

I must admit, I don’t like Popper very much. There is a reason the man only grudgingly admitted evolutionary theory into the fold of “science” at the end of his life – his model of science overemphasized physics, and especially theory, at a particular historical juncture. He says little about the “Baconian” side of science – classification and experimentation – and I think his war against induction is, well, more than a little ridiculous. If anything, his philosophical problems with induction should have caused him to wonder how much you can impose a logical paradigm upon science – myself, I think the big advance in science came when people like Newton simply rejected the idea that logic comes first. De-throning Aristotle and Descartes was a necessary step towards modern science.

I don’t think there is a “philosophy” big enough to explain all of science at the present time. But I’m partial to the school that came out of the pragmatism of Patrick Suppes at Stanford, which gave up a lot of philosophical dreams about the ‘unity of the sciences’ and such.

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Barry 03.07.08 at 6:40 pm

Chris:

“Barry in 40:

That’s not how science works though: ideas don’t just one day get enlightened to the realm of fact. “

I didn’t say that this happened ‘one day'; the process occupied much of the post-WWII era. Some examples: discovering that the water and CO2 absorption spectra did not block each other, as previously thought; the use of isotope studies to examine the amount of ‘new’ and ‘old’ carbon in the atmosphere; Keeling’s work on CO2 accumulation. Read The Discovery of Global Warming for a fascinating science history story. The interplays and feedback cycles within and between fields are very interesting, and were very enlightening for me.

“Climate modeling, compared to other fields of science, is a experimental data limited field: we can’t turn carbon emissions on or off to see what happens. And I argue that on a more fundamental level, we don’t understand some of the basic physics that underlies climate dynamics since we have still a lot to learn about the non-linearities of fluid dynamics (ie. weather).”

Um, just to clue you in, the story climate modeling of the past thirty years is (among other things) the story of increasingly sophisticated models using an increasingly sophisticated understanding of atmospheric/oceanic characteristics to produce models which both (a) predicted current climates, (b) predicted the effects of perturbations (e.g., the eruption of that big volcano in the Philipines, the Younger Dryas era, and much Ice Age climate), and (c) predicted the effects of global warming. Although from what I’ve read, the models *underpredict*; the story of the past 5-10 years is that the predictions erred on the low side.

Chris, you’re basically stone ignorant here. At best. The things which you are saying a flat out factually wrong. They exhibit no sense of the history of the field, or the verification techniques developed to deal with the limitations of certain types of data.

“I’m just utterly shocked by the response to this article by somebody who said that he wanted to understand the climate models to see if they made sense. I would say that climate models with carbon emissions provide strong evidence that there is global warming, but anybody who listens to a panel of scientists clearly has never been on such a panel.”

For your first sentence in the paragaph above: as somebody said above, we’ve see the ‘teach the controversy’ people, and know the trick. Your last sentence – well, it simply doesn’t make sense.

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strategichamlet 03.07.08 at 7:30 pm

@74 “That there are scientists out there who reject Kuhn out of hand simply confirms the point I made earlier about scientists’ own philosophical naiveté leading them to sometimes make insupportable claims about the nature of science. In consequence, idiots like Tierney get to make politically driven critiques for free, as it were.”

First off it is the thinking inspired by Thomas Kuhn that allows for Tierney to make such critiques, not some sort of philosophical arrogance on the part of scientists. Take this from the wikipedia article on the science wars:
“However, more recently some of the leading critical theorists have recognized that their critiques have at times been counter-productive, and are providing intellectual ammunition for reactionary interests. Writing about these developments in the context of Global warming, Bruno Latour noted that, “… dangerous extremists are using the very same argument of social construction to destroy hard-won evidence that could save our lives. Was I wrong to participate in the invention of this field known as science studies? Is it enough to say that we did not really mean what we meant?””

Even Bruno Latour here recognizes that social construction is a.) wrong (why else would he complain about it when applied to science he actually likes) and b.) destructive.

If you think it is unfair to lay any of the blame for this kind of thinking on Kuhn maybe you should go contest this sentence on the wikipedia page for The Structure of Scientific Revolutions:
“SSR is viewed by postmodern and post-structuralist thinkers as having called into question the enterprise of science…”

Also, I find your comments about “naiveté” to be extremely condescending. What other disciplines are you constantly lecturing about how little they know about the philosophy of their own field?

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strategichamlet 03.07.08 at 8:05 pm

roger @77: “I’m partial to the school that came out of the pragmatism of Patrick Suppes at Stanford, which gave up a lot of philosophical dreams about the ‘unity of the sciences’ and such.”

Having never heard of Suppes before, I just read an article of his I found online “Pragmatism in Phyiscs” (1998). Not sure I agree with everything there, but definitely good stuff nonetheless, thanks for the tip.

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Walt 03.07.08 at 9:26 pm

It’s unfair to Kuhn because it’s not what Kuhn said, at least in Structure of Scientific Revoutions. The “science is socially constructed” people interpreted the evidence Kuhn assembled in a way that fit their worldview — it’s not what Kuhn says in the book.

And as for Tierney, I’m sure someone just like him has used Godel or Einstein to argue that science is trying to destroy the moral underpinnings our our society. Does that mean Godel shouldn’t have published the proof of the incompleteness theorem, or that Einstein should have suppressed relativity?

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John Quiggin 03.07.08 at 10:00 pm

#79 Latour’s comment supports an observation I made a while back (can’t find the link now). The various leftish critics of science (social constructivist, postmodernist) weren’t, in general, much interested in criticising any particular scientific conclusions (other than safely discredited ones like the science associated with eugenics) but rather to promote the kind of general scepticism that implied that literary rather than scientific skills were what was really needed to get a deep understanding of things. When pushed on the question of whether, say, it would be sensible to use astrology as a basis for public policy, they tended to suggest they had been misunderstood. Now, as Latour notes, all this cleverness has come back to bite them.

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HCG 03.07.08 at 10:51 pm

“Our Core Values: Content of the highest quality and integrity–This is the basis for our reputation and the means by which we fulfill the public trust and our customers’ expectations.” From the NYT “Mission and Values”

Most of us will agree, I suspect, that the Times has had some challenges to this statement: from Jason Blair a few years ago, to Tierney today. The problem the Times has is that it would like to have a conservative writing there to show some apparent but elusive “balance”, but clearly has a hard time finding intellectually honest conservatives. One might wonder if “intellectually honest conservative” isn’t really an oxymoron.

Apologies to you readers for a point that seems a bit long. I am have been active in guiding our local transport authorities to do competent and honest benefit-cost analyses of our transport options. A very conservatively done study (underestimated the benefits, and put in the most extreme cost assumptions, all within a Monte Carlo framework) we did here showed that a starter light rail would have mean benefits twice the size of the costs, with only a four percent probability that the net benefits would be negative based on the underlying probability distributions. The regional libertarian showed up to argue against it, in this way: he noted that the expected cost of the line, $750 million, and the projected ridership, 22,000 passengers daily would mean the cost per acquired rider would be about $34,000 ($750m/22k), and for that kind of money you could buy all the riders a new car, and an Audi at that. Conclusion – the line was not cost effective. I ask my students what is wrong with this criticism, and some quickly note that the extra cars so purchased don’t come with their own roads, their own parking garages, etc., etc., and that the point of the rail line is to reduce congestion. Further, the estimated light rail costs included all of that. But he would say just what I indicated, and those suspicious of government in this very conservative region would accept it on face value. Now it turns how that this fallacious argument was originated by another libertarian with zero analytical credentials, Wendell Cox.

Now the Tierney connection. He wrote a piece for the NYT Sunday Magazine in 2005 entitled “The Autonomist Manifesto”. I wrote Bill Keller at the Times: “I reacted with disgust when I saw that Tierney favorably cited Wendell Cox, calling him a transportation expert, and also Randall O’Toole the “number-crunching economist”. Having advised our metropolitan planning organization for several years on how to conduct valid economic analysis of transportation investment proposals, I am very familiar with the experts in the field, and I know that these two are intellectually dishonest libertarians in the pay of the highway lobby, ensconced in so-called libertarian “think-tanks”. Cox has no expertise, and O’Toole’s MA in forestry economics does not equip him to conduct valid economic analysis of transport systems. As a result, both studiously avoid the analyses conducted by expert transportation economists, as they find them “inconvenient” to promoting their flagrantly biased and intellectually dishonest “studies”. . . . If Tierney cannot do his homework enough to learn about these two well enough to know that they are totally discredited among serious researchers, then he has allowed himself to be co-opted and used, and sadly, and in my view, the Times has again committed another serious journalistic transgression. The science writers at the Times never seem to have this problem of not being able to separate respectable expert opinion from that of the charlatans

Tierney’s blog only reinforces my conclusion: he isn’t intellectually honest, and also doesn’t seem that capable either. More evidence: I wrote a response to his latest post on the Heartland Institute:

“For those who may be still a bit confused over the role of theory in scientific investigations, here are a couple of very apposite statements about models and theories, first from a famous statistician, George Box, and the other from a famous social psychologist, Kurt Lewin:

“Box: “All models are false but some models are useful”.

“Lewin: “There is nothing so practical as a good theory”.

“All real scientists understand these, as do competent science writers, but some journalists seem not to, in particular Mr. Tierney, or he would not be quoting Fred Singer on the obvious: “Models are very nice, but they’re not reality and they’re not evidence.” Singer knows that the only way we “know” the world, i.e., the causal relationships in physical and social systems, is through our models of the world, and on the basis of these we make predictions. So the real question is how well they predict. Of course, time will tell, but we may not like the results, and that is the source of the concern over climate change. A blog on the differences among serious and reputable scientists over the modeling and therefore prediction issues would make interesting reading, but that is not what we have here.

“The Heartland Institute is an intellectually dishonest place, as is the Cato Institute which he also likes to cite, but apparently Tierney cannot tell the difference. Is that because he is intellectually dishonest? Several posters apparently think so. His presence on the science pages debases that page, and the Times itself.

“So it would appear his self-professed proclivity to write about the views of the charlatans and pretend to dignify his postings by stating that he is just offering the contrarian view is really the result of an (admitted) inadequate education in science, but also an unadmitted inability to be discerning. And that inability is likely tempered by the evidence in his blog postings, that like Singer, as well as Randall O’Toole and Wendell Cox whom he lauded a few years ago, he is an ideologue. Ideologues seem to have a constitutional inability to bring a discerning rationality to bear upon that which they want to believe.

“The idea of a blog at the Times on the climate issue is a great idea, and can make for some real education – it just needs to be in capable hands”

Well, the post, which admittedly is a bit strong, was, not surprisingly, edited. The part that starts as “The Heartland Institute is an intellectually dishonest place . . .” was excised. And who excised it? Tierney himself, which he explained in a note when I attempted to post it again.

So Tierney is in charge of approving comments on his blog. Now that I can understand that on blogs such as this one, but at the Times? And when people complain about intellectual his dishonesty. I guess he confirmed it, didn’t he? So now I suspect he is cherry picking the comments, making the response to his blog appear more receptive than it likely is.

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strategichamlet 03.07.08 at 10:54 pm

@81 The analogy to Einstein (or Godel) would only really work if a.) the misinterpreters were prominent physicists (or mathematicians) and b.) Einstein (or Godel) was still alive, but didn’t do a whole lot to refute this misreading of his work.

@82 Good point John. I remember as an undergrad telling a TA that I would be a lot more willing to take Naive American creation mythology a lot more seriously when I could buy a cd player designed and built based on its teachings.

This is why that whole movement bothers me so much. Not only was it bullshit, but it was bullshit peddled by people who knew it was for cynical reasons of self aggrandizement and sold to wide eyed students who didn’t know any better. It was intellectual vandalism, with probably a bit of vigilante revenge for science’s role in the Manhattan project and Cold War thrown in for good measure.

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joseph duemer 03.08.08 at 2:47 am

@84: Strategichamlet: If I was condescending, you have done me one better by being dismissive and repetitive. How come you working scientists go all hysterical when someone suggests that what you do exists inside of history? In my earlier comments (18 & 32), I offered a modest conjecture concerning one reason some people might find scientists’ claims problematic. It was a political & sociological observation. Your reaction seems frantic in light of my modest claims. Do you really believe that scientists operate outside of history? When the particle physicist orders a piece of gold foil to use as a target in his accelerator, doesn’t he have to fill out an invoice?

@82: John, do you think that literature can make any truth claims, or does science always trump “the literary”?

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soru 03.08.08 at 1:24 pm

A very conservatively done study (underestimated the benefits, and put in the most extreme cost assumptions, all within a Monte Carlo framework) we did here showed that a starter light rail would have mean benefits twice the size of the costs, with only a four percent probability that the net benefits would be negative based on the underlying probability distributions.

Historically, I think that is much more at the heart of the issue than pomo bullshit: para-scientific bullshit. A light rail project is quite likely a good thing, but it is absolutely outside the capacity of human scientific knowledge to state that the chances of it not being so are ‘4%’. Someone who says that is not even wrong, making a statement with no scientifically-relevant meaning.

The system of a city of humans embedded within a global cultural and economic system is vastly, massively, more complex than their model, and they are:

1. not correctly accounting for those complexities by assuming they are simply random factors.

2. not doing a fraction of the testing and validation needed to debug such a model

Politically, the problem is that opposing meaningless scientoid bullshit of that kind is very likely to bleed over into a support for attacks on genuine science, simply because the parascience so closely mimics the language of actual science.

Obviously, at one level, those who spout those attacks do so because they are paid to. But they only get paid because such attacks work, have cultural traction. Sex sells, because sex exists – 1960s Madison avenue didn’t invent it.

Similarly, attacks on stupid experts only exist because some experts really are stupid.

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HCG 03.08.08 at 1:41 pm

John:

I see I made a couple of typos in the last paragraph of my post — # 83. May I ask you to replace it with this? Thanks.

So Tierney is in charge of approving comments on his blog. Now that I can understand on blogs such as this one, but at the Times? And when people complain about his intellectual dishonesty? I guess he confirmed it, didn’t he? So now I suspect he is cherry picking the comments, making the response appear more receptive than it likely is.

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Eric H 03.08.08 at 3:51 pm

I’m not going to defend anti-scientific Republicans, but doesn’t this post suffer a little from one or more cognitive biases? You seem to be selecting those which turned out to be correct predictions (although the inclusion of passive smoking is a little questionable) and saying, “Aha! See? Pro-regulation science is *always* right” while leaving out the inconvenient gaffes. Saccharin? Global cooling? Y2K? England ceasing to exist by 2000? It is much harder to reach back in time and memory to find those predictions of science that were wrong than those that were right, and nobody here is even trying.

And, as I have pointed out here before, I still don’t understand how people who can line up behind every pessimistic prediction can justify their automatic acceptance of it while demonizing those who are early skeptics … and then claim to be defending science! The skeptics are at least as important if not more so to the scientific process so long as they can justify their skepticism on the existence of known and unknown unknowns.

The scientific evidence produced by the cancer establishment has supported lots of restrictions on smoking, air pollution, the use of synthetic chemicals and so on, all of which are opposed by Republicans.

Not true. Though you could fairly say that the opposition has largely consisted of Republicans, you cannot say that all or even most Republicans oppose them. Republicans with children, for example, tend to favor anti-smoking ordinances. The organic apparel market, especially for children, is driven more by income than politics. The last Clean Air Act and at least one of its predecessors was signed by a Republican. This is more stereotyping of Republicans as “people who favor pollution”, which is not helpful to those of us trying to engage rather than talk past or down to them. Unfortunately, the echo chamber here seems to accept this characterization. To be fair and balanced, you might want to at least consider the fact that Michigan, West Virginia, Tennessee, and other Democrats have regularly fallen on the anti-regulatory side with respect to many clean air laws (Kyoto, Clean Air Acts which favor shifts in fuels rather than scrubbers) for local political reasons (auto manufacturers, coal mining, tobacco farming).

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Grand Moff Texan 03.08.08 at 4:58 pm

I wonder what is accomplished by such an incendiary response to Tierney’s polemic.

There was nothing even remotely “incendiary” about Quiggin’s post.
.

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eric taylor 03.08.08 at 5:27 pm

by the way I agree with the central premise of tom bethell’s book

A problem is discerned, or invented, the government steps in, and then the problem seems only to grow more serious. And that suits the scientists just fine. They are more interested in their own funding, tenure, and security than in any detailed accounting of progress or decline in their own field. They have learned to “game the system,” in other words.

If you work at a scientific lab, you know how true that is. The superstar in your work group is not the brightest mind, or the person with the best idea. No! It is the guy who writes the best research grants, ones that start off with great new sounding ideas like “Nanotechnology” or “gengineering nano-viruses.” Sometimes I am surprised that any science ever gets done just because everyone is so focused on grant writing and funding all the time. You can’t blame the scientists, they gotta eat.

What is wrong with tom bethell is that he is a kook. He believes in weird stuff, really bizarre and strange things, that is the real problem. That is the core problem with the republican party. They are the party of wide-eyed lunatic kooks.

You know how the democratic party is supposed to be the big tent party? And the republican the small tent? Well in one way that is true. Republicans throw out the gays the atheists the muslims and the latinos. But . . . the democrats throw out those who believe a demon or god lives in the sun and this being controls the weather, they throw out people who believe that small amounts of smoking is good for your infant children, they throw out people who think that gravity is caused by static electricity, they throw out people who wear tinfoil to protect them from cosmic rays, while the republicans welcome the kooks. The republicans are the big tent party for science kookery.

I’m not sure if that is good or bad. Certainly nobody knows science, nobody in the democratic party nor the republican party. They just repeat whatever they believe or have been told. There is zero amount of actual scientific thinking in the political discourse. But in science, the democrats are the ones with message discipline.

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Dan S. 03.08.08 at 7:50 pm

saying, “Aha! See? Pro-regulation science is always right” while leaving out the inconvenient gaffes.

I’m not sure who’s making such a sweeping statement?

. . . Global cooling?

{sigh} the idea that there was this intense and widespread concern about ‘global cooling’ in the 1970s appears to be essentially a myth, one pushed by AGW denialists. See for example here:

The supposed “global cooling” consensus among scientists in the 1970s — frequently offered by global-warming skeptics as proof that climatologists can’t make up their minds — is a myth, according to a survey of the scientific literature of the era.
The ’70s was an unusually cold decade. Newsweek, Time, The New York Times and National Geographic published articles at the time speculating on the causes of the unusual cold and about the possibility of a new ice age.

But Thomas Peterson of the National Climatic Data Center surveyed dozens of peer-reviewed scientific articles from 1965 to 1979 and found that only seven supported global cooling, while 44 predicted warming. Peterson says 20 others were neutral in their assessments of climate trends.“

. . . Y2K? . . .
That’s science?

. . .England ceasing to exist by 2000?
You mean you guys are still there? I though it had been turned into a big theme park . . .
(Seriously, what is this in reference too?)

people who think that gravity is caused by static electricity,

No, no, no – it’s that gravity is caused by the static electricity produced by picking up and rubbing cats. Seriously, try it. Certainly you’ll find that the cat soon ends up on back on the ground, possibly along with the person . . .

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John Quiggin 03.08.08 at 8:26 pm

I wrote extensively on the bogus nature of the Y2K scare. I never noticed anything from the rightwing anti-science group. On the contrary the fringe right (Gary North and similar) were major promoters of Y2K panic. On global cooling, as others have noted, you’ve been had.

As regards “lining up behind every pessimistic prediction”, who do you have in mind? All the main Republican/conservative/libertarian thinktanks (AEI, CEI,Cato, Heartland etc) are strongly anti-science in the way I’ve described. Can you show that Brookings or Centre for American Progress follow the reflexively pessimistic line you describe?

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Robert Waldmann 03.09.08 at 12:15 am

On the cancer epidemic, I hate to defend Tierney but my guess as to what he meant made sense. I assumed he was not claiming that scientists now assert that there is currently a cancer epidemic (for a commenter cancer rates are well explained by age to the fifth and cigarette smoking lagged 20 years with less than an epidemic left for other changing causes). I do recall a scientist predicting in 1978 that there would be a cancer epidemic in the 80’s.

The logic was that synthetic organic chemistry took off after wwII, that the products were mostly introduced in the 60s, and that we know about the 20 year lag from data on smoking and cancer. It made sense. He was William Von E. Doering, a synthetic organic chemist.

I think there was a genuine mistake in estimating the effect of synthetic organic chemicals on cancer, basically due to using linear interpolation from huge doses instead of the fifth power.

Obviously it is easy to find prominent leftist academics who are not anti science. Just note prominent leftist academic scientists (who are numerous). In the early 80’s, I struggled (I was a PhD student in Biology at MIT) trying to think of e right of center scientists (the winner was Bernard Field a virologist). On the other hand, Salvatore Luria the guy who built the department (and won a Nobel prize) was definitely far left.

I think the commenter strategichamlet uses leftist to mean pomo or something. This is unfair to the left.

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John Quiggin 03.09.08 at 12:24 am

It’s true that individual scientists have been wrong lots of times, but there’s a logical fallacy in the argument Tierney’s putting up, inferring that most scientists are wrong most of the time. The idea of a cancer epidemic was never generally accepted, any more than global cooling.

As regards saccharin, a quick look at Wikipedia reveals that the anti-saccharin push came from USDA. I don’t think it would be too hard to look behind the curtain to red-state sugar and corn producers.

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Walt 03.09.08 at 2:39 am

Strategichamlet: Kuhn _did_ repudiate the relativist reading — I’m not sure where you’re getting the idea he didn’t. You can find references on the Wikipedia page.

I didn’t understand your point about the analogy. Every philosopher is responsible for every stupid point every other philosopher makes? Surely you can’t mean that.

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John Quiggin 03.09.08 at 2:48 am

“John, do you think that literature can make any truth claims, or does science always trump “the literary”?”

Two questions in one! On the second, within the domains of physical and natural sciences, I think science clearly does trump the literary.

There are some trickier issues in relation to “social sciences” notably economics and psychology. I sympathise to a fair extent with your objections to “scientism” which I interpret to mean the claim that the use of the trappings of science (mathematical models, statistical analysis and so on) automatically grants authority in these fields.

Taking “literature” to mean the kind of literature that is typically the subject of literary criticism (novels, for examples) I doubt that literature can make truth claims. But I would say, for example, that you can learn more about families from novels than you can from the literature on the economics of the family.

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HCG 03.09.08 at 2:57 am

Soru in # 86 said “A light rail project is quite likely a good thing, but it is absolutely outside the capacity of human scientific knowledge to state that the chances of it not being so are ‘4%’. Someone who says that is not even wrong, making a statement with no scientifically-relevant meaning.”

Do you know what Monte Carlo analysis is?

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joseph duemer 03.09.08 at 4:17 am

@96: Thanks, John, for your response. You catch my drift pretty well, but I’d want to stipulate that the decisions a scientist makes about what problems are important, how to frame them, etc. derive at least in part from his or her cultural / historical position, i.e., the terms of the prevailing paradigm, the money available for lab equipment, etc. But that’s basic Kuhn & uncontroversial, I think. Even classically objective data like that from the Hubble telescope has to be endlessly interpreted and lined up with other data, filtered through competing theories, and rechecked before it can be considered true. Sir Arthur Eddington famously made a selection of the photographic data from eclipse observations because some of the observations didn’t fit Einstein’s theory. I’m not alleging fraud — that’s just the way science is done.

As for literary truth claims, let me offer an anecdote from last week’s seminar in Modern American Poetry. We’ve been reading the poets of the 20s & 30s, including the poets of the Harlem Renaissance, along with Kenneth Fearing and Genevieve Taggard, whose poem,
Ode in Time of Crisis, addresses American immigration policy at the time. Taggard makes a literary and moral argument in her poem against policies based on both the biological and social science of the times — bad science, it turns out, though it seems to get endlessly recycled. Taggard’s poem makes a literary truth-claim that seems to me to be superior to the truth-claims made by (at least some) of the science of the period. Taggard was right and the eugenicists and biological racists were wrong.

To conclude: My original point in this discussion was that sometimes scientists present their conclusions — even when they are correct — using a rhetorical framework of certainty and objectivity that is unwarranted and politically counterproductive. (It goes without saying that this does not excuse the even worse rhetorical sins of the denialists on both the right and the left.)

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A 03.09.08 at 8:50 am

As an aside:
Many of the global warming criticisms voiced in some posts above have been refuted by the good folks at realclimate.org and repeating some criticism without referring to arguments given there (such as showing why they are wrong or do not apply) is not useful.
I am also aware, that critics of science will perceive this note(“First study the literature, before you can say something”) as arrogance on the part of scientists (and this commenter). Sorry.

In particular, if there is a lack of data (for climate changes), why aren’t the global warming deniers clamoring to launch the Deep Space Climate Observatory DSCOVR ? As explained in the
Sept. 2006 issue of Seed
there seems to be rather an unwillingness in the current administration to get these possibly inconvenient data.

Another thing: Tierney writes: “Do the critics really think there’s more money and glory to be won by doubting global warming than by going along with the majority?” Well it has been answered by, Yes: see this Guardian Story (and its criticism at the conservative Volokh Conspiracy).
Please note that normally, to attend a scientific conference, one has to pay a fee (out of one’s limited grant funds), and does not get a honorarium. (Of course, if I invite a speaker for a seminar or colloquium to my university, my department would pay reasonable air fare and (the cheapest)hotel nearby). So if these people offer me 10k$, I might be tempted to supplement my meager income.

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soru 03.09.08 at 12:11 pm

Do you know what Monte Carlo analysis is?

Yes. Are you seriously defending it’s use to calculate a probability to single-percentage point precision from an unvalidated model of human behaviour created for the purposes of the calculation?

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Dan S. 03.09.08 at 12:40 pm

Incidentally, let me just link to Error and the Nature of Science from the actionbioscience website.

Y’know, every single time I have a second or two of misreading the post title as “The Republican War on Science: Tierney and Bentham” – which would be something else entirely . . .

that is unwarranted
One can understand how the vast and astonishing leaps in knowledge and ability -however imperfect – over the last century or two could get people a bit overconfident, but fair enough . . .

. . . and politically counterproductive.
That’s what I’m rather more uncertain of, and which I’m not sure you’ve demonstrated. I’d also think one would want to distinguish what scientists say (which sometimes does indeed use said unwarranted rhetorical framework) and what journalists say (which very very often does).

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Dan S. 03.09.08 at 1:05 pm

Rita M. Palma, of Bayport, N.Y., sought a religious exemption from vaccines for her three sons but was turned down after a hearing with school officials. She said she had become increasingly uncomfortable with the vaccines the boys were getting.

“About two years ago I hit a wall with it,” she said. “I said I was going to listen to my inner voice. The whole vaccination process is based on fear of getting diseases but I would rather put my faith in God to heal diseases.”” [More Families Are Shunning Inoculations, NY Times]

Incidentally, one (only one, thankfully) of the letters in response does offer a kind of support for the ‘certainty backlash’ argument, although clearly it needs to be formulated a bit differently:

How refreshing to read that “More Families Are Shunning Inoculations,” but the article should have mentioned that this year’s flu shot did not protect against two of the three strains of influenza that hit hard this season, thereby making it less than completely effective. Thus, all children who were vaccinated still were not fully protected. Perhaps this is why parents are questioning the authorities over what is right for our children’s health and safety. Congratulations to parents like Rita M. Palma and Jaime Polatsek for listening to their inner voices.

Personally, my inner voice says that if any children die as a result, such parents should face charges, but . . .

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joseph duemer 03.09.08 at 2:05 pm

Dan, my inner voice would say the same. There was a measles outbreak in San Diego recently that involved intentionally unvaccinated children. Seems like criminal negligence to me.

Thanks, also, for your response above. Science has indeed been astonishingly successful. Those successes have associated costs, though, and emerge from practices and processes that do not inevitably lead to truth. I want to develop my example about literary truth a bit — after I finish a bnch of grading — & will let you know if I write anything. Thanks again for continuing the conversation.

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HCG 03.09.08 at 7:23 pm

Soru said: “Are you seriously defending it’s use to calculate a probability to single-percentage point precision from an unvalidated model of human behaviour created for the purposes of the calculation?”

and

“Someone who says that is not even wrong, making a statement with no scientifically-relevant meaning.”

Mmmm. What is one to make of a person who responds aggressively, angrily and profanely to a post for which he has not examined the study on which the probability statement is based? When he or she hasn’t asked for clarification about what was meant and what was the nature of the modeling process underlying the statement?

Perhaps not knowing what he is talking about? Perhaps with little understanding of how statistical analysis can be fruitfully used in decision-making? Perhaps another humanities type still giving evidence to C. P. Snow’s essay on two cultures? Perhaps all of the above?

Let’s start with George Box’s apposite statement: “All models are false, but some models are useful”.

The history of transport planning and investment decision making in the U.S. has been entirely highway focused, done by highway engineers, and often (usually?) done badly. Large infrastructure projects typically come in more expensive, often much more expensive, than forecast. There are political, game theoretic and analytic reasons for this, but the use of Monte Carlo analysis in the aforementioned light rail study was conducted to at least partially overcome the deficient past practice of providing just point or mean estimates of the costs and benefits of the proposed project. Without any sense of the variability of the outcomes, there could be no careful appraisal of the risks, neither of the benefits nor the costs. So the point was to overcome the weakness of using mean estimates with faux single point precision, rather than as an estimate that is clearly uncertain and subject to variability. The Monte Carlo analysis and results helps us overcome that false certainty.

So our study provided some useful information on that dimension. Now since this was engineering and economic analysis, and not laboratory analysis, issues of model validation are the same as for the climate models. Of course the models were not perfect, as George Box reminds us, but transport demand has been quite well studied, and so one fortunately does not have to start from zero with respect both to techniques and findings.

No serious scientist would argue that the error bounds on his estimates are sacrosanct – that is, the estimated variances from which the bounds are computed can themselves be biased. And of course the statements are dependent on the underlying causal relationships as measured with the current state of knowledge, always imperfect. That is true in all science.

So the real issue was whether the probability statement led to better decisionmaking. We think it did in this case, although the finding that light rail performed better than a highway was very “inconvenient” for the highway engineers and some politicians.

Soru should already know about how statistical analysis is used in these situations, but if not, and apparently not, then it is time to go back to school.

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strategichamlet 03.09.08 at 8:57 pm

@98 “Even classically objective data like that from the Hubble telescope has to be endlessly interpreted and lined up with other data, filtered through competing theories, and rechecked before it can be considered true.”

What exactly do you think the practical and philosophical consequences are of this? You seem only enough aware of what scientists do with data to try to make it look sketchy to others who know even less.

@85 I acknowledge that scientists work within history. Reread my comment in 56. Culture can deny us the ability to pursue certain types of research (particularly expensive research), culture can restrict people from certain segments of society from becoming scientists, culture can say that research in some particular area is of utmost importance and stress it over others.
What I object to is the notion that the data and theories produced are inseparable from their time and culture. Scientists are at the whim of history and culture, but the science they produce is not.

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soru 03.09.08 at 10:49 pm

So our study provided some useful information on that dimension. Now since this was engineering and economic analysis, and not laboratory analysis, issues of model validation are the same as for the climate models

On which issue, simpler than human behaviour, thousands of scientists have spent 50 years carefully inching towards a point where they would not completely distrust those complex models, although they still rarely speak of them without caveats. Even so, the models are the weakest of the three foundations of global climate change: the basic physics and the actual observations of warming are much less contestable (and so rarely discussed by denialists).

not knowing what he is talking about
it is time to go back to school

If you ask a perpetual motion fraudster how their complex device extracts energy out of nowhere, they will almost certainly attack your credentials, rather than address your argument.

The analogous question, how your complex mathematical model extracts exact precision out of uncertain variables in an unknown causal relation, apparently meets with the same response.

There are several orders of magnitude difference between the complexity of what the climate modellers, with massive computers and a large dose of humility, are attempting to do, and what you seem to be assuming is trivial.

Creating and validating such a model scientifically would require patient generations of experimentation, model-building and iteration. If you started now, your great-grandchildren might start to see the outline of a usable answer.

Luckily there is a quicker way: don’t bother, make some stuff up, use mathematical symbols like Kabbalistic formula, hope no-one notices and shout down anyone who does. Everyone else does it, and some are even more brazen about it, using spurious point estimates instead of spurious probabilities.

It is probably a valid criticism of working scientists that they don’t properly deal with those kinds of para-scientific claims. You never see someone guilty of spouting this stuff have his slide rule snapped across his knee in front of the assembled academy, his lab coat stripped off and trampled in the dust, or any other form of appropriate sanction.

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Dan S. 03.10.08 at 12:00 am

You never see someone guilty of spouting this stuff have his slide rule snapped across his knee in front of the assembled academy, his lab coat stripped off and trampled in the dust, or any other form of appropriate sanction.

Well, except for that one incident involving a Professor Esopus Spitzenberg in 1856 . . . .

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Eric H 03.10.08 at 3:38 am

@91

I’m not sure who’s making such a sweeping statement?

That’s the theology of this post: John picked several issues notable for the political ire they draw and which are backed by science. He is ignoring those issues for which the science was later refuted, but which were supported no less strongly by certain groups.

“ . . . Global cooling?”

{sigh} the idea that there was this intense and widespread concern about ‘global cooling’ in the 1970s appears to be essentially a myth, one pushed by AGW denialists.

Newsweek, Time, The New York Times and National Geographic published articles at the time speculating on the causes of the unusual cold and about the possibility of a new ice age.

I’m sorry you find this so tedious, but you have just illustrated my point. I am claiming that there are people who, on the slightest of scientific evidence, are interested in using that as justification for social engineering. This minor scientific speculation – one of thousands in the 1970s – made it to major news outlets while others didn’t — why? And were the activists suitably contrite afterwards? And cautious with new catastrophic findings?

That’s science?

I’m sorry my examples aren’t great, but as I said, it is difficult to recall examples of failures. Unfortunately, you (and John Quiggin) seem to be getting bogged down in the analysis of the easy ones while ignoring the better ones … and the point. I notice that neither of you addressed saccharin.

“ . . .England ceasing to exist by 2000?”
(Seriously, what is this in reference too?)

It was one of the predictions made by neo-Malthusian Paul Ehrlich. The work that he, his wife, Donella Meadows, the Club of Rome, the Center for Science in the Public Interest, and a slew of other people is regularly cited as evidence in favor of social engineering; it is rarely refuted by their political fellow-travelers as strongly as John has done here for similarly unscientific work done by “the other side”.

@ Quiggin – I’m surprised that you have taken the same rhetorical path as my other respondent and ignored the stronger evidence and the point itself. While those think-tanks you cited may be anti-science on some issues (that was an overly sweeping generalization on your behalf, I think), it is also true that other think tanks cite pseudo-science and poor science in support of various favored schemes. Of course they’re pessimistic: you can’t justify new regulations on the basis that everything is peachy! Neither the anti-scientific approach you describe in the initial post above, nor the uses of junk science to achieve certain ends that I am trying to describe, is right, but you take the partisan approach and say only that your opponents are anti-scientific. Are we for science and truth, or for finding only convenient truth? If the former, please recognize that both sides abuse science about equally.

Again, I apologize for my poor examples, but it isn’t easy to recall good examples of bad science (one of the biases I mentioned in my previous comment). I have offered the saccharin scare. For those of you too young to remember, in the late 1970’s, the FDA attempted to ban the best-known sugar substitute, saccharin, as a carcinogen based on rodent studies. Given the ballooning American population, a political compromise was reached, allowing the substance to be sold with warning labels. It was later found that saccharin was a carcinogen only to rats – in fact, only to male rats, as I recall. Saccharin wasn’t removed from carcinogen lists until 2000. Other examples may include the furors over chlorine treatment of water, leukemia caused by power lines, autism caused by thimerosal, and so on.

(I say “may” to avoid Taleb’s “round trip error”: the lack of evidence for A does not mean that A is not so. As any good student of science should know!)

[smartass]
BTW, in terms of published work, of course most scientists are wrong most of the time (at least in medical science):

http://www.pubmedcentral.nih.gov/articlerender.fcgi?tool=pubmed&pubmedid=16060722

There’s not much point in publishing settled fact as research, is there? Earth is round, news at 5!
[/smartass]

I should also point out that there is a confusion here that is largely ignored. Physical science underpins the need to do something; social science is needed to discover what, exactly, should be done. Far too many people note opposition to the recommendations of the latter and mistake it for opposition to the findings of the former. They are falling for a variation of Caplan’s fallacy.

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Eric H 03.10.08 at 3:54 am

Ooops, finally read further and saw that John did address saccharin in a later comment, where he notes that there was a possible political component to this application of science. My apologies.

However, it is unfair to associate them with red staters; ag subsidies are definitely non-partisan (who is Tom Daschle? Daniel Inouye? who was Harold Cooley? Jamie Whitten?). Again, are you interested in truth, or just truth that supports your biases?

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Righteous Bubba 03.10.08 at 4:11 am

ag subsidies are definitely non-partisan

And the science behind that is promoted by…

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John Quiggin 03.10.08 at 7:31 am

#109 Fair enough on the red-state snipe, but as I showed the saccharin scare was certainly not down to the left.

As regards

“The [Club of Rome] is rarely refuted by their political fellow-travelers as strongly as John has done here for similarly unscientific work done by “the other side”.”

You might at least do a Google, say Quiggin+”Club of Rome” check before making this claim. Top hit
http://www.johnquiggin.com/archives/000429.html
(at least on my localisation of Google) refers to the “the (in)famous Club of Rome modelled published as Limits to Growth. The economists pointed out that the Club of Rome model contained no prices and no adaptation to scarcity and was therefore proved woefully wrong on most counts (for example, it predicted that reserves of most minerals would be exhausted before 2000).”

But the fact that a group including some scientists did some bad economics doesn’t justify attacks on science.

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David Murray 03.10.08 at 2:03 pm

OK, forget Tierney. And let’s consider each issue separately, instead of lumping them together as “science” that must be globally accepted or rejected. What about Michael Crichton’s skepticism about global warming? ( http://www.crichton-official.com/speech-ourenvironmentalfuture.html)He has a scientific background, and no particular political agenda that I can see.

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Dan S. 03.10.08 at 2:19 pm

. This minor scientific speculation – one of thousands in the 1970s – made it to major news outlets while others didn’t—why? And were the activists suitably contrite afterwards? And cautious with new catastrophic findings?

Now, this is an interesting question – one possibility, off the top of my head, is the (mentioned in the quote) spate of unusually cold weather, which made it salient, and the desire of major news outlets to make large amounts of money selling their product, which made it useful. I don’t know how much activism (by scientists or others) played into it. Again, there’s a distinction here between professional science – however human and flawed – and science journalism. Whether the journalists were contrite and suitably cautious – well, probably not. I’m also very unsure there was any attempt (or even obvious way) to use this to justify social engineering, except, again, in the limited sense of engineering a larger market for the Times, Newsweek, etc.

Sure, sure, even if scientists somehow functioned outside history and culture (which they don’t), once work steps outside the lab it’s liable to be whacked upside the head and sold into white slavery. But this specific comparison – scientists were wrong about global cooling, so global warming probably’s just a crock – is at best extremely lazy, and at worse deeply dishonest. At that time, (fairly far future) global cooling was one rather minor research direction (though not a wildly unreasonable one), which was puffed up by the popular and pop-science press to a status way, way beyond what it had achieved in the scientific community. If that’s currently the case, then it’s rather a marvelously successful con job, one which seems to have fooled quite a number of climatologists as well.

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John Quiggin 03.11.08 at 3:53 am

Crichton is an across-the-board delusionist (he’s just as bad on passive smoking as on GW) and his “scientific background” is a medical degree which scarcely qualifies him to comment on climate science. It does, I suppose, make his statements on smoking even more discreditable.

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