In response to yesterday’s Climate March (which I was unable to participate in), I think it is regrettable how much religious fundamentalists and political spin-doctors have turned science into a boogey man. I grew up in Mississippi going to a pretty neutral church full of critical thinkers, and I was content just believing that scientists were mostly just liars. According to my upbringing, God made the world in six literal 24 hour days and the scientists were out there just trying to recruit everyone to atheism.
Now, admittedly, there really are some scientists who are trying to recruit Christians to atheism. But their reasoning for such recruitment is because they see how messed up and misguided most fundamentalist Christians are and they rightly want to rescue people from such a narrow-minded worldview. I think this is actually a good thing to do for the far-gone fundamentalist, since, once the legalistic and abusive religiosity is destroyed, there is actually room for the gospel again. However I do think that non-fundamentalist Christianity is just fine and should be left to its own business, provided of course that it does not ignore science as in the past.
There is more gray area as far as it goes with pundits and activists manipulating science or claiming scientific authority on matters either religious or environmental in order to push their agendas on teaching creationism in schools, being pro-life, or regulating tobacco, CFC’s or pollutants and greenhouse emissions. However, there is not much gray area when it comes to the question of the trustworthiness of empiricism. Empiricism, or what is more precisely know as Methodological Naturalism, the thing that scientists do professionally and has driven the development of technology and human progress for the last few centuries, is not to be mistaken with Metaphysical Naturalism, which is the explicit denial of anything beyond the basic naturalistic explanations available to physicists (see Francis Collins’ The Language of God for further discussion of this important difference). As a physicist, I know many metaphysical naturalists, but by no means is it absolutely necessary that in order to practice science one should adhere to anything more than methodological naturalism, but certainly that is the minimum, lest one fall into perpetually questioning why to conduct experiments or construct models of the universe in the first place and never get any actual work done. It is primarily out of convenience that we are naturalists – until a better framework makes itself clear, in good empirical fashion, we adhere to the simplest framework available, which is naturalism.
Empiricism is not to be mistrusted – contrary to the fears of many politically concerned people – the process of science is not generally being abused to further the claims of atheism or to sate governmental regulatory desires. Most atheist scientists are indifferent to religious practices, except for a small subset who are generally extremely obnoxious to and unwanted by both scientists and religious people. Pretty much no one practicing science just loves regulating emissions. Such climate scientists are studying complex systems and describing the results in ways that necessitate immediate action from manufacturers and politicians lest irreversible human harm is done. Until someone can figure out a better way to curb emissions impact on climate the simplest approach is government intervention and regulation, but that doesn’t have to always be the case, and there aren’t any people demanding eternal regulations.
Similarly, no one just loves making it illegal to smoke indoors. But it has to be done until someone can figure out a better way to make smoking healthier (like vaping perhaps?). No one just loves making it illegal to dump tons and tons of deadly chemicals into our water supplies, but it has to be illegal until someone can figure out a way to make dumping chemicals into our water supply healthier. No one just loves making it illegal to mine the tops of mountains and strip the trees out of large areas, but it has to be illegal until we can figure out some new way to strip mine and deforest without destroying vast ecosystems and hurting people as a result.
Unfortunately, these are the kinds of absolute basics that many people don’t want to hear, not because they fail to understand fundamental chemistry and physics, but because they hate the word “regulate.” Whether it is because it sounds too much like Marxist/socialist/communist propaganda, or whatever, they fight it until they themselves would die from chemical exposure. This fight is largely idealistic and political in nature and has very little to do with the quality of the science under scrutiny. In fact, there are many cases where the deregulators themselves engage in false science practices and misinformation campaigns to discredit the real work being done and get their way as a result of the doubt they have sown. A great resource on this is Naomi Oreske’s fantastic history book about the big tobacco industry fiasco and how they perfected this doubt-mongering tactic.
The next problem is that you may want people to debate scientific issues in the public sphere. But they already are! You can read any of the hundreds of scientific journals discussing these kinds of things, and if you can’t access the journals yourself, there are tons of libraries that provide access (as well as academic piracy or pre-print groups that put them out for free). You can go and read for yourself the reports published by the various science advisory groups around the world.
The real scientific debates are happening, but not on Fox News or in the New York Times. Once the dust settles, scientists arrive at what is referred to as the “scientific consensus,” which is not simply a bunch of assorted scientists agreeing on something together. Rather, when we say scientific consensus it is more in the vein of what T. S. Kuhn calls a paradigm of research. It means that climate scientist take the progress built up over decades of high quality theoretical and experimental work and use that as a base layer for further work. At the bottom of future scientific research is now a base layer – the consensus. As a particle physicist I am not involved in climate research, and so I cannot weigh in on the consensus there, but we have our own consensus, in the form of quantum field theory, and more explicitly, the Standard Model, which contains such things as the Higgs Boson and the zoo of fundamental particles that we have both predicted and observed in nature. Unfortunately climate science is based on a less easily studied and predicted set of natural phenomena, which is why they aren’t able to make as strong of a statement for their results as physicists are, but they use the same system to do their work and it works just as well to quantify the validity of the results they do publish.
Although science is debated in its journals, safely tucked away in the halls of academia, there is little such debate in public, other than the shouting matches of denialists back and forth with flustered professors and impassioned activists. But I must ask, what would be gained by having scientists talk about well understood physics and climate science on the front pages of the New York Times or other prestigious publications? If anything it would make it appear that the science isn’t so well understood. I think that putting science-fact into the opinion section, or into some partisan-leaning news publication would just serve to invalidate fact-claims. And an even worse effect is the natural inclination for people to see any fact-claim as contestable and warranting a hearing from the opposition. However, in the case of scientific consensus, by virtue of its having reached a consensus, this means that it has already defeated such opposition to the degree that it is the foundation upon which new work is based and it is the unyielding target of a plethora of new verification studies by all the skeptical scientists trying to find glory in toppling the paradigm.
I think that scientists are better off having their debates in their academic corners. No one on TV argues with someone like me when I tell them the value of the fine structure constant. But if I started writing opeds about it in major papers, all the cranks (and there are quite a few) would come out of the woodworks and then the major networks and papers would be obligated by their “equal time” commitment to try to make segments about the “debate within the community” when in reality there is no such debate at all. This is the oldest trick in the book (“Merchants of Doubt,” by Naomi Oreskes). First you make it look like there are factions, then you demand equal time for each faction. This is a waste of time and only serves to further erode the populace’s already waning trust in science and its practitioners.
I guess that my point can be boiled down to the statement that science isn’t news. Fundamentally, the process of doing science prevents its results from being taken as newsworthy. There may be individual revelations or discoveries that are noteworthy, like a new exoplanet discovery, or the discovery of a new room temperature superconductor, but the possibility for exoplanets or superconductors to exist in the first place, the paradigms upon which such discoveries exist, had to go through the grueling process that all new scientific paradigms or consensuses have to go through, and that precludes them from being reported on as news (Which is why the recent news coverage about prehistoric humans in California bothers me so much).
Another good example of science not being news is whenever the Nobel prize is awarded. It is usually a big deal and tons of articles are written about it, but inside the community the Nobels are not even news as much as they are just nice awards for some multi-decade old work that was already a cornerstone of some huge field of study. For instance, the Higgs boson, was inextricably tied into the bedrock of dozens of nuclear and particle physics discoveries – it would have been far bigger news if no Higgs were ever discovered. If anything, the news story with Nobels is more interesting regarding who wasn’t awarded one and what they must have done to incur the snub.
Again, unfortunately, the problem with environmental science and climate studies is that the systems that are being studied are so vast and nonlinear that no one study or result should ever be taken as definitive by itself. That is why people don’t and shouldn’t ever whip out individual result papers as their evidence for climate change, but rather they should look to the collective work over many decades that has been gradually converging on our current consensus. In the past there have been significant changes in the understanding of different phenomena, but in understandable ways that are quickly accommodated into the models as far as the computational power can achieve.
So, that is why I say science isn’t news and shouldn’t be discussed as such. When you sensationalize individual results it undermines the process where scientists replicate results and incorporate them into new tests, all of which takes enormous amounts of time, and unfortunately large amounts of education and familiarity with the field and it’s intricacies. And then when the results are all in they will sometimes suggest something that rhymes with “if you don’t become big government/socialist then it is very likely that people are going to die or get hurt somehow” and everyone jumps to defend their political ideologies (again, the tobacco industry and its manipulation of the federal government is a great example of this gone horribly wrong).
To fix this perpetual cycle of scientific results getting abused and then outrage quickly following, we need to educate people on the scientific method, not on the results of individual sciences. We already get the cool facts and descriptions of phenomena in every-day pop-sci books and in high-school. That is kind of what disappointed a lot in high-school science classes. Learning a bunch of facts is great, but that’s not what being a scientist really is. Scientists aren’t just big fact-knowers, they are investigators committed to finding the best possible explanations for phenomena. In my opinion, high-school in general does a bad job of bridging that gap in understanding the difference between science-results and science-process, and I don’t know how to fix it.
I hope that this rant was in some way helpful. This is a subject that has interested me ever since I really began studying and participating in scientific research myself. My understanding has changed vastly over the years and I hope I’ve been able to make myself somewhat clear. Let me know if you have any questions or comments and I will be glad to discuss this more.