Where science has gone wrong

In the 20th century “science” was without doubt incredibly successful. Everything from microchips to antibiotics. As a result “science” became a reputable brand giving authority to those who called themselves “scientists”. It was such a great brand that everyone with any cause wanted to adopt it to boost their credentials, but at first it had certain standards: proof via evidence from experimentation. Asserting only what can be proven from the facts (not opinion polls).

But then certain subjects began running out of things to research. Once you’ve studied the life cycle of the lesser spotted goat-toad, you don’t need to do a second study. Once you’ve got a figure for growth rates of tropical plants, you don’t need to go back to do a second study. And sooner or later, despite the huge wealth of material to research, the areas of new research begin to run out.

And then along came “global warming” or “climate change”. Suddenly, you could begin to repeat all the research. Not: “the lifecycle of the lesser spotted goat-toad”, but “the effect of climate change on the lifecycle of the less spotted goat-toad”. So, the last thing anyone in the science community wanted to do was to undermine the goose that laid the golden egg. They knew climate “science” wasn’t exactly hard science, but what did they care so long as the grants kept coming in?

Then along came climategate: they had to decide whether they were going to protect the integrity of the brand, or protect their cash cow. And they decided to follow the line that: “(the appalling standards of) climate ‘science’ are not reprehensible within science”. So, now we’ve reached a situation that “science” as a brand has become so diluted, that it is practically meaningless. The test is now: “did they lie” or even: “can anyone prove they lied”. Of course the brand is still protected by the old-boy network that controls it, so not everyone can say they are “part of the club”, but as a brand it is meaningless.

After climategate, there is no more reason to believe a “scientists” than e.g. a political “scientists” or an economist or even a politician. They can all use maths they can all plot graphs and they can all make unfounded assertions. “Science” is no longer a brand that bestows any greater degree of trust than any other group of people. In it’s attempt to cover every subject irrespective of whether they used the scientific methodology it has undermined every subject irrespective of whether that subject maintains a rigorous application of the scientific methodology or not.

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14 Responses to Where science has gone wrong

  1. I think “science” must still be a valuable and respected brand name otherwise “climate scientits”, “creation scientists”, “Christian scientists”, “environmental scientists”, “scioentologists” & “political scientists” would not be keen to use the label and Sir John Beddington, an economist not a scientist would not be called “Government Chief Science Advisor”. The problem is that real scientists have not defended their turf.

  2. When I was a kid, scientists had an unassailable reputation. The public impression of scientists was of researchers who knew stuff and did stuff, thought long and hard about the stuff they did, redid some of the stuff that was doubtful, and came to conclusions that seemed robust, even if later proved wrong. Being proved wrong wasn’t seen as failure, it was all part of the scientific process which enhanced human knowledge.

    Political influence has soured and sullied that reputation. I rarely read a paper on climate or ocean “acidification” or the like without spotting an unsubstantiated claim or interpretation. I read a paper on ocean pH yesterday which began “Atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) is increasing at an accelerating rate, primarily due to fossil fuel combustion and land use change”, immediately followed by a graph which plotted air & ocean CO2 and corresponding pH. The air CO2 plot was from Mauna Loa, and had a well-fitted straight line through it. So much for the “accelerating rate”. I can read a graph, presumably the reviewers can read a graph, so how did that unsubstantiated statement survive?

  3. transmet says:

    Believe what you want, say what you will – the “truth” will become blatantly obvious when the “evidence” begins poisoning people you know and care about very soon (as in the next 5-10 years). Then we will see a lot of those same people crying “Save Us!” and nature will look down and whisper “no”.

    • Transmet, if you want to talk about belief go and find some religious site.

      I’m not talking about belief but about how science must interpret the evidence.

    • bobby b says:

      A.) I will continue to use evidence as a tool with which to find truth. You, on the other hand, should feel free to continue to use “evidence” as a tool with which to find “truth.”

      B.) Nature is the collection of forces and processes that influence and control the material world. It does not speak, nor does it care about you.

  4. Stonyground says:

    @transmet
    Are you going to point us toward all those millions of refugees who were going to be displaced by rising sea levels by 2010? I live in a low lying coastal region, I ought to be among them. The truth is that these apocalyptic predictions have been around since before I was born. Can you point me to just one of these dire prophesies that ever actually came to pass?

  5. David Bailey says:

    About 35 years ago, I worked for a PhD, and then did part of a post doc post. Back then, everyone knew that there were certain research groups that had a really poor reputation. Often they continued because the guy at the top had good connections and could bring in grant money. Apart from wasting resources, these groups seemed pretty harmless.

    However, over time these groups have clearly grown up and achieved ever more power. After all, if you aren’t that interested in the actual science, you have a lot more time to spend getting the politics right!

    One very effective way to protect areas of pretend science, was to create sub-disciplines within which those writing papers could rely on other, equally incompetent individuals to referee their work. Working within a sub-discipline, also provided a comforting shield to deflect meddling scientists from outside. No matter that Freeman Dyson expresses total skepticism of climatology – what does he know, he isn’t a climatologist, he just works on quantum field theory!

    Computers were incredibly useful to pretend scientists. They could create models, in which all their dodgy or naive assumptions were hidden, and the final output looked too glossy and professional, to possibly be wrong. They could also run statistical calculations without necessarily even knowing what the computer was doing.

    Computers also helped in other ways. For example, you could gather data that was obviously corrupted in all manner of ways – data that would have been considered worthless in the past – and the computer could ‘clean the data up’, so that the ‘signal’ you so badly wanted, would appear – almost by magic!

    Activities like combing temperature data for ‘trends’ would probably seem rather boring to real scientists, but were ideal for pretend scientists. They didn’t really care if what they were doing made sense, just so long as they could write papers on the subject, and upgrade their supercomputer from time to time. Given a random walk, like the global temperature data seems to be, you could tell whatever story you wanted, by ‘interpreting’ the signal with mountains of opaque software, and a suitable stock of excuses. Real scientists worry about the meaning of their research, pretend ones don’t need to care!

    Pretend scientists were always vulnerable to knowledgeable science correspondents. People who understood science, and could also write acid prose, were an ever present danger! Fortunately for them, science correspondents seem to know less and less about real science – indeed pretend scientists find them rather easy to get on with!

    Do pretend scientists sleep easy in their beds? Perhaps just now and again they have a terrible dream, and wake up in a cold sweat, realising how quickly politicians can switch sides and throw their pals to the dogs! Indeed, the arrest of Neil Wallis in connection with the phone hacking crisis, is just a bit too close for comfort, as his firm was also hired by the CRU to smooth out the climategate problem!

  6. dexq says:

    Brilliant, well-said. Cheers Scottishsceptic!

  7. dexq says:

    transmet is right and I feel sorry for him/her…so many of her relatives died back in the 1970s when global cooling hit. And so many more died during the 1980s when the Ozone layer melted. And so many more of them died off in the great acid rain showers of the early 1990s; yes shed a tear for poor transmet and all the relatives that have died in all the recent science disasters…sniff.

  8. TDK says:

    When I was a kid, scientists had an unassailable reputation.
    I’m not sure that’s correct. When I was a child sci-fi movies were frequently about crazy scientists causing catastrophe. “They” were soulless people who didn’t care about the consequences of say building atomic bombs. “They” cared only about the advancement of science.
    What has changed was that then was a clear separation of science and policy – the scientists advised, the politicians decided what to do about it. Now we get “we must act because the science says so” without anyone ever clearly spelling out why their preferred action is superior to any other. In fact the clear problem is that policy prescriptions clearly precede the science.

  9. dexq – ozone depletion and acid rain were both addressed by legislation and international agreement in spite of the filibustering and propoganda of the usual doubt merchants sponsored by big (dirty) business. That is why the potentially serious consequences of these two pollutants (CFCs and sulphur) have largely been avoided. it was not because these two threats were in any way unreal.

    I recommend you read ‘Merchants of Doubt’ by Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway before resorting to cheap sarcasm.

    • Don’t you see the irony of your position. They are now claiming that an increase in the very things that caused acid rain stopped warming this last decade.

      Even you must be able to see that if increasing pollutants this decade is supposed to cool, then reducing pollutants and less acid rain would have led to a warming of the climate (or more accurately a return to higher normal temperatures). But of course the alarmists desperately cling to the minuscule (NASA report a trend the other way) change in the 21st century and ignore the obviously much larger and global change from the 1970s-2000 in pollutant levels which you yourself are claiming to have been such a success.

      And I know there is an effect because pan evaporation measurements showed a significant change which many were putting down to changes in pollution in the atmosphere. Then along came global warming and it became heretical to suggest reducing pollution appeared to be causing a small warming of the climate … and it literally got written out of the subject.

  10. A few brief points:

    Whether you ‘believe’ that global temperature has risen in the last decade or not 10 years is not a significant timespan. CO2 forcing is not the only factor affecting global average temperature from year to year as we (hopefully) all understand when discussing this subject.

    The study of the influence of aerosols stil has a long way to go before we can be sure the modelling is accurate – but see further remarks on modelling below.

    The study of paleoclimate data has shown us some historical precedents for rate of temperature change and ice sheet melting that has some alarming implications. We cannot wait for the result of this grand atmospheric experiment we are curently carrying out to show final results as the risks are too great.

    We therefore depend on modelling – used as a dirty word by sceptics but in fact an increasingly important scientific tool. Errors and uncertainties are assessed by sensitivity studies (i.e. systematically changing the model parameters to determine the effect of a specific parameter on model output). Models developed and run by different research groups show essentially similar behaviour. Model inter-comparison allows robust features of the models to be identified and errors to be determined. Modelling will get better, not worse – which is what contrarians are afraid of. They know that in the end – as with tobacco, asbestos, ozone and sulphur – the truth will out.

    To refute modelling as ‘not real science’ is to stick ones head in the sand big time. This ‘argument’ is more to do with politics than with science.

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