Thursday 17 December 2009

Henninger on Science

This worries me too:
Surely there must have been serious men and women in the hard sciences who at some point worried that their colleagues in the global warming movement were putting at risk the credibility of everyone in science. The nature of that risk has been twofold: First, that the claims of the climate scientists might buckle beneath the weight of their breathtaking complexity. Second, that the crudeness of modern politics, once in motion, would trample the traditions and culture of science to achieve its own policy goals. With the scandal at the East Anglia Climate Research Unit, both have happened at once.

I don't think most scientists appreciate what has hit them. This isn't only about the credibility of global warming. For years, global warming and its advocates have been the public face of hard science. Most people could not name three other subjects they would associate with the work of serious scientists. This was it. The public was told repeatedly that something called "the scientific community" had affirmed the science beneath this inquiry. A Nobel Prize was bestowed (on a politician).

Global warming enlisted the collective reputation of science. Because "science" said so, all the world was about to undertake a vast reordering of human behavior at almost unimaginable financial cost. Not every day does the work of scientists lead to galactic events simply called Kyoto or Copenhagen. At least not since the Manhattan Project.
If the new ethos is that "close-enough" science is now sufficient to achieve political goals, serious scientists should be under no illusion that politicians will press-gang them into service for future agendas. Everyone working in science, no matter their politics, has an stake in cleaning up the mess revealed by the East Anglia emails. Science is on the credibility bubble. If it pops, centuries of what we understand to be the role of science go with it.


  1. I would say that the causal implications of Climategate run in the other direction.

    It is not a matter of Climategate unjustly discrediting the mass of science and the rest of science being dragged-down; but instead that people may begin to regognize that the Climategate scientists are pretty-much representative of the mass of modern Big Scientists in their dishonesty and careerism.

    (Consider that the bulk of modern science being medical research - within which Climategate style corruption is the norm.)

    Read the autobiographies and biographies of science from 50 plus years ago, then take a look around - any similarity? The only thing which has not changed is the word 'science'.

    But if it doesn't look like a duck, and it doesn't quack like a duck - then it isn't a duck.

  2. You may be right, Bruce, but the alternative may well be worse: fortunetellers and witchdoctors and faith healers. More than happy to agree that there's a lot of nonsense in medical research, with the main result (as best I can tell) being that we consume medical services well beyond the point at which they're cost effective. But wouldn't it be rather depressing if one of the results of loss of confidence in science as a whole were that parents stopped getting their kids vaccinated?