Wheels of Fire
posted at 6:44 pm on November 30, 2009 by Dafydd ab Hugh
I love beginning posts with personal anecdotes, which you can deduce from the fact that I never do it. No time like the present to start!
One week in high school, my all-time second-favorite social studies teacher, Lyle Thornton Wolf, presented us with a fascinating unit:
On Monday, he passed out forty-eight distinct high-school and college level American history textbooks (there being 48 students in the class). Each of us got a different textbook, though some were merely later versions of an earlier text that somebody else had. Each of us took his book home with instructions to read and “brief” (like a lawyer would) the factual events — not interpretations or speculations — recounted in his book about the Boston Massacre.
Then on Wednesday, Mr. Wolf began going through the incident, student by student, making a “comparison table” on the blackboard using every important fact from each book… e.g., the number of colonists killed by the redcoats, the number wounded, how many lobster-backs and Yankee doodles were present, what provocation (if any) did the colonists give to the soldiers, how long the shooting lasted, who was the first shot, and so forth.
As a court trial followed the shootings, and that trial took eyewitness and forensic evidence (future President John Adams defended the soldiers), one would expect nearly all the facts to be reported the same way in every textbook. Not so; there was significant variation in the details taught to students about that infamous eruption of anti-democratic violence.
But Mr. Wolf didn’t stop there, and this was his genius; he was more interested in teaching us good researching skills than specific numbers of people killed in the Boston Massacre. Thus he also made each of us read the footnotes, endnotes, and any other errata indicating the source of the supposed facts reported in his assigned book; he then put up a posterboard list of all the textbook titles arranged like a matrix.
As we reported the sources for each book, Mr. Wolf drew an arrow from the source to the book that cited it. After about ten books, we quickly realized that not a single one of the 48 textbooks cited any primary document or original source material; each cited only other high-school or college textbooks. In fact, only a couple of them cited texts not already in our hands (both times older editions of books we did have).
Worse, the entire set of citations was a snarl of textbook “daisy chains”: Textbook A (let’s say it was the 1962 edition) would have an arrow pointing to B (1964); B pointed to C (1965), which pointed to D (1968)… but D then pointed to a later version of textbook A, say the 1970 edition.
In other words, there was no “ultimate source”: The books just referenced and reinforced each other.
Thus it was hardly a surprise that, variations aside, all the books agreed on the core issues: The colonists were disorderly but didn’t provoke the shooting; no colonist used a firearm; the British were almost entirely to blame; and they only got off because of the eloquence of Adams. The issue was closed; no need to rethink any basic premise. After all, if that interpretation of the data wasn’t perfectly true, what are the odds that all those textbooks would just happen to agree with each other?
On Saturday, as Climategate really began to heat up, the princes of the University of East Anglia’s Climatic Research Unit (CRU) started to get their backs up. They were driven to agree, at long last, to release the raw data behind their predictions… or as much of it remained after they deliberately destroyed most of it in the 1980s.
Faced with the charge that the data they destroyed could have shown that globaloney theory was built on sand (and fabricated sand at that), one of the university’s vice chancellors concocted a novel counterargument:
Professor Trevor Davies, the university’s Pro-Vice-Chancellor, Research Enterprise and Engagement, said yesterday: “CRU’s full data will be published in the interests of research transparency when we have the necessary agreements. It is worth reiterating that our conclusions correlate well to those of other scientists based on the separate data sets held by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies.”
Like a speech by Barack H. Obama’s teleprompter, it sounds good out of the corner of your ear; but in reality, this argument is a complete non-sequitur. And the inability of Professor Davies to apprehend his own paralogia speaks volumes about the real failure of the anthropogenic global climate-change (AGCC) cabal.
The charge against the CRU is not that they know their theory is unfounded, nor yet that they deliberately and with malice aforethought suppress the opposing view, nor that they do so for sinister, political reasons. Not a bit of it.
The real charge is that certain scientists have utterly bought into AGCC; they consider themselves the “anointed,” and they’re so adamant in their cosmic certainty that they reject any contrary claims or findings as so much nonsense, unworthy even of an answer. The anointed treat AGCC heresy as they would treat Holocaust denial or creationism.
But while no reputable scientist denies the Nazi mass murders or rejects evolution by natural selection, AGCC hardly enjoys such universal acceptance. In fact, it is quite controversial, with reputable, published, peer reviewed scientists in relevant fields on both sides of the issue.
AGCC proponents insist that they are more numerous than AGCC critics; but scientific consensus is not settled by voice vote. In order for a “consensus position” to form on man-made climate change, it’s not enough to have 75% of scientists agree, or 80%, or even 95%. Rather, every respected scientist in a relevant field must agree; and every objection or demur lodged by such a respected scientist in the atmospheric sciences must be fully and completely answered to the satisfaction of the entire field. So long as that remains undone, the hypothesis remains controversial, and there is no consensus.
Scientific consensus is very different than, say, political consensus, which can mean at little as a two-to-one majority; mistaking the one for the other is scientific malpractice.
But that is precisely what to call a process where supposed “consensus” is achieved by patently unscientific means — by extorting scientists into pledging undying support for the AGCC thesis and renouncing all dissenters as unscientists, on pain of never getting another grant, publication, or university position if they refuse.
This isn’t a scientific argument, it’s a street brawl!
To the anointed (I deliberately use the Thomas Sowell term from his seminal book, the Vision of the Anointed: Self-Congratulation as a Basis for Social Policy), denying the obvious cosmic truth of AGCC brands the denier as a pseudo-scientist; since pseudo-scientists are just quacks and charlatans, there is no need to answer any of his objections, conveniently enough.
Ergo, all respected scientists agree with AGCC theory… because by definition, if you don’t agree, you’re not a respected scientist.
Given that explosive charge — that AGCC theory has become a scientific cult — it’s immediately apparent that if the charge is true, we would expect to find the identical problem rampant at the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and at the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies. Indeed, Goddard is in fact run by James Hansen, who was one of the first major scientists to sound the globaloney alarmism klaxton, even before the Kyoto Protocol, and has been perhaps the biggest booster of the idea that there is a scientific “consensus” on AGCC (and that anybody who disagrees is not a real scientist).
But if the NOAA and ISS are completely controlled by the anointed, just as the CRU appears to be, then it’s hardly surprising that they come up with similar global temperature timelines; more than likely, they all link to and cite each other.
Such a “consensus,” based upon shared computation, methodology, and analysis, is purely artifactual… just like the “consensus” of the core story of the Boston Massacre: an artifactual consensus forced by incestuous linkages between ostensibly independent publications.
With such deep links of people, methods, and funding between all three groups, it would be astonishing were they not completely in synch with each other.
What is needed to make the argument that Professor Davies evidently wants to make is the following:
- AGCC supporters within the community should push for full funding of respected atmospheric scientists who are AGCC skeptics.
- Skeptics must be given access to all raw data used by supporters to make their case.
- Skeptics must be allowed to pursue different methodologies and new data streams beyond those used again and again (changelessly) by supporters.
- Results discovered by skeptics must be treated fairly in the scientific literature, not rejected as “pseudo-science” merely because they come to a different conclusion on a controversial, cutting-edge topic.
There are of course limits and caveats; let’s take a small detour into another field of science to see the right way to answer skeptics. Recently a new attempt is underway to destroy the edifice of evolution by natural selection; its supporters call it “intelligent design” (ID). Its thesis is that some biological processes are too complex to arise naturally, so they must have been consciously designed by an intelligent being.
The alert reader will immediately realize that, window dressing aside, the “intelligent being” must exist outside the normal confines of physical law — else how could it manipulate the biology of an entire planet — and outside the timeline of the universe… else where did the intelligent being itself come from? Thus, whether IDers are willing to admit it or not, they’re talking about God, and this is a variation on Creationism tarted up as science this time.
The same reader will also recognize that such a thesis is literally untestable:
- Just because we cannot explain how a particular biological system evolved doesn’t mean it’s inexplicable, nor that it’s too complex to have evolved naturally. It just means we can’t explain it today. No system can ever unambiguously satisfy Michael Behe’s requirement of “irreducible complexity,” so no evidence can ever be produced to prove ID;
- No claim of ID can ever be falsified, even in theory; if a designer is so intelligent, so powerful, and so remote as to be invisible that it can manipulate the entire biological spectrum of life on Earth, then it’s also clever enough to be able to hide its own tracks. So there is no possible experiment that can disprove it, either.
Logically, then, since Intelligent Design can neither be proven nor disproven, it is not science. But wait, what about everything I said about consensus above? Very well: Despite the logical problems of ID, evolutionary biologists have answered ID’s questions anyway. Behe presented numerous examples of what he called “irreducible complexity” — a system so complex that its individual components would have no function, hence confer no evolutionary advantage, hence the system itself — the sum of the components — could not have evolved.
But scientists have in fact broken down each of these systems (e.g., the eye, the bacterial flagella) into components and shown how each really did have a function… albeit a different function than what the system eventually evolved to perform. They have answered all of Behe’s questions, and he has not responded to any of their counterarguments.
Thus at some point, the field of biology must cease considering Behe and his fellow IDers to be “respected scientists”… not out of prejudice or because the biology mainstream disagrees with them, but rather because the IDers refuse to play by the rules of science everyone else must follow. Their own actions (and inaction) brands them pseudoscientists.
By contrast, while some AGCC supporting scientists make an effort to respond to the arguments of the skeptics — for example, about the role sun activity plays in forcing temperature changes — very few of the skeptical counterarguments have been answered satisfactorally, even to scientists who more or less support AGCC: They agree that skeptics are playing by the rules of science, using proper methodology, taking all previous results into account, and so forth; they admit the counter-argument is powerful and must be answered; they agree it hasn’t been so far; but they have confidence that it will eventually be shown to be in error.
(Note, I’m not saying the skeptics have “proven” that AGCC is wrong; only that supporters have not proven it is right… and the supporters have the burden.)
That is not the sign of scientific consensus; that is the sign of scientific controversy. And that is the difference between those scientists skeptical of AGCC and those contrarians who refuse to accept evolution by natural selection.
There is no requirement to respond to ill-performed experiments that purport to overturn long-settled science without any willingness on the part of the contrarians to engage in scientific debate. There simply isn’t enough time to debunk them every time they bubble up again, lest we be dragged into a creationism-like endless loop of demanding an infinite number of “missing links.” But honestly performed experiments by scientists ready and willing to engage in proper debate, using data not denunciations, must be answered; that is the scientific method in action.
Similarly, nobody outside a particular journal can mandate that it publish submitted paper. But journals need to be forcefully reminded that their mission is to discover reality — not mold it into a congenial shape.
Finally, it’s important to bear in mind that there are “anointed” on the anti-AGCC side as well; it’s entirely possible that a “skeptical” inquirer may actually be a true believer in the opposite of AGCC. He might reflexively reject pro-AGCC evidence, even from his own experiment, because he “knows” it’s a crockobaloney. Such charlatans who have ceased being scientists (on both sides) should be shunted aside; but we mustn’t throw out honestly interpreted experimental results that produce alternative, natural explanations for recent temperature rises (or deny such rises altogether).
Only after skeptics get their day at bat can the scientific community truly get its mits around what is really happening to the Earth’s temperature, what effects (bad and good) that might have, and what, if anything, we can do about it — and whether we should if we could.
I am quite disappointed that a vice chancellor at such a highly respected venue as the University of East Anglia would be unable to reason through to a scientific solution… and would lunge instead for the classic “teen logic” argument: “But Mom, all my friends are doing the same thing!”
Cross-posted on Big Lizards…