Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Science shouldn't be politicized.

It's a vital part of teaching ... helping students develop a healthy skepticism about what they see and hear. I show them videos, ads, other things and we dissect and analyze them in class. It's probably what I'll do tomorrow during the last day of school before break. I pick on the quacks, mostly: iRenew bracelets, QRay bracelet, Kinoki Footpads, Dr Marks Ion Cleanse Detoxifying foot baths, etc. Of course, during this process there is the inevitable question of global warming. It's with this in mind that I ran across the following article and thought I'd share.
From the Albany Times Union, Science shouldn't be clouded by politics
By Randy Simon

Is there solid evidence that the earth's average temperature is getting warmer, mostly as a result of human activity? What do you think?

Before answering, consider these scientific questions:
  • Has coronary CT angiography made coronary catheterization obsolete?
  • Are the hotspots in the earth's crust explained by phenomena in the upper mantle rather than in the earth's core?
  • Can molecules exhibit intrinsic electronic functionality?
  • Is lactose intolerance a genetic inherited trait? 

(to which I'd add "Will the Large Hadron Collider destroy the Earth when turned on?" and "Why won't value-added measures work to instantly maximize our schools' performances?" "Vaccines cause autism and backwards walking in cheerleaders.")

You probably are thinking: "How am I supposed to know?" That is, unless you are a cardiologist, geologist, condensed matter physicist or geneticist, or at least someone highly informed about these disciplines. These questions are in fact quite controversial in their respective fields, meaning that there is considerable disagreement among the experts.

Yet, you were probably all set to offer your opinion on global warming although you are not a climate scientist and are undoubtedly not well-versed in that discipline either. Furthermore, the question posed is not even controversial among experts in the field; there is overwhelming agreement that the answer is "yes."

So what gives here?

The answer is that you can't get opinions about most scientific questions from pundits and politicians but you can't avoid getting opinions on global warming from them.

Would you make decisions on how to treat a heart arrhythmia based on what a talk radio host believes? Would you have a senatorial candidate evaluate an aircraft design instead of an aeronautical engineer? Of course not. They aren't experts.

Clearly, we have come to believe -- or at least to act as if we believe -- that there are two kinds of scientists in the world.

There are those who work on a myriad of topics that have managed not to become political issues. They are obviously highly intelligent and accomplished individuals who have brought us brain surgery, iPads and the Space Shuttle.

Then there are those who work in areas that have become the subject of political and/or religious attention -- such as climate change and evolution -- and they are apparently dishonest, confused and deficient in their knowledge.

We are not becoming a society of Luddites; we surely want the fruits of modern science in our lives. Instead, we divide science into "good science" and "bad science" and allow partisan politics to make the distinction. It would be humorous if it were not alarming.

The political debate about global warming is fueled in part by scientists who take the position that the phenomenon does not exist, or at least that it isn't a result of human activity, or that it cannot be remediated by human intervention. This is no more compelling than the arguments in the 1960s and 1970s by a few medical doctors claiming that cigarette smoking was harmless. Indeed, there are always scientists with differing opinions on any topic.

When the overwhelming majority of scientists observe the same phenomena and draw the same conclusions, there are abundant reasons to take them seriously. The fact that we don't like the results (or even worse, political dogma doesn't like them) should not matter.

Could the majority opinion be wrong? Absolutely. But ignoring that opinion because you don't like it is foolishness.

Every day we trust our lives to the fruits of modern science. Medical technology, aircraft design, structural engineering and many other disciplines impact our safety and our very survival and, by and large, we feel that we can count on them.

Yet, when thousands of climate experts around the world draw serious conclusions from a wealth of data, we reject those conclusions because of our politics. It is nothing less than astonishing.

Perhaps you are not surprised by this at all. Some may see this discussion as an analysis of current attitudes toward science but others, I suppose, will cast it aside as "left-wing propaganda." And that, I suppose, is the problem in a nutshell.

One of the comments on this article was "We all have daily experience with weather, and through experience, with climate. To have some understanding of climate and none about the other issues is not surprising."


So I visit the doctor a couple times - does that make me qualified to judge his work?
I teach high school math and physics but I can't do a simple probability analysis. Should I be commenting on the LHC?
Watch it all or forward to Walter Wagner at about the 2:15 mark.

I used to run daily. Did that make me a physical therapist?
I eat food every day. Does that mean I know the nutritional value and positives / negatives of an Activia-fueled diet?
I go to the mall and I walk. Is iRenew a good product?

I went to school. Does that make me an education expert?

There is a huge difference between "I have experience with these" and "I have studied these in a scientific fashion." One is a guess. There other is not.

Dozens of TV shows and thousands of people believed that cheerleader who claimed the Flu shot made her walk backwards. Quantity is not a proof. Science is not a debate.

Another commenter:
So, where are the counter examples where scientists/experts got it wrong? This whole article is built on a fallacy--trust the experts. If it were to be the least bit helpful, it would have explained what we know, what we don't know and the strengths and weaknesses in our methods of knowing about the climate. But, of course, newspapers would rather make stupid arguments than educate the public so they can make better decisions.
Which I find somewhat amazing. Scientists get lots of things wrong. Then they fix the model and try again. Just because someone was wrong doesn't mean they can't fix it and get it right.

Rush Limbaugh is not a counter-argument.

And why the complete distrust of the "experts"? Do we refuse to drive a car because an expert mechanic worked on it? Does the expert computer technician bring us calm hope that our problem will be resolved or do we scream invectives and demand that the other politician really knows what's going on?

If you find that you can't trust those who spend their lives working on a problem in favor of someone with a monetary axe to grind, you'll simply wind up with "More doctors smoke Camels than any other cigarette."


  1. I infer that you have a fixed opinion on global warming. Am I incorrect?

  2. Yes, but not in the way that you might think. I simply haven't heard enough evidence to convince me one way or the other.

    On the one side, you have scientists claiming an obvious fact and using data that may be valid, or may be apples and oranges. The global temperature is affected a lot by large volcanic explosions - Krakatoa in 1883 and Tambura in 1817(?) - changing the temperature by a couple degrees and setting off mini ice-ages. Pinatubo twenty years ago had a smaller effect, but still measurable in the fraction of a degree C. The questions for me is "Does the temperature rise when you control for volcanoes?" Is the average temperature actually rising or is the rise a function of the changing accuracy of the measurement methods or a change in the analysis?" I'd like to see more of the data before I'll go trumpeting my findings but since I don't have the inclination, I'll take the word of the scientists who have looked at the question.

    On the other side of the bar, there are far fewer scientists who state that the temperature is steady. The loudest voices constantly repeat really bad math, shout easily refuted correlations, and generally offend my sense of numerical propriety. This is a major strike against them, but doesn't mean they're necessarily wrong. The sting of money does seem to be behind a lot of the naysayers and I never did like the doctors who promoted smoking knowing it was dangerous.

    When I look at the question and ask what are the foreseeable consequences of following each course of action, I see the debate breaking into two factions: (1) do nothing because pollution isn't going to make any difference to the world so buy a bigger truck. (2) improve efficiency and reduce the need for fossil fuels, replace energy production with renewables keeping in mind that many of the rare earth materials in batteries and panels are more problematic than the fossil fuels they replaced. (CFLs)

    I come down on the side of improving the environment and I'll err on the side of caution. It bothers me that people claim "science proves" and "the numbers show" when they really didn't.

    I like it clean. I like the idea of being able to fall into Boston Harbor and still make it out alive. I don't like the Cayahoga catching fire. I really hate the Pittsburgh plants filling my air with crap.

    I therefore push for change with that in mind. Improve things so they'll be cleaner and help me save money on energy.

    A lot of this feels very similar to the screams and protestations that arose when CA first started requiring seatbelts and airbags. The auto industry was "GOING TO GO BANKRUPT" and then they figured it out and made money hand over fist again.

    Bottom line: follow the numbers and decide what they mean before you make radical changes, but don't deny it for political gain. "We're voting against this because a Democrat proposed it." is probably the most heinous statement I've heard out of Washington recently.