Science is not a popularity contest

Here’s a story that’s been all over the online news this week: the Wall Street Journal published a piece, signed by 16 scientists, about how climate change isn’t cause for concern.

So obviously there’s some nonsense in there, that plenty of people have already picked up on.  For example, quite what CO2 being colourless has to do with anything, who knows.  There’s a set of anecdotes and little in the way of facts discussed (it would have been nice to have seen the reference to the UN climate projections visualised or quantified, at least).

Next, a group of climate scientists got annoyed and wrote this letter to the editor.

This seems to have been met with hurrahs by many, but when I read it, it drives me crazy.

They open with the argument that the original 16 scientists don’t have the right credentials to be heard:

Do you consult your dentist about your heart condition? In science, as in any area, reputations are based on knowledge and expertise in a field and on published, peer-reviewed work. If you need surgery, you want a highly experienced expert in the field who has done a large number of the proposed operations.

This is such a dangerous path to take, such an incredibly poor way to engage in public science debate.  These things shouldn’t be decided by wheeling out experts in white coats and arguing over their “reputations”.  I realise not everyone can read every piece of research out there, and we do need experts to summarise things for us, but the debate should be about summarising this research and providing links and references for anyone who wants to read more or check the arguments presented.

Instead, we now have a perfect example of public science debate descending into this: let’s debate the credentials of some experts, try to win on that ground, and then hope people just accept whatever they say as fact.  The original article did a bit of that with their 16 signatories, and the respondents just got baited into working at that level.

It drives me crazy.

It happens with all science, but climate science feels like one of the worst areas for this.  Perhaps it’s because it’s such a highly political issue, and so heavily debated in public.  Perhaps the random element of the weather provides extra opportunity to dig out facts to support whatever you want to say.

Back to the letter – it gets worse:

Research shows that more than 97% of scientists actively publishing in the field agree that climate change is real and human caused.

Since when did we need to do research on how many scientists believe in whether something is true or not? I thought science was supposed to be about the evidence, the observable facts of the matter? Not how many people believe in something?  What the hell kind of research is this?  Why are they quoting it here?  [It’s so bogus that it doesn’t really matter, but they also don’t even back it up with a reference]

Often, this debating approach can be blamed on journalists or others using scientists to make their points; but this is a letter direct from scientists.  They have nobody to blame for this one.

If you’re a scientist talking about science publicly, please, we deserve better.

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6 Responses to Science is not a popularity contest

  1. I agree. The reality is that this debate is so highly politicized that a lot of scientists in either the pro or anti anthropogenic warming camp feel they have a duty to actively try and influence policy, and that the most effective tool to do this is an appeal to authority. American political debate is so highly polarized that many people simply can’t resist picking a side and getting into the fray. A case in point is the current stimulus versus austerity debate, where even Nobel prize winning economists like Krugman have publicly denounced attempts to detoxify the tone of the debate as ‘concern trolling’. People like Krugman view public policy as a battleground where the most important thing is winning, and perhaps it is in this light that such seemingly unscientific actions should be viewed.

    I do get irritated when any authority oversteps the bounds of its expertise. The British Medical Association’s pronouncements on boxing and other contact sports gets me similarly riled. Their professional duty is to inform the public of the known medical risks of these activities – the moment they start campaigning to ban things is the moment they’ve left the medical realm and entered politics. What business does a medical union (whose first duty is the protection of its members) have campaigning to ban anything?

  2. luckz says:

    “What business does a medical union (whose first duty is the protection of its members) have campaigning to ban anything?”

    You are exactly

    “Do you consult your dentist about your heart condition? In science, as in any area, reputations are based on knowledge and expertise in a field and on published, peer-reviewed work. If you need surgery, you want a highly experienced expert in the field who has done a large number of the proposed operations.”

    Don’t be.

    • What I was doing was refuting the idea that the medical profession should have some kind of special say in which activities are allowable, or undue weight in public policy on such matters. That’s not the same as saying ‘only listen to the experts’. In fact it’s pretty much the opposite of saying that.

      I suppose you’re critiquing the point on the basis that it can be interpreted as ‘what do doctors know about boxing? Stick to healing the sick’. That’s not really what I meant to convey. The medical profession SHOULD be offering information on things which damage health. But the decision to accept such risks is one for wider society; I see their role as one of ensuring that the debate is properly informed with the medical facts.

  3. From the massive changes currently taking place in the polar ice caps it could reasonably be infered by even the layman that some kind of global warming is taking place. However on the other hand there is this discomfort that the measures we take will result in massive drains on public finances, with the inevitable ‘cui bono’ beneficiaries only too happy with all the resulting bureaucracy. A parallel is even being drawn with the old Soviet system. This sounds like a left v right debate, not a climate debate. We definitely deserve and need a better standard of debate for something as important as this issue. And it is not just CO2 but the whole set of environmental issues, such as how we dispose of the massive amounts of garbage we create, and how our activities within the ecosystem are threatening many species, eg through destroying natural habitats for wildlife. It does sound like a kind of pomposity when scientists refer to ‘reputations’ and ‘actively publishing in the field’, and so on, and it can come across as somewhat arrogant. These WSJ articles though are a real eye opener – I was very surprised at the list of the 16 highly qualified scientists who signed to the op-ed.

  4. Part of the problem here is that much of the science is in little doubt, but it’s complex and the classic tactics of rubbishing it are employed in a widespread fashion by people with often vested interests in doing nothing about it, or in going in the opposite direction. This is as much a political fight as anything else, and when the voices trying to shout you down use one set of tactics, it’s difficult to not respond in kind. While the reply in the NYT was maybe not the most helpful, it is an attempt to try and highlight where the negative arguments are coming from. The Earth as an experimental system is a challenging thing to look at. The *summary* of the science is the main IPCC report (http://www.ipcc.ch/publications_and_data/publications_ipcc_fourth_assessment_report_wg1_report_the_physical_science_basis.htm ) and is 1000 pages long and was published in 2007 (so lots more data since then!). This is one of three IPCC reports of similar length. The summaries for policy makers are worth reading as a snapshot, but there are lots and lots of uncertainities, and so while the science is solid, it is very easy to make spurious, incorrect and complicated to refute claims against it.

    Just because you have a Nobel Prize in one subject does not mean you know anything about a different subject – but in the op-ed piece it was the credentials of the people signing that was being used as the main evidence that they must be right. The reply tries to put this in context.

    • Absolutely, I can see why they replied this way. I just find it disappointing. If this is the level the debate is fought at, it just invites more attacks of this kind. And ultimately I think it’s genuinely confusing for a lot of ordinary people to see two groups of scientists saying “listen at us, we have Noble prizes!” … “no, listen to us, there are more of us and we’re the real experts”.

      The climate scientists have one major advantage in the debate – that of being right, having the facts on their side and having a deep understanding of what’s going on. To not use that advantage in some way seems silly. Explaining complex science to the public is difficult, but to give up on attempting it is a mistake.

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