Monday, July 16, 2007

Science As Partisan Discipline

I get pretty frustrated at the growing move towards hyper-partisanship, wherein every opinion if framed within the lens of political bias. What is even more alarming, is the emerging argument that the global warming debate is a partisan affair. This position attempts to turn science into a discipline where facts are manipulated to suit a certain belief. The following column by Lorne Gunter illustrates the new tool of the "denier" crowd to confuse and challenge objectivity:
If those who insist greenhouse gases are the culprit can somehow show that the sun is not the reason for recent warming, then a big impediment to their campaign to control industrial production and auto use will be eliminated.

Not surprisingly, those who favour the man made greenhouse gas theory were quick to wave the paper by Mike Lockwood, of Britain's Rutherford Appleton Laboratory, and Claus Froehlich, of the World Radiation Centre in Davos, Switzerland.

The BBC trumpeted, "Mike Lockwood's analysis appears to have put a large, probably fatal nail" in the solar theorists' arguments.

London's Guardian newspaper crowed: "a new analysis ... on the sun's output in the last 25 years of the 20th century has firmly put the notion to rest," that the sun is a "global warming culprit," as National Geographic clucked...

Angered by a British television documentary, the Great Global Warming Swindle, that aired in March, Lockwood admits he set out in short order to show up the sun-warming theory by demonstrating that solar activity has declined since 1985 while temperatures have increased. Ergo, the sun cannot be the "driver" behind global warming.

The disturbing thesis:
Nothing in the global warming debate may now be viewed as impartial. The public should view any claims, whether pro-man-made or pro-sun, with a healthy skepticism for the motives behind them.

The article implies that the science is steered towards support for a pre-determined belief. Never mind the logically inconsistency that fails to acknowledged the belief itself is actually based on hard scientific evidence, Gunter implies that there is something wrong with disputing a conflicting piece of "evidence".

If we follow the sequence of events, then we see science at its best, impartiality at the heart. We have a theory of man-made global warming, that is "generally" supported amongst the expert community. A documentary comes out, which posits an alternative theory, relying on the sun to explain the spike in temperatures. Faced with a conflicting argument, research is done to quantify the merits of said theory, and the resulting research demonstrates that the sun theory has no basis in fact. Therefore, one of the chief counters to man-made global warming is undermined, which further solidifies the widely held theory. How that translates to politics, as the article infers, is complete and utter nonsense.

Whenever a theory, or evidence, emerges to challenge conventional wisdom, it is incumbent on the scientific community to demonstrate why that argument is or isn't relevant. If you have a group of scientists who have concluded that a particular theory is valid, and proceeded as though factual, any theory which challenges that thesis must be repudiated, in the pursuit of truth. How vehemently one needs to challenge depends on the equation- if you have a mountain of evidence supporting theory A, then a minor study doesn't carry the weight to re-think the entire calculation. In other words, there are always rogue studies on almost every issue imaginable; how they are dealt with depends on the relative merits.

The attempt to politicize the entire debate, wherein you can't trust what anybody says, because they have an agenda, is a scary proposition. If you embrace the fact that science has now become a partisan domain, then you are given license to believe whatever you want, whatever suits your own inclination. You can ignore the 98% of the science, and cling onto a study here or there, that supports your theory, because the whole debate lacks objective credibility. This attempt to confuse people, muddy the waters, amounts to a disinformation campaign, in a last ditched effort by the denier crowd to save face. Pathetic.


Unknown said...

Your blog is interesting!
Have you a beautiful t-shirt?
Please, send me its photo
and the link of your blog,
I'll publish in my blog!
Thank you Ivo

Olaf said...


I agree with Ivo. I think we'd all like to see any t-shirts that you have, with the lone condition being that they are particularly beautiful.

That aside, I agree with you, also. The thing about science is that it really doesn't matter to me where a researcher gets his/her money or their personal political leanings or whatever. That's the beauty of science - you can test it. If someone is getting billions of dollars from the oil industry, and is able to find evidence that would put AGW into question/context, so be it. If the findings can be tempered, discredited, or wholly disproven so be that, as well. Likewise, if someone is funded by the Suzuki foundation, and their findings are hopelessly skewed, then someone should be able to refute them.

Unlike opinion pieces, which can be intentionally or unintentionally biased to the point of being all but useless, scientific findings can be tested and disproven (or further confirmed). If a researcher/organization is leaving out important bits of information, it's upto other scientists to pick out the methodological errors, and I assume they will eventually.

The only real problem I see is when something becomes accepted wisdom to the point where all expansions of a given thesis aren't properly tested or criticized. I know scientists are supposed to be objective, but they never are. And it doesn't matter to me, so long as there are other scientists willing to look at their work with a critical eye.

Steve V said...

"The only real problem I see is when something becomes accepted wisdom to the point where all expansions of a given thesis aren't properly tested or criticized."

As it relates to global warming, I don't see any room for intellectual laziness, given the sheer number of scientists looking into it.

I do have one beautiful fishnet t-shirt, that is a real eye catcher :)