Climate Science Doubts: Not Because of Payment, but Because the Science Is Bad

An activist dressed as a "Polar bear" displays a placard during a demonstration at the ven
AFP PHOTO/Jewel Samad

Members of the Scientific Council of the Global Warming Policy Foundation (GWPF) recently criticized the Royal Society’s positions on climate.

Their clear, authoritative scientific objections to the Royal Society’s positions reveal the weak scientific foundation on which the great climate fervor has been based. The public must either become conversant enough to grasp this or step back and get out of the way of those who have. Scientists don’t need to be paid to oppose the ideas of climate orthodoxy, because those ideas are just so damn bad.

To the Bitter End

Accusing scientists of venal motives when they raise questions about climate has come to be what passes for scientific debate. Unlike the GWPF critique, this is not science at all. Al Gore recently renewed calls for climate deniers (as they are pejoratively called by the dogmatists) to be punished. This follows brazen political-style attacks on scientists because of their views on climate. In particular there has been an aggressive assault questioning our ethics, morality, competence, and even sanity. It has been amazingly coordinated, coming simultaneously from a number of fronts: activists, Congress, Hollywood, and even some psychologists.

This entire assault could not be more anti-scientific. The protagonists are political interlopers in science who do not understand or respect the nature of scientific truths and how they are discovered, let alone how they are justified. One of the greatest lessons from the history of science is that humans don’t only get things wrong, but they stubbornly hang on to the stupidest of ideas to the bitter end. I do not absolve myself from this; it is my legacy as much as yours.

The Followers of Eris

What the dogmatists understand well is eristic argument, after Eris the Greek goddess of discord and chaos. Eristic tactics come to us from the ancient Greek sophists. Eristic methods manifest themselves today in the works of Saul Alinsky. As the goddess’s qualities suggest, they are inherently divisive. The objective is victory, not truth. This is foreign to the training and personalities of most scientists. I, like other scientists, go into debates with a collegial attitude, tolerant of contrary thinking, no matter how wrong it may seem. Freely doubt the ideas; respect the people. When confronted with eristic tactics though, which are often absurd, aggressive, and deeply irrational, we are left gobsmacked. Like any other humans, scientists can speak the language of political nonsense, but they speak it badly. Their famous political naivety makes them easy prey for any political operative. And so we loose against eristic tactics, even when we know they are coming.

The followers of Eris see opposition in terms of a struggle for power, while scientists see opposition as a means for testing thinking. For scientists, opposition is a feature not a bug. Authorities can proudly convince themselves to be absurdly wrong, until some brave souls stand up to them. Sometimes there is a heavy price.

An easily comprehensible example would be the case of the physician Ignaz Semmelweis. He proposed that patients would be helped if you thoroughly washed your hands between patients. The consensus among experts of his day was that he was wrong. He was driven out and ended his days in a psychiatric hospital. This phenomenon is not the exception, but the rule. In countless cases ranging from obscure technical issues, known only by experts, to grand insights like continental drift, this story, or something like it, has been played out again and again in history.

It does not mean that experts are always even mostly wrong. It only means that when humanity does take a step ahead, that step naturally concerns something that prideful experts didn’t know before. Over the generations, this lesson has been gradually absorbed into the scientific world. The heretics and crackpots might just be right, and so there is an awareness (even if grudging) that tolerance of what seems wrong is essential—the scientific version of free speech. It is probably no accident that scientific advances tend to be made in the freest environments. Scientists must ask critical questions of each other about their works to move us all ahead. It’s their job. Opposition is necessary, but only opposition with a presumption of good will, where all agree that the objective is truth, not crushing your enemies.

The Field That Never Was

Climate, as the scientific field we know today, is very young. It was cobbled together from pieces of a number of established fields and elevated into the limelight only very recently as science goes. It was particularly vulnerable to antirational inroads because there was no core body of scientific knowledge, like say physics or chemistry have. Before the great climate fervor, the term “climate science” was virtually unheard of. Instead, climatology was a tranquil, narrow, and descriptive area, with little funding and few practitioners. Today’s version, climate science, is driven as much by trumped up public fears as traditional scientific objectives. I have heard many times that what we scientists should work on “depends on what policymakers want.”

The fields and methodologies of climate science are a disjointed collection that few have anything approaching a universal command of, let alone a universal command from which to form a knowledgable consensus. Is climate research the gathering and description of data? Is it statistical time series analysis? Is it meteorology extended by supercomputers? Is it molecular spectroscopy? Is it oceanography, glaciology, geology, thermodynamics, physics, orbital mechanics, computer science, survey research, economics, biology, dynamical systems theory, solar physics, or much more? It is easy to say “all of the above,” but specialists in these subfields often wonder privately what the other specialties are actually there for. For example, “do we really need complex models when greenhouses are so simple?” Or, “We modelers can help paleontologists more than they can help us.” There are many such examples.

The shared vision of this collection of fields, as they stand, has simply not been academic for the most part. Its identity is inextricably bound to the climate fervor itself, which is created and fanned by politicians and media through relentless promotion, torrents of funding, and the punishing of nonconforming scientists. It is unclear what defines climate science as a whole academically, let alone what climate is in and of itself. No, we don’t even have a coherent, physically based, definition for climate, let alone climate change. That is not because we can’t recognize change, but we do not know what parts of the endless, ongoing ubiquitous change actually count. This is as deep a problem as there is in modern science. All we have are ad hoc definitions guarded from scientific criticism by ignorant followers of Eris. Those followers call this settled science.

Hollow Victories

The dogmatists and followers of Eris have destroyed the collegial atmosphere among scientists, and they push for scientists on the wrong side of their dogma to be treated as enemies of the state, as we have all recently witnessed. Science, as a whole, has been damaged by them. Because of them, climate science remains frozen and deeply flawed with no way to grow up, despite avalanches of funding thrown at it. Money is not enough. Academic freedom sometimes seems like a gratuitous anachronism, but climate science is the very thing it was made for. Fortunately, some academic organizations, such as the American Meteorological Society and the University of Delaware, have taken a principled position on this. But others seem to have wilted. Modern universities and academic institutions are not as independent as we would like to believe. They live on grants and government funding.

Eristic methods have proven most effective politically. But the political victories of those employing them are hollow. They cannot ultimately defeat the scientists opposed to their dogma because those scientists have never been playing a political game, no matter how much dogmatists rant and flail otherwise. They easily push us out of political and popular discourse, but Nature is the final judge. On that, they are way over their heads. No eristically-charged hyper-politics can ever trump Nature. If it is not already obvious to you that the dogmatists have egg on their faces because of this, hold on, Nature has more coming. Eventually stonewalling with, “What egg on my face?” will only leave the wider public laughing at them even more than they already are.

There is no justification for acting like vicious badgers toward scientists. The response of some GWPF scientists to the climate orthodoxy shows that scientists do not need to be paid to have reason to question the climate orthodoxy. Its positions are scientifically very weak, not strong, and it is the dogmatists that are responsible for that weakness. If they want to employ the credibility of science to support their agendas, they must learn to treat scientists holding contrary views in a credible manner. Such scientists have an important and respected role to play in advancing science. Dogmatists, of course, don’t easily change, so this stalemate may well continue until intelligent laymen have had enough and push them off the stage. Meanwhile, we are still here, and we are not going anywhere.


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