Monday, October 07, 2013

When Scientists Aren't Scientists

I recently attended a scientific conference in the Northeast U. S. (I will be purposely vague about the exact venue for reasons that will shortly become clear), and on the plane I read an article by the Harvard political scientist Harvey Mansfield that pointed out an ironic fact about science:  in order to do good science, scientists must act at least some of the time like non-scientists.  Right after that, I got to see a good example of what he was talking about.

One of the main things that attract certain personalities to science and engineering is the supposed objectivity and emotion-free quality of science.  Mr. Spock, the famously non-emotional Vulcan of the Star Trek TV series, supposedly had a temperament ideally suited for science, because emotion was never supposed to influence his judgment.  Many scientific journals insist that papers submitted to them be written in the passive voice (not "We found that. . . " but "It was found that. . . "), thus removing any trace of the author's personality from the paper and making it sound more objective.  But Mansfield pointed out that thumos (a Greek word meaning "spiritedness" or "passion") often takes over when scientists perceive a threat to something they hold dear, even if the threat comes with scientific credentials.  And many scientists who discover something that goes against the current consensus of scientific opinion have to defend their new ideas passionately against equally vigorous and emotional opposition.  In getting emotional, scientists end up acting like ordinary non-scientists, but most good scientists tend to have a certain amount of thumos that motivates them to do the hard work and defending of their ideas that are needed to get a hearing in the competitive world of research.

The night after I arrived at the conference, the sponsoring organization held a banquet which included a buffet dinner, awards, and a three-piece classical music group that could barely be heard above the conversational din in the large hall.  During dessert, the chairman got up at the raised podium and announced the name of the after-dinner speaker:  William Happer, a well-known physicist.  I had heard his name before, and as he began his talk, I remembered where:  as author of an article entitled "The Truth About Greenhouse Gases."

By now, the most famous (but by no means the only) greenhouse gas is carbon dioxide, CO2.  The conventional wisdom among most scientists, policymakers in many countries, and the general public is that (a) humanity is playing Russian roulette with the world's climate by burning so much fossil fuel, which (b) invariably makes CO2, which (c) traps heat and raises average global temperatures, which will (d) lead to all kinds of disasters, from dying polar bears to flooded South Sea islands and perhaps even an epidemic of kidney stones.  Therefore, all right-thinking citizens should be aware of their carbon footprints and do everything humanly possible to minimize them, or else go around feeling guilty for not doing so.

Prof. Happer's specialty is the way atoms and molecules absorb and emit radiation, and in the technically sophisticated and convincing talk he gave, he showed that the correlation between rising CO2 levels and global average temperature is more alleged than real.  He also showed that the role of CO­2 in the global heat balance has been greatly exaggerated, and that there are serious flaws in the way current models treat the details of how the gas absorbs radiation to affect climate.  He closed with a quotation from playwright Henrik Ibsen: "I am in revolt against the age-old lie that the majority is always right."

The audience reaction was interesting.  They were quiet at first, but when it became clear that Happer was arguing against the main claims of global warming, most people except for a small circle near the speaker resumed talking as though nothing special was going on.  There was scattered applause at the end, and then Happer asked for questions. 

The first two or three were queries about technical details.  Then a tall, rather formidable-looking man rose and mounted the podium.  I can't recall all his words, but I know he began by saying his father was one of the founders of the field of cloud physics.  He charged Happer with at least two faults: cowardice, for not being willing to attend mainstream climate-change meetings to present his arguments; and ill will, for insulting the intelligence of the climate-change community.  In response, Happer pointed at one of the charts in his presentation and said, "The facts are there."  His accuser said something else in a tone of voice that I would characterize as non-scientific, and for a moment there I wondered if the after-dinner entertainment was going to be an amateur prizefight.  Then the chairman hastily grabbed the microphone and asked the musical trio to start playing.  The audience laughed that nervous kind of laugh that means people are relieved that something really awful isn't going to happen after all, and that was the end of that.

Only it wasn't, really.  What if Happer is right, and the vast majority of climate scientists, government leaders, and the public (which is not qualified to judge) has turned a molehill of a problem into a mountain that threatens whole economies and spreads fear and misplaced priorities worldwide?  A lot of people will end up looking pretty foolish, for one thing, which is why Son of Cloud Physicist got up and said what he said.  Of course, one should not make the opposite error of thinking that every crank and holder of a fringe opinion who comes along must be right and the mainstream is always wrong.  But Happer's evidence is not the only reason to suspect that the conventional climate-change picture at least has serious flaws.  Others such as David Rutledge at Caltech have questioned the conventional wisdom as well, but for different reasons. 

Climate change happens so slowly compared to the potential progress of science that I suspect the story will be gradually rewritten as time goes on to prove the dominant powers right whatever actually happens, and it will take a clever historian to tell the real story a century or two hence.  In the meantime, those of us who have more important things to worry about than how many centimeters per year the ocean is rising can take some comfort in the chance that William Happer's voice may be heard, and scientists will act a little more like scientists in the matter of examining the technical evidence for global warming.

Sources:  Prof. Happer's excellent article "The Truth About Greenhouse Gases," written for a non-technical audience, appeared in the June/July 2011 issue of the journal First Things, pp. 33-38.  On Jan. 3, 2010, I blogged on Prof. David Rutledge's contention that we are not going ever going to burn enough fossil fuels to make much of a difference in the climate one way or another. 
Harvey Mansfield's article "Science and Non-Science in Liberal Education" appeared in the Summer 2013 edition of The New Atlantis, pp. 22-37.

1 comment:

  1. A model is only as good as the modeller's understanding of the system being modelled. Bad assumptions, lack of clarity about how factors interact and gaps in knowledge will yield a model that doesn't provide good predictions.
    And yet, the climate people were 100% certain about their predictions.