The scientific community and self-criticism

Whatever your view on anthropogenic global warming, the recent hacking of private emails of the world’s top climate scientists has been a fascinating story. Over a thousand emails and documents were electronically stolen from the University of East Anglia’s Climatic Research Unit in the UK, uploaded to a Russian FTP server, and made available for anyone to download.

I don’t have a stake in the debate – even apart from the question of whether global warming is the best scientific hypothesis – we should yet be firmly committed to the stewardship of the environment and practices that are sustainable and responsible. What I find interesting, however, is the way these emails give a rare insight into the behind-the-scenes efforts of scientists and the lengths some will go to shape the public perception of the claims of science. Andrew Bolt, writing for the Australian Herald Sun, argues that these emails point to:

Conspiracy, collusion in exaggerating warming data, possibly illegal destruction of embarrassing information, organised resistance to disclosure, manipulation of data, private admissions of flaws in their public claims and much more.

If legitimate, the private messages paint a damning picture of the defensiveness and insularity that can occur within the scientific community. Questions can also be raised about the frequently trumpeted guarantor of scientific truth: peer-review. Far from an impenetrable safeguard of intellectual rigor, peer-review can just as easily be captive to personal and political agenda. Bolt and others catalogue stunning examples of conflicts of interest, bullying, and other forms of manipulation that took place by the top climate change scientists to keep opponents from publishing in credible journals. The admission by, in their response to the hack, that scientists are “generally very competitive” is a magnificent understatement.

Indeed, the New York Times reports that “several scientists whose names appear in the e-mail messages said they merely revealed that scientists were human, and did nothing to undercut the body of research on global warming. “Science doesn’t work because we’re all nice,” said Gavin A. Schmidt, a climatologist at NASA whose e-mail exchanges with colleagues over a variety of climate studies were in the cache. “Newton may have been an ass, but the theory of gravity still works.””

I was reminded by this quote from David Berlinksi, former fellow at the Institute des Hautes Etudes Scientifiques in France and recent author of the book The Devil’s Delusion:

“The idea that science is a uniquely self-critical institution is of course preposterous. Scientists are no more self-critical than anyone else. They hate to be criticized… Look, these people are only human, they hate criticism — me too. The idea that scientists are absolutely eager to be beaten up is one of the myths put out by scientists, and it works splendidly so they can avoid criticism.

We’re asking for standards of behavior that would be wonderful to expect but that no serious man does expect. A hundred years of fraudulent drawings suggesting embryological affinities that don’t exist — that’s just what I would expect if biologists were struggling to maintain a position of power in a secular democratic society. Let’s be reasonable… the popular myth of science as a uniquely self-critical institution, and scientists as men who would rather be consumed at the stake rather than fudge their data, is okay for a PBS special, but that’s not the real world; that’s not what’s taking place…”

It will be interesting to see how this story will play out, and of course, if these correspondences are actually a fair representation of what has gone on. Our own local networks have been slow to pick up the news, but check out Peter Cresswell’s excellent summary and overview of the fall out. Glenn also offers some thoughts here.

Public Lecture on Global Warming: a Christian response

Auckland University school of theology is hosting a public lecture on Global Warming: a Christian response with Professor Robert White, Professor of Geophysics in the Department of Earth Sciences at University of Cambridge.

Professor Robert White is Professor of Geophysics in the Department of Earth Sciences at Cambridge (since 1989) and was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1994. He is a Fellow of the Geological Society, and a member of the American Geophysical Union. He leads a research group investigating the Earth’s dynamic crust. His scientific work is published in over 300 articles. Bob is Associate Director of the Faraday Institute for Science and Religion, and a director of the John Ray Initiative, an educational charity that works to develop and communicate a Christian understanding of the environment.

Thursday 12 March 2009, 6-7 pm

Theatre OGGB4, Business School, corner of Symonds Street and Grafton Road, The University of Auckland

Parking under Owen G Glenn building,
$5 flat rate

See Poster

Global Warming a New Religion

One of Leighton Smith’s pet topics on his talk radio show on Newstalk ZB, is global warming. He and I share similar opinions in this regard, and its edifying to hear someone in New Zealand with a modicum of sense surrounding the issue. 

I don’t know how I became sceptical of the global warming cultural phenomenon. Perhaps already being sceptical of evolutionary models that made me see the hype of global warming as the same old sensationalist rhetoric that accompanies a decisive lack of substantive evidence. Perhaps it was a dozen little things that collected and connected in my mind. 

Like the International Panel for Climate Change (IPCC) being chiefly composed of bureaucrats instead of scientists. Like the political momentum the debate has gathered. Like the ridicule aimed at respected scientist with doubts or dissenting views. Perhaps it was Al Gore’s reputation for honesty. Perhaps it was the late meteorologist Augie Auer puffing at the idea on Sports Cafe, calling it a ‘joke.’ Perhaps it was that I learnt that a single volcano pumps more CO2 into the atmosphere in (something like) a single hour than the whole of America does in a year.

Perhaps it was something else. Entrenching my scepticism were the videos linked bellow, especially The Man-made Global Warming Hoax, an excellent documentary. 

Now one has to point out first that Global Warming is not just the idea that the planet is slowly heating. This everyone agrees with. It is also the idea that man is responsible for the increase in temperature and it is on this point where the controversy lies. 

I don’t confess to be a scientist, but I do think of myself as a philosopher and the global warming cultural phenomenon makes for an interesting case study for the interaction with science and religion. As Leighton Smith said, global warming is not science, its a political agenda and a religious movement similar to that of the crusades in the middle ages.

So I ask, what is supporting the movement if not the science. I have a few suggestions aside from the media’s sensationalism below. Can you think of any more? Why is the global warming phenomenon gathered to itself so much momentum?

1) Humanism. A system that incorporates the belief that people are genuinely good and capable of saving themselves. Though responsible for destroying the environment through neglect and indifference, the enlightened mind is capable of renewing and restoring the natural order. In its extreme form it can manifest itself by the few intellectuals rising up to rule and manipulating and controlling the unthinking masses, and can also give justification for population control, which entails things like euthanasia, infanticide, abortion as a contraceptive method, and eugenics.

2) Misplaced Authority. It is a philosophical assumption whether one accepts scientists as authorities and what the say is true. In current culture scientist are the priests, and the popular religion is scientism. The past teaches us that scientists are fallible and often prone to error, so it questionably wise to accept a scientists word as final judgement. In fact, it is the genetic fallacy to conclude that something is either true or false based upon the origin (the scientist word) of that belief. Logic and its laws is an extremely technical sub-dicsipline of philosophy akin to mathematics so when one thinks to himself, or does any sort of reasoning he is using philosophy. 

4) Belief of an age old earth (as opposed to a young earth). The earth may well be ancient, nevertheless it is chiefly a philosophical question whether one accepts this view and denies the young earth view and the evidence for it. For when determining the age of something, this falls outside the observational scientific method and one must assume specific principles in order to hypothesise. Principles such as that the world was not created five minutes ago with the appearance of age, or that our current knowledge of the past is accurate, or uniformity. 

5) Uniformitarianism. This is the belief that the ‘past is the key to the present.’ It is the dogmatic assumption and application of the principle of uniformity, that holds that the same processes performed today in exactly the same conditions will yield the same results as they did yesterday, and the same result will result tomorrow. This principle is necessary for the success of science, but when assumed dogmatically may render predictions false or unsuccessful. For instance, this rules out a priori any world wide flood hypothesis.

6) Communism. This I hesitate to add, but the idea originated not with me but comes from the documentary The Man-made Global Warming Hoax. It suggests that the collapse of the Berlin wall and the disintegration of communism in the Soviet Union dispersed anti-capitalists throughout the west. Instead of promoting a political solution now they found in global warming a linchpin to hang their economic and social agendas.


More Resources:

On Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth


Documentary on The Man-made Global Warming Hoax (Parts 1-8)


Glenn Beck telling Irena’s Story