War on Science–or War Within Science?

National Geographic’s March cover story is “The War on Science.” This continues the proud tradition of American media making any controversy into a “war” (see: the War on Christmas, the War on Women, etc., etc.), but that isn’t really what is attention grabbing.

Look at the topics that are part of the war on science.  Global warming. Evolution. Genetically modified food. Vaccinations. (They also list moon landings, but that is really a separate paranoia).

Notice anything?  Is there a war on particle physics?  A war on chemistry? A war on aerodynamics? A war on optical physics? A war on superconductivity? If this is a war on science, the front lines are incredibly narrow.

Consider, for instance, those denying that there is global warming or that humans play a significant role in causing it. Much of this is funded by fossil fuel companies or those who have earned fortunes from fossil fuels (e.g., Koch brothers). Are these organizations at war with science? Are they now employing dowsers to locate oil? Shoring up mine tunnels with breadsticks? No.  They are using science in the form of geophysics, geology, rock mechanics, etc. So to say they are at war with science is incorrect.  They are arguing against science that, if accepted, would jeopardize their core business.

How about evolution? No monetary stakes here, but a central precept of many strains of Protestant Christianity is a literal reading of the Bible. These folks are arguing against science that, if accepted, would jeopardize their core beliefs. (The less literal reading of the Bible, and in particular the Catholic Church’s belief that the Bible should be interpreted by the clergy, is a big part of the reason that Catholic schools teach evolution). Yet many of these people would no more board an airplane based on faith instead of aeronautics than an atheist. Some are in fact scientists.

If this is a war, it is a most peculiar one.

What is interesting is some of the intra-science debate on some of these topics.  Normally particle physicists do not weigh in on questions of, say, the origin of mountains, but they are weighing in on climate change.  Some of the most vocal “scientific” opponents of anthropogenic climate change are specialists far from climate science.  In fact, a large number of them tend to be lab or theoretical scientists.  GG recalls a roommate from long ago, an optical physicist.  When informed that geophysicists routinely invert large piles of data for large numbers of parameters, he was shocked. A good physics experiment should only have one or maybe two free parameters.  The concept of so many free parameters struck him as poor science.  And so it seems that many from that community disdain the ugly science done with all these parameters.

So we hear things like “Well, you haven’t accounted for changes in solar radiation, or know the proper albedo effects of clouds, or heat island effects, or …” And you know what? These points got argued fiercely within the climate science community over the years. But scientific opponents have rarely schooled themselves in the literature.  What happens if they actually try and do that?  Well, we know of one example. Richard Muller is a physicist at Berkeley who, a few years back, said that temperature record studies were fraught with errors and couldn’t be trusted.  Unlike many who make such pronouncements, he then set about trying to redo the estimates–and he found the climate scientists were right. This produced the memorable moment when, called to testify before a House Committee eager to show that climate change was a fraud, he told them exactly what they didn’t want to hear, and his credentials with his former cheerleaders faded away.

There is something different about science done outside the lab in complex systems.  You cannot control all the variables; you have to devise natural experiments in many cases to be able to identify the significant variables contributing to some phenomenon. Over the years some scientists have argued that such work is not science, a rather severe judgement. It is really findings related to these very same complex systems that seem to evoke the greatest skepticism, hence the possibility of a “war” within science. So while in the broader community there might be a desire to pick and choose only the science that fits your worldview, within the scientific community there might be a developing schism between those who feel complex phenomena can be analyzed scientifically and those who do not.

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