Making Science Public has allowed Dana Nuccitelli to respond to Ben Pile’s recent post What’s behind the battle of received wisdoms?. I think Dana’s response is very good, but I would say that wouldn’t I?
One of the things that Dana was responding to was a comment by Mike Hulme, that I discussed in an earlier post. Ben Pile took some interest in this post and, in particular, in some comments made by Tom Curtis and wrote a post of his own, mentioning my post and discussing the comments made by Tom Curtis. That he put so much effort into dismissing Tom Curtis’s comments, makes me think that Tom must have been hitting a nerve.
In Ben’s post he referred to me as Troll-like. I found this a little odd and thought he had somewhat mis-represented my post. I commented on his post and discovered that the issue may be that I’m being confused with Wotts Up With That. Just, for clarity, that is not me. Anyway, we clarified this and Ben Pile edited his post. However, the rest of the discussion was remarkably frustrating. I also, rather unfortunately possibly, failed to hide my frustration. I don’t particularly like it when that happens, but sometimes it’s hard to avoid. I can’t see the point of discussions in which both (or one of) the parties are unwilling to consider that anything the other person says has merit and are unwilling to consider that some of what they say may be wrong, or not as well-founded as first thought. Also, rather naively, I think that if I try to be pleasant, others will reciprocate. It’s not a requirement, of course, but it does make the discussion more enjoyable. So, essentially I ended up having a discussion with a group who were, by and large, unpleasant (with some exceptions) and who clearly thought that the way to engage in such a discussion was to poke holes in the other person’s argument and avoid acknowledging any issues with their own.
Anyway, what I found ironic is that part of the argument that Ben Pile seems to be associated with, is that John Cook’s consensus project is being used to close down the debate. The suggestion being that people are using the results of John Cook’s study to state that the science is settled. Maybe Ben Pile and co. weren’t actually closing down the debate, but they were certainly making it difficult to actually have one. In a recent post on Judith Curry’s blog, Dan Kahan is quoted as saying
[T]here’s good reason to believe that the self-righteous and contemptuous tone with which the “scientific consensus” point is typically advanced (“assault on reason,” “the debate is over” etc.) deepens polarization. That’s because “scientific consensus,” when used as a rhetorical bludgeon, predictably excites reciprocally contemptuous and recriminatory responses by those who are being beaten about the head and neck with it.
Now, this comment by Dan Kahan may have some merit. I certainly don’t think that illustrating that there is a consensus implies that the science is settled. There may, however, be a subtlety here that many are not recognising or, maybe, not acknowledging.
I sometimes wonder if one issue with this whole debate is the difference between how physical scientists might think and how social scientists might think. As far as I’m aware, there are no fundamental laws in the social sciences. You can’t debunk someone’s ideas about politics or economics by simply showing that it violates some fundamental law of the social sciences. There may be theories and ideas about what works and what doesn’t, but there are no fundamental laws. So, maybe in the social sciences it is much more accepted that all ideas should be on the table.
In the physical sciences, however, there are fundamental laws that all physical scientists (or, at least, all credible physical sciences) accept. These are the conservation of mass, the conservation of energy, and the conservation of momentum (linear and angular). Einstein has shown an equivalence between mass and energy, but that doesn’t matter for the climate change debate. There are also other laws (thermodynamics) but these are essentially associated with these fundamental laws. If a scientific idea violates any of these fundamental laws, it is wrong. There is no debate about this. There is no point in having a discussion with someone who’s idea violates one of these laws or who doesn’t realise that these laws exist.
So, for example, Murry Salby claims that the rise in atmospheric CO2 concentration is not anthropogenic. This, however, appears to violate the conservation of mass. How can the biosphere both be a sink (absorbing all anthropogenic CO2) and a source (releasing more CO2 into the atmosphere than in the past)? Bob Tisdale seems to think that the surface heating we’ve seen recently is simply due to ocean cycles (ENSO events). This appears to violate conservation of energy. How can the energy that is heating the surface be coming from the oceans when the amount of energy in the oceans has been increasing? There are other examples of people who think they can find some function that fits the data and that they’ve then explained something. Well, in this case they haven’t actually considered any of the fundamental laws. It’s a pure curve fitting exercise, and until they can show that their function has some physical relevance and doesn’t violate the laws of physics, it doesn’t have any real merit (it can be illustrative, but not much else).
So, the point I’m trying to make is that although the debate should be open, there are some things that are not open to debate. When it comes to policy decisions, maybe all ideas should be considered and the debate should be completely open. When it comes to the science, however, some things are just simply wrong and can be shown to be wrong. The problem is that if someone doesn’t understand the fundamental laws of physics, it becomes hard to convince them that these ideas are wrong. That’s why people should talk to and listen to scientists. They understand these things.
I don’t know if I’ve made this argument particularly clearly but it does seem that people’s view of the consensus project may be biased by their field of expertise. Those who are interested in policy may think all ideas should be considered. They might be right about ideas related to policy, but they’re wrong about science. Not all scientific ideas are right. Some are just, quite simply, wrong. So, as a scientist, what I see the consensus project doing is trying to illustrate that the science behind global warming is much more settled than many are willing to acknowledge.
My view, therefore, is that this isn’t an attempt to close down the debate, but an attempt to distinguish between discussions about policy and discussions about the science. I’m not even saying that the science is settled, simply that it is more settled than many think and that many (if not most) of the alternatives that are in the public domain violate the fundamental laws of physics. Although how we should address global warming (the policy decisions) should be completely open to debate, there is – in my view – a subtlety. If your views about what policies would be best, or what we should do, are based on a mis-understanding of the science (as I think it often is) then maybe you should consider that your opinions about what the best policy is may also be wrong.