Sunday Soapbox: Scientific Skeptics

>> Sunday, December 13, 2009

*Steps on Soapbox*

Despite my engineering background and job description, I often think of myself as a scientist. I take science very seriously and I have a great deal of physics backgroun - I like to understand why something works rather than being happy that it does.

I take science very seriously. I give a great deal of credence to the scientific process and fully support the requirements for peer review and consensus building that go forward with science. I understand the language used by scientists that allow for uncertainty and theories, that acknowledge limitations and the knowledge we don't have, the processes we don't fully understand, the unknowns for situations we have no way of predicting reliably. I understand what all this means when its applied to science.

This understanding means that I can understand that some children can still catch a disease they've been vaccinated against or that someone can react poorly to penicillin no matter how effective it is. And I can understand all this without being a doctor or assuming all doctors are quacks only out to suit themselves.

I understand that there are some animals today who's evolutional story is hard to fathom or seems counterintuitive (like pandas or platypi) without assuming the natural adaptation that we've seen in action does not exist or that the vast preponderance of data that demonstrates evolution has been working to form our living world for eons is false. I don't discount dinosaur bones or make up ridiculous theories to allow for a world only a few thousand years old. I'm not a biologist, and I am a scientist, but I'm not so conceited that I feel I have to doublecheck the wealth of data or the professional scientists who have been fact-checked and peer-reviewed by similar experts.

So, why is it that the same folks who think the creationists, moon hoaxers, and anti-vaccers are stupid and/or whack-jobs who should not be sullying the gene pool have no problem sitting on the side as the peer-reviewed, consensus-built scientific positions, built on a wealth of data and years of hard work by the climate scientists of this world and second-guessing their science, honesty and position?

I'm not a climate scientist, but I've taken the trouble to read the actual peer-reviewed articles and find out the wealth of information that's available to support concerns and growing alarm on the way we may be changing our climate. I've seen the real changes already there (long before even the most pessimistic predictions a few decades back). Why is that? What makes a doctor or a biologist or a physicist or even a meteorologist or an engineer or, heaven help me, lawyers think they are qualified to understand and judge the science without the same background?

Look in peer-reviewed journals and the story is all the same. We're not sure what will happen or how fast. Here are some possibilities. But, the basis for the article is always the same. We have changed the world with our emissions and we're going to keep changing it unless we do something, and soon. You know how many peer-reviewed articles have been published the last ten years with evidence that says the opposite? If you guessed "not many if not none," you'd be about right.

Yet, for some reason, the same scientists who bemoan the fact that the general public gives as much credence to the general media as they do scientific venues seem to have no problems accepting the unsubstantiated (and frequently debunked) notions on blogs and mainstream media when the story is the climate change.

I've got to say, I just don't get that. Either the scientific process works or it doesn't. Either we can trust the mainstream media gets stuff right for science (and should give it the same credence as peer-reviewed articles) or we shouldn't, no matter what the science described is. Bad enough laymen don't get it; it seems unforgivable when scientists (who should know better).

And, if you're a scientist frustrated by the way the public has misstated and misused your science, give that some thought before you jump on the "there's equal science on both sides of the global climate change question" may I suggest you do some research. (In other words, if you're quoting Al Gore as a scientist, you have not done your homework).

That's all I'm saying.

*Steps off soapbox*


  • Roy

    Steph, this is a common tactic used by the Right. They do the same thing with the whole creationism thing - they put somebody forward as spokesperson who has a PhD after his name, but if you look at that PhD you find that it's in a totally unrelated field, not in biology, geology, cosmology, etc. And some of those diplomas (like "Dr." Ken Ham's) aren't even legitimate. But by putting a PhD after the name they hope to impress on the uninformed that they have all the knowledge that's needed to argue against the evidence.

    And that's what they all do - the climate change deniers, the creationists, and the anti-vaxers: they argue against the hard scientific evidence as if that evidence were opinion and their own opinion is equal to it, reducing the whole argument to a clash of differing opinions rather than what it is: uninformed or deliberately deceptive opinion trying to argue against the undeniable observable evidence that their opinion is nonsense.

    In the case of some scientists trying to argue against the evidence of climate change and its causes, I think you'll find that the scientists in question are more than likely on the payroll of commercial interests who are most responsible for the causes of our current climate change. Much of this argument comes from studies which are financed by fuel companies, and you're right, none of those studies have ever been submitted for peer review; they know darned well that the studies would never pass inspection. In fact, many of these "studies" have been torn apart in legitimate scientific journals. So it seems that money talks, and some scientists aren't immune from its allure. Sadly.

  • Stephanie B

    Actually, I was actually thinking of a few scientists and engineers I know who get hot under the collar when the subject is vaccinations or creation taught in schools but shrug and say the jury's still out on climate change. Looked at a blog that routinely supports good science and calls out bad science, but they were doing the same thing.

    Very frustrating. It ought to be the way you say (and I know it is, too), but it isn't yet.

  • Boris Legradic

    Hear hear! *Applauds*

    I think there might be a case for dedicating some hours in school to teach an understanding of the scientific process. Now it is generally assumed that this will be taken care of by the science classes, but very often it isn't. Even a few hours each year, maybe culminating in how to read a scientific paper might make a big difference!

  • Shakespeare

    Much of this depends on being willing to CHANGE (something humans do very poorly, I'm afraid). Instead of taking responsibility for what we've done (as people, as companies), our favorite tactic is denial. If we can just rationalize the behavior, or pretend the impact is less than it really is (or doesn't exist at all), then we feel no guilt when we make no changes.

    Unfortunately, pretending something does not exist does not make it so. I believe Lincoln, when addressing a southern landowner with regards to slavery, asked, "How many legs does a dog have, if you call his tail a leg?" The landowner answered, "Five."

    Lincoln's answer? "Four. Calling a tail a leg doesn't make it a leg." Denial does not make truth, no matter how much we'd like it to. I'd personally LOVE to believe that our environmental change isn't occurring. But it simply isn't true. No scientific data points to a lack of change, especially if we do not stop what we are doing now.

  • Project Savior

    One thing I struggle with is (especially with the topic of Climate Change) is there is places for valid skepticism as to if it will kill 10s of millions or billions in the next century.
    So when I talk about how I think that only 10s of millions of people will die, some people will use that as a call for inaction.
    It's like if you are speeding down the road and debating if you will hit a tree or go flying off a cliff and saying you don't need to hit the brakes until you know for sure which is going to happen. It's better to hit the brakes before either event.

  • Stephanie B

    Project Savior, ain't that the truth.

    All the consequences of inaction are bad. Even the causes of limited action ain't so good. Hell, complete action still means people will die.

    And it's not like we could live on oil forever. The well will run dry (much sooner than most people believe) or be so expensive it doesn't matter. Things will have to be done. Question is do we want to take steps now so the effect of change (and effect of our past blind consumerism) is minimized and least expensive or do we want to wait until we've gone too far to correct things and where the cost will crush us all?

    Why is this a tough question?

    Shakespeare, you may be right on that topic of responsibility. I think that's a piss poor excuse. If we made a mess, we should clean it up, not leave it for our children and granchildren (as well as a number of nations that have contributed little but will bear the brunt of the pain).

  • Relax Max

    I am hesitant to speak to the issue of Global Warming since the scientists have it all figured out, but I believe God has a plan for planet Earth, and that plan is unfolding as it should. None of us should worry. Stephanie, please try to have more faith in He who created us all. Ummm... and the Right are all fascist pigs and false prophets whose only aim is to pervert the purity of the Liberal Truth; they are America-haters every one who just don't seem to get it like the uber-educated enlightened Left gets it.

    I'm sorry this comment is a little late, but I had to send it to the Southern Baptist Conference for a peer review.

  • Stephanie B

    Relax Max, this was directed to scientists who bemoan the those who use religion in lieu of science for hypocrisy. I didn't intend it to point the finger at you.

    Scientific hypocrisy is not less nauseating that religious hypocrisy (or more so) - but the latter deserves a soapbox of its own and wasn't intended to be included on this one, other than to point out the similarities.

  • Tim

    I believe global warming exists.
    Recently some scientist was found to have 'apparently' modified some of the data to show an overal increase in temps of 1.5 degrees or so in Australia over a period of many years. Without modification, 'apparently', the data would have shown an overall DECREASE in temps. I say apparently because I have no real way of making any sort of decision based on the information I have seen. You are right, how is a construction worker like me supposed to be able to interpret data. Especially if it is subjectively modified, from my point of view, to fit their needs. How much of the data has been modified, and does it make any difference to commoners like me?

  • Stephanie B

    A single lab, looking at years and thousands of email has the term "modified" in there. Do you know why? Neither do I.

    There are a number of reasons to modify things when working with models, including adjusting the models to fit with actual data (since that's what models are for).

    Now, if it turns out that these scientists (or a subset of these scientists) falsified data, throw the book at them. And scientists will head that mob that does that. Unlike politics or politically commentary, promoting false information in science is suicide and will get you discredited overnight. As it should be.

    But, that actual falsification has occured has yet to be demonstrated and, as I said, I can think of any number of legitimate activities that are in keeping legitimate modeling that would not be a concern to laymen in any way that fit with the terminology used. Admittedly, it wasn't the best terminology to use in the email but I doubt they were thinking about their email back and forths being read by outsiders. (Do take a moment and think back over all the emails you might have used at work and think if there are any EVER you might not want someone to read). But I don't know which this is. It's being investigated.

    However, even if they did do something they shouldn't have at this lab, there are many other labs that have independently reached the same conclusions. I don't think it changes anything.

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