Thursday, April 27, 2017

Science & Global Warming

The "March for Science" and how scientific it was
OK, as many of you know, I am one of those scientists, still practicing science regularly. (Just drew up an experiment for a client, will be giving a tech paper in Cleveland on Thursday.) I benefited from both oldfashioned teaching of Science that stressed rigor in experimentation and the dogged pursuit of objectivity and the years of Philosophy that
also dealt a lot with the idea of working at understanding and minimizing the effects of one's own biases and that hunt for objectivity. Real Science is not about personalities, fads, politics, but about hard data and careful application of reasoning.

But no matter how many degrees one has in Science, mere human traits still exist in us all, and sometimes well qualified scientists fall into the traps of bias, egotism, and the pursuit of money. And they also just make mistakes. How many times have we seen recalls of drugs and surgical items when it was found that in practice they didn't work out as well as
all the years of research and oceans of money said they would? If the latest government interest is in the idea that food or drug X has bad effects over time, how much easier is it to get grant money to investigate those bad effects than to demonstrate they don't exist at the levels claimed?

I happened to listen in to the NPR broadcast on the March for Science, which had a panel of very distinguished scientists in the discussion. But it started off with the NPR host praising all the scientists who had bravely swum against the tide to champion good Science and truths that
were being resisted. Among the names mentioned was Dr. Michael Mann.

Dr. Mann is famous (or infamous) from the publication of a graph in 1998 showing a very steep rise in global temperatures starting in the early 20th century, which he attributed to the increased generation of CO2 gas
by widespread use of fossil fuels in industry, transportation, home heating, etc. This "hockey stick graph" was hailed as a definitive proof of the AGW hypothesis of dangerous planetary warming due entirely to human activity.

Dr. Mann was well known for his work, done using mostly public funds at a university, and for being a Nobel Prize winner. As time went on and the debate grew more intense about warming and its possible causes, other
scientists asked to see all his data, which of course in scientific practice is perfectly normal and it is incumbent upon originator of the work to supply it. Dr. Mann was reticent, and eventually refused to
release all the work and his notes, and even when a FOI suit was filed, which applied since the work was government funded, he and the university went to court and stonewalled it all at tremendous expense. Finally in 2003 a Canadian researcher took what had been released of the data and
the algorithm used to generate the hockey stick graph and demonstrated that even feeding random data into the program would always generate a rising graph. But the best part of all was that after years of people questioning Mann's Nobel Prize, the Norwegian Prize committee finally
issued an official statement that Dr. Mann had never received any such honor and called on him to desist from such claims.

Michael Mann is most certainly NOT someone to be presented as a hero of Science. So the program started off on a false note.

To condense a lot of what could be written about, one major theme of the program was the upset among the panelists that people, apparently uneducated as they are, could question the scientific method and not appreciate Science and not give scientists full credence in all they do. I almost laughed out loud at this, given the numerous times scientists
have gone wrong in various ways. 50 years ago it was predicted the world would be in mass starvation before now, but it's not. 40 years ago we were told we'd all be approaching a new Ice Age by now, but that hasn't
worked out. 10 years ago it was confidently predicted all the arctic ice would be gone by now, but it's still there. Certainly most people don't understand science deeply, but common sense still tells us that scientists are not always correct in what they do or predict.

And the other part of the discussion was about denying that Science is ever political. But supporting the Climate Change program is not politics, it's just solid science according to all those on the program, and there was at least one reference to "deniers", the nicely negative term that the true believers apply to anyone, no matter how well qualified, who has the least reservations about the source of what warming we've actually seen in the past decades. (About 0.3 deg Centigrade in 20 years, which is about 15% of what the much publicized computer models predicted.) In real Science you don't call names just because you don't agree with the other guy. The main "abuse of Science" that has motivated the organizers of the marches is the resistance to the complete adoption of the Climate Change belief.

This topic has become far more about emotion than cold, hard Science. The earth is warming, but then again, it has been for a very long time, since the end of the last Ice Age. And it's had cycles, 800 years ago Greenland was fairly warm, then it froze for centuries, now it's warming
again. Planetary weather is a tremendously complex matter, and the sun is the overriding influence on everything, with lots of complications from sunspots, cloud cover, changing ocean currents, and far more than we know right now.

So yes, Science is super important, it's been the source of all our fantastic progress. But scientists are neither saints nor infallible nor all somehow morally or intellectually superior to everyone else. I'd sure like kids to get a lot of very good instruction in Science in school, and I wish everyone in Congress knew a good deal of both Science and Statistics. But for now, we need to keep muddling along, together. --Del

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