Streetwise Professor

September 18, 2015

Skepticism is the Preeminent Scientific Virtue: Certitude is a Leading Scientific Sin

Filed under: Climate Change,Politics — The Professor @ 6:39 pm

One way to identify a scientific paradigm in crisis is an attempt by its adherents to crush those who dissent. These efforts become all the more frantic, the more advanced the crisis becomes.

We may be witnessing such a moment now. Jumping on a proposal made by Senator Sheldon Whitehorse (D-CO) in a WaPo oped, a group of noted climate scientists have signed a letter addressed to the Attorney General supporting a RICO investigation of those individuals and organizations who are climate change skeptics and deniers. Whitehorse compared those who dispute the climate change consensus to the tobacco scientists who disputed the cancer-smoking link, who were RICO targets in the early-2000s.

This is a perversion of science in the name of science. Certainty, faith, and conformity are the domain of religion: Skepticism and doubt are the domain of science. Skepticism is perhaps the preeminent scientific virtue: certitude is the leading scientific sin.

Indeed, the sociology of modern institutionalized science, with its dependence on government funding, tends to produce excessive consensus, and is rife with mechanisms that suppress challenge. Skepticism and doubt need defending and nurturing, not stigmatizing and outright repression.

The whole climate change debate is framed in a logically fallacious way because it is posed as a false choice: is anthropogenic climate change true or false? I believe that it is true, but that is a trivial answer to a trivial question. The more interesting questions involve the magnitude of the effect, and the costs of alternative means of mitigation or adjustment, and on these issues there is much room to be skeptical about the much vaunted consensus.

The consensus is based on models. Very large, complicated models of coupled, complex systems. I know enough about models to know that one should always be skeptical of them. One should be particularly skeptical of large models. And one should be especially skeptical of models of coupled complex systems (non-linear) with myriad feedbacks. By their very nature, such systems defy modeling, especially where computation is involved because computational tractability almost always involves linearizing the non-linear.

Climate models are all these things, so doubt and skepticism are more than warranted: they are mandatory. Climate is filled with poorly understood feedbacks and processes that are handled-if they are handled at all-by crude parameterizations (a polite way of saying SWAG: scientific wild assed guess). Furthermore, their empirical validity is doubtful, at best. The longstanding inability to predict the behavior of the tropical troposphere is one example, but even more tellingly, the failure to predict the recent temperature plateau is a massive empirical failure.

Alarm bells should also be triggered by the repeated fiddling with historical temperature data. Especially since that fiddling always seems to work in one direction: past temperatures are pushed downwards to increase the upward trend.

A confident science would relish the challenges of skeptics, secure in the knowledge that it will prevail because theory and evidence are on its side. A frightened and insecure science-especially one dominated by scientists fearing for their funding and their academic sinecures-responds by attempting to throttle those who criticize it. That’s what we are seeing now, with these efforts aided and abetted by politicians and journalists (e.g., jackholes like Jake Tapper-who would be a jakehole, I guess-and his performance in Wednesday’s GOP debate).

It is particularly risible to see scientists who dominate journals, dominate the peer review process, dominate the funding review process, dominate the universities and research departments, and who secure the lion’s share of government funding, whine about the dread threat posed by a few (and they emphasize that they are few) dissenters from the consensus. The constellation of organizations and funders that support the climate change consensus dwarfs that which the scientists and Whitehorse claim threatens science and truth. The letter reeks of projection by the signers. It’s very Russian.

Again, a confident science, a correct science, in control of all the commanding heights of the modern scientific establishment, should have nothing to fear. But we see the elephant quaking before the mouse, demanding that it be squashed.

But it is perhaps the fact that they have a lot to lose that explains the ferocity of the response to anyone who threatens them.

The endorsement by politicians of inquisitorial means is to be expected. That’s how they roll. The endorsement by scientists of inquisitorial means to be applied to other scientists is an abomination.

Update: When not applied to its original targets, the mafia, RICO is almost always a tool of government extortion and intimidation. I am reminded in particular of the Giuliani prosecutions of Michael Milken in the 1980s. Even in criminal cases it is almost always a perversion of justice. To invoke it in a scientific dispute is beyond outrageous.

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  1. Lysenkoism, named for Russian botanist Trofim Lysenko, was a political doctrine in Joseph Stalin’s Soviet Union that mandated that all biological research conducted in the USSR conform to a modified Lamarckian evolutionary theory

    Russia is a permanent open-air exhibition of what you should never do. Sadly, few pay attention.

    Comment by Ivan — September 19, 2015 @ 12:50 am

  2. Thanks, excellent aphorism for the day (and age): “Skepticism is the Preeminent Scientific Virtue: Certitude is a Leading Scientific Sin”. Perhaps we’re in a post-scientific age.

    Comment by Emerich — September 20, 2015 @ 12:33 am

  3. May the rising waters over take their office.

    Comment by Jeffrey Carter (@pointsnfigures) — September 20, 2015 @ 8:25 am

  4. Well, Ivan, in addition to Lysenkoism, the lefties are trying to impose a secular religion on everyone – “climate change.”

    Just like the sovok union tried to eliminate religion, except for worship of lenin and sralin – they taught the writings of lenin as if they were the Holy Gospel – the lefties want everyone to worship at the altar of climate change.

    The AlGore and his buddies sucked a lot of money out of the government by “being green.”

    Comment by elmer — September 20, 2015 @ 1:37 pm

  5. Well said Prof.

    Comment by Ex-Regulator on Lunch Break — September 20, 2015 @ 3:37 pm

  6. Climate science is the only science in which the future is fixed and certain, but the past is always changing.

    Comment by Green as Grass — September 21, 2015 @ 5:32 am

  7. “To invoke it in a scientific dispute is beyond outrageous.”
    Why would it surprise anyone when American progressives emulate the tactics of their Soviet heroes?

    Comment by SD3 — September 21, 2015 @ 10:57 am

  8. @Green & SD3: It is so, so Soviet.

    The ProfessorComment by The Professor — September 21, 2015 @ 2:41 pm

  9. Do you know what an Al-Gore-ithm is? It is a process that repeats indefinitely until it gets the result it wants.

    Comment by Scott — September 22, 2015 @ 8:55 am

  10. What an effin loon-even assertions that are easily demonstrable as untrue flow from these people that wrap themselves in an aura of knowledge and authority.

    Comment by pahoben — September 26, 2015 @ 3:44 am

  11. Progs are one group that can only look up to the successes of blind squirrels and aspire to do half as well. Likely have to look at the subset of blind squirrels that are also crippled or paralyzed as a benchmark group.

    Comment by pahoben — September 26, 2015 @ 4:21 am

  12. @pahoben-Isn’t the Mark II Gorebot out yet?

    The ProfessorComment by The Professor — September 26, 2015 @ 12:06 pm

  13. @Prof
    Development slowed after the temperature rising incident in Tokyo that reached the Tipper Point. Excessive drooling was an issue with the prototypes-described as like Cujo on a hot summer day.

    Comment by pahoben — September 28, 2015 @ 8:32 am

  14. Next time a well plan calls for drilling deeper than 10,560′ TVD I will panic and scream-you bloody fools will kill us all drilling this deep!!!

    Comment by pahoben — September 28, 2015 @ 9:07 am

  15. But that does remind me of the idiots in Indonesia that drilled into a mud volcano and then quickly tried to sell the license as the mud flow wiped out a village. The beneficent owner was Minister of Welfare at the time I believe-seems appropriate in some way.

    Comment by pahoben — September 28, 2015 @ 9:42 am

  16. So, we should give equal time to those who oppose Atomic Theory? Gravity? Evolution? Germ Theory of Disease? Scientists are pretty certain that each of these are correct. What evidence would possibly overturn them? I’m sure scientists will listen if the appropriate evidence is demonstrated through the appropriate peer review, but it would take a lot.

    Climate change deniers and skeptics are not presenting any evidence or going through peer review. They are not behaving honestly. The scientists posing the “questions” are receiving large sums of money from mining and fossil fuel companies. They are not trying to publish in scientific journals at all. They are trying to target the masses and the politicians.

    Look at what the UC San Diego Aquarium says about climate change. Look at what Texas A&M Department of Atmospheric Sciences says about climate change. Take a look at the synopsis for the Humans and Climate Change course offered through the department of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences at Cornell University. Yes the climate scientists sound very certain — just like doctors are pretty sure that you will die if you lose all or your blood.

    SWP, you are really good in your area of expertise, but once you step outside those narrow bounds, you really don’t get it.

    Comment by Ben — September 29, 2015 @ 4:29 pm

  17. @Ben-

    Your analogies (atomic theory, etc.) are bullshit.

    I was tempted to stop reading when you mentioned “peer review.” Are you an academic? Apparently not, if you have such a dreamy notion of the efficacy of peer review. Academics familiar with the process are cynical about it. It is rife with Type I and Type II errors.

    Moreover, it is a mechanism for enforcing consensus and protecting paradigms, rather than one for encouraging and identifying credible research that challenges the paradigm. This is not news.

    This is particularly true of climate research, and we have the documentary evidence to prove it. The CRU emails demonstrate in embarrassing detail how Jones, Mann, et al used control of the journals and peer reviews to squash research that called into question any aspect of the AGM paradigm. The IPCC process is similarly compromised.

    And please try to keep up. You mention Texas A&M. FFS, Gerald North of TAMU is one of the most obnoxious and aggressive of this clique. Your citing people inside the cathedral as proof of the truth of their religion is almost amusing.

    The ProfessorComment by The Professor — September 30, 2015 @ 6:07 pm

  18. @SWP

    Type I & II are to be expected. Use of the peer review process to enforce religious standards is not. You demonstrate your lack of serious investigation when you assert the latter. The vast majority of climate scientists are in agreement with the human caused climate change claims. Are they all part of this conspiracy? And the CRU emails were quite inocuous. The deniers did their best to turn them into something more than trivial – even going so far as to make up additional emails that were never sent. So no, you have no documentation whatsoever to support this conspiracy.

    What we do have is a lot of funding from fossil fuel and mining industries that are trying to create the illusion of scientific backing for anything but the anthropogenic climate change conclusions. They are very similar to the tobacco industry’s attempts to pretend that smoking didn’t cause cancer – effective in the press but not in scientific circles.

    You are falling for these frauds. Ask yourself why all of these deniers and skeptics have ties to the fossil fuel industry? Find even one climate scientist who doesn’t take fossil fuel money but remains a skeptic or denier.

    Comment by Benjamin Thomas Wheeler — October 4, 2015 @ 5:02 pm

  19. @Benjamin
    Okay-Richard Lindzen

    Think for yourself you foolish person.

    Comment by pahoben — October 8, 2015 @ 5:31 am

  20. @pahoben

    You mean the retired professor Richard Lindzen who charged ExxonMobil $2500/day for his ‘services’? The same Richard Lindzen who is skeptical that cigarettes cause cancer? Thanks for playing, but try just a little harder next time.

    Comment by Ben — October 8, 2015 @ 6:49 am

  21. @Ben

    Okay-Shen Kuo

    Comment by pahoben — October 8, 2015 @ 9:38 am

  22. @Ben
    Yes that’s right if you looked for Sen Kuo you found that even 1000 years ago climate scientists concluded (and rightfully so) that the climate changes.

    Comment by pahoben — October 8, 2015 @ 7:16 pm

  23. @pahoben

    Let’s try to keep the science current – within last 5 years.

    Comment by Ben — October 10, 2015 @ 7:18 am

  24. @Ben
    That’s the point climate isn’t current, weather is current.

    Comment by pahoben — October 11, 2015 @ 9:34 am

  25. @pahoben

    You misunderstand science. Current research takes all the evidence we have into account. We have temperature readings going back over a hundred years. We have ice core data going back thousands of years and other data going back even to billions of years ago that have only been the result of modern research. Current research is not the same as a focus on only the data from the last few years. The current scientific consensus takes all these climate (note – not weather) data into account. Against this overwhelming consensus, you can only present one guy who believes global warming’s connection to human activity is as weak as the connection between smoking and cancer and one guy who lived long before the industrial revolution. How much less serious can you be?

    Comment by Ben — October 11, 2015 @ 4:40 pm

  26. @Ben
    Are you effin nuts. It takes all of this data into account? You are either a fool or a troll.

    Comment by pahoben — October 12, 2015 @ 3:01 am

  27. @pahoben

    Why would a scientific consensus not consider all available evidence? Do you not know how science works? Or are you just completely ignorant of how global warming works? Considering who you cite as authorities, you may actually be that ignorant. I doubt you could articulate the consensus view of how it does.

    Comment by ben — October 12, 2015 @ 5:45 am

  28. @Ben,
    Okay I was wrong. You are a fool AND a troll.

    Comment by pahoben — October 12, 2015 @ 9:13 am

  29. @pahoben

    I see you only know how to call people names. You can’t produce a single argument in favor of your position or even articulate the position you disparage.

    Bye bye

    Comment by ben — October 12, 2015 @ 4:25 pm

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