Restrain Science?

Posted By on April 20, 2009

“Are There Demons Haunting Science?”

.: The following is a response to a note by Scotty Ellis, which is mirrored here (with permission) for posterity’s sake. This was originally supposed to be a comment on Facebook, but it has clearly grown too long. Forgive me if the subject matter bores you — you are not bound by any law to read it.

Science, most properly understood, is a virtue of the intellect, a perfection of knowing. At least under the Aristotelean conception, science is knowledge of necessary, eternal truths, truths which are unchanging and cannot be other than they are. In pursuing and attaining this scientific knowledge, the mind is perfected according to its object, Truth. The mind is conformed to the world, and becomes more perfectly a kind of mirror reflecting all reality.

.: In other words, science — as understood by a non-scientist — is something very different from what practicing scientists would recognize. I shall let them know at the next meeting.

.: Alternatively, we can define words as they’re actually used and state that science is a method of accumulating knowledge based on observation and logical inference — always provisional and open to anyone with a curious mind. Not quite the grandeur of “necessary, eternal truths,” but modern science has been somewhat wary of philosophy as of late.

Today, science more commonly refers to a very specific and limited sphere and method of knowing. The physical elements of the natural world are subject to clever experimentation in order to reveal its inner workings. We are willing to break open the world to see how it works.

.: Now we’re getting closer, but you’re glossing over a large part of what science is. Experimentation isn’t just clever tricks and manipulations — it’s the core of science. Experimentation is the admission that we might have gone wrong somewhere in our thinking so we’d better check. It’s the admission that sitting in our armchairs and thinking is insufficient to actually get things done.

It is important to note that such experimentation rarely is performed on subjects near and dear to the experimenter’s heart. A Nazi will freeze a Jew or the disabled; he will not immerse his own son in the freezing tub. A boy who will dissect a frog will not dissect his pet cat Whiskers.

.: Now this is actually an important point that I wanted to reiterate. Science, noble endeavor that it is, must still be performed by humans, and humans always have been and forever will be first-class jerks. Whether you ascribe to original sin or simply recognize the animal origins of our species, the outcome is the same: humans, by nature, come with a lot of baggage that’s difficult to correct for. We like the people who are in our arbitrarily designated group and hate those who are not. But this is not a sin of science. I can do no better here than to quote Jacob Bronowski:

It is said that science will dehumanize people and turn them into numbers. That is false, tragically false. Look for yourself. This is the concentration camp and crematorium at Auschwitz, this is where people were turned into numbers. Into this pond were flushed the ashes of four million people. And that was not done by gas. It was done by arrogance. It was done by dogma. It was done by ignorance. When people believe that they have absolute knowledge, with no test in reality, this is how they behave. This is what men do when they aspire to the knowledge of gods.

Science is a very human form of knowledge. We are always at the brink of the known, we always feel forward for what is to be hoped. Every judgment in science stands on the edge or error, and is personal. Science is a tribute to what we can know although we are fallible. In the end the words were said by Oliver Cromwell: “I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ, think it possible you may be mistaken.”

… We have to cure ourselves of the itch for absolute knowledge and power. We have to close the distance between the push-button order and the human act. We have to touch people.

.: Back to your post:

A study of the human person reveals that a virtue, when isolated from the others, is hardly virtue at all.

.: I do not think this is proper conclusion you can draw from the examples given. A better conclusion would be something like, “Virtue, when combined with vice, is virtue in service of vice,” but that’s patently obvious and not very helpful. Science as practiced by the Nazis was not an isolated virtue run amok; it was a virtue compounded by an evil (the notion that Jews were not people and therefore their consent and well-being need not be considered). Again, we are broaching rather obvious territory here: science in the service of evil ideas results in evil actions!

.: The question “How much cold can the human body withsand?” is not in itself an evil question unworthy of pursuit. Ethical considerations — a field separate from science — prohibits a great many experiments from being performed. The problem with Nazis was not their rigorous adherence to scientific procedure (though they failed miserably there, too) but rather their poorly developed sense of ethics.

One of the chief causes for the excesses of modern science is the myth of perpetual scientific progress. Like any mythology, this particular story has been retold in various times and places with a number of variations, but the essential core of the narrative is the eventual triumph of science over ignorance. Mysteries once accepted through tradition are put to the rigorous test of empirical methodology, in the belief that knowledge is an end which is justified in itself and without reference to further ends or contexts.

.: Again, the driving force behind science is not this naive notion that knowledge is an end which is justified in itself — the driving force is that observation and experimentation is a more reliable guide to the world we find ourselves in than hearsay and magic. Yes, those mysteries once accepted through tradition are put to test, and, yes, they fail miserably. This is as it should be, at least among people who agree that it’s not a good idea to keep fooling one’s self. Or would you rather the rich intellectual tradition of astrology — Kepler! Brahe! Ptolemy! — perpetuate in the halls of academia to this day?

Projects such as eugenics, nuclear and biological testing, even pharmaceutical tests are artifacts of this myth.

.: Eugenics was a policy to better the human race which was based on erroneous science and which was advocated and criticized by representatives of every group, from Christians to scientists (and, indeed, those who were both). But enacting policies is a very different thing from pursuing knowledge. Once you begin speaking about what we should and should not do, you’ve stepped from the realm of science and into the realm of ethics. That’s not to say science can’t inform ethical debate (just what exactly is a human, anyway?), just that science can neither take credit nor blame for the application of the knowledge it has uncovered.

Additionally, modern politics has embraced this myth, seeing it as a subset of its own myth of perpetual progress. Some of the empty rhetoric of the Obama administration makes use of this connection. When a spokesperson of the administration claims that we must allow science to proceed unfettered by ideology, he affirms a belief in science as justifiable in itself.

.: This interpretation of their statements can only be made by someone who hasn’t paid much attention to the actions of the previous administration for the past eight years. Ideology has infiltrated science to science’s detriment. By this I do not mean that the previous administration has made edicts on what scientific research can and cannot be conducted (though it certainly has); I mean that it was not enough for them to simply dislike certain areas of research — that had to lie about what was known.

-Global climate change isn’t occurring because humans can’t possibly change the Earth that way (and anyway, if they could, God will just fix it).
-Research on embryonic stem cells is unnecessary because adult stem cells can do it all and do it better.
-Intelligent design should be taught in schools because there are serious weaknesses in evolutionary theory.

.: These notions are not the result of ideology directing scientific research; they are the result of ideology replacing scientific research, and they all happen to be lies. Obama isn’t calling for science to have unfettered access to experiment on whatever the hell it wants; he’s calling for the results of experiments that are allowed to be respected and accurately represented, regardless of ideology or prejudice.

.: To give an example: you obviously are against abortion, and no doubt you wish you could convince every woman not to have one. Some people think an easy way to do this is invoke a link between having an abortion and developing breast cancer. It’s an interesting idea from a scientific standpoint, but the studies have been performed and it’s been conclusively demonstrated that having an abortion in no way increases one’s chance for developing breast cancer. The honest, responsible thing to do is respect the science and abandon the tactic as a means for curtailing abortion. But this is ideology we’re talking about here — of course they’re not going to give up such a useful device! What Obama would ask for in this case is for those who oppose abortion to recognize that subverting or ignoring the results of science is a dishonorable thing to do.

Not to see and hear in the changing airs
The propagation of light waves and sound,
But to see my wife and to hear her voice
Bent down at the table by me at her work:
Making a garment and mending my soul.

.: Believe it or not, some of us scientists have no trouble doing both. Indeed, I’m of the opinion that understanding the former experience enriches the latter.

Knowledge of the particular requires the contact of our own inscapes with that of another creature. In such a moment, we are united with another particular in a unique way. Over time, we can develop a familiarity (in fact, such familiarity can only develop over time). This patient understanding leads gradually to an ability to treat other creatures with a true respect and act according to a true wisdom.

.: And what better path to this sort of wisdom than science, which has revealed that even the smallest of fish is related to us by a relatively short millions of years? That every particle of our being once occupied the space of another creature, indeed the center of a star? That the boundaries between self and non-self are not as clear as originally thought? I think you and I appreciate a lot of the same things from very different perspectives.

However, the unreflective practice of science can itself crystallize into something sentimental. The quest for universal knowledge can itself become an idol; iconoclasm can (and, perhaps necessarily, does) become an icon. This is how the myth of perpetual progress was born in the first place.

.: I was under the impression that the idea of perpetual progress in science was brought about by continually knowing more today than was known yesterday. It’s an arbitrary metric, to be sure, but a rather obvious one to use.

When this has happened, it is necessary to return the mind to the particular, to recognize the unique inscape of the concrete. Navigating between these two tendencies, the false sentimentality of the particular and the idolatry of science, is the duty of wisdom. It requires keen vision.

.: I’m tempted to dismiss this as nonsense, but I know better than to dismiss something that I don’t immediately understand. Could you please expand this line of thought into something a lowly scientist untrained in philosophy and poetry might understand?

It is possibly the primal sin of modern science that its chief aim is to conform reality to the desires of the mind. The most monstrous examples of this has been in the areas of genetic manipulation, but it is found wherever knowledge has been used as a tool for power and mastery over nature.

.: Really? The most monstrous example you can give is genetic manipulation? Pray tell why is it monstrous for me to introduce genetic material from one organism into another, when a creature as lowly as an agrobacterium does it routinely and a thousand times better? I honestly do not understand the often concomitant phobia and exaltation of nucleic acids, by which I mean I find it curious that people so often equate the DNA sequence of an organism with that organism’s intrinsic identity (exaltation) while at the same time tremble at the prospects of manipulating said material (phobia). It’s not magic, people, it’s chemistry.

.: And besides — everything we do alters reality to conform to our desires. Whenever we find ourselves hungry (an event triggered by simultaneous expression of several proteins and neurotransmitters — all processed squarely in reality), we search about for solutions to our problem: we pluck a pear from a tree (alters reality), we stick a sharp thing through a small animal (alters reality), we shove a greasy TV dinner in a microwave and zap it with electromagnetic waves at just the right frequency to vibrate water molecules (alters reality). We’ve been altering reality to conform our desires long before science ever came along — it’s not that hard.

Another sin of modern science has been the refusal to suffer the long and difficult road, as lab after lab has turned its attention to a variety of shortcuts. Instead of the generation-spanning, even century-spanning task of perfecting crops through traditional farming methods, scientists seek in short years to develop super crops. I have nothing against labor-saving devices and technology in principle; such technology can be extremely helpful. When it is used to render virtue unnecessary, however, a line has been crossed.

.: No, of course you have nothing against labor-saving devices in principle; all you did was just describe it a mere two sentences back as a sin of modern science. And just what exactly are traditional farming methods? The dwarf strains of wheat and rice developed in the sixties are often given as examples of traditional breeding methods in contrast to modern genetic manipulation, but those strains were made possible by the innovation of shuttle breeding — hardly a traditional method (and indeed impossible before the 20th century) yet for some reason more embraced by the DNA phobics.

.: And here I must protest. You cannot seriously be suggesting that current research methods are circumventing generation-spanning hard work and labor. Every method I employ in the lab today is the end result of the cumulative hard work and dedication from hundreds of thousands of scientists previous to myself. Each one has twisted their mind around a problem and struggled to find an answer with their (comparatively) limited arsenal of techniques and rudimentary knowledge of the way the world works. I have stayed up throughout the night struggling to find a solution to a problem only to discover there isn’t one, rendering months of research useless. I’ve spent countless hours trying to comprehend impenetrable texts in the hope that something in them might be of use, often to no avail. And yet to you this equals the easy life, a life of virtue obsolete, passé. Why? Because I don’t have to feel the sweat of my back or develop calluses on my hands from working the field? Suffering is inescapable, but that doesn’t mean it has to take the same shape and form as the suffering that afflicted our ancestors.

.: Keep in mind that the century-spanning task of perfecting crops through traditional farming methods had failed humanity. People were starving. I know you believe in the afterlife and that those who suffer in this world will reap the benefits and glory of Christ in the next world if they believe, but I do not share this view. To me a world with starving children is a terrible thing, made even more terrible because nobody benefits from this suffering; the child who dies at four years of age from malnutrition is not made a better person from their suffering — they are dead. To think otherwise trivializes their pain. That’s my opinion, anyway, and it is what has motivated me in part to choose my field of study, knowing that my efforts will not merely satisfy a curiosity of mind but also benefit the world with their proper application.

Farmers are discovering that their seed has become a liability, as species after species of plant seed and strain after strain are patented by large corporations eager and willing to prosecute anyone growing unlicensed seed. Local strains are becoming infected by strains of genetically manipulated varieties, with unexpected and sometimes catastrophic results for the small farmer whose livelihood is becoming increasingly threatened by the easy promises of new biotechnology.

.: One minor correction: corporations cannot “patent species.” Nor can they patent genes. What they can do is patent the novel use of genes (say, expressing the gene for the Bt toxin directly in corn instead of spraying the fields with bacteria that produce it naturally), much the same way someone can patent the novel use of wood (a fully natural product) to build a new kind of mousetrap. Also, farmers can (and have) bill the companies responsible for variants of crops that have infiltrated their fields for cleaning up any contamination.

.: To be sure, the business ethic of companies like Monsanto can be charitably described as questionable at best, but then our beef is now with the lawyers and not the scientists, isn’t it?

Such a catalog of carnage might include the embryos destroyed in stem cell research, the workers fired because of technological efficiency, the privacy shattered because of increasingly sophisticated methods of surveillance, the metaphysical quandaries introduced by the monomaniacal obsessions of materialistic accounts of the human person and causality, the loss of a meaningful and unified account of reality, and the ease with which a globalization made possible by technology has gradually destroyed a sense of responsibility to place and persons.

.: Here again is a perfect example of science informing but not dictating ethical debate. One of the interesting developments in science is the obviation and radical redressing of previously-thought-to-be fundamental questions. The ethical question “When should we recognize the beginning of personhood?” is often linked with the scientific question “When does life begin?” But then science is not as helpful here as some might wish, for it demands a restating of the second question to read “When did life begin?” before it can properly answer it. (The answer is 3.8 billion years ago, by the way.) Okay, you might ask, but surely science can tell us when human life began? Again the answer is not much help to the current debate (100,000 to 200,000 years ago).

.: Science has a way of thumbing its nose at our desire for a reality with neatly defined boundaries and categories. The fuzzy borders of biology have infuriated many students and confused several many more. In fact, the picture of reality as painted by science (and it is, despire our enthusiastic bloviations to the contrary, just a picture) does precisely the opposite of what you claimed earlier: it conforms the mind to reality, even if we don’t want it to.

It is a crime against nature, for instance, to trod our way straight into the innermost depths and marrow of another creature and set about reworking it for our own imagined convenience.

.: Says who? That’s not an endorsement of the activities you decry, but a genuine inquiry into the nature of the authority behind this queer edict.

For one thing, we do not even know fully what we are doing when we muck about in the long and immeasurably complex sequences of DNA that form the secret depths of other creatures.

.: This kind of sentiment is fear-mongering humbuggery familiar to every age of science. Today it’s DNA, yesterday it was the atom, tomorrow it’ll be the brain. It’s a common refrain: let’s not venture any risky prospects until we are absolutely sure what we’re dealing with, which of course we cannot be until we actually start doing it, and which creates an impassable Catch-22. The best part, though, is that, consistently applied to all aspects of human behavior, the advice inevitably leads to stagnation:

We do not even know fully what we are doing when we consume an apple and send it through our long and immeasurably complex digestive tract. Let’s recognize our humility and refrain from eating apples.

Consider the fact that we have found that bloodflow and neural activity in particular regions of the brain correlate with certain mental states and even choices. The hubris of materialism, which sees only one causal chain, is to declare determinism. The humility of wisdom refrains from this reductionist account; it knows the boundaries of science and is free to choose what Wendell Berry calls “the way of ignorance.”

.: “The way of ignorance” — I like that. Of course, materialism sees only one causal chain because, as far as we can tell, it’s the only causal change that can be seen! It’s folly to speak of things unseen and things unheard, especially when they are unseen and unheard in principle, and especially when other people are the sources.

What are, practically speaking, the boundaries of science? One most immediately presenting itself from what I have already said is that science had ought to be practiced by those who have developed an intimate love and knowledge of the particulars who their discoveries and accompanying applications may effect. Science must be tempered by love.

.: No argument from me on this one — everything is made better by more love.

The second is that science must be bounded by a spirit of service and passivity.

.: I don’t think this is necessary, but it certainly helps and definitely doesn’t hurt.

The third is that scientists must be aware of the limits of human knowledge.

.: Have you ever talked to a scientist?

The fourth is that science must constantly submit to the dignity of its subject.

.: Excuse me for crudity, but I find it a little difficult to submit to the dignity of E. coli when I shit them out by the billions.

The fifth is that scientists may not justify their method because of its fruits. Let us imagine that we could kill a man to save ten million from a disease. It is still murder. It would not matter to those who do not love that man. It would matter only to those who love him, and, of course, to the man. Science must side with those who love the particular.

.: This is a rather easy example for you to make your preferred conclusions, but how about a less obvious one? Take the smallpox vaccine: it is actually a harmless live virus relative of the variola virus called vaccinia. Anyone exposed to vaccinia will have, at the cost of a short-lived itchy bump, a lifetime immunity to smallpox. But the live virus in the vaccine is still capable of infection, and indeed a small number of immunocompromised individuals (an inherited trait) who were inoculated died from complications. The doctors had no way of knowing at the time of inoculation that the patients were immunocompromised, but they also knew that exposure to smallpox was a real and deadly possibility. Furthermore, immunocompromised patients are eventually going to have complications no matter what they do. So the question becomes, “Was it right for doctors to inoculate everyone (including infants) against smallpox when they knew there was a non-zero possibility for an adverse fatal reaction?” This is different from your scenario because some degree of consent is involved, but does that really absolve science of the deaths on its hands? If you do wish to argue that the elimination of smallpox was a bad idea because of a few deaths, um . . . I guess we’ll just have to see what you say?

The sixth is that science must heed tradition. There is a reason tradition has endured as long as it has; the novelties of a new theory, however seemingly grand or revolutionary, cannot replace the knowledge of tradition. Local communities ought not be destroyed for the sake of progress.

No, this is just wrong.

The seventh is that scientists ought to remember that the life of the particular is directed towards an end which is beyond their control and to which they, like all other creatures, ought to submit.

So far I’ve resisted asking this question throughout this entire response, but nowhere else is it more pertinent: how do you know that?

The eighth is that they had ought to perform no experiment upon a subject that they would not perform if the subject was near and dear to them. Perhaps they should be required to write a love sonnet about their subject before any experimentation began, and keep that sonnet close by them during the whole course of the experiment.

How about a haiku?

Ha ha, sucky seeds.

“How foolish!” one might object. “Everything worthwhile involves a degree of danger and risk.” I agree. Farming implies a risk; building a home implies a risk; science implies risk. I am not by any means advocating the cessation of any activity that might in some way endanger life or health. In fact, if my rules are followed, it may just be the case that, in some respect, there will be more dangers, just as there are more dangers if one abandons the soft promises of birth control. I am advocating a careful weighing of the costs that cannot be accomplished in any other way than by investing one’s life wholly in what might be lost.

.: While your advice of investing one’s life wholly in what might be lost sounds simple in presentation and profound in meaning, I have to call hogwash. The fact is you are calling for the cessation of important activities that you see as improper (indeed, monstrous!) when you know nothing about them. You may balk at the accusation, but you’re effectively advocating Luddite principles under some bizarre and scientifically naive understanding of what it is scientists actually do.

.: Which is fine! You are absolutely, one hundred percent, perfectly free to abstain from knowledge uncovered by scientific research. If you think it is wrong to tamper with what you perceive to be the core, inviolable nature of an organism, that’s your business; nobody is forcing you or your diabetic friends to purchase human insulin grown from recombinant bacteria. If you think genetically modified organisms are an affront to nature, you don’t have to buy them; sure, it’s difficult to avoid them at this point in civilization, but what was all that stuff you were saying before about struggle and suffering?

.: With all that said, a post filled with as much snark and condescension as this one is a waste of both our time, so let me try to redeem myself by searching for some common ground:

-One of the beautiful aspects of science is its openness to everyone. There is no such thing as “Jewish science” or “Christian science” or “Muslim science” or “Atheist science” — just “science.”

-Science is not in the business of answering questions of “should,” only of “how.” It is the task of every human who practices science to also practice ethical considerations and to never deliberately bring lasting harm to another human being.

-Science is a social activity exposed to the same pitfalls of any other activity involving humans; practitioners should always strive to be aware of their own limits and biases.

-A rose by any other name: learning what something is in no way diminishes its beauty.

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16 Responses to “Restrain Science?”

  1. Scotty Ellis says:

    Fascinating reply, and well deserving of thought and consideration. One thing is absolutely clear: our understanding of the final end of man is not consonant, and when there is disagreement in first things there will be disagreement in all else.

    By the way, I would gladly give back nuclear power, if I could, along with a great deal of the scientific “advances” of the age. You may see a certain hypocrisy in that I am undoubtedly participating, knowingly and unknowingly, in a number of technologies which I would prefer to not exist. Fair is fair; I see this hypocrisy too. It will take a lifetime to undo my own complicity in these technologies in a responsible way, but I am trying.

  2. the bandit says:

    Rather than any specific statements, I shall address a general issue at hand. Herein lies the crux on which many of Cody’s incorrect statements depend: Despite your admission that humans carry baggage into any domain, you far too often conflate the neutral methods of science and the ideology of the scientific community. Scientific research is only as pure as the ability and intentions of the scientists conducting it, and research can be faulty whether you link abortion to breast cancer or climate change to carbon dioxide. Stripping one’s self of religion does not strip one’s self of ideology, nor does allowing religion to inform one’s scientific inquiries automatically discount the research. If you do not regard the results of irreligious science and religious science with an equally jaundiced eye, but rather accept the irreligious as Neutral and Infallible, then ultimately you will find yourself guilty of the very sort of actions and beliefs you disdain in those who follow religiously-informed science.

  3. Robin Z says:

    the bandit: the history of science is pervaded with instances where scientists came in with biases and are convinced otherwise by the evidence. After the great cholera outbreak of 1854, Henry Whitehead was trying to debunk all the crazy hypotheses which had sprung up to explain the spread of the disease – one of which was that it was waterborne. And try as he might – and he did try! – he couldn’t refute that, because it was true.

    An online wit by the name of Eliezer Yudkowsky wrote in a blog post: I sometimes say that the goal of science is to amass such an enormous
    mountain of evidence that not even scientists can ignore it: and that
    this is the distinguishing feature of a scientist, a non-scientist
    will ignore it anyway.

    What I say to you, just as a test case: if you are convinced that scientists are succumbing to some weird bias when they claim that human-caused emissions of carbon dioxide is promoting global warming, look at the evidence that the scientists promote. Go to the nearest college meteorology department, ask any professor what you should read. And if they’re full of it, then ignore everything I’ve said. Because I’m telling you: they have a mountain of evidence. And no amount of groupthink changes that.

  4. MrME says:

    What strikes me, a non-scientist outsider who came across this exchange by chance, is the turgidity of Scotty Ellis’s ramblings, which are couched in some ghastly parody of late nineteenth century prose at its most Mandarin. “Science, most properly understood, is a virtue of the intellect, a perfection of knowing.” Does this mean anything more than “I think science is not a method but a quality”? And what does “soft promises of birth control” mean? Why say “I am not by any means advocating the cessation of any activity”, when you can say “I am not calling for people to stop doing …”, unless you want to give an entirely unwarranted air of profundity to banal thoughts that the blogger has admirably demolished.

    And don’t get me started on the bandit’s style ..

  5. Robin Z says:

    “One need not swallow such absurdities as this, but one ought to recognize that the present political chaos is connected with the decay of language, and that one can probably bring about some improvement by starting at the verbal end. If you simplify your English, you are freed from the worst follies of orthodoxy. You cannot speak any of the necessary dialects, and when you make a stupid remark its stupidity will be obvious, even to yourself.” – Orwell, “Politics and the English Language”, 1946.

    (not that I’ve made any honest effort to do so…)

  6. the bandit says:

    lol turgidity wut? y say ‘Mandarin’ when u dont mean Chinese? u rly like top shelf words 4 1 who fronts ’bout speakin simply!1!111 y use all those words when u just mean “i cant argue w/ u so i’ll diss ur style.”

    You lose your test case, Robin Z, which is good because I found that Orwell quote confusing but now I don’t have to address it. But hating to see ignorance, I will attempt to trigger some investigation of your own with the question: Whose scads of evidence should I believe, the IPCC or the ICCC?

  7. Robin Z says:

    Did you even do the test I suggested? Here, I’ll show you the easy, Internet-only version.

    I happen to be a student at the University of Maryland. Clicking through to “academics”, I find the climate change researchers here work in the Department of Atmospheric and Oceanic Science. This website has a handy little “Resources” link for “Weather and Climate”, but it’s only local stuff – more promising is the “Research” tab, which has “Climate Analysis and Modeling”. Pulling the websites of everyone involved in “Global Change” research (except Tony Busalacchi, who doesn’t have a website – but see Raghu Murtugudde, below), I find:

    Dr. Konstantin Vinnikov, who (A) claims co-credit for recognizing the warming trend in 1976 and popularizing the exact term “global warming”, and (B) notes with pride his involvement with “the prestigious IPCC reports” (exact words). Let’s call this one point for rising temperatures, one point for IPCC, zero points for anthropogenic (human-caused) climate change, and zero points for the ICCC – further research might change this, but we’re just taking a quick look.
    Eugenia Kalnay lists climate change as a main research interest and links three items regarding climate change:
    AMS 2004 extended abstracts: Land-use and climate change – first sentence: “The two most important anthropogenic activities that impact climate are the increase of greenhouse gases and the changes in land use.”
    Letters to Nature: Impact of urbanization and land-use change on climate – similar.
    One of two lectures delivered in Puerto Rico: Impacts of urbanization and land surface changes on climate trends. This one has the real clincher: “By now there is little doubt that the increase in greenhouse gases (GHG) is producing global warming. The question we addressed in this project is whether the regional response to the GHG effect is uniform or depends on the land characteristics and use.” Et cetera.
    One point for rising temperatures, zero points for the IPCC, one point for anthropogenic climate change, and zero points for the ICCC.
    Jin-Ho Yoon name-checks global warming and the effects of land use on climate, but I don’t find much else. Call it a miss.
    William K. M. Lau, chief of NASA’s Laboratory for Atmospheres. If you check the Climate and Radiation Branch specifically and go into Links, they point you to a global-warming FAQ which is quite unambiguous in its claims. A little further digging finds a paper by the man himself – Interannual, Decadal–Interdecadal, and Global Warming Signals in Sea Surface Temperature during 1955–97 – which cites the IPCC without the ICCC and clearly emphasizes that global warming progressed during that period, but which steps back from attributing causes. Say one point for rising temperatures, one point for the IPCC, half a point for anthropogenic climate change, and zero points for the ICCC.
    Daniel Kirk-Davidoff, who contributed to two pieces which are rather unambiguous:
    A Brief of Amici Curiae in the case of Massachusetts v. Environmental Protection Agency, laying out as the first point of its argument that “The Science of Climate Change Indicates that It Is Virtually Certain that Greenhouse Gas Emissions from Human Activities Cause Global Climate Changes, Endangering Human Health and Welfare”.
    Kirk-Davidoff, Daniel, 2006: The Science and Ethics of Global Warming. The Faculty Voice. 19:(4)4 – whose second paragraph opens with the sentence: “The basic facts of the global warming problem are now well established (those seeking further information might start by reading the 2001 summary report of the intergovernmental panel on climate change, at”
    In other words, one point for rising temperatures, one point for the IPCC, one point for anthropogenic climate change, and zero points for the ICCC.
    Raghu Murtugudde, who studies biological effects on climate, doesn’t have an obvious stance, but links this article quoting Antonio Busalacchi, who makes his stance fairly unambiguous. Counting the material here as one point for Busalacchi and half a point for Murtugudde, we have one-and-a-half points for rising temperatures and zero points for everything else.
    Ning Zeng literally contributed to Developing and Applying Scenarios, chapter 3 in Climate Change 2001: Working Group II: Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability, Third Assessment Report of IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change). J. J. McCarthy (Ed.), Cambridge University Press, 2001, and includes on the front page of his site carbon sequestration as a way a way “[t]o mitigate global climate change”. Take this as one point for rising temperatures, one point for the IPCC, half a point for anthropogenic climate change, and zero points for the ICCC.
    How does it add up? From eight people, we get 6.5 points for rising temperatures, 4 points for the IPCC, 3 points for anthropogenic climate change, and zero points for the ICCC. Also getting zero points: cooling temperatures, effects of temperature being statistically insignificant, increased radiation from the sun driving global warming … do you see what I’m getting at? If you go to a university with a good reputation and check their climatology department, what you find is consensus based on data, checked six ways from next Sunday, that the earth’s biosphere is heating up and we’re the major new factor doing it.

    I can’t make you believe anything. But there’s no reason for a major research university, dependent on its reputation for objective scientific inquiry for both its recruitment and funding, to lie about this kind of thing.

  8. Robin Z says:

    the bandit: I wrote a response, but it had a lot of links in it, so the spam filter probably ate it – suffice to say: first, you were successful in triggering investigation, and second, if my examination of their websites is any clue, among climate researchers at the University of Maryland – my school – the IPCC is well-regarded, the ICCC is disregarded, and the earth is heating up due in part to human-caused effects. That’s both greenhouse gases and land use, by the way. And, as far as I can tell, there are no research papers contradicting any of these points.

  9. Robin Z says:

    Incidentally, the NASA Climate branch points towards <a href=”a global-warming FAQthis FAQ on global warming – it’s pretty good.

  10. the bandit says:

    Robin, the problem here is that I do not value the appeal to authority as much as you do. Meanwhile, the agreement of however-many scientists using the same model is a meaningless point when the skeptics are pointing out the flaws in the data collection and models themselves.

    We cannot reach any sort of resolution in a discussion of global warming because of the original topic: we have a fundamentally different level of faith in the religion of science. For example, I will point out that just because something has been published in a peer-reviewed journal of prestige doesn’t mean it’s worth the paper it’s been printed on, and believers in science such as yourself will rally to defend the infallibility of true science because you feel that I am threatening its foundations (when I am doing nothing of the sort).

    Peer-reviewed scientific consensus called homosexuality a neurosis thirty years ago. Just imagine what things we’ll shake our head at regarding scientists when we look back from thirty years in the future.

  11. the bandit says:

    “Now there are so many scientists who believe in dowsing, that the suspicion comes to me that it may be only a myth after all.”
    – – Charles Fort

  12. Robin Z says:

    As much as I would like to applaud your recognition of the pernicious effects of groupthink, two plus two is still four even if the entire world agrees.

    Listen. As a mechanical engineer, I’ve read a lot of technical papers whose conclusions work. Working is not something which can be argued with – this computer actually does communicate with the DSL modem, that modem actually does send packets into the Internet, and the Internet actually does transmit those packets to their destination. Similarly, electrical power comes out of my wall sockets, water comes out of my taps, and the buses hardly ever break down while I’m on them. Stuff works, and stuff designed according to engineering principles works.

    And engineering principles come from science. And I’ve read scientific papers – they’ve got the same spirit and intelligence the engineering papers do. If science didn’t work, that wouldn’t be the case.

    Being suspicious of something because everyone keeps saying it – yeah, that I can get. But being suspicious of something because scientists keep saying it? Not a good idea. Science put a man on the moon, cured the scourge of smallpox, invented devices which could perform thousands of calculations in a microsecond – betting against science is betting that everything humanity has accomplished in the past hundred years is just some kind of fluke.

  13. Cody says:

    We cannot reach any sort of resolution in a discussion of global warming because of the original topic: we have a fundamentally different level of faith in the religion of science.

    Alternatively, you cannot reach any sort of resolution in a discussion of global warming because neither of you have spent considerable amounts of time studying it — I mean really studying it: four years of grad school, post doc, running experiments, publishing papers, etc.

    Faith in science has nothing to do with it. Differences are settled by data, not philosophy.

    You characterize Robin’s linking to experts as an appeal to authority (this is false, but never mind that right now). Note that you do the exact same thing when you link to skeptics of the experts.

    Robin is of course not saying that global warming is true because X, Y, and Z say it’s true. Robin is saying X, Y, and Z — all people who, for a living, study the phenomena most pertinent to global warming — say that global warming is a reality. You are free to ignore their conclusions at your own peril. You are free to value the opinions of others who claim their conclusions are incorrect. But, unless you have devoted a considerable amount of time and energy observing the world, formulating your own tests and experiments, and generating your own data to the contrary, you cannot say that you do not value appeals to authority the way you claim Robin does.

    You seem to have made up your mind on this matter after dismissing the conclusions of the very people who ought to know what’s what. You claim others have called into question the models used in these conclusions, but by what capacity can you evaluate their calls for doubt? If your goal here is nothing but to cast doubt on the idea of scientific certainty and consensus, don’t bother: we know that already, and we work around it.

    As Robin points out, what works works. There are unsolved mysteries in science, and any approach that leads to greater and more accurate predictions will be adopted because that kind of thing is useful. There will always be people who resist certain theories and models for whatever reason — rational or irrational — and many times those people will remain in the wrong because, well, they are.

    I make no claims of expertise on global warming. I’ve only a cursory knowledge of the basic mechanisms and broad conclusions. I probably could not effectively counter the rhetorical flourishes of a committed denialist who knows how to cherry pick data and insinuate doubt where there is none.

    My expertise, if I may be immodest enough at this stage to make such a claim, is in molecular biology generally and genetic engineering specifically. However, I am familiar with denialist tactics, and the kind of thinking I see in creationist opposition to modern biology has many parallels and similarities to global warming skeptics. Of course, you don’t have to, nor should you, take my word for it. All I can say is, if this issue really concerns you, keep reading.

  14. the bandit says:

    Now you guys are posting comments I can agree with! =)

    Robin Z, the reason I don’t value the anthropogenic climate change research is because it doesn’t work. It has yet to make an accurate prediction — and it’s not a new theory but has over a decade of research from which to pull data. The dire forecasts of hurricanes, dwindling sea ice, abnormally high seasonal temperatures, the impact of CO2 — no data yet supporting these predictions from the models.

    Don’t make the mistake of misunderstanding that just because I do not have blind faith in scientific dogma that I disregard science altogether.

    Let’s step away from climate change, as it’s so politically charged, and frame the issue in another context.

    H1N1, or the “swine flu.” Scientists from the World Health Organization declared a level 5 on their pandemic scale. I was in the city where the first death on U.S. occurred. However, I never perceived the flu as a very serious health threat. Not because I deny the existence of viruses. Not because I don’t understand how influenza spreads. On the contrary, because I understood the science behind influenza. And because I recognized the data that 30,000+ Americans die from the flu every year, so this strain was not necessarily more dangerous because it killed one infant. As the situation continued to develop, some scientists sided with the WHO on the unique danger of the virus, while others claimed that it was less dangerous than the seasonal flu and probably not a big threat.

    Cody also makes an excellent point, one that every intelligent individual must eventually realize at some point when debating their beliefs. Namely, having not personally experimented with the H1N1 virus or even personally witnessed its effects, I actually had no scientific validity to make any conclusions regarding its danger to my person, to say nothing of evaluating the scientific data of the WHO vs. the skeptics. Therefore, it could be interpreted that I decided before even researching that the swine flu posed no danger and simply sought out data to support my hypothesis, while the media decide to find support for the WHO’s dire predictions because it sold better.

    How did I determine that the swine flu from Mexico was not a danger to me? I combined my own experience, past scientific facts, and knowledge of the phenomenon to reach a conclusion. I carefully listened to any updates on the situation to make certain that the new pieces of “data” were still lining up with my conclusion. Data I considered questionable either because of wild, unsupported claims or media hype I disregarded. Everyone does this when they form ideas. Even the flu scientists at the WHO.

    I may be holding those guys up as an example of when a scientist is wrong, but it doesn’t mean that science is faulty. The humans working at the WHO have a vested interested in overreacting to a newly emerged virus. I understand those reasons and factor them into my understanding of the data that reaches me. I actually kinda feel sorry for any credibility the WHO lost with the public for their false alarm, because logically they had no other choice than to issue the warnings that they did. And just because I thought their dire predictions were way out of line doesn’t mean I would have refused medical treatment or traveled on public transportation had I come down with the flu.

    So I’m not trying to explain to you that “science is wrong.” I’m trying to explain to you that scientists, even ones with great data, can be wrong, and that understanding that strengthens one’s scientific position.

  15. the bandit says:

    Whoops, sorry I didn’t mean to go so long. Got carried away… =/

  16. the bandit says:

    I know I’ve already said too much, but this morning I realized more succinct concepts by which I should have replied:

    Data can be wrong, skeptics can be scientists; it’s not the bandit vs. science as much as science vs. science, and as Cody points out, unless you’ve got a few decades to devote to a specific topic you simply choose the science that makes the most sense to you.

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