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Consensus has no place in science - Journal of Omnifarious

Oct. 20th, 2008

06:26 pm - Consensus has no place in science

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This is a really excellent essay on the politicization of science by Michael Chrichton. It is about all attempts at politicization, but it specifically addresses the hypothesis that human activity is responsible for the rise in average global temperature.

I am not a fan of Michael Chrichton. I have not read a single one of his books. But I read this essay and it was really well done.

I think he's right. There is so much in the way of politics surrounding the debate on whether or not global warming (which is definitely happening) is caused by humans or not that it's nearly impossible to tell the good research from the bad.

Consensus is often sighted by people on the 'pro' side of this debate. But, as Mr. Chrichton pointed out, consensus is about politics, not science. A hypothesis requires evidence, not consensus for its truth or falsehood.

My personal thoughts on the global warming hypothesis.

I think the link between atmospheric CO2 levels and global temperature has support from both historical record and from much more tricksy predictive climate models. But I also think that evidence is far from conclusive, and you can only rely on the climate models (which are of extremely limited usefulness) to determine a cause and effect relationship.

But I also think the potential economic cost of not trying to do something about atmospheric CO2 levels is extremely high. So I think we should be doing something about them, even if we aren't sure it's actually a problem. It's debatable whether or not it will be economically costly anyway since moving to renewable energy sources just makes good economic sense.

So, on one hand, the amount of waste if we scramble to do something about atmospheric CO2 levels and it turns out not to be a problem is likely not large. And on the other hand, the potential risk of not doing something about atmospheric CO2 levels and they do turn out to be a problem is absolutely huge. So I think doing something is the wisest move long-term.

Edit: Further research reveals that Michael Chrichton engages in some pretty dubious politicking while claiming to be on the side of 'science' himself. *sigh* That's the problem with so many of the global warming skeptics.

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[User Picture]
Date:October 21st, 2008 04:30 pm (UTC)
A hypothesis requires evidence, but evaluation of evidence requires judgement and interpretation. Judgement and interpetation require consensus. Sadly, no taking the politics out.

What's odd in the political arena is that so much attention is placed on causality. It really doesn't matter if it's our fault or natural fluctuation. We know greenhouse gases are elevated, and rising. We know that there are ways that the equilibrium could destabilize further. Whether that's through more fossil fuel burning or the (relatively) sudden release of tons of seabed methane (which is a _much_ more potent greenhouse gas) , there is clearly significant danger of rapid, catastrophic increase.

So "How much of it's our fault" is sort of irrelevant, except as a supporting research question for the really critical question: "What can we do about it?" This is very much a global engineering problem, not a blame problem. We need engineering solutions to counter rapid greenhouse effect increases, as and when they happen.

(Note that this is very different from the some anti-science environmentalist perspectives, which basically say we need to stop causing the problem and hope nature can restore things. It's clear that we are the dominant engineering force in the environment today, and that'll continue as long as we're over 2 billion in population. We need to take responsibility for that, and start seeing it as our job, not some abstract "nature"'s, to take care of the planet.)

And yeah, Crichton is definitely a political animal. He's got his viewpoint to push. Not because it's financially rewarding for him or anything, just because he's human, and an iconoclast, and he's got views and likes pushing them.
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[User Picture]
Date:October 21st, 2008 07:36 pm (UTC)
"But I also think that evidence is far from conclusive..."

who asked you? you aren't even a scientist, so why would your opinion count, if we were indeed looking at consensus?

Actually, the evidence exists, and it took about 15 years for that evidence to cause the "scientific community" to formally come to consensus, painstakingly defending every claim beyond a shadow of a doubt essentially. The scientific community I experienced in 1993 - 1994 (UC Davis, dept. of chemistry) was already convinced that global warming was a fact.

And then you point out that the author himself uses gamey tactics to promote his ideas. No one knows for sure if global warming is caused by humans, just like we don't know for sure that we got gravity right. Gravity seems to work as expected but some new evidence could dismantle it. You just can't be 100% sure of a theory. That failure to promise with absolute certainty really upsets a lot of people, whose world views require the comfort of *knowing* and find uncertainty disconcerting.

I was pretty disgusted with the Bush administration in 1004 for what they did to science, well, all along really, and in many dimensions from funding to publicity. I am no fan of the politicisation science, but telling good research from bad is best left to experts. There's a group called Union of Concerned Scientists. They may have some good info at their site.
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