Crawl Across the Ocean

Wednesday, March 16, 2005

Contempt for Science

Jonathan does a good job showing how Margaret Wente got suckered by the global warming skeptics (specifically, mining consultant Steve McIntyre) in today's Globe (available online to ripoff victimssubscribers only).

I just wanted to add a couple of notes of my own to reflect the clear contempt for scientists which the article displays.

Wente suggests that McIntyre can be trusted to be honest because,
"Unlike almost everyone else in the highly charged climate-change debate, Mr. McIntyre has nothing personal at stake. He doesn't need to advance his career or get research grants."

(note to anyone who currently takes any medication: it's probably a bad idea since the scientists who came up with it were probably just trying to advance their career or get research grants).

Perhaps the most absurd comment is from McIntyre when he says, "he is astonished that climate science isn't subject to the same audits and due diligence that are carried out in any ordinary business."

Right, that's what I always hear: those silly scientists with their researched papers and their peer review process and their international panels and conferences. When will they learn to apply the same rigour that business does in coming to conclusions? Seriously, what planet is this guy on (oh right, the one with no global warming).

Later on, we get this:
"But wait. Don't most scientists still believe in the perils of man-made global warming? "Sure," says Mr. McIntyre. "And most stockbrokers believed in Enron."

I'm not really sure what to say here, but if we're comparing the work of scientists studying nature to stockbrokers studying a company which was actively doing it's best to deceive them, well, let's be kind and say it's not the best analogy I've seen lately. (perhaps I should go into more detail explaining why scientists may be a bit more reliable than stockbrokers, but if it's really come to that, I'm probably wasting my time trying to stem the tide of anti-science attitudes).

Finally, another quote from McIntyre,
"He says that most scientists haven't analyzed the data, and that scientists, like everyone else, are subject to peer pressure and groupthink. "Just because everybody thinks something's true doesn't make it true."

'Just because everybody thinks something's true doesn't make it true' - what a great argument. Could someone please point out something, anything which you couldn't use that line to argue against? "Baseball fans, like everyone else are subject to peer pressure and groupthink. Just because everybody thinks that Bonds is a good hitter doesn't mean he is." Give me a break.

Putting it together, Wente is creating the impression of the little guy from the margins taking on the establishment of all these scientists who are just pretending that global warming is serious or believe it only because they haven't taken the time to think about like McIntyre has. And the reason so many scientists have abandoned their principles of seeking the truth and supporting dissent is because they are just saying what they think people want to hear so that they get money for their grants or advance their career.

If I was a scientist of any kind, I'd be pretty offended by this attitude. And that's even without considering the track record of McIntyre which, to put it politely, isn't too convincing. Go read Jonathan's post, follow the links and see for yourself.

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  • Very nice post, Declan. That Wente's column credulously dedicated 12 of the most valuable column inches in Canadian newspaperdom to those crackpots irritated me enough that I didn't sit down and give her writing the attention it dessrved. I'm glad that you had the patience to, because you debunked some of her stranger suggestions very well.

    By Blogger Jon Dursi, at 6:42 PM  

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    By Blogger Zip, at 6:00 AM  

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    By Blogger Zip, at 6:00 AM  

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    By Blogger Zip, at 6:01 AM  

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    By Blogger Zip, at 6:02 AM  

  • All this arguing about Global Warming is starting to irritate me. People seem so focused on arguing Global Warming that they ignore the fact that we are quickly destroying this fine plant we live on. Lets say the non-believers are right. Yeah, our planet is not heating up! Oh but wait. The air is so polluted and smog filled that I can't breath it! Live a day in a big city and you have to know that there is a problem, global warming or not. We have to reduce the pollution we throw into the air regardless if it is too stop global warming or not. Anyone who does not see that is an idiot!

    By Blogger Zip, at 1:06 PM  

  • No,I'm not on a censorship kick, just cleaning up the mess left by bloggers comment-handling difficulties which seem to be getting worse these days.

    Anyway, back on topic, in response to zip, different problems need different solutions. We need a solution specific for global warming as well as dealing specifically with air pollution (smog), acid rain, the ozone layer, loss of habitat etc.

    By Blogger Declan, at 11:57 PM  

  • June 5, 2005

    ROBBINS Sce Research (1998)

    The problem as I see it with ‘science’ is that it has become in at least in the perception of the public no more than a marketing term to denote an understanding of expertise to support one side or another in a debate, in the case you speak of the environment generally, and perhaps the more specific case of global warming.

    This isn’t to say that the science isn’t valuable or accurate; it is simply to say that much of the public has been so overly inundated with the notion that this or that is ‘science’ so therefore it is the truth.

    The first question to ask is why are we doing the science in the first place. Do we do science to please political masters either in the elected sense, or the special interest sense (Prime Minister/Premier and Thinktank), or is the ‘science’ intended to influence the public? Does the public become inoculated against the term simply because so many lay claim to their arguments being supported by science or is enough of the public swayed by the apparent credibility and the professional sense associated with the term? Lastly, how does the public if they are the real targets of the credibility associated with science correlate science with truth at least for that individual person’s sense of what truth is.

    Science sells truth in much the same way institutional religion does. If the receiver of the science is willing or has an ideology more receptive to this truth than it is more likely that science like religion is preaching to the converted. In the case of (at least) Christian religion part of their doctrine is to find new ‘converts’. How do we discover new converts? Do they simply wake up one morning and decide to become religious, or does something happen in their life to make them want to convert? Who than is science selling their truth to? If I am predisposed to being caring about the environment, than you will not have any difficulty selling me on the truth of science if the conclusion from a scientific study says that global warming is upon us. If I am predisposed to believing that environmentalist are all tree-hugging agenda driven people than all of the science and the credentials that underscore it will mean nothing. In this sense science is no more relevant than the receiver (the individual’s) willingness to accept the premise of the study, which ultimately would influence their decision to accept the conclusions. For instance, if a person is told they drink to much alcohol and should quit altogether, and than they hear a study conducted by French scientists stating that two or three glasses of wine will allow you to live longer are they more or less inclined to believe the study?

    In personal injury law in BC there exists a policy assumption that if you say you are injured in a rear end automobile accident and there isn’t any damage on your vehicle, than the ‘science’ will invariably prove through factors of acceleration and deceleration that if there is little or no damage to the vehicle and than therefore there is no injury. In hundreds and hundreds of ‘scientific’ cases few if any of the engineering scientists have made any attempt to distinguish between damage to a steel bumper on old cars and damage to a bumper of new cars particularly from foreign car manufacturers. The same accident can cause negligible damage in the older car with the steel bumper and significant damage in the newer foreign model. Science in personal injury law in not very scientific in my opinion, yet professional scientists are making millions and millions of dollars. In fact the greater argument I feel can me made, that the science followed the insurance company policy to decrease insurance payouts in rear end automobile collisions (which constitute over one half of all automobile accidents), where liability (fault) is always 100%.

    For our part in polling we intended from the outset to remain outside the mainstream and to conduct what we believed was untainted public opinion. We have been very accurate and we believe that notwithstanding a somewhat acrimonious relationship with the established media and pollster that our independence makes our public opinion a more fair depiction of public values and beliefs on various topics of discussion. Not surprisingly, the more controversial (accurate) one becomes the more resistance one will confront. How scientific does polling need to be?

    All things being relatively equal if you collect your data determine your averages (mean, median) and so forth, factor in other contingencies to assess margin of error, on balance you will produce a pretty fair depiction of public opinion. This is particularly true if the public has a more or less extreme opinion on one subject or another. Yet those that have had control of this science will, if confronted with results which conflict with their own move toward a more defensive position to guard against the threats that can be posed by the intrusion of ‘new information’. Indeed, the bodies that act as central control in the polling industry establish a criteria for what is true polling or not by suggesting the person who funds the poll is of particular importance to assessing the veracity of the poll. Once again a pre-eminent criteria for apparently assessing what is science and what isn’t science is money.

    In a sense I agree with this provision. However in polling science I don’t believe the mainstream media can sponsor all of the public opinion polls with credibility owing to their relationship with advertisers. It would be better if the large corporate newspapers, television, and radio actually linked a specific sponsor or group of sponsors with a particular poll, rather than rinse that poll through the alleged political neutrality of the general media representation. The problem is that no particular business will identify itself with a specific poll for fear of alienating consumers who might now agree with the polls findings. The overarching flaw is also the assumption that the media like the science it chooses to support has no bias.

    Let me provide a similar example of the problem here as I experienced it in a legal circumstance. In 1993 I argued before the BC Benchers that lawyers in B.C. should not be permitted to collect money from I.C.B.C. the public auto insurance company, for defense work and solicit for plaintiff work as well. I cited the case of a number of smaller law firms comprised of three or four attorneys where earnings under their government license for defence work with the insurance company well-exceeded $1,000,000 per year. Against this type of cash flow from the government agency controlling insurance, how could an average person with a minor to moderate ‘whiplash’ injury expect to receive the full commitment of their legal training? “Easy” said the Benchers, “lawyers are professionals and they give their best no matter what.” This comment reflects the industry believe that the ‘law scientists’ because they are trained to be professionals will not be influenced by the factor of money.
    I am in no way attempting to make the case that all science linked to money is tainted somehow. What I am saying is that some science linked to money is tainted. Yet all science requires money particularly when we consider that most credible psychology indicates that there is no such thing as altruism.

    The danger becomes when the public becomes cynical of the motivation of science.
    At what point does a scientist (in my own case political science) need to employ ‘science’ in an advocacy sense, or is this ambition a clear contradiction in terms. Let me give you an example, which is linked to your writings concerning arguments made by the mining industry as this is related to science involving the environment and global warming.

    Generally, I don’t see how any reasonable person can ignore that something involving the earth and the environment is changing, and unlikely for the better. With this in mind, I looked at a situation in West Vancouver Garibaldi in British Columbia involving an issue over whether or not to construct a tunnel or a highway as this related to development for the 2010 Winter Olympics. There were many arguments relating to this situation but the one I chose to most consider was the environmental impact. The individual who was making the case for the tunnel option because of the environmental impact was Dennis Perry who after I published my poll in that area on that subject and others, ran as a candidate for the Green Party in that wealthy riding. Mr. Perry had the dubious distinction of being a very successful ex Wall Street type banker with a long history as an advocate of the environment and ecological issues.

    For me it was an understanding that the status quo as this concerns arguments relating to the environment was moving too slowly. What better venue than Canada’s wealthiest neighbourhood to advance the case that those who promoted the environment were not necessarily all ideologically driven? Somewhat ironically, the mainstream candidate against Mr. Perry was a woman who was in market research for 30 years.

    As part of her objective, which was to win the election campaign and a provincial seat, this candidate found it necessary to question the methodology of the poll I conducted. Her party did not support the tunnel option as the Green Party candidate Dennis Perry did. One of the arguments this woman used was to question the veracity of the science of my poll. So here we had a case where the establishment contestant in order to win her seat and to support her party’s position, which her competitors clearly viewed as anti-environmental, questioned the science of a poll, which in the end, if closely reviewed, turned out to be accurate.

    In this sense what was the more compelling issue, whether or not this one person believed our poll to be scientific, or the fact that a poll conducted by my firm compelled a person of means and a history of successful money management and environmental advocacy to become involved at the provincial level of politics over an issue, which captured significant attention in a culture which had direct ties to the 2010 Olympic Games? Even though we assert the poll was a fair scientific depiction of public opinion, what would have been the actual harm if instead it were not, if the greater good was to being attention to the issue of the environment? In this sense were we acting as agents in support of science, or simply a better society? Was this valuable? As science or advocacy we certainly think so. In the end our poll turned out to be both. How than is science when supported by the media or special interest any different other than the purveyors of the science control the means of production. As a lifelong businessman, I am not against the profit motive, what I am suggesting is that all science, independent or otherwise must be held to account. University professors are no longer in that game just for the science; more often than not they have a very acute grasp of the financial or professional implications of their work.

    I suppose what I am saying is that in the abstract where ‘science’ is used to support one argument or another, it probably does not mean very much unless the intended targets of the research, usually the public, for ideological or other reasons (submissive apathy?) accept the science’s findings on its face. After all not every person is capable of or has the time to examine the data. Further, when the public has doubts about the motivation of science particularly in times like we have now when the political establishment is not trusted, do we run the risk of being frustrated in advancing the causes of important and relevant issues like global warming and the environment. Or is the public sick of ‘the science’ and will it take picture on television sets of grizzly bears starving to death because of changing ice flows before the public becomes more motivated? Will the jaundiced eye with which much of the public views a lot of this ‘science’ block our collective ability to get important messages out, and will others who are fearful of (particularly) environmental science which alleges global warming be able to continue to make their case that ‘industry isn’t bad at all’?

    Don’t be surprised; the tobacco industry has managed ‘smoke and mirrors’ science for many years.

    Glen P. Robbins
    (604) 942-3757

    By Anonymous ROBBINS Sce Research (1998), at 12:53 PM  

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