In 1950 a book came out sporting this provocative title: Science is a Sacred Cow. That reverential attitude is still reflected in most reportage and certainly on CNN’s News from Science and Medicine. Discouraging words about the enterprise are about as frequent as tropical storms in San Diego. Every wonder-filled syllable fosters the impression that truth reigns supreme in this discipline where the foibles of human nature have been, for all practical purposes, overcome.
Enter Richard Lindzen, a professor of atmospheric science at MIT. A few months ago Lindzen composed an article for the Wall Street Journal that put another face on the work of his colleagues—a very human face.
Specifically, Lindzen pointed to institutional forces that work to silence dissenting voices in the global warming debate. Editors of professional journals, he charged, regularly discouraged papers that did not reflect what was becoming the “party line” on the topic. Moreover, articles that took a contrary position on the topic were subjected to prejudicial treatment and “discredited” without providing time for reasonable dialogue. Persons once considered authorities were suddenly ignored or even vilified.
The reason for this rush toward consensus, in Lindzen’s view, is simple. Ideas that promote a crisis mentality generate greater publicity and funding, just as ideas that undercut a crisis mentality threaten to separate researchers from their cash cows.
Lindzen notes that federal climate research dollars have grown from “a few hundred million dollars” before 1990 “to $1.7 billion today.” That’s 1.7 billion reasons to join the bandwagon. And one can be sure that those incentives will grow as more studies come out with the “proper” results.
The notion that scientific communities are somehow above the social and psychological dynamics that function in every other area of human activity is an illusion rooted in ignorance and wishful thinking. Viewed in historical perspective, science frequently exhibits the typical philosophical excesses of its era. The works of German and American eugenicists, circa 1920, are instructive in this regard.
Furthermore, just a little historical knowledge is all that would be necessary to dispense with the ridiculous phrase “we now know” that regularly accompanies reports that contradict studies broadcast with the same triumphant phrase ten years earlier.
What most people don’t know is that “absolute proof” is next to impossible in an enterprise where “models” or “paradigms” regularly figure prominently in the investigative mix--determining both the terms to be used and procedures to be followed. Accordingly, the philosopher Karl Popper emphasized the “falsifiability” of scientific assertions and stressed the importance of maintaining an open society where questioning is encouraged.
The tentativeness of scientific assertions and the humanity of scientists are two facts that are inconvenient for Al Gore—a politician whose zeal to shut down debate betokens not a passion for truth but rather raw ambition.