The gist of the article is that, while SETI’s whole foundation is more wishful thinking than actual science, it’s perceived as being scientific by the public at large, to the point that even most scientists now hold a “consensus belief” that SETI has a decent chance of success – and, this, SETI programs continue to be funded to this day. Similarly, Crichton argues, nuclear winter, second-hand smoke dangers, and man-made global warming have little or no real scientific evidence to support them either – but a “consensus belief” in their reality, even among scientists, has taken hold.
I note that a couple of examples Chrichton gives of “the consensus being wrong” are themselves questionable. Margarine, for example, may not be the answer to our nation’s cholesterol problems that we once thought it was, but trans fat isn’t the genocidal demon it’s made out to be either. Similarly, although hormone replacement therapy which includes both estrogen and artificial progesterone did turn out to carry with it an increased risk of cardiovascular disease and breast cancer, the original researchers were correct in their assertion that h.r.t. reduced the risk of osteoporosis (and no conclusive results are yet available for h.r.t. without artificial progesterone).
So, with the understanding that Michael Crichton is more novelist than scientist: Does what he’s saying about global warming have merit? Are the vast majority of scientists who agree that global warming is happening due to human activity, and that we’re headed for disaster if we don’t cut our CO[sub]2[/sub] and methane production way back, just a meaningless “consensus” whose supporting data are weak and conflicting and whose motive may be clouded by a desire to change public policy?
Quick and dirty response, just noticed this thread:
My wife is a Ph.D. and biomedical researcher for the US EPA. The following statements are virtually undisputed by the scientific community, in the same way that the statement “matter is composed of a wide variety of particles” is undisputed (meaning we may not know what all the particles are, but we damn sure know they’re there):
Climate change is variable and cyclic throughout Earth’s history. Generally it is measured in intervals of geologic time (i.e. tens of thousands of years if not longer)
The fossil record (most notably ice cores from the either pole) gives conclusive, but not precise, measures of a variety of atmospheric components. In this way several of the periodic dinosaur extinctions have been pinpointed because of high levels of radioactive or volcanic materials during certain time periods.
These geologic fluctuations can be (and have been) charted and used to create models for our environment and the changes it can and has been through.
The last 200 to 1000 years (the period of greatest growth in the human species and the Industrial Age) correspond with the most drastic changes in atmospheric composition across the shortest time interval in the history of history. These changes do not fit any of the models of “natural” fluctuation based on hundreds of thousands of years of data.
It is not reasonable to chalk #4 up to coincidence. It IS reasonable to assert that, while not fully understood, there is a high probability the explosion in human and industrial activity and the unbalancing of environmental models are connected.
Crichton’s slightly skewed view of science is reflected by his apparent belief that Carl Sagan interviews and Scientific American magazine are the forefront of scientific thought. He has some good points, but IMO he is waxing nostalgic about some Golden Age of Scientific Purity that never existed.
Politics and religion have influenced science since before Socrates got his hemlock milkshake. Outsiders with an aggressively different view always have a rough time- when you declare someone’s intellectual career worthless and best forgotten, they disagree loudly. Lomborg, for example, is a statistician who claims several fields of study are producing false and misguided results. Is it any wonder his findings are disputed? It’s not as though Lomborg has been silenced; his book was widely hailed by popular media, and given a great deal of comment is scientific circles also. It takes a very long time for disputes to be settled academically, and it always has. If Lomburg is right he will be hailed as a genius after his death, like the other belatedly honored scientific prophets Crichton mentions.
Sorry, kwildcat, but you should have read the article. Your response plays directly into the article’s argument.
That’s his point. Science by consensus is the problem he’s arguing against. The statements should be disputed, but aren’t.
How do we know it’s variable? How do we know it’s cyclic? Isn’t there some evidence that it’s chaotic? Chrichton seem to think there is some evidence that weather systems are chaotic (but we don’t know for sure).
I admit that I’m confused on how samples can provide “conclusive, but not precise” measurements. I suppose I could see a sample conclusively demonstrating that, for example, the atmosphere must have contained some helium because this sample contains helium. But you couldn’t be precise about the time that the sample came from, and you couldn’t rule out the presence of any particular type of particle merely because it wasn’t in the sample, and you couldn’t accurately measure the relative amounts of gasses because of our small sample size and the small area from which we’re drawing a sample. Am I wrong?
I assume by “periodic dinosaur extinctions” you mean “number of extinctions of multiple life forms.” But doesn’t your statement imply that we know when the organisms became extinct? Can we really do better than estimate in round numbers of millions of years? And can we really be more precise than to say that we are unaware of any fossils that date back after a certain period?
And Doesn’t it imply that we know what killed the dinosaurs? I thought that we guessed it was a meteor, but other theories included plate tectonics]([url=http://www.ucmp.berkeley.edu/diapsids/extinctheory.html), and even an [“ill wind” (flatulence . . . seriously)](http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/sci/tech/855813.stm)
So many questions:
If climate change is measured in intervals of geologic time, which are “tens of thousands of years, if not longer,” then how do we know what the greatest change in 200 to 1000 years is? Have we reliably measured the atmosphere composition in intervals of 200 to 1000 years during the entire history of history? During any period in history?
Are you saying that the event that killed the dinosaurs or trilobita involved less atmospheric change than the last 200 to 1000 years?
Industrialization has only taken place in the last 100 years. If the change in atmospheric composition has taken place over 200 to 1000 years, then why do we assume the change in atmospheric conditions was caused by industrialization?
As a scientist, your wife is doubtless familiar with the phrase, “correlation is not causation.” The mere fact that the atmospheric composition has changed at the same time that human population has increased, part of which included industrialization, does not mean that humans and industrialization caused the climate change.
And why do you characterize the changes in the atmospheric composition as an “unbalancing of environmental models”? I don’t understand why they must necessarily be unbalanced.
I’m undecided on global warming, but I thought the article was very interesting. I look forward to you folks edifying me on these topics. Thanks for the post, tracer.
Bah…I think Crichton is mainly out-to-lunch. For one thing, the belief in the potential seriousness of anthropogenic global warming is now so widespread in the climate science community that you really have to be a paranoid conservative who believes nearly everyone is a closet socialist in order to ascribe it to just a motive of people who want to change public policy. While it does seem true that many if not most of the naysayers have connections to right-wing libertarian groups or the coal industry, I have never seen any evidence that the converse is true for the vast majority of scientists who support the “consensus view”.
(1) I fail to see how his own example of nuclear winter proves that much. He shows neither that a broad consensus was achieved in the scientific community (in fact quoting scientists who admit they might want to believe it for political reasons but find the science to be poor…which tends to undermine his claim), nor that it’s science was ever effectively repudiated. (I’m not saying it wasn’t…I am just honestly not up on it. I do think at least some of it was shown to be incorrect.)
(2) The claim that the Drake Equation is untestable is itself unproven. Yes, we may not be able to test it now, and that does limit the conclusions we can draw from it at the moment, but that doesn’t make it useless or not science. Surely, some of the terms can now be estimated reasonably accurately. And, the existence of this equation might encourage others to come up with better ways to estimate others in the future. We’ve made considerable progress on determining the existence of planets around other stars, for example.
(3) While it is true that science does not really work by consensus, it is sometimes necessary when science is needed to make public policy decisions to get an idea where the state of the peer-reviewed science is at the moment. That is what IPCC, NAS, etc. attempt to do. Is this a perfect process? No. But, I think it is still a useful one and framing it as an evil of “consensus science” tends to hide the fact that you or I would likely come to the same conclusion about the current state of the peer-reviewed science if we had the time and ability to read all that is published in the relevant journals. (I myself do try to keep in touch with the major things on climate change published in the interdisciplinary journals of Science and Nature although the subject is outside my field of training [physics].)
(4) How Lomborg was treated or not treated well in Scientific American is a debate one can presumably engage in but it is largely irrelevant to the process of science since the real science on this subject will not be hashed out in a popular book or a science journal for the masses but rather in the peer-reviewed journals.
(5) I don’t understand how his proposed solution really breaks much new ground. Why is the idea of an independent institute so much superior to having what we have now, which is a lot of different institutes, universities, and organizations funding science? And, peer-review acting as a check? What sort of measures will be taken to make sure the institute remains balanced and how is this better than having organizations like the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) do meta-studies of the current state of the science on various subjects?
(6) His specific statements to the effect of believing climate models when they can’t predict the weather shows a fundamental lack of understanding concerning the behavior of chaotic systems. Predicting weather and climate are two very different things (and, in fact, climate models are run with perturbations in initial conditions to deal with the chaotic issues). I’m not saying that the issue of the chaotic nature of the climate system are completely unimportant…Indeed, the idea of sudden climate change that might occur if global warming causes a radical change in ocean currents (such as a shutting down of the Gulf Stream) is an important emerging issue. And, there are real uncertainties in climate models regarding certain factors and feedback effects, hence the large amount of uncertainty (2.5-10 deg F) in the IPCC’s prediction for temperature rises in this century. But mixing the issues of weather and climate is really just muddying the waters. It is also worth noting that the “consensus view” tends to acknowledge uncertainty to a greater extent than the naysayers. For example, it is not the consensus view but naysayer Patrick Michaels who is so willing to tell us definitively how much warming will occur this century (about 2.5 deg, the low end of the IPCC estimate) and where it will occur (almost exclusively in cold dry places).
Actually, we do know for sure. When the NWS runs their forecast models out to forecast the 6-10 and 8-14 day periods, they run “ensembles” where they perturb the initial conditions a little bit. They do indeed find that sometimes the weather predictions change dramatically due to these perturbations, showing the underlying equations in the models (which may not be exactly reality…but are pretty close) are chaotic. Sometimes the ensemble predictions all cluster around the same general solution and sometimes they are all over the place, and this fact allows them to not only make a forecast but to give an estimate of the confidence they have in that forecast. It’s actually kind of cool, IMHO.
But, as I noted, this is of only some relevance to the discussion of climate prediction. And, it also points out that scientists have ways of testing these issues.
Age Quod Agis: I don’t have the time or energy to research and answer all your questions in detail but I strongly urge you to consider the fact that just because you don’t know the answer to them does not mean that they are not well-studied and well-understood. I suggest that you look at the IPCC website or the NAS report for starters. There are also several other previous threads on climate change:
Oh, if you want to read more haranguing about environmentalism from Chrichton, wherein he informs us that DDT was never harmful to birds, implies that environmentalists are the ones to be blamed for our 50-year policy of forest fire suppression, …, click here.
So, to answer your question tracer, I think there is little doubt that Chricton and SEPP / S. Fred Singer get along famously. In fact, as near as I can tell, Chricton is likely getting a lot of his ideas from straight from Fred. I’d be shocked to find out they aren’t quite buddy-buddy.
Having now read the entire Crichton speech that I linked to, I think I can state that the “Aliens Cause Global Warming” lecture is freakin’ brilliant by comparison! He not only creates a strawman, he creates a whole straw-society! I’ll give him one thing though, he is an entertaining speaker/writer.
He does have a point, however, about people being a little too willing to believe in an Idyllic Lost Paradise in the distant past. (Margaret Meade’s book on the Samoans is one example – Meade believed two local girls’ made-up stories about sexual freedom uncritically, because she wanted to believe that native people “untainted” by civilization led wonderful sex lives.)
tracer: But it is a small point about a few people (or, alternately a very exaggerated picture of a phenomenon that might apply to a few more people). Worse yet, he then uses it to basically jump in and say that it was wrong to ban DDT, there isn’t very good evidence for global warming, and to imply that environmentalists are to blame for the policy of fire suppression. (More often, environmentalists are blamed by the Right for a “fires are natural…let it burn” point-of-view, which is itself an oversimplification of what they really support, but at least blaming them for this would have the virture of being more in line with his general thesis of environmentalists over-glorifying nature and natural processes.) He never shows a definitive connection between his characterization of environmentalism and the actual policies he blasts, and particularly the implication that these policies are based on this religious fervor rather than on science…And, his claim that the EPA is hopelessly politicized and should be abolished and replaced. (I think there is a good argument to be made that the EPA is getting badly politicized under the Bush Administration, where the civil service scientists are being overruled by the White House and its political appointees. But, alas, I am afraid, given his views on environmental issues, that this is not the sort of politicization that he is worrying about. It sounds like he is pretty much supporting it with his views on climate change and such.)
Mr. Crichton successfully and ironically uses the example of horse manure in 1900’s New York City to pillory the abuse of hard science to promote a liberal political agenda. His to my mind rather clever use of this example has apparently been lost on many of the correspondents to this forum. Mr. Crichton was trying to show that much of the environmentalist movement in the scientific realm is nothing more or less than horse manure and should be treated as such.
beniyyar: We know what he was trying to do. That doesn’t mean that he was successful at it. In particular, things hinge the interpretation of your statement “that much of the environmentalist movement in the scientific realm is nothing more or less than horse manure and should be treated as such.” If this is applied to some fringe ideas, then I might agree with it to an extent (although I would stay say it’s exaggerated)…Just as much of, say, the power and coal industry contributions to the scientific realm is poor science.
However, Chrichton is using it to attack ideas that have strong support of the mainstream scientific community…like the science of climate change (as well as the effects of DDT on birds and other things).
And, I have no idea why you were so dismissive of Dr. Rieux’s reply that used charged language but no moreso than you did. There have been editorials written in Science magazine about this Administration’s poor use of science to advance their agenda, including their agenda to weaken environmental laws and continue to do nothing about climate change. There is also an excellent book by Sheldon Rampton and John Stauber, “Trust Us, We’re Experts,” documenting the industry public relations campaigns to sell their agenda in this realm. It is a vital resource for understanding the background of the groups who are denying the potential seriousness of climate change and people like Steven Milloy (who runs junkscience.com) who are doing industry’s bidding on a wide variety of issues. At least most environmental groups have pretty transparent names that tell you who they are and what their biases might be. I think few people wouldn’t know that Greenpeace, Environmental Defense Fund, Sierra Club, National Resources Defense Council, etc. have an environmentalist perspective. It’s a lot harder to know about groups with names like “National Center for Policy Analysis,” “National Center for Public Policy Research,” “junkscience.com”, “Global Climate Coalition,” “Greening Earth Society,” … all of which are pretty much industry-front groups or at least groups with a strong libertarian / anti-regulatory ideology.
I try as much as I can to stay away from what appear to be conspiracy theories, or worse, imputing to political or social movements rather darkly suspicious or even criminal motives for their policies. As you mention, some of the fringe, or even not so marginal aspects of the environmental movement have as the BBC so eloquently put it regarding British government policies in Iraq, sexed up their charges. Many times this is done to increase governmental or private funding for their activities, sometime it is done in innocence, sometimes it is done in ignorance, but whatever the motive, each charge must and should be evaluated on it’s own merits, and just because some highly respected environmental group advocates something doesn’t make it valid. What Mr. Crichton said was simply that in the case of environmentalism, as in religion, sometimes the so called true believers, that is, the fanatics, so dominate the movement that even when they speak the truth, they must be suspect, both in terms of their facts and their motives. I expect this from the so called soft sciences like sociology or psychology since most if not all of what they represent can neither be duplicated or verified. I once read that a radical feminist charged that all men are rapists, how truly clever and radical, and how just plain foolish! If hard science can and has been twisted like this, then frankly, what can any rational person believe?
Well, it is exactly because of this danger that we have organizations such as the IPCC and the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) to evaluate the current state of the science. And, at least on the issue of climate change, I think their conclusions suggest that more of the twisting has come from the side of those denying the seriousness of the issue than from the environmentalist side. This is, of course, why the deniers now are making arguments about the dangers of “consensus science” and the difficulty of overturning established paradigms (which I heard Patrick Michaels lamenting) and such in order to discredit the main body of peer-reviewed scientific work in favor of a small body of occasionally-peer-reviewed work that reaches different conclusions.