Free Markets, Free People

scientific method


Why "science" has a problem

It’s a fairly obvious reason that Kenneth P. Green and Hiwa Alaghebandian, writing in the Journal of the American Enterprise Institute, point to as the problem – in some areas, science and scientists have gone from being neutral observers of facts and purveyors of information developed through the scientific method to attempting to assume an authoritarian and activist role in our lives. Not all of science, obviously, but certainly a visible and loud minority. And that causes problems for all of science:

In the past, scientists were generally neutral on questions of what to do. Instead, they just told people what they found, such as “we have discovered that smoking vastly increases your risk of lung cancer” or “we have discovered that some people will have adverse health effects from consuming high levels of salt.” Or “we have found that obesity increases your risk of coronary heart disease.” Those were simply neutral observations that people could find empowering, useful, interesting, etc., but did not place demands on them. In fact, this kind of objectivity was the entire basis for trusting scientific claims.

But along the way, an assortment of publicity-seeking, and often socially activist, scientists stopped saying, “Here are our findings. Read it and believe.” Instead, activist scientists such as NASA’s James Hansen, heads of quasi-scientific governmental organizations such as the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, editors of major scientific journals, and heads of the various national scientific academies are more inclined to say, “Here are our findings, and those findings say that you must change your life in this way, that way, or the other way.”

The two authors took a look at phrases scientists have been quoted as using over the years in statements they’ve released or how the media has interpreted them.  And make no mistake – in many cases the media aided and abetted these activist scientists.

So here’s what they found:

[A]round the end of the 1980s, science (at least science reporting) took on a distinctly authoritarian tone. Whether because of funding availability or a desire by some senior academics for greater relevance, or just the spread of activism through the university, scientists stopped speaking objectively and started telling people what to do. And people don’t take well to that, particularly when they’re unable to evaluate the information that supposedly requires them to give up their SUV, their celebratory cigar, or their chicken nuggets.

In essence we had the confluence of “save the world” journalism meeting activist “save the world” scientists and the result was more agenda driven partisanship (and partnership) than objectivity.  Some scientists felt compelled to save us from ourselves and many journalists shared that desire.  The most obvious result of that has been the sham science of “global warming”.

The authors conclude by pointing out how science has, in some cases, become the “regulatory state’s” lap dog and what it has to do to redeem itself:

If science wants to redeem itself and regain its place with the public’s affection, scientists need to come out every time some politician says, “The science says we must…” and reply, “Science only tells us what is. It does not, and can never tell us what we should or must do.” If they say that often enough, and loudly enough, they might be able to reclaim the mantle of objectivity that they’ve given up over the last 40 years by letting themselves become the regulatory state’s ultimate appeal to authority.

They’re absolutely right – and, every time we see an activist scientist getting into the “what we must or should do” nonsense, we need to call him or her on it.  And we need to continue to be highly skeptical of the state’s appeal to science as the final authority when doing so is decidedly in the state’s favor.

~McQ

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Climaquiddick – It Doesn’t Take A Scientist …

As I wander the blogs and the net reading about the scandal that has gripped the “science” around the Climate Research Unit of the University of East Anglia I continue to see defenses of the so-called “settled science” of AGW pushed by that group that center on the implication that those calling their data into question either aren’t smart enough or qualified enough (or both) to make the determination that the CRU’s data is wrong.

I’ll admit, up front, to both charges.  I’ll also tell you that it isn’t necessary to be either as smart as some scientists or as qualified in their field to question their science.  Why?  Because as a schoolboy I was taught what the “scientific method” is and how vitally important that method is to the credibility of science.  For those of you needing a refresher, have a look:

science_method

As you can see, there is a very important box outlined in blue among all the other boxes in the flow chart.  The words “Reproduce (by others)” refers to other scientists, just as qualified as those who’ve produced the hypothesis, testing and attempting to reproduce the results that the original scientists claim.  It is one of, if not the most critical step in validating a hypothesis and turning it into a “scientific theory”.  It is that independent reproduction of the same results using the methods and data of the original scientists that provides scientific rigor and credibility necessary for it to go from hypothesis to theory.

That is the step that has been consistently missing in the AGW controversy.  Other scientists have, for years, been asking for and been refused the original data on which the CRU based its hypothesis of man-made global warming.  We see pundits defending the science claiming the emails don’t prove AGW to be a fraud.  Maybe, maybe not – but what they do show is a consistent effort to avoid providing the data requested to others who would like to test it.  That alone should raise a sea of red flags to any real scientist.  The last thing those who are sure of their hypothesis and their science should be doing is actively trying to keep the data which underpins their hypothesis from being tested as demanded by the scientific method.

Another reason to be skeptical without having to be an atmospheric scientist has to do with other findings which have found to be wanting.  Mann’s “hockey stick” turned into a hockey puck when the data was examined.  We’ve seen cherry-picked tree ring data used to claim massive warming when, in fact, the complete data set showed nothing of the sort.  And then there’s the undisputed fact that the earth has been cooling over the last 10 years in the face of predictions by this same group that it would be warming.

All of that (and more) is certainly enough for any layman to find the science involved less than acceptable and demand in very detailed look at its core methods and data. And that’s especially true since it is the basis of a world-wide attempt by governments to institute massive and economy killing restrictions on CO2 and other emissions which, if skeptics are correct, are completely useless and would be of marginal value at the very best.

There is a very simple solution to this mess – to those that are under fire and under scrutiny: show your work. That’s it – put it out there. Doing so is at the very center of the scientific method to which all real scientists supposedly adhere. Let other scientists poke and prod both your methods and data. If it is as solid and “settled” as claimed, it shouldn’t take long to verify that. And if it is correct then even we non-scientific skeptics will have to admit there is a problem. We may still disagree on the solution, but at least the claim of “settled science” will finally have some validity as the warming hypothesis will move into the realm of scientific theory.

All of that said, my guess is that will never happen – reading the emails tells me there is a real desire to avoid that. And that makes me suspicious of the “science”. In fact, it tells me quite a bit about the “science” of the hypothesis involved without having to know any of the scientific details. Given that, you certainly don’t have to be an atmospheric scientist or a genius to be skeptical.  In fact, you have more reason than ever to remain so.

~McQ


Global Warming “Science” v. The Scientific Method (update)

Even the youngest student of science knows the foundation of scientific inquiry rests in the scientific method. It is by scrupulously following that method that the data and science behind it can be verified. In short:

Scientific method refers to a body of techniques for investigating phenomena, acquiring new knowledge, or correcting and integrating previous knowledge. To be termed scientific, a method of inquiry must be based on gathering observable, empirical and measurable evidence subject to specific principles of reasoning. A scientific method consists of the collection of data through observation and experimentation, and the formulation and testing of hypotheses.

It also requires that the data collected be made available to peers so the theories in question can be tested for their validity.

Among other facets shared by the various fields of inquiry is the conviction that the process be objective to reduce biased interpretations of the results. Another basic expectation is to document, archive and share all data and methodology so they are available for careful scrutiny by other scientists, thereby allowing other researchers the opportunity to verify results by attempting to reproduce them. This practice, called full disclosure, also allows statistical measures of the reliability of these data to be established.

The bold is my emphasis because I want to highlight a remarkable article at NRO by Patrick J. Michaels entitled “The Dog Ate Global Warming”. Obviously a little twist on “the dog ate my homework”, Michaels says that the “data needed to verify the gloom-and-doom warming forecasts have disappeared.”

Or, said another way, the findings are now unfalsifiable because those who did the original research say they no longer have the original data.

First some background about what’s being discussed:

In the early 1980s, with funding from the U.S. Department of Energy, scientists at the United Kingdom’s University of East Anglia established the Climate Research Unit (CRU) to produce the world’s first comprehensive history of surface temperature. It’s known in the trade as the “Jones and Wigley” record for its authors, Phil Jones and Tom Wigley, and it served as the primary reference standard for the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) until 2007. It was this record that prompted the IPCC to claim a “discernible human influence on global climate.”

Putting together such a record isn’t at all easy. Weather stations weren’t really designed to monitor global climate. Long-standing ones were usually established at points of commerce, which tend to grow into cities that induce spurious warming trends in their records. Trees grow up around thermometers and lower the afternoon temperature. Further, as documented by the University of Colorado’s Roger Pielke Sr., many of the stations themselves are placed in locations, such as in parking lots or near heat vents, where artificially high temperatures are bound to be recorded.

So the weather data that go into the historical climate records that are required to verify models of global warming aren’t the original records at all. Jones and Wigley, however, weren’t specific about what was done to which station in order to produce their record, which, according to the IPCC, showed a warming of 0.6° +/– 0.2°C in the 20th century.

So we’re talking about the findings which were used to make the IPCC’s dire warnings in its report. They are the basis for the entire global warming movement’s desire to do what is necessary globally to lower the amount of CO2 emissions.

But, others scientists ask, given their doubts about the accuracy of the data, should it be? Scientists interested in peer reviewing the theory, as the scientific method demands, found it impossible to do so. And therein lies the story:

Now begins the fun. Warwick Hughes, an Australian scientist, wondered where that “+/–” came from, so he politely wrote Phil Jones in early 2005, asking for the original data. Jones’s response to a fellow scientist attempting to replicate his work was, “We have 25 years or so invested in the work. Why should I make the data available to you, when your aim is to try and find something wrong with it?”

Reread that statement, for it is breathtaking in its anti-scientific thrust. In fact, the entire purpose of replication is to “try and find something wrong.” The ultimate objective of science is to do things so well that, indeed, nothing is wrong.

Michaels is stunned by he reaction. Anyone who reads that response should be stunned by it. As Michaels says, it is “breathtaking in its anti-scientific thrust”. Not unscientific. Anti-scientific. Jones is refusing a peer the data used to reach his conclusions in direct contravention of the scientific method. When you see a refusal like that, especially phrased the way it was phrased, all sorts of alarm bells should go off in the head of anyone who claims to be a scientist. And, of course, they have.

Over the years, requests have been made for the data and almost uniformly turned down for various reasons. Finally a request for the data made by Roger Pielke Jr., a professor of environmental studies at the University of Colorado solicited this response from Jones:

Since the 1980s, we have merged the data we have received into existing series or begun new ones, so it is impossible to say if all stations within a particular country or if all of an individual record should be freely available. Data storage availability in the 1980s meant that we were not able to keep the multiple sources for some sites, only the station series after adjustment for homogeneity issues. We, therefore, do not hold the original raw data but only the value-added (i.e., quality controlled and homogenized) data.

Michaels calls BS on this one:

The statement about “data storage” is balderdash. They got the records from somewhere. The files went onto a computer. All of the original data could easily fit on the 9-inch tape drives common in the mid-1980s. I had all of the world’s surface barometric pressure data on one such tape in 1979.

Anyone familiar with data storage throughout the short history of the computer age knows this is nonsense. Transfer of data from various systems to newer systems has been accomplished without real difficulty all thorough its development. What Jones is trying very hard to do is one of two things a) hide data that he’s pretty sure won’t support his conclusion or b) admitting to a damningly unscientific procedure which should, without his ability to produce and share the original data, call into serious question any findings he’s presented.

Why is this important – because based on this finding, the world is moving toward economy crippling treaties and legislation, like the pending cap-and-trade bill here in the US, based on totally unverified “science”. As Michaels says this story isn’t just “an academic spat” – it questions the very foundation of the premise which these economic crippling moves are based in.

Scientific consensus? Not even proven science, for heave sake – yet we’re moving on it like it was. Dangerous, foolish and costly. This is what rushing into things without making all of the inquiries necessary (and taking the time to do them) usually ends up with bad legislation.

And cap-and-trade promises to be no exception to that rule.

UPDATE: The Thinker provides a reminder of what I expect to see concerning Michael’s charges from the “Chicken Little” crowd:

As I described in my my model of belief, a faith-based belief is a belief in something for which there is no good evidence either for or against (e.g., the existence of God), whereas a delusional belief is a belief that is maintained in spite of evidence to the contrary (e.g., the efficacy of astrology). It is usually a delusional belief that requires an “appeal to other ways of knowing,” since a faith-based belief (strictly as I’ve defined it) can’t be challenged on scientific grounds.

The “appeal to other ways of knowing” is one of the strategies that a delusional person will use to cope with the cognitive dissonance that occurs when their beliefs bump up against reality. When questioned on this “other way of knowing” the person will then be forced to resort to other coping strategies (i.e., fallacies and biases).

Just a little helpful guide for those trying to evaluate the comments of those trying to defend the indefensible. Always handy to know if you’re dealing with someone grounded in a faith-based belief or a delusional belief, wouldn’t you say? If you’d like a local example of delusional belief, I’d steer you to the comment thread on Honduras where it is available in full flower.

~McQ

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