Monday, January 22, 2007

Scientists are political people too: changing minds about climate change?

I'm taking a break from writing about research on the personality traits of liberals vs. conservatives. I need a rest after this magnum opus, although one of these days I may take one more swipe at the topic.

No, this time it's global warming that's sparked a few thoughts on science and bias in general.

You may have noticed that global warming is a subject I ordinarily don't get into. There's a reason for that,and it's not lack of interest. I've actually read about global warming in some depth--on both sides, as usual (and in this case the Joni Mitchell song with its lyric "I've looked at clouds from both sides now..." is unusually apropos).

My conclusion is that it's a very technical and specialized subject about which I'm unfortunately unable to come to any firm conclusion at the moment, despite having tried, because I lack the specific in-depth scientific background that would enable me to come down on one side or another.

That doesn't stop most people from having a firm opinion. And it's true that, if the global warming alarmists are correct, we need to have opinions--to decide, take a stand, and act. But that "if" is the problem. Because another truth is that the scientists are hardly immune to bias, and this colors their work, despite disclaimers to the contrary.

It's not surprising--after all, scientists are people, too. The "harder" the science the more protection there is against bias (that's why the social sciences are notoriously--and perhaps fatally--susceptible to it). Climate change, although a "harder" science than the social sciences, is still relatively "soft"--a new and poorly understood discipline, complex and fraught with unknowns, especially in the all-important area of computer simulations of climate models. Here's a quote from a recent discussion of some of the problems (hat tip: Pajamas Media):

...for predicting the future climate, scientists must rely upon sophisticated — but not perfect — computer models.

"The public generally underappreciates that climate models are not meant for reducing our uncertainty about future climate, which they really cannot, but rather they are for increasing our confidence that we understand the climate system in general," says Michael Bauer, a climate modeler at NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies, in New York.

In general, the simpler a system is, and the fewer the variables, the more confidence we can have in the applicability of the results of scientific studies. But climate (like humanity) is a notoriously complex and poorly-understood system, and models for either are inherently unreliable. Therefore predictions are exceedingly suspect in both areas.

And yet policy must be made. So, how to decide? Are sites such as this or this reputable? Without specialized knowledge, how can we know?

One can go by the majority opinion, and it certainly appears that the majority of scientists believe not only that global warming is real (the less controversial part of the equation), but also that it is caused at least in good part by human-generated CO2 emissions (the far more controversial part). But, historically and conceptually speaking, science is not a democracy in which the majority opinion ends up being correct in the end. And what are the political biases of these scientists? And does it matter--how much is their research affected by those biases, especially in an area such as climate change with profound political repercussions and implications? How openminded are scientists to data that threatens their point of view, the hypotheses and theories on which their reputations have been based?

The danger of bias--in science and elsewhere--is present on both sides of the political spectrum, by the way. There's a reason my "change" series (and one of these days I plan to get back to it, by the way!) is entitled, "A mind is a difficult thing to change." It's not easy to reverse one's opinion, and most people resist and defend against data that challenges it, even scientists.

The history of science is replete with theories that have had their day in the sun and then departed, to be heard of no more (except in History of Science courses). As evidence amasses and knowledge grows, old theories are discarded and new ones take their place. We don't know when that tipping point will occur in any particular scientific discipline, but I do know that almost every theory in its earlier stages (especially in the "softer" areas of science) has areas of confusion and data that don't fit into the big picture. As time passes, either the theory is able to explain that data, or it collapses in the face of it. Global warming is an area replete with these anomalies at the moment.

In other branches of science that aren't so tied into policy recommendations, it's fine to wait until more data comes in. The problem with global warming is that, if the alarmists are correct, we need to act soon. And the actions required aren't minor, they are major and involve a certain amount of sacrifice. People are naturally resistant to that sort of thing, as well, and want the danger to be clear and present before they are willing to give up certain pleasant aspects of modern life to which they're become accustomed.

And that's one of the reasons that proponents of the point of view that global warming is dangerous, imminent, and manmade might be tempted to sound the alarm more vociferously than they should based on the evidence at hand, as this article claims. The idea is to get with the program and sound the clarion call.

So beware, those who might want to give a more "nuanced" message, even if they agree with the general thrust. Sometimes the pressure on them isn't so subtle:

Shaman says some junior scientists may feel uncomfortable when they see older scientists making claims about the future climate, but he's not sure how widespread that sentiment may be. This kind of tension always has existed in academia, he adds, a system in which senior scientists hold some sway over the grants and research interests of graduate students and junior faculty members.

"I can understand how a scientist without tenure can feel the community pressures," says environmental scientist Roger Pielke Jr., a colleague of Vranes' at the University of Colorado.

Pielke says he has felt pressure from his peers: A prominent scientist angrily accused him of being a skeptic, and a scientific journal editor asked him to "dampen" the message of a peer-reviewed paper to derail skeptics and business interests.

And remember, Pielke isn't a climate-change skeptic, he's just not a true enough and strident enough believer. This state of affairs ought to give everyone pause.

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