When Science Becomes Dogma

I may lose some friends out there, but I have to speak up about a phenomenon I’ve noticed over the past few years. It came to the fore for me with the recent story about the battle between the TV meteorologists over stripping the American Meteorological Society certification from any weatherman who expresses skepticism about the degree to which global warming can be blamed on human activity.

My intention here is not to do battle over the facts of global warming, so please don’t leave me comments listing all the reasons why it is or is not an environmental catastrophe. I am less a global warming skeptic than a global warming agnostic — I am not convinced yet either way, but I’m open to the data.

My concern is that global warming has become on par with religious dogma. When anyone, including legitimate scientists, dares to present contradictory data or a different interpretation of current data, they are attacked and harassed. It is assumed that they have evil intentions or are shills for the oil industry. Anyone who does not toe the global warming party line is considered akin to Holocaust deniers. Any data that deviates from the established doctrine is dismissed as biased or not worth looking at.

This is a problem. Science should not be politicized. A particular interpretation of the data should not be taken as the gospel from on high. Our knowledge of science evolves over time. Just a few decades ago, scientists were concerned about the catastrophic effects of global cooling and the coming Ice Age. Going even further back, to the 1630s, Galileo was convicted of heresy by the Church for supporting the radical Copernican theory that the Earth revolves around the sun, rather than the other way around. We should not be subjecting scientists to another Inquisition because they do not agree with commonly accepted ideas. Science does not advance without people who are willing to challenge the dominant paradigm.

While there is some consensus among scientists, there is a huge degree of uncertainty in the models that are being used to predict the future. Meteorologists can’t even predict the weather for next week accurately. To speak of global warming as something that is definitely happening is going way beyond the limits of the data. When everything that happens with the weather is attributed to man-made global warming, the credibility of the claims start coming into doubt. But “maybes” don’t make good news stories.

I have no doubt that most people who are concerned about global warming are well-meaning individuals who want to do the right thing for the planet. I don’t intend this as an attack on those who believe that global warming is a problem we need to address, but rather those who “believe in” global warming as if it were a religious doctrine that cannot be challenged.

I see a parallel with the dogma around evolution — on both sides. Some fundamentalists who reject the scientific version of how life evolved accept as creed that the Earth is about 6000 years old and that dinosaurs lived at the same time as humans before the great flood. I’ll give them a pass on being dogmatic, though — this is their religion, after all. But many evolutionists cling just as tightly to Darwinism, despite the fact that there are holes in the fossil record and big gaps in our knowledge about exactly how life evolves. Until we understand better how evolution works and how to answer some of the remaining questions, we should not assume that Darwin is necessarily the final word on how life came to exist, though it might be the best model we have right now. And why can’t the Bible and science co-exist? MIT-trained nuclear physicist Gerald Schroeder has written some amazing books that use quantum physics and the theory of relativity to reconcile the two precisely.

Similarly, there are things people on both sides of the global warming debate should be able to agree on, even if they do so for different reasons. Changing our energy consumption habits and taking care of the environment are goals that most people can get behind. In any case, I don’t think that the specter of global warming is immediate or concrete enough to get most people to take action to prevent something that may or may not happen in a hundred years or more. It’s just too big of a problem for an individual to feel that they can make an impact. But show people how they can save money by conserving energy, reduce their dependence on foreign oil by driving a hybrid, keep humans and wildlife healthy by reducing pollutants… this could get people motivated to act.

Scaring the public and silencing dissenters is not the way to bring about effective change. If only our leaders could put the same energy into solving the problems people face right here and now in terms of disease, poverty, and violence, we would all be better off in the future whether or not the climate eventually changes for the worse.

One thing is certain: what we know about the science of climate can and will change over time. The most shortsighted thing would be to close our minds to evidence that might bring us closer to the objective truth, whatever it happens to be.

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  1. Very nice posting, Nedra. The limits of science and their overlapping points with religion seem to be the font of conflict in so many ways, in so many times. Approaches that use evidence, yet acknowledge uncertainty in prediction and an occasional random factor are more likely to stand the test of time than those espoused out of tradition alone.

  2. The reason for the “dogma” is that there is a well-fund and government supported attempt to deny the facts. The large scale politicization does not come from the science said, it comes from the (U.S.) government and the oil companies.

    As for the “global cooling” claim, that happens to be false. Scientists were not concerned about a possible global cooling, there was one article in a popular (non-science) magazine (Time, I think). Your mentioning this, however, does suggest that you do question global warming. In which case I suggest that you read up on what the climatologists say. Or just read the news for the next week and you will see reports of significant warming, from Greenland and the Arctic to Antarctica. There is massive concensus among climatologists that global warming is happening, that is significant and troubling, and that it has been significantly affected by human actions. *None* of that is controversial among climatologists. How fast, how much due to humans, and other such details are being worked out. None of the science says it is all due to humans, but it is quite clear that a very larger part is.

    And don’t compare meteorology to climatology. In fact meteorology has gotten really good in the last few decades. You had to talk about the weather *next week* because they now can give you really good predictions for this week. Could they do that 20 years ago? Nope. And the weather next week is, in some ways, harder to predict than the climate in 10 years.

    It is unfortuate (for you) that you compare this issue to evolution. There is *no* controversy among biologists regarding evolution. That is, there is near universal agreement that live evolves, that it has done so for billions of year, that this evolution is due to mutation, selection, and drift. Would we like more fossils? Of course. But there are no “gaps” that make anyone question whether or not evolution occurred. No scientist assumes Darwin is the final word, he was a great scientist who wrote important works 150 years ago. There have been other great (and good but not great) scientists since then that have added to our knowledge of the history of life. The “dogma” you object to does not exist.

    And then after that it turns out that you do question global warming. You might look at the spread of Malaria, something that closely tracks temperature. That will kill large numbers of people. So will the flooding of low lying areas.

    There is a side in these debates that have closed their eyes to “objective truth”. It is not the scientists, however, they are the ones who go out and actually look at the world before they make their claims.

  3. Every era in history has its ‘Luddites’.

  4. Thanks, John. We deal with this all the time in public health as well, in issues like smoking or drug use.

    Matt, thanks for your comments. I’m afraid that when scientific journals refuse to publish findings that run counter to the party line or when scientists are threatened with decertification for having a different interpretation of the data, that’s coming from within the profession. And, as you suggest, I will definitely be reading the reports that are coming out. But no matter how valid I might think they are, it does not mean that I will automatically reject other data that doesn’t conform to my “side.”

    Peter, I’m not sure whether you mean that I am the Luddite, or the dogmatic people are Luddites. Thanks for leaving a comment, in any case.

  5. I agree completely about Global Warming. It seems strange to me to have scientists denying the power of technology.

    Andrew Ng at Stamford is working on a robot to assemble flatpacks – estimated tome for completion 10 years. Once we have this the way is clear for the constructiion of a Von Neumann replicator.

    We will have the calculated temperature rises by 2020 – that is too early. By 2050 we will have mirrors in space and global warming will be an irrelevancy.

    To repeat, what seems odd to me is that scientists are not asking for money to do this – asking for Andrew Ng to abandon work on language and concentrate completely on flatpacks and Von Neumann.

  6. The people being “decertified” are not scientists, they are TV weathermen. TV people are not researchers, they are mostly readers. If they decide to go against the vast majority of the actual active scientists then they should let people know. I don’t know what value this certification has, but I would hope that the TV news show would not use such a weatherman. Just like I would hope that a TV news show would not use a medical reporter who astrology rather than antibiotics.

    I don’t know of any scientific journal, regarding either climatology/global warming or biology/evolution that have refused to publish findings that go counter to the “party line”. You did not provide any references for that happening. If someone has done a valid study it should be published *particularly* if the data suggests contradiction to the current view. People can claim discrimination all they want, but the proof is in the pudding. Where are these banned studies?

    I don’t ask you to reject any data, my point is that there really is no data for the other side. Yes, there are some areas of warming, the climate models say that. But it is simply wrong, not just a matter of opinion, that the *scientists* were worried about global cooling a few decades ago.

    As for reports, it is ironic that since my first response just yesterday we got news that the U.N. was going to publish a massive report on global warming, that it is visable in the “air, water, and melting ice”.

  7. Ian,
    Thanks for your comment. I’m not entirely sure what you’re talking about, but it certainly sounds impressive. 🙂

    Here’s some quotes from an article published in the Wall Street Journal by Richard Lindzen, who is the Alfred P. Sloan Professor of Atmospheric Science at MIT:

    …The answer has much to do with misunderstanding the science of climate, plus a willingness to debase climate science into a triangle of alarmism. Ambiguous scientific statements about climate are hyped by those with a vested interest in alarm, thus raising the political stakes for policy makers who provide funds for more science research to feed more alarm to increase the political stakes. After all, who puts money into science–whether for AIDS, or space, or climate–where there is nothing really alarming? Indeed, the success of climate alarmism can be counted in the increased federal spending on climate research from a few hundred million dollars pre-1990 to $1.7 billion today. It can also be seen in heightened spending on solar, wind, hydrogen, ethanol and clean coal technologies, as well as on other energy-investment decisions.

    But there is a more sinister side to this feeding frenzy. Scientists who dissent from the alarmism have seen their grant funds disappear, their work derided, and themselves libeled as industry stooges, scientific hacks or worse. Consequently, lies about climate change gain credence even when they fly in the face of the science that supposedly is their basis.

    I won’t quote the whole article here, but he goes on to describe specific instances of scientists being bullied and smeared, having papers containing dissenting opinions subjected to a different set of standards, and scientists losing funding for raising questions.

    Here are a few more articles that talk about this issue:

    As for me, I will continue to keep an open mind and see how the debate evolves.

  8. The reason for the “dogma” is that there is a well-fund and government supported attempt to deny the facts.

    Amazing how the scientific minded can be so easily seduced by conspiracy. One could just as easily argue that the global warming dogma is due to a well-funded attempt by “alternative energy” companies and wealthy liberals like Al Gore and George Soros seeking a world government.

    Science has become politicized. While some scientists like James Hansen may be seduced by the glamor that comes from celebrity, Science – apolitical by definition – suffers.

    Politics is cyclical. One year the Republicans seem unbeatable, an election or two later it’s the Democrats. When the reaction against global warming alarmism comes, the loser will be Science and the winner: apathy and superstition. And the reaction will come.

  9. Nedra,

    Thanks for your honesty and observation in this post. I think some people are demonstrating your point for you. What you call “dogma” might also be called “environmental fundamentalism”. There’s a mindset that leads people to fear anything that contradicts the generally accepted point of view about temperature change.

    You are not alone in your POV, I ran across the same points you made by no less than John Naisbitt author of “MegaTrends” in his recent book “Mindset” where he comments, “Global warming has become a religion, and those who don’t buy into its gloom and doom scenarios are infidels who must be banished” (pg 28).

    BTW: In it he refers to a book about global cooling called “The Cooling: Has the Next Ice Age Already Begun?” a 1976 book by Lowell Ponte that is available on Amazon. I believe Ponte has now been converted to the dogma. 🙂

    Thanks for the Schroeder link 🙂

  10. Thanks for your comment, Chris. Since I wrote this post, it only seems to be becoming more polarized — and the evidence continues to come in that it’s not such a clear-cut case.

    I think you would like Schroeder’s reasoning. He convinced me.

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