In the current wars over global warming we are seeing an example of scientists behaving badly. I am not referring just to the hacked e-mails that everyone is talking about. Far more disturbing to me is the recent tactic of labeling any scientist who expresses skepticism about the extent of anthropogenic global warming a “global warming denier,” as though they were somehow comparable to holocaust deniers and thus both willfully ignorant and morally repulsive.

Don’t get me wrong: There is a great deal of kooky pseudoscience in the world, and it should be branded as such. Not all ideas deserve to be taken seriously, and there is absolutely nothing wrong with the scientific community trying to marginalize ideas that really are kooky. But skepticism about the extent of anthropogenic global warming is not in that category. How do I know that? More importantly, how is the average non-scientist to tell? Are there indicia of pseudoscience by which the man on the street can recognize it? Not infallible ones, but there are some rules of thumb.

First, pseudoscientific ideas usually involve (at least implicitly, even if their proponents are unaware of it) a rejection of a huge mass of well-tested and well-established scientific theory. For example, “Creation Science”, which claims that the universe is only a few thousand years old, requires the abandonment of most of what we know about geology, astrophysics, cosmology, and biology, not to mention a certain amount of nuclear physics. Scientific knowledge is a highly reticulated structure of mutually supporting facts and inferences. Every well-established scientific fact is held in place by numerous links to other known facts, both closely related and seemingly distant. There are many scientific facts the denial of which would bring vast expanses of the edifice of human knowledge crashing down. The same is true in other branches of knowledge, such as history. History can be revised, but only up to a point. One might question some detail of Roman history, for example, but to say that the Roman Empire never existed would make nonsense of historical knowledge as a whole.

The scientists who are questioning the “consensus view” on anthropogenic global warming are not proposing such wholesale revisions. Quite the contrary. All the scientists who are involved in these climate controversies, whether skeptics or ardent alarmists, are working within the same basic framework of modern scientific theory. They accept the validity of the same laws of thermodynamics, chemistry, fluid dynamics, and so forth. They disagree only in their analysis of a specific physical system that everyone agrees is tremendously complex.

Second, genuinely crackpot theories have essentially no following in the scientific community. At most, one can find at the fringes of serious science a few supporters of such ideas. If one looks into their records (not hard to do in the internet age) one generally discovers that they have done very little actual research, and what research they have done is in fields only remotely related to their odd ideas. I will give a couple of examples without using names. There is a fellow who champions the idea that the earth is completely motionless and stands at the center of the universe (“geocentrism”). While he himself has no scientific training, he has a sidekick/coauthor who many years ago obtained a Ph.D. in physics from a well-known Midwestern university. However, that “scientist” never did any research after obtaining his degree and never obtained a position at any university or scientific research institute. There is another fellow who for years has been trumpeting nonsensical ideas about relativity and gravity in books and articles, even in respectable periodicals. He too has no scientific training, but his scientific guru, now deceased, was a man whose record of published research was paper thin and lay in a field far removed from gravitational theory. This is the almost invariable pattern of phony science.

By contrast, there are very well-known, highly respected and accomplished scientists, knowledgeable in the relevant fields, who are openly skeptical about various aspects the “consensus view” on global warming. Just to mention two: Prof. Richard S. Lindzen of MIT, one of the world’s leading climatologists, and Prof. Will Happer of Princeton University, who was for several years the director of energy research at the United States Department of Energy (one of the main funders of scientific research in this country). Nor are Lindzen and Happer alone. Scientists who share their views may be in the minority, but it is hardly an insignificant minority.

What is going on then? Why are scientists who are skeptics vilified and the attempt made to marginalize them? Something has obviously gone terribly awry. The tremendous hurry some people are in to achieve a “scientific consensus” is driven, I believe, by two factors. One is panic. I think that some people feel that we cannot afford to wait until the evidence is more solid; we have to do something now or it might be too late. The other factor is ideological passion. The climate change issue has been mixed up with people’s political views and their sense of what it means to be progressive and enlightened. The ideological passion is, to me, more disturbing. Panic, after all, usually subsides in time; but the politicization of science might have longer term consequences if it corrupts the attitudes of scientists toward their craft.

The pirated e-mails are indeed revealing in this regard. It is notoriously easy to slant one’s data analysis unconsciously. And it is quite common for scientists to emphasize the data that support their theories and to downplay or find contrived explanations for the data that doesn’t. That is normal. But I think it is the rare scientist who would admit to himself, let alone to a colleague, that he was actually trying to “hide” some important information and who would even use that word.

Ideologues who would trample down legitimate scientific questions raised by their entirely qualified colleagues are risking terrible damage to science in the long run. If it turns out, as it might, that the global warming fears are overblown or ill-founded, the credibility of the scientific establishment will suffer a grievous blow from which it will be hard to recover. It will open the door for all the real kooks and purveyors of pseudoscience, who will be that much harder to resist in the future. And what if at some point in the future an environmental catastrophe looms about which there really is a solid consensus in the scientific community? And what if at that point it really is only kooks who deny it? Won’t non-scientists be disposed to say, “We’ve heard that all before?” We believed you the last time and you led us astray?

Articles by Stephen M. Barr

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