Mark, over at Cosmic Variance, surveys The Perils of Poor Science Journalism, dismantling an article about climate change by Chris Monckton (not George Monbiot). Mark asks:
Could it really be the fact that an important ingredient in the frightening implications of climate models is that scientists from many institutions are deliberately violating the laws of physics to arrive at the conclusions they desire?
This is essentially what Monckton had argued, but no sensible person would really think that that’s how science moves forward. The advantage of science as a way of asking questions about the world is that there are institutional and formal ways to prevent just such biased results being advanced.
Even if climate scientists were trying to fudge the laws of physics, someone would catch that error and the papers would never get published in the first place. Plus, someone else would come along and use the same data with the real laws of physics to produce results more palatable to Monbiot.
This approach to science — the idea that scientific findings are generated from ideology, then supported by data — is widespread and harmful. The Discovery Institute is promoting a book called Darwin’s Conservatives: The Misguided Quest, by DI senior fellow John West. The argument is that “attempts to reconcile conservatism and Darwinian biology misunderstand both,” and that “Darwinism promotes moral relativism rather than traditional morality … utopianism rather than limited government. It is corrosive, rather than supportive, of both free will and religious belief.”
The problem is that, whether or not you agree with any of those things, they are not arguments against a scientific theory. Indeed, if a well-established and extensively tested scientific theory did promote any of those things, it would be a strike against those ideologies, not against the science.
There is another way to look at it.
Regarding climate change, it is simply wrong to assert that a particular set of scientific findings compels some ideological course of action. The decision to do anything at all about climate change rests not just on whether it is happening, but on our decisions about what we want to care about. Someone could, for instance, insist that even if we are causing climate change, and even if it is a problem, it isn’t our problem.
That argument doesn’t tend to carry much weight, though. Even if we agree that we ought to do something if we are changing our climate, and we agree that we are changing the climate, what we do becomes a complicated issue. Do we change our energy usage, change energy generation, put a giant mirror in space? Do we make these changes through taxes and regulation, or by incentives and deregulation?
At least in principle, you can come to the problem of climate change with your own ideological preferences, and use them as starting places for your proposed fix. Science constrains your options by telling you what would or wouldn’t achieve stated goals.
As far as “Darwinism,” it isn’t even clear what we’re talking about. If we’re talking about modern evolutionary biology, then it isn’t evidence for or against the supernatural, free will, traditional or objective morality, let alone limited government or deficit spending. It’s evidence that life on earth shares a common ancestor billions of years ago. That’s all.
Attempts to use that as evidence for or against some ideology are foolhardy. Science constrains the realm of plausible ideologies, I suppose, but ideology does not constrain plausible scientific results. If John West is right that evolutionary biology demands utopianism, off we go to utopia.
Benjamin Franklin was chastised in his day for inventing lightning rods. Clergy and scientists, we are told, “warned that it was ‘as impious to ward off Heaven’s lightnings as for a child to ward off the chastening rod of its father.’ ” How’s that for undermining traditional morality? Was Franklin wrong about lightning, or were his critics wrong in their exegesis?