Musings of a Recovering Lutheran: "The science is settled because we say so!"
O LORD, God of my salvation,
         I have cried out day and night before You.
Let my prayer come before You;
         Incline Your ear to my cry. 

Psalm 88:1-2 (NKJV)

Thursday, February 12, 2015

"The science is settled because we say so!"

The idea that skeptics of global warming are ignorant of science appears to be a myth.

Are global warming skeptics simply ignorant about climate science?

Not so, says a forthcoming paper in the journal Advances in Political Psychology by Yale Professor Dan Kahan. He finds that skeptics score about the same (in fact slightly better) on climate science questions.

The study asked 2,000 respondents nine questions about where they thought scientists stand on climate science.

On average, skeptics got about 4.5 questions correct, whereas manmade warming believers got about 4 questions right.

One question, for instance, asked if scientists believe that warming would “increase the risk of skin cancer.” Skeptics were more likely than believers to know that is false.

Skeptics were also more likely to correctly say that if the North Pole icecap melted, global sea levels would not rise. One can test this with a glass of water and an ice cube – the water level will not change after the ice melts. Antarctic ice melting, however, would increase sea levels because much of it rests on land.

The rise of "settled science" is a troubling development in science, since it appears to be little more than telling skeptics of a particular theory to be quiet. In reality there is no such thing as settled science: obsolete scientific theories are abandoned by scientists because the evidence no longer supports them, not because some authoritarian-minded group declares the debate over and henceforth heretics must repent. "Settled science" turns the scientific method on its head by replacing experimentation and observation with polling and (sometimes) bullying. In fact, "settled science" advocates sometimes bear an eerie resemblance to religious extremists who feel their beliefs have been blasphemed.

Perhaps the two scientific areas most damaged by the “settled science” myth are the theories of evolution and global warming. There are plenty of good scientists who hold a variety of views on these theories. But you wouldn’t know that if you relied on the popular media and the journalists who are enamored with the “settled science” myth. According to these journalists, there are the rational, intellectual “good guys” (supporters of the theories of global warming and evolution) and the anti-science anti-intellectual “bad guys” (anyone who dares to be skeptical). Unfortunately, there are some scientists – who really should know better! – who take the easy way out and embrace "settled science" to stop pesky debates before they start.

Certainly the history of science shows us that scientific debate can be heated at times, but is stifling dissent in the name of “settled science” really such a good idea? Why not follow the evidence where it leads? And are the theories of evolution and global warming really so fragile they cannot withstand some scrutiny?

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