BPSDB Do some areas of science matter more? Should we ignore some of the attacks on science and focus on others? Can evolution be wrong and geology right? or astronomy wrong and climate science right? Does the US Chamber of Commerce attack on climate science matter more than the assault on evolution?
No, because these attacks are not even wrong. Even though they try to masquerade as scientific skepticism about the results of scientific inquiry, they are anything but.
They are outside the realm of science and scientific practice, and regardless of their specific intent they are an attempt at changing the definition of science itself. Their goal is to change science from being based on empirical observation to one based on politics and/or ideology. They are attacks on the very basis of how we know what we know, which is an attack on all of science.
To date all of the Denier attempts to “scientifically” refute both evolution and climate science have proven to be bad science; flawed in methodology, analysis, interpretation, and/or other. All of the supposed challenges have been falsified using the standard scientific methods. They have not been able to “win” by following the rules of science, so they are trying to get “the rules” thrown out by attacking the fundamentals of what science is. The attack is disguised as simple skepticism, and probably most of those carrying out the assault do not even understand what they are doing, but that does not make it less real.
To understand how and why that is so it is necessary to briefly review what science is and how it operates in modernity. This is written for the lay reader and necessarily somewhat inexact and oversimplified, but hopefully clearly communicates why the answer to all of the above questions is an absolute no!
For our own convenience it is conceptually and administratively useful to give names to fields, sub-disciplines, departments and so on, but that is not how reality is. The nature of the sub-atomic particles that make up stones are the same as those that make stars and starfish. Galaxies may seem to be distinct, yet matter and energy move from one to another. The chemical reactions occurring in the mitochondria of primates and worms follow the same rules as apply to chemical reactions on lifeless planets and deep space. Reality is not arranged as fields and disciplines.
Science is just science, no matter where it is applied. Names like “geology” and “astronomy” merely inform of us of what particular part of reality science is being used to explore in a given context, but at it’s core it is always simply science, a way of knowing.
One of the fundamental lies at the basis of the Denier attacks is the fiction that only Evolution or climate change science is being challenged. This is a lie at more than one level, only one of which I will consider in this post.
The scientific method and philosophies are the same whether the subject of investigation is climate change, evolution, string theory, cell metabolism or calcite formation. While particular methods and equipment will vary (and even those far less than people imagine) the fundamental methodologies and philosophies do not. The scientific method cannot be “right” when used to study neurochemistry, but “wrong” when used in paleoclimatology.
A simple analogy might be that of two simple calculations:
The “rules” of mathematics do not change just because the equations are different, or done for different purposes. As long as all steps are done correctly the answer will be “right” in both cases. It is not possible for the same rules to be right when used for engineering, wrong when used for chemistry, right when balancing our home accounts, wrong when used to balance our neighbours’ home accounts.
The claim that one answer is “wrong” must show where an error occurred. It is not possible for one answer to be right and the other wrong if all of the steps in both calculations have been done correctly.
Not unless our basic understanding of simple mathematics is also wrong. If our basic understanding of mathematics is wrong, then all mathematics is wrong.
And if there is nothing wrong with the rules of mathematics, and all steps of both calculations are done correctly, then both answers will be correct. The fact that one of the answers does not suit someone’s political or ideological agenda does not make it “wrong.” It most certainly does not prove the method is wrong.
In the same spirit “science” is a set of rules about method, methods, and philosophies. These “rules” are about how practice science, how to think about science, how to do science. Exactly how to apply the rules to the real world is usually not as clean and clear as it is with simple mathematics, but the rules are just as real and inflexible.
There are many elements to how science goes about determining what it accepts as “true” at any given time, tried and tested ways that work. Naturally they are open to refinement, even being completely replaced if a better way(s) can be found.
Science can only flourish in an atmosphere of informed, rational, empirical skepticism. The questioning, testing, and scrutiny must be ongoing, and all the better when it is also cross discipline and from outside of the sciences entirely. However, attacks based on lies, misinformation and frauds that are ideologically or politically motivated only hurt science.
The US Chamber of Commerce petition to the Environmental Protection Agency is allegedly to determine the scientific facts with respect to climate change, but in reality it is an attempt to redefine how scientific facts are determined. Not by continued study, the scientific method, falsification and peer scrutiny, but by a political process. This is an attack on the scientific method itself.
Equally the efforts by the proponents of so called Intelligent Design are not merely seeking to have their religious beliefs taught in schools, they want them taught in science classes. They are using the political process to try and define what is science, and hence what science is.
If an unverifiable fable like Intelligent Design is science, why not every unverifiable delusion? Why not the Flying Spagetti Monster? Not just in biology, but in all of science, because there is actually no such thing as “just” biology, chemistry or geology etc; there is just science.
Science is not the only way of knowing, however it is a legitimate way of knowing of incalculable value, and it’s value depends on not being corrupted. The politicization of science has always had negative consequences for the public well being, from the Russian crop failures to the billions at risk from climate change.
Every such attack is serious because they attack science itself. We cannot fight all battles all of the time, and indeed we have lost some, and will undoubtedly lose more. However, we must never pretend that those losses were not serious, or that the resulting corruption is actually science. It’s not, and never can be.
This particular post came about as a response to Climatesight’s Climate Change and Evolution, for which I am grateful. Even though I seem to come down in absolute disagreement with Climatesight’s conclusion, I believe her argument is really more about prioritizing limited resources than ascribing absolute value. Regardless, it has given me the context for a series of posts about the assault on science that will hopefully weave in with the other threads on this blog.
I’ll take it as given that search engines allow everyone to find the “standard” resources on what science is and how it works, so I’ll just mention a couple that you otherwise might not encounter:
I would recommend John Mashey on how to learn about science for more within the specific context on climate science. It can be a little confusing since it was written as separate comments in a discussion rather than as a coherent essay, but there’s a lot of gold in there for those that care to look.
In that spirit, what are your favourite “hidden gems” on doing science? Please leave a comment linking individual posts, blogs or sites and I will share them in future posts. Thanks
“Many of America’s most important commercial crops require between 400 and 1800 hours each winter when the temperature is below 45 degrees Fahrenheit.” Earth Gauge
We give our consent every moment that we do not resist.
Denier “Challenge” aka Deathwatch Update: Day 315 … still no evidence.
Comments that are not relevant to the post that they appear under or the evolving discussion will simply be deleted, as will links to Denier spam known to be scientific gibberish