Any scientific subject, once sufficiently politicized, warrants skepticism, particularly by those who philosophically oppose, or disagree with those who willingly, recklessly, and religiously embrace it. Skepticism is even more warranted when politicians, not scientists are making all the arguments. Particularly since everything in politics seems to be a means to an end.
Now by “skepticism” I don’t mean to say we must deny or prove false the science in question, but we must carefully examine the science, scientific process used, and especially those scientists involved in it to make sure the matter is in fact scientifically supported or whether it is partially or wholly false or at least not certain.
One blog I read is written by a Statistician, William M. Briggs who regularly comments on the science, and particularly the math and statistics of the Anthropogenic Global Warming (AGW) theory that is so often touted as “settled science.” There are several points which he grants the AGW side is accurate. Firstly, it is clear that we humans have an impact on our environment, and that impact can be both positive and negative depending on our behaviors and the scale of them. Second, it is well known that we pump loads of CO2 into the atmosphere each year and we have every reason to believe that CO2 is a global warming gas (if that’s not actually proven beyond doubt, there’s very good evidence for it).
The point where he debates that AGW is at least “not settled” if not so wrong it needs to go back to the chalk board, is in their models. According to our statistician, and common sense, any good model should do two things well. Number one, it should accurately model, or fit existing data upon which it is built. Number two, it should accurately predict future data, or data not yet in the model and disjoint from the data already in the model.
So far, again according to Mr. Briggs, the AGW models have succeeded at the first requirement, but failed at the second. Does this mean (ie. prove) that AGW is false? No. It does however mean that the science is not only “not settled” but has a lot of work to do before it is.
Mr. Briggs further argues that there are other models for climate that also fit past data and actually do a better job of predicting future data. Does that mean these other (non-global warming) models are correct? No. The wonderful thing about models in this debate is they don’t really prove anything. Yes, a model that accurately predicts future data is compelling and useful, but it is not proof. And the failure of a model to predict future data devalues the model, but doesn’t prove the theory false either.
Mr. Briggs is the first to admit he might be wrong and AGW might be as true as anything. But he makes the point many times that the scientific process is flawed to the extent that the scientists involved are flawed, and that any number of biases, errors, or mistakes resulting from individual or collections of scientists could be present and probably are. In answer to the objection that the science is “peer reviewed” he often brings up studies or articles that were also peer reviewed that are either meaningless, ridiculously flawed, or blatantly wrong.
Again, none of this means that AGW isn’t happening exactly as the scientists say, when the models aren’t predicting the new data accurately, scientists refuse to examine themselves, their own biases or their process of peer review, there is plenty of reason for skepticism.
Furthermore, when politicians pick up any topic of science, I almost have to add the “so-called” prefix to the word “science.” Politicians are smart, smart people – they somehow convince the voting public that they’re better than the alternatives, so we vote for them. They do this by argument, debate, and rhetoric. Mostly, lately they do it by promises, smears of opponents, flattering blocks of voters, and a never ending series of logical fallacies. In this political arena, science is often held up as the great light of reason and truth amid the quagmire of lies, propaganda, and maneuvering that is so prevalent in politics. In this struggle for power, whenever a politician (or political party) sees something in science that might help them gain favor, power, or influence, what reason do they have for not holding onto it?
Now, if both sides immediately sees the value and truth of that science, there’s no political gain to be had, everyone just nods and says “yep that’s how it is” and moves on. Occasionally there’ll be a propaganda war or smears that the other side doesn’t value the particular science, but that ends pretty quickly as the public comes to understand the positions of the sides are actually equal.
But if one side or the other looks at the science and sees a problem with it, or at least that it might not be true (science is always wrong, until it’s right), the side that embraces it can use that opportunity to gain power and influence, while at the same time belittling and smearing opponents. I can think of a number of examples that I will go into later if there’s interest.
This is exactly what has happened with AGW, the democrats have latched onto AGW and republicans have been mostly skeptical. For this democrats have smeared republicans as “deniers” putting them on the level of Holocaust deniers, implicitly and explicitly. This is not unexpected. If republicans had latched onto some bit of science that could change the world, and democrats resisted it, I’m sure mud would be slinging in the opposite direction.
The key points I’m getting at are: 1) Skepticism is both a healthy and necessary part of science 2) Skepticism is not “denying” truth 3) Politics muddies science 4) Science isn’t perfect 5) No one should believe in an aspect of science because politicians say it’s so (or actors or people standing to gain lots of money, etc. – they’re all politicians too even if not in public office).
Mr. Briggs makes very good arguments for all of my points (although imperfect ones in some cases). Again, AGW may actually be happening. That’s what skepticism is: saying “I’m not so sure” rather than “that’s not true”. Yes there are people who believe AGW is false, some rationally, others irrationally. Also, there are those who believe AGW is true, some rationally, others irrationally. I’m not talking about them. I’m talking about skeptics. And anyone who would demean a skeptic of any science, particularly one that is far from proven (“scientific consensus” isn’t proof), would also demean the scientific process.