Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Sound, Fury and Idiots

The scientific illiteracy of the American public is a rising concern of scientists, educators and the handful of public policy-makers who still believe their role is to serve the interests of the people.

While many public opinion polls in the United States seem to reflect a favorable opinion of science and scientists, other polls and studies have betrayed Americans' collective ignorance of basic science.

The condition is manifest in the public debate on issues ranging from education to climate change. A powerful member of the Texas state board of education is proud that he was able to force into the state's textbooks a "teaching" that the planet Earth was created by a supernatural being 6,000 years ago. Deniers of climate science spout nonsense like the following statement from a recent letter to the editor of a southern New Mexico newspaper:

"True science is proven fact."

 In the first place, science needs no adjective such as "true" or "sound."  Science is what it is: disciplined study seeking to explain phenomena through observation, experimentation and logical deduction.  Scientific logic specifically rules out absolute certainty, or what the letter-writer calls "proven fact."  Scientists insist on many tests, and peer review of the tests, all of which must tend in the same direction, before they accept a hypothesis as probably true.  The more evidence, and the more acceptable it is, the higher the probability of truth.

Contrarily, experiment and observation can only falsify hypotheses or even theories (two different things).  When a theory, such as evolution or Einstein's theory of relativity, has a long history of being tested and never falsified, scientists accept that its probability of being true is close to 100 per cent.

Science that indicates the earth is undergoing climate change because of human activity, especially the emission of carbons into the atmosphere, has not yet been sufficiently tested and re-tested to be accorded the same degree of probability.  Neither has it been falsified by any rigorous study, experimentation, observation and deduction followed by intense peer review and re-testing.  Hence science accepts it as probably true, if in need of further rigorous scientific study.  Such study can not only enhance the probability of truth, but also lead to theories that enable the development of technology to solve the problems created by climate change.

Of course, in any massive study that crosses lines of scientific discipline and seeks consilience among them, individual scientists with good credentials may and do disagree with the scientific methodology or conclusions of hypotheses like climate change.  But until they produce rigorous, disciplined, tested and peer reviewed science to falsify the hypothesis, their views are strictly their own, to be regarded as "opinion" and not "science."

Moreover, the motivations of the questioners need to be examined as well as their arguments.  "Follow the money."

If their "work" is funded by folks with a dog in the fight, be wary.  Exxon Mobil, the most profitable corporation in the history of the world, achieved its obscene wealth by extracting, refining and selling fossil fuel to produce energy.  Since the findings of climate science would tend to encourage public policy makers to support development of new, renewable sources of energy, Exxon and its partners in fossil fuel energy have an enormous dog in the fight.  That's why they shower dollars and euros and yen on people with degrees in science to derogate climate science.

To distinguish their propaganda from science, the rent-a-scientists began to attach adjectives to their work.  Hence one Steven Milloy, for example, was hired by the Phillip Morris and RJR tobacco companies to claim that second-hand tobacco smoke did not cause cancer.  Phillip Morris is believed to have invented the term "sound science" at that time.

George W. Bush picked up on it, and his friends at Fox Fiction not only picked up on it, they also hired Milloy to spout his nonsense over the airwaves.  Milloy was paid handsomely by Exxon to denounce climate science, which the Foxies saw as no conflict of interest. Yet even the far right-wing Cato Institute saw the conflict and acted on it.  It stopped sponsoring Milloy's "Junk Science" website and removed him from its list of adjunct scholars.

None of this seems to have diminished his ready acceptance by the world's most scientifically illiterate society.


  1. I think Richard Feynman addressed this phenomena wonderfully in his description of "cargo cult science".

    Really - as you imply - much of what gets called "science" in the popular media today is really nothing more than marketing.

  2. Feynman's favorite anecdote, about the brown-throated thrush, has some relevance, too!