Saturday, 3 June 2017

Donald Trump, climate science is not the science you're looking for

Theoretical physicist Lawrence Krauss spoke in Auckland recently. He gave an hour-long sermon drawn from the "Doomsday Clock" document published by the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, of which he is a sponsor and chairman.

I think it's fair to say Dr Krauss doesn’t like US President Donald Trump. It's not clear if the feeling is mutual, but the scientist probably appreciates the 45th President even less after this week. Climate change is high on Dr Krauss' list of deadly, dangerous and downright dynamic developing disasters dooming Donald’s domain.

I didn’t watch Mr Trump abandon the Paris Agreement on television, but I hear the speech was mostly good with some small inaccuracies, notably about how staying in the agreement would only reduce global temperatures by two-tenths of one degree Celsius. It’s actually more like a six-tenths of one degree by 2100, for a cost of $100 trillion. That’s trillion, with a “T.” And only if everyone in the agreement sticks to it.


Mr Trump's little temperature hiccup is a pity because when you stand up against the Machine one needs to be right all the time, not just most of the time. According to Dr Krauss, the science is in. And his Bulletin editor-in-chief John Mecklin agrees “the science is clear” saying “Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw the United States from the Paris Agreement on climate change has no basis in fact.”

But none of this squabbling helps to see what's actually gone wrong. To do that, we need to split three things apart: the science, the politics in Washington and the international politics. Of course, the mere need to split these three indicates that they are, in normal circumstances, very much joined. Which should raise red flags.

International politics is downstream from Washington politics, which in turn is informed by academics. To scientists, Mr Trump isn’t simply acting politically he is directly countermanding their authority. But who are they? By what means did they achieve positions of authority? It certainly wasn't democracy. And do their disciplines use the wonderful error-correcting quality of Popperian science? Or has this been, in some way, neutralised or bypassed? Was it never there in the first place? These are good questions.

The problem, as I see it, is twofold. First, empirical evidence is not experimental evidence. Nature is not a controlled experiment. For the perils of uncontrolled experiments, see Richard Feynman. It's also worth pausing to consider that the Lysenkoists also called their work "science."

Unless one adopts a tautology -- in which science does not include pseudoscience -- "science" is whatever the people who practice and organise it say it is. More specifically, since pretty much all "science" is funded by the government, the working definition of "science" tends to wash out as "whatever my government decides to fund and calls science." No, I don't like this either.

This all boils down to the circular statement that climatology can't possibly be pseudoscience because it's funded by the US Government. And Washington (unlike Moscow) would never fund pseudoscience. This is a rather broken epistemology, to say the least.

Do I have it right? If not, where's the error? If so, what information do you have about the US Government that justifies trust? And if Washington isn't to be trusted, what institution is? The IPCC? What makes you trust those humans instead? If the field of climate science as we see it today was not scientific, but rather pseudoscientific, how would you know? And who would you expect to step in and shut it down? Again, all good questions.

Imagine if we had a couple of toy Earths to experiment with. Scientists could isolate all the variables and set different CO2 concentrations on otherwise identical planets. Compared to the results of those experiments, climate science's present "empirical" evidence looks pretty lame, I think. In fact, anyone who could perform such a controlled experiment, but chose not to, and instead relied on the natural experiment of driving our SUVs while maintaining full employment of an enormous contingent of climate scientists, would be immediately, and quite accurately, described as a pseudoscientist.

Second, most people criticising Mr Trump appear to be misinformed about the nature of science. They are under the impression that scientists are motivated by curiosity and the pursuit of truth. This has never entirely been the case, but perhaps they used to be motivated by such things before we decided scientists should have money and power. Or, more accurately, before we decided that science should be part of the State.

The problem is not just government funding. The problem is the triangular relationship between granting agencies, scientists and the press.

A good rule of thumb is that anyone whose name appears regularly in the media is a media prostitute. Think of all the scientists whose names you know because you see them in newspapers. I'm sure they're all good people doing wonderful work. But they are all prostitutes. Including Dr Krauss.

To the vast majority of scientists, far more than journals (because no one reads those anyway) they deeply desire their work to be published in the most powerful journal in the world: the New York Times. This makes perfect sense because all power flows upward. Also, those granting agencies are organs not just of the State, but of the political system. They have to fight like hell to get their cash. There is never enough money to go around. So in this system, funding is directly proportional to the quantity of headline space their prostitutes can score. If it wasn't so insidious, I'd be impressed.

Journalists, in turn, can't get enough. And why wouldn't they? They are the controllers of the universe. They stick out their fingers and they alone go bang. Who cares if the average science reporter has only an undergraduate degree? Has the average business reporter ever worked for a real business? Has the average war reporter ever fought in a war? Would these reporters suddenly be "objective" if they had done these things? Ignorance, as usual, turns out to be wisdom.

And just as there is never enough money to go around, there are never enough stories. Climate change is marvellous because it generates a permanent stream of content-free, but not quite monotonous, press. Observant scientists figured out long ago that finding a way to work "climate change" into any kind of research almost guarantees their chances of getting funded. So, of course, climate change appears everywhere (I thought it was the whisky keeping me up at night...).

Obviously, climate change is not the cutting edge of science. The cutting edge of science doesn't look like such a joke. That's because those scientists know what they're doing. Sure, there’s plenty of "empirical evidence" for climate change. But it is also all generated by researchers who are operating under the same set of incentives that brought us "Global Warming Could be Reversing a Trend that Led to Bigger Human Brains," which led to this insanity and therefore became true. An entirely predictable result.

The whole system is one giant conflict of interest. The only effect of the Paris Agreement appears to be to tax everyone and create more jobs for the scholar caste. It should not at all be surprising this caste has lifted climate change to such a glorious quasitheological status. My only worry is if the word "science" remains nested with Official Truth for much longer, it may have to be discarded. Then we’ll really see some power games.

I can't see any systematic fix for this. There’s far too much money to be made. The climate change industry is an academic fraud of mind-boggling proportions, so "solving" it is the last thing anyone wants to do.

But no matter what, I think it's simply unhealthy for scientists to take money from anyone who has an interest in steering their results. And that includes the State. In fact, it goes double, triple and quadruple for the State - which is not, contrary to popular belief, endowed with divine powers.

Scientists appear not to have applied their considerable critical energies to the problem of drawing the line between science and "science." How much of what we see as science, rather than "science," is the product of uncontrolled experiments or subjective judgments? And what would happen to Dr Krauss’ worldview if we shove it back over the line?

No comments: