Chinese Whispers of Climate Science
Forbes, Peter, The Independent (London, England)
Bitter quarrels about data on global warming have focused on how science tells truths and what happens when it doesn't. Peter Forbes looks at the new books that help readers separate fact from fraud
The culture shock of the moment is that scientists have joined politicians and footballers as figures deemed to be worth hacking. So long as science produced technological marvels and a deeper understanding of life's processes, scientists were generally allowed to potter in the laboratory and to police themselves. Wasn't science supposed to be a self-correcting enterprise? But when they started to tell us that our whole way of life had to change to alleviate the effects of global warming, their actions came under intense scrutiny. On what authority do scientists assume such a privileged position?
Science can be trusted because it comprises an immense body of interlocking data and interpretation. Where there are loose ends, that is the cutting edge, the current research that keeps working scientists busy. But, as Lewis Wolpert pointed out forcefully in The Unnatural Nature of Science (1992), science is not a more rigorous form of common sense. It is often deeply counter-intuitive. No one thought up the idea of radio because it seemed like a good, practical, commonsensical thing to do and really useful to boot. It is an unlikely phenomenon predicted by the profound mathematical equations of electromagnetism formulated by James Clerk Maxwell in the 1860s. Similarly, atomic energy or the four-base DNA genetic code of all living things.
But when we are talking about matters of life and death or technologies that impinge on our livelihood, science inevitably butts up against our commonsense notions, emotions, beliefs and prejudices. That's where the trouble starts. In the philosopher Massimo Pigliucci's entertaining and valuable guide to sorting the scientific grain from the chaff of pseudoscience, Nonsense on Stilts (University of Chicago Press, 13) he makes a distinction that clarifies some of our current problems. There are two kinds of bone fide science: one is law-based and experimental, cut-and-dried as a crystal chalice or a perfect intertwined double helix of DNA. Then there are historical sciences such as evolution or climate research that employ "the methods of a crime detective".
Although almost every member of the human race has a whodunit mindset and many people follow notorious trials and disaster enquiries with intense attention to detail, this faculty seems to desert them when it comes to science in the public arena. After a welter of admittedly complicated and less-than-definitive data, a few dodgy climate emails seem to have induced a premature verdict in many minds.
More persistent sleuthing is required. We send people to prison, and formerly used to execute them, on the basis of the balance of inference in evidence. Isn't the evidence that will shape our fate worthy of equally stringent attention, and shouldn't there be a presumption of innocence? Those who argue that historical subjects such as evolution and climatology can never be truly scientific ought for consistency's sake to argue against the legal process of assembling a criminal case by the interlocking mesh of evidence.
In science and law, the process is exactly the same: once one clue is obtained, inferences lead to predictions which, if corroborated, convince the respective relevant bodies (jury in law; peers in science) that a correct interpretation of events has been attained. A good example is the hardening case for the extinction of the dinosaurs, along with a high proportion of all species on earth, 65 millions years ago, through a catastrophic meteorite collision.
The strongest pointer is the existence of a strange worldwide iridium-rich stratum in the rocks at a division between the Cretaceous and the Palaeogene periods dated to that time. …