Some climate activists think so, but skepticism is what gives science its power
I found myself agreeing with much of the criticism directed at Nicholas Dawidoff’s profile of theoretical physicist Freeman Dyson in the New York Times Magazine last Sunday. Although he wrote an engaging and fascinating story, Dawidoff was out of his league when it came to climate science. (Chris Mooney zeroes in on one particularly unfortunate passage here.)
I was also largely unimpressed by Dyson’s views on climate change.
But that is where I parted company with much of the criticism I read. At best, writers like Jim Hoggan at Desmogblog seemed to regard Dyson as a nice, brilliant old coot whose advancing decrepitude simply inclines him toward curmudgeonliness. “Dyson might be forgiven such late-in-life contrarianism,” he wrote.
At worst, writers like Joe Romm accused the Times of promoting the “anti-scientific” views of a “crackpot.” Judging by Romm’s blistering attack, and the commentary I read at his blog and elsewhere, many climate activists seem to believe that any deviation from the consensus view on climate change is not merely incorrect, but an attack on the entire endeavor of science itself.
Dawidoff’s profile — which I enjoyed despite its shortcomings — makes it clear that Dyson has been inclined toward skepticism and an outsider’s stance for his entire career. And in this, he embodies a core value of science itself.
“Science is not a matter of opinion it is a question of data,” Dawidoff wrote. In a way, this was an odd moment of convergence between the writer and his most bitter critic, Joe Romm, on the primacy of pure, objective data. With more data, the truth about climate change will emerge, Dawidoff seemed to be implying. Whereas Romm, of course, believes the data already have proved that we are faced with a climate crisis that demands quick action to forestall a planetary catastrophe. This is simply what the data say, so anyone who expresses skepticism is denying the objective truth — and therefore is anti-scientific. That seems to be the crux of Romm’s and his supporter’s argument.
I sense that underlying these views is a cartoon version of the scientific method taught at the middle school level — the idea that science is a pure, unbiased, inductive process that leads toward the truth of textbooks. In this view, scientists start with objective gathering of data with no biases and presuppositions of what might be found. Next they devise theories to explain what they’ve observed. And with enough further observation, the theory can be proved correct.
Science is not a matter of opinion. It is a question, simply, of data. And that is that.
Karl Popper, one of the greatest philosophers of science of the 20th century, discredited this naive view of science long ago:
“… in fact the belief that we can start with pure observations alone, without anything in the nature of a theory, is absurd. . . Observation is always selective. It needs a chosen object, a definite task, an interest, a point of view, a problem. . .” For a scientist the point of view is provided “by his theoretical interests, the special problem under investigation, his conjectures and anticipations, and the theories which he accepts as a kind of background…” (From Popper’s “Conjectures and Refutations,” pp. 61-62)
Popper wasn’t alone in this belief. Here’s what Albert Einstein wrote to him in a letter:
“I think (like you by the way) that theory cannot be fabricated out of the results of observation, but that it can only be invented.” (From Popper’s “The Logic of Scientific Discovery,” p. 482)
All scientists, Popper said, are biased from the start in the way they seek to learn nature’s lessons — and which lessons they choose to focus on. And the bias of scientists like Dyson is a preference to stand outside the consensus view and swing the axe of skepticism. (More about axes in a minute.)
Without people to swing the axe, science would lose its power. That’s because science cannot actually prove anything correct. Popper showed that such positive proof is a logical impossibility (for reasons beyond the scope of this post). So the only thing science can really prove is that an idea is wrong. How then is progress made? By putting new ideas to the test in a brutal weeding out process — by subjecting new ideas to withering skepticism. And the best that can be said about the ideas left standing is that they are well corroborated.
In essence, Dyson is saying that while the overarching consensus on climate — more CO2 equals a warmer world — is well corroborated, much of what has followed from that is not. He is, Dawidoff argues, demanding more evidence. Of course, other scientists vehemently disagree.
Dyson’s skepticism may make him wrong. But it clearly does not make him, or anyone else with similar views, anti-scientific. As Popper and other philosophers of science have shown, without constant testing, no scientific idea would ever be corroborated enough to warrant faith that it is correct. And that makes a curmudgeon like Dyson, whose preferred stance is to demand more testing and more evidence, wholly within the scientific enterprise.
As Oliver Sachs, the noted author and neurologist, is quoted as saying in the article, “a favorite word of Freeman’s about doing science and being creative is the word ‘subversive.’ He feels it’s rather important not only to be not orthodox, but to be subversive, and he’s done that all his life.”
And Steven Weinberg, a Nobel laureate in physics, put it this way: “I have the sense that when consensus is forming like ice hardening on a lake, Dyson will do his best to chip at the ice.”
Much of the time, scientists like Dyson may well do nothing more than dull their axes as they chip away at the thickening ice of scientific consensus. That appears to be what he is doing in his criticism of some aspects of climate science — especially since his apparent lack of detailed knowledge of the subject leaves him with a less than sharp axe to begin with. But history shows that sometimes, a skeptic with a well placed strike can open a great fissure in the ice, allowing wondrous insights about how nature works to bubble up.
One of the greatest axe wielders of all time was, of course, Albert Einstein. His achievements rested in large measure on his ability to free his imagination from what other scientists believed — and from the three-dimensional prison of everyday experience. As he was formulating his general theory of relativity, Einstein embraced a truly crackpot idea: the possibility of a fourth dimension of time beyond the three ordinary dimensions of space. (I can only imagine what Joe Romm would have said about this had he been blogging back then…) In doing so, he made use of a kind of obscure geometry invented in the mid-1800s by the German mathematician George Friedrich Berhnhard Rieman.
Using that mathematical model as his ax, Einstein took a swing at conventional physics and opened a chasm that profoundly altered our understanding of reality: the discovery that gravity was the result of curvature in the four-dimensional fabric of spacetime.
At first, many scientists dismissed Einstein’s theory. As Helge Kragh, a leading science historian at the University of Aarhus in Denmark, writes in “Cosmology and Controversy”: “To the majority of astronomers, and of course to most laypersons, Einstein’s reconceptualization of the universe was unknown, irrelevant, unintelligible, or objectionable.”
We now know, of course, that Einstein was no crackpot, and that his theory was anything but irrelevant and objectionable. It revolutionized physics by explaining gravity with stunning precision.
Without scientists who are willing to challenge orthodoxy, science would not make such great leaps of discovery. So when critics like Romm describe Dyson as being anti-scientific because of his skepticism, they betray a fundamental lack of understanding of how science actually works. Science needs skeptics with sharp axes to take a crack at consensus — even climate science.