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Friday, August 31, 2007
Science Trumped by Human Nature

Scientific Allliance Newsletter

We have benefited enormously from scientific advance and its practical applications. Humans are the ultimate generalists and highly adaptable because they observe and learn. The scientific method takes this one stage further: we put forward hypotheses and do experiments to validate them. If the hypothesis doesn’t fit the observations, we reject it. But if it does fit the facts, that doesn’t prove it’s right. Science should continually test theories so that we become more certain of their correctness, but we can never be absolutely sure.

Post-modern thinking teaches that there are no hard truths, that scientific “facts” are social constructs. In one sense, that’s true, since we can never provide absolute proof of any theory. But, taken to the extreme, this school of thought is essentially anti-science and leads to the dangerous tendency we see today of decisions being made on the basis of people’s feelings rather than any objective basis. That leads to belief- rather than evidence-based policy. It also leads us away from the Enlightenment.

But science also is not a perfect, foolproof system; neither is it perfectible. The scientific method, for all its advantages as a basis for decision-making, and for all the benefits it has undoubtedly brought us, is only an overlay on human nature.

Since there remain large areas of uncertainly the scientific method should mean that we continue to make observations until the evidence becomes compelling. But the majority of people now believe global warming – human induced global warming – to be an established truth. And the reason for this is typical crowd behaviour: when enough establishment scientists make their views known, have them amplified by the media and supported by the environmental movement, the majority of people take this as the truth. It’s the Emperor’s new clothes once again. Those who play the role of the little boy pointing out that the Emperor is in fact naked are derided and attacked, often in very personal ways. The establishment does not tolerate dissent well.

So, what will happen? Ultimately, the whole debate will be settled on the basis of real evidence. Whatever policy is implemented in the meantime is likely to be immaterial in terms of influencing the climate, although it will consume resources, slow growth and actually have a real negative impact on those at the bottom of the pile. But at some stage – perhaps by 2010, perhaps later – we could reach a tipping point where it becomes clear to the majority of scientists, commentators and the public that, whatever is happening to the climate, Mankind is not the major contributor, and cannot reset the thermostat by reducing carbon dioxide emissions. Alternatively, real confirmatory evidence that carbon dioxide is the main driver may be found, and those critics with open minds will change their views.

If a tipping point is reached where the current received wisdom is overturned, it’s trust in the scientific establishment which will be the loser, and that could lead to further erosion in the general public’s regard for the scientific method. Human nature would have trumped science, and science would suffer.

Read more here or got the see the newsletter at the Scientific Alliance website here.

Posted on 08/31 at 02:12 PM
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