Thursday, December 17, 2009

An Important Science Lesson

What did we learn from the CRU e-mail leak and the less-than-flattering "inside baseball" look at the way that climate scientists talk to each other and about their peers?

We learned that scientists are not Vulcans. Rather than being passionless, logic-driven, rational creatures, scientists are very much like anybody else: driven to fits of pique, paranoia, close-mindedness, mean-spiritedness, and just generally being jerks.

It is important that everyone let that sink in, particularly you non-scientists out there. Most particularly you non-scientists who are journalists or public policy makers. The scientist you speak to may, in fact, be pushing an emotional agenda that has little or nothing to do with the issues at hand.

You can understand scientists by remembering that there are two Thrilling Life Moments for scientists.

Thrilling Life Moment #1 is to discover the way that something works that nobody else ever figured out before!

I've been fortunate enough to experience this on a few occasions, and let me tell you: it's better than booze, better than drugs, and better than sex. It's the ultimate ego gratification. You have figured out how to explain some phenomenon that nobody else ever could. And the more people that tried and failed, the bigger the high is.

The best part is when you roll out your controversial theory and your peers reject it, but then you spool out data, and proof, and challenge them to refute it, and when they can't they have to admit that you were right.

This is particularly satisfying when the peers who at first doubt you are people that you revile. And, since we're not Vulcans, scientists revile as many people as anybody else. Since familiarity breeds contempt, the most numerous group of people that we scorn is other scientists.

Which brings us to the Thrilling Life Moment #2 for scientists: the moment when you prove some moronic jackass wrong.

Yeah, you read that right: some moronic jackass. He might wear a lab coat, and he might have a PHD, but if he makes some pseudo-scientific claim that you can prove wrong, he's a moronic jackass.

The rules of the scientific method are well established, but they are essentially the rules of dominance and submission. I make a claim, and I back it up. If you test it and find it correct, you must submit to my interpretation. If you prove me wrong, I must withdraw my assertion and submit to your rebuttal.

It's all a question of who rolls over for whom.

So we should not be surprised that, when given the chance, climate scientists seized the opportunity to do both things at the same time when they were aided and abetted by an ignorant and partisan press.

These scientists were allowed to make sweeping claims without any verification at all (Moment #1) and summarily dismiss their critics as a group of cranks and morons (Moment #2).

As their egos grew, so too did their hubris: it was not enough to forecast warming, it had to be severe warming. Then dangerous warming. And finally apocalyptic, cataclysmic, the-end-of-humanity warming.

All the while they got to engage in a festival of masturbatory self-congratulation while shutting out any dissenting voices, because not agreeing with them became a sign of mental illness.

Rather than recognizing their models for what they were, they were uncritically accepted by the press and by politicians, neither of whom were capable of analyzing their work with anything approaching competence. And these moronic jackasses themselves were allowed to set the terms of debate, which they of course set to be as favorable to them as possible.

So in short, the arrogant led the blind, while the child yelling "the emperor has no clothes" was sent to the insane asylum.

This is not a good state of affairs. And it comes about because the public perception of scientists as Vulcan-like robots incapable of human greed and venality is spectacularly wrong and willfully ignorant of the basic fact that scientists, like everybody else, have emotions and do stupid things and often think only of their own self-interest.

Of course the scientists at CRU didn't want to share their data or their models. Nobody likes to be the "moronic jackass" in Thrilling Life Moment #2.

But science is absolutely not advanced by wallowing in our own human insecurities and failings. It's only advanced when we take the risk of being that moronic jackass by trying for our own Thrilling Life Moment #1.

No matter how afraid we are to do so.