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Newsletter 31st August 2007

Science trumped by human nature

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.

The pronouncements of post-modern philosophers may be anathema to scientists, but scientists are also human, with the same nature and tendency to judge. After all, scientific investigation only provides evidence based on the question asked and the experiment carried out. Asking the question in a different way may give a subtly (or not so subtly) different set of data. The data itself is subject to analysis by human intellect, and individuals may place different weights on particular facts. So, from seemingly the same question or data, different people may draw different conclusions. And, although a scientific approach requires us to try to disprove a theory, in practice human nature leads us to ask the sort of questions, and collect the sort of data, which supports the views we already hold. Research then becomes a game of amassing evidence to support a dearly-held view while finding ways to explain away conflicting results.

This tendency to establish “proven” theories which “everyone” believes means that important scientific advances are often made only in the teeth of opposition. Most people behave more according to their human nature than their scientific discipline. There are numerous examples of theories now considered effectively to be established fact which were initially scorned by the scientific establishment: the circulation of blood, plate tectonics, atomic structure, to name but three. In most cases, this is just the result of intellectual inertia and scepticism, but there is also an element of belief. The current debate about the drivers of climate change is a modern case in point.

The terms global warming or climate change have a very specific connotation in today’s society. They are shorthand for anthropogenic climate change, the root cause of which is the increased level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, caused primarily by the industrial use of fossil fuels – coal, oil and gas.

The great majority of the scientific establishment adheres firmly to this hypothesis, on the basis of which highly prescriptive and centralised policy changes are proposed to fundamentally reduce the carbon-intensity of modern society. Thus, this is not just a bitter scientific controversy: it is a debate which has the potential to shape the future direction of society. What is more, it’s a debate where apparently the majority of scientists are aligned with environmentalists.

The received wisdom is that the warming trend over the past century bears the unmistakable imprint of Mankind’s activities, is unprecedented and could have catastrophic consequences if allowed to continue. The basis for this is a belief that the effects of all natural climate drivers are understood and that changes which cannot be explained by them must be due to human influence. This is a plausible hypothesis, and one which should be tested, but there remain large gaps in our knowledge and a number of pieces of seemingly contradictory evidence.

The point is that an apparent majority of scientists have seen enough to convince themselves that humans are the primary driver of current climate change, and that something must be done about it. Having reached this conclusion, they rightly continue to amass evidence, but there is an inbuilt bias both in the questions asked and the way that data is viewed. There will equally be some critics of this view who will focus only on the evidence which supports their view, rather than trying to be objective.

This is normal human behaviour in both cases. If you think that someone is wrong, the natural tendency is to bring forward your own arguments rather than look at areas of agreement. The debate gets more polarised and more subjective. Science takes second place.

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.