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Monday, July 27, 2009

 

It’s all about Science Envy

Fellows of the Discovery Institute seem to be over represented in fringe groups, Paul Nelson is a Young Earth Creationist, the Godfather of Intelligent Design Phillip Johnson and DI fellow Jonathan C. Wells have signed on to AIDS denial and Guillermo Gonzalez has signed on to a climate change denialist list.

Topically, given the debate about science communication that has been happening in the wake of of “Unscientific America”, in a recent article William Dembski dives into the whole Global Warming Denialism thing [1].

Ironically, at that same time in the 1970s, scientists were concerned not that the earth was warming but that it was cooling. The scare back then was global cooling!

Unfortunately for Dr. Dembski, this is a complete myth. There was no global cooling scare in the 70’s. While this is an indication of the level of fact checking involved in the article, more important is the subtext in this article, which makes more clear than ever the real concern of the Intelligent Design movement.

And this is the naked, unadulterated envy (and fear) of the power of scientists.

Holdren nevertheless represents the powerful new caste of scientists who have appointed themselves the guardians of humanity and the priests of a new social order. .... Their strategy is always the same: Scientists have discovered a problem that, as their models and data (often falsely) demonstrate, is on the verge of getting out of control; now, if only we do exactly as they say, we'll avoid catastrophe.

Stand in awe at the power of us scientists, we only have to use big words, show lots of data, click our fingers and politicians will um, er, well ..... ignore us actually (see also here). Until real disaster actually does strike.

Take air pollution: Scientists had been pointing out the issues with air pollution for years, but nothing really started getting underway until the killer smogs hit London. With acid rain, it was only after large swaths of forests began dying and lakes became sterile did anybody actually take action on scientists warnings. Collapsing fisheries? Scientists keep on warning about the consequences of overfishing but people tend to take notice only after a fishery has collapsed, and then don’t even put in decent fishing controls. Ozone hole? Despite well researched chemistry no one really listened until the ozone hole appeared over the Antarctic, then they scurried moved sluggishly, until finally we have bans on most ozone destroying CFC’s.

The true pattern is that scientists find an important issue, back it up with careful research, and have to fight persistently to get governments, businesses and the general public to take notice. Global warming is a case in point.

Now the scientific priesthood is telling us that the earth faces catastrophe if we don't mend our carbon-emitting ways and do everything we can to prevent global warming ("cap and trade" is only the beginning). .... In any case, the pattern is always the same: Find a problem, catastrophize it and make scientists the saviors.

According to George Marshal (New Scientist, 25 July 2009, page 24), it has taken 44 years of research that cost around $3 billion dollars per year, plus symposia conferences, journal articles, popular articles, documentaries and innumerable internet postings to ahh, convince politicians to come together and procrastinate. And still 40% of the UK population and over 50% of the US populations do not accept that human greenhouse gas emissions are changing the climate WWMAKD [2].

Yeah, scientists, feel our power, tremble at our might (that was sarcasm, by the way).

Even this weak, pathetic shadow of power that we do have provokes Dr. Dembski.

But isn't science our best, most reliable form of knowledge, and shouldn't we therefore defer to scientists?

Scientists are as fallible as the rest of us, as are their scientific theories. Indeed, the history of science is filled with failed scientific theories that once were confidently asserted and now have been radically modified or even abandoned

Yeah, naughty, naughty scientists; actually paying attention to evidence and modifying our theories in the light of actual data.

When John Snow closed down the Broad Street Pump the Germ theory of Disease was only just being devised. It would be significantly changed and revised multiple times before being properly formulated by Koch, and would keep on being revised multiple times since then (viruses and prions being new additions to the fold). Despite the deficiencies of the germ theory at the time, Snows actions lead to sewage and clean water works that would save millions from disease, Lister’s work would revolutionise surgery, and Koch would revolutionise medicine.

Should we have not put in sewerage works or ignored antiseptics until the germ theory of disease was in its modern form?

Science is not perfect by any means, but if you want practical solutions to practical problems it is the only way to go.

In claiming to find and then resolve problems that threaten to overwhelm humanity, they have invaded the political scene, commanding vast research moneys and attempting to force on the wider population government-sanctioned programs for social control.

Scientists, fear us, we will take your children and feed them the best available knowledge.

Of course science invades the political scene, if we want to reduce childhood deaths, prevent the spread of hepatitis C (let alone AIDS), respond to the spread of H1N1 (the flu formerly known as swine flu), slow the rise of antibacterial resistance by limiting antibiotic use in animal husbandry, make informed decisions on genetically modified foods, do anything which requires an evidence base, it will of course require science by its very nature (and involve politics because these things all involve governments at various levels).

An example is the response to HIV in Australia. The advent of HIV/AIDS in Australia resulted in an academic-grass roots collaboration which amongst other things brought about the execrable “Death goes bowling” ad (but this played a huge role in raising AIDS awareness), testing of blood donations to prevent HIV contamination of blood stocks, the “If it’s not on it’s not on” campaign, where giant condoms were plastered across buses and trams, needle exchange programs and safe needle disposal containers in public toilets.

This is exactly the sort of thing where science invades the political sphere, where we want it to invade the political sphere, and I have no doubt the Australian approach would have given Dr. Dembski a conniption fit. Certainly our approach was vigorously opposed by conservative politicians in the US. What are the results of this horrible, materialist, evidence based approach? Australia has a AIDS incidence of 0.9 per 100,000 population, over 10 times lower than that in the United States (12.8 per 100,000). And the last time I looked, Australia wasn’t markedly more decadent that the US. How dare we scientists save lives without corrupting youth!

Seriously, what does Dembski think we should do when forming policies, consult sheep entrails? The whole article reeks of fear and envy of scientists.

And the "vast research moneys"? The US military budget for 2006 was $527 billion, the NIH was around $30 billion and the National Science Foundation was around $6 billion in 2006, of which only $4 billion goes for research (2006 data as it was the only comparable data I could find at short notice). That may sound a lot, but the US had roughly 1.2 million researchers in 2006, so that money has to be spread over a lot of programs, from computing to polar science. The average NSF grant size is $140,000 which covers research costs, salaries, on costs etc.

We pay our soccer players more. Heck, to put this in perspective, Melbourne just spent $240,000 on a new logo. Vast research moneys? Ha!

Now some large collaborative projects will be funded to well over a million dollars (Large Hadron Collider or Human Genome project anyone?). But again, in terms of global warming, this goes for things like researchers salaries to actually do work, satellite data costs, sending out boats and so on to collect data, sample collection, preparation and analysis and computer time for data reduction. While this may be more money than Dembski will ever see as a philosopher, this is because scientists actually do stuff. Somebody actually has to go and drill ice cores then count the ice layers and extract gases and measure their CO2 content.

Insofar as they are trying to influence the public square, they need to explain themselves in plain English and they need to allow fair discussion and open dissent. Plenty of qualified scientists dispute that humans are significantly contributing to global warming or that extreme counter-measures are necessary. But the scientific priesthood quashes all such dissent, marginalizing and even persecuting those who don’t toe the party line.

Ohhh, Scientists use big words! Scary! Dembski also trots out the “lots of scientists dissentmyth and the “big science quashes debate” myth. Bjørn Lomborg has such a hard time getting heard, I should be so persecuted. Here in Australia, any Global Warming Denier gets a free ride in the national newspaper The Australian, no matter how loony, but real climate scientists are ignored. How’s that for power?

In reality, scientists would be chuffed if we had a thousandth of the power that Dembski ascribes to us. Any gains we make in any area of public policy, from global warming, to safe limits for pollutants, to effective public health practices, is a hard slog which first involves lots of hard data, and then convincing people at various levels in Government and Industry that things are serious. Long hard slogs, always starting with the evidence. And, in most cases, both government and Industry and other stakeholders are sympathetic.

Scientists are not our masters. They are our servants, and they need a lesson in humility. It is up to us -- We the People -- to hold their feet to the fire.

Another power fantasy from Dembski.

Despite the vast overrating of scientists power by Dembski, scientists can influence policy, because we have evidence. And this is what Dembski envies and fears.

[1] Yes, global warming is real, and largely due to human actions, deal with it. Good backgrounds at http://www.realclimate.org/ and Bave New Climate http://bravenewclimate.com/
Major issues comprehensively covered at http://scienceblogs.com/illconsidered/2008/07/how_to_talk_to_a_sceptic.php See also New Scientists Climate Change a Guide for the Perplexed and Climate Change myths.
See also this disturing report on global sea ice levels.

[2] WWMAKD What would Mooney and Kirshenbaum do. Chris and Sheril claim we scientists need to get out and communicate more. However, despite innumerable public talks, freely available websites, IPCC downloadable reports, debates, documentaries, newspaper and magazine articles it's hard to see what scientists could do to make the science of climate change simpler and easier to understand. For example, tomorrow Professor Barry Brook, the Director of Climate Science at The Environment Institute, University of Adelaide, will debate Climate Change Denier Ian Pilmer. Barry has has published two books and regularly writes opinion pieces and popular articles for the media as well as talking to a variety of community groups (I've heard him talk, he's great!). Yet ignorance on the topic abounds. What more can he do? Suggestions Chris and Sheril please.

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Comments:
Nice rant Ian, you tell em..
"It is up to us -- We the People -- to hold their feet to the fire" - Dembski
I didn't expect the THE SPANISH INQUISITION!! would be revived.
NOBODY EXPECTS THE SPANISH INQUISITION!! - Monty python available on YouTube.
Ya gotta laugh at the power of religious ignorance, even if it hurts.... regards CometAl
 
All Dembski (or someone like him) would have to do to see, at a glance, that it isn't science that possesses the link between money and political influence is look at http://www.wallstats.com/deathandtaxes

You're right on, Ian. All Dembski's thoughts consist of is rank, personal, misplaced science envy.
 
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