Once upon a time, I had romantic ideas about what it meant to be a scientist. I thought scientists were intelligent, dedicated individuals focused entirely on discovery and learning. I thought even evil supervillains shared a trait with good guys when it came to science - a genuine desire to learn. I don't anymore.
The reason I'm writing this post is a curious juxtaposition I happened upon. On Twitter, one person said the IPCC reports should be ignored/discarded due to certain unscientific influences on them. The conversation itself isn't important. What matters is how it began:
— Climate Nuremberg (@BradPKeyes) June 20, 2015
When I still held my romantic view of science, I'd have agreed with that tweet. I'd have said any science done in a corrupt, biased or simply shoddy way should be dismissed out of hand. Unfortunately, I've come to realize there isn't any science which lives up to my childhood standards. Because of that, I eventually said:
— Brandon S? (@Corpus_no_Logos) June 20, 2015
I don't like that statement, but it's the sad reality of our existence - there is no such thing as pure science. Humans are simply incapable of being unbiased. There are too many things which influence our views. We can fight against it, but ultimately, we'll never be perfect.
If you accept that view, you have to accept there is no such thing as "perfect" science. All science will be biased to some extent. That means you can't reject any work of science simply because it is "biased." You have to decide how biased is too biased for you. That's the point I was trying to make on Twitter. The IPCC definitely has problems, but something having problems isn't surprising. Everything has problems. The question is how serious those problems are, and are people willing to live with them?
I don't have an answer to questions like those. I'm not sure one exists. It seems a philosophical issue which depends upon personal preferences and other things that can't be measured or described objectively. That's why I didn't plan to write about it. Normally, I don't write about things which are so indeterminable. However, during the conversation on Twitter, I happened to read Mark Steyn's latest article and saw he had said:
I'm the co-author of a book that's come out - and is doing rather well, in fact - called Climate Change: The Facts. And I'm the know-nothing, but there's a couple of dozen really hotshot scientists in there...
I've read Climate Change: The Facts. I was dismayed by it. You may remember I've written three posts about how the book should be an embarrassment to anyone whose name is on it. I won't rehash what I said in them. Instead, I want to talk about something else. Steyn says "there's a couple of dozen really hotshot scientists in" this book. Who are they?
The book has 21 chapters with a total of 22 authors (one chapter has two). That means there can't literally be "a couple of dozen really hotshot scientists in" the book," but I won't begrudge Steyn a bit of exaggeration in phrasing. The difference between 22 and 24 wouldn't matter.
But one of those 22 is Steyn himself. We obviously can't count him. He is, as he says, a "know-nothing." That means there are only 21 people who could be those "couple of dozen really hotshot scientists." 21 and 24 still aren't that different from one another, so okay. But who are those other 21? Here's a description of one:
Columnist with the Herald Sun, Daily telegraph, and the Advertiser, and host of Channel Ten's The Bolt Report.
That's clearly not a description for a scientist. Andrew Bolt is a journalist. Which is fine, but it brings our number down to 20. But then we have:
Rupert Darwall is the author of The Age of Global Warming, A History published in 2014 and has also written for the Wall Street Journal and the Financial Times. He holds a degree in Economic and History from Cambridge University, and in 1993 was a Special Adviser to Her Majesty's Treasury.
Again, it's not taking anything away from Rupert Darwall to point out he is not a scientist. He doesn't claim to be a scientist, and it's fine for him not to be one. But it brings our number down to 19. Which falls even lower with:
Executive Editor for the London branch of Breitbart.com; author of Watermelons; How Environmentalists are Killing the Planet, Destroying the Economy and Stealing Your Children's Future (published in Australia as Killing the Earth to Save It).
Journalist, author of The Delinquent Teenager Who Was Mistaken for the World's Top Climate Expert; former member of the Board of Directors of the Canadian Civil Liberties Association 1993-2001.
Former British Conservative politician and journalist; member of the House of Lords; author of An Appeal to Reason: A Cool Look at Global Warming.
Author of climate change blog, Enthusiasm, Scepticism and Science (enthusiasmscepticismscience.wordpress.com)
Manager of Regulation Economics, former Director of the Deregulation Unit at the Institute of Public Affairs. Director of the Australian Office of Regulation Review and Deputy Secretary Energy in the Victorian Department of Minerals and Energy.
Science writer with columns published in The Spectator and The Australian, author of The Skeptic's Handbook (2009).
Retired American Meterology Society certified television meterologist, author of 'Is the US Surface Temperature Record Reliable?' published the Heartland Institute (2009).
Once we exclude journalists, politicians and bloggers, we have only 12 authors in this book who might be considered "scientists." I'm willing to extend people some leniency in rhetorical flourishes, but you can't have a "couple of dozen really hotshot scientists" with only 12 people.
And I'm not sure we should even consider the other 12 people scientists, much less "hotshot scientists." There are a couple economists in the list. Is economics a science? I don't know. My instinct is to say it isn't, but... what is science anyway? With all the biases and corruption known to exist in formal scientific works, is a "scientist" really any better at science than a "science writer"? Does a "hotshot scientist" have to be a formally defined scientist, or can a journalist or meteorologist qualify is they run a popular enough website?
I don't know. My instinct is to say Climate Change: The Facts doesn't have many "hotshot scientists" on its author list, much less a couple dozen of them, but... who am I to say? What is a "hotshot scientist" in the first place? What is a run-of-the-mill "scientist"? Heck, what is "science" anyway?
I don't have an answer for any of these questions. All I know is I trust results which are verified more than results which aren't. Because of that, I don't care if the IPCC reports are scientific. I don't care if Mark Steyn's co-authors are "hotshot scientists" or not. All I care about is, "Do they produce good work?"
But is that a measure of "science"? I don't know. Dr. Doom may have been a horrible supervillain, but you never saw Mister Fantastic look at one of his amazing doomsday weapons and say, "You didn't follow the scientific procedure, so you're not a scientist!"
Or maybe you did. There was a lot of stupid writing in comic books. Either way, the point remains. There is no such thing as pure science. All there might be are shades of science; some lighter, some darker.