The Scientists Who Cried Wolf

I have always had a deep respect for science and the work of devoted scientists.  My late father was a PhD biochemist who taught biochemistry and microbiology at a couple of universities in the south.  When I was a kid he had a large and fully stocked lab that allowed me to experiment and learn the wonders of scientific discoveries with resources and freedom that very few children enjoy.  Though my chosen career path ended up being software engineering, I have never lost my healthy fascination with science of any kind.  At the moment I am reading Jerry Coyne’s excellent Why Evolution Is True, though I have never had any doubt about Darwin’s theory.  In fact I have never been exposed to any scientific theory that seemed so immediately clear and obviously true as evolution.  In a myriad of disciplines, there is enough science out there for a few lifetimes of exploration.

But this whole anthropogenic climate change thing never sat right with me.  In fact I have never subscribed to the theory that the earth is getting warmer because of man-made (anthropogenic) causes.  Though some exceptionally bright friends of mine were willing to accept the conclusions of some of these scientists, I have remained a skeptic.  The recent ClimateGate scandal, with which you may be unfamiliar if you get your news from the Big Three networks, has only strengthened my skepticism.  In a recent post titled Not So Skeptical Skeptics, I blogged about the failure of skeptics to be properly skeptical on this subject .

But one other aspect of what I think to be bogus, grant-and-politics based “science” has troubled me for a while, though I have not seen many others look at it from this perspective.

We are all likely familiar with the story of The Boy Who Cried Wolf.  In that fable, usually attributed to Aesop, a shepherd boy entertained himself by falsely shouting “Wolf!”, causing nearby villagers to come to his aid.  Then one day a wolf did come along and the villagers understandably ignored the boy’s cries.  The wolf then ate the flock, and in some versions of the story it even ate the boy.  I see bothersome similarities between this basic story and the “cries” of the climate change alarmists.

It concerns me that a legitimate warning by scientists in the future may well be ignored because of conclusions drawn from the dogmatic politization of science that we have seen in the anthropogenic climate change debate as well as the evidence coming out in the recent ClimateGate scandal.

Daniel Henninger has very similar thoughts in an opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal, titled ClimateGate: Science is Dying.

Global warming enlisted the collective reputation of science. Because “science” said so, all the world was about to undertake a vast reordering of human behavior at almost unimaginable financial cost. Not every day does the work of scientists lead to galactic events simply called Kyoto or Copenhagen. At least not since the Manhattan Project.

What is happening at East Anglia is an epochal event. As the hard sciences—physics, biology, chemistry, electrical engineering—came to dominate intellectual life in the last century, some academics in the humanities devised the theory of postmodernism, which liberated them from their colleagues in the sciences. Postmodernism, a self-consciously “unprovable” theory, replaced formal structures with subjectivity. With the revelations of East Anglia, this slippery and variable intellectual world has crossed into the hard sciences.

This has harsh implications for the credibility of science generally. Hard science, alongside medicine, was one of the few things left accorded automatic stature and respect by most untrained lay persons. But the average person reading accounts of the East Anglia emails will conclude that hard science has become just another faction, as politicized and “messy” as, say, gender studies. The New England Journal of Medicine has turned into a weird weekly amalgam of straight medical-research and propaganda for the Obama redesign of U.S. medicine.

Henninger takes it one step further in equating the shout-down fascism of scientists like Mann, Hanson, and Jones with the religious persecution that hindered science in the distant past:

The East Anglians’ mistreatment of scientists who challenged global warming’s claims—plotting to shut them up and shut down their ability to publish—evokes the attempt to silence Galileo. The exchanges between Penn State’s Michael Mann and East Anglia CRU director Phil Jones sound like Father Firenzuola, the Commissary-General of the Inquisition.

For three centuries Galileo has symbolized dissent in science. In our time, most scientists outside this circle have kept silent as their climatologist fellows, helped by the cardinals of the press, mocked and ostracized scientists who questioned this grand theory of global doom. Even a doubter as eminent as Princeton’s Freeman Dyson was dismissed as an aging crank.

Indeed.  Read Henninger’s article here.

One response to “The Scientists Who Cried Wolf

  1. Henninger is a gifted writer, and I too share some of his disdain for post-modernism in terms of how it can creep into and corrupt science. But if anything, it has done more to corrupt the way we talk about science. And he romanticizes science and scientists of the “past” . . . science has always been politicized and messy.

    I could not agree more with you about your “Boy Who Cried Wolf” analogy, though certainly not in the context that you had in mind. Many people reflexively dismiss AGW because of what they perceive as just more BWCW “alarmism.” When I was in high school, it was the ozone hole that was going to eat up the planet. Didn’t happen. Exactly one decade ago, hysteria about Y2K was at a fever pitch. Nothing happened. So now Chicken Little tells us the sky is warming, and we feel absolutely justified in ignoring her.

    The irony is this . . . Were it not for the farsighted reaction of the Reagan administration and our part in supporting the Montreal Protocol, the dire ozone depletion predictions might well be reality now. And had it not been for our obsessing about and proactively fixing the Y2K software glitch, perhaps our infrastructure WOULD have collapsed. In looking at past “wolf” shouts that didn’t seem to pan out and deciding to dismiss them in the future, we have learned the exact opposite message than we should have if the boy actually has been seeing a wolf. All those villagers streaming out when the alarm has been raised have scared the wolves away from the village every time. Complacency and denial will allow them in.

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