Thanks to Thinking is Dangerous, I recently learned of Bob Park’s 7 warning signs of bogus science. These are basically a set of features that most pseudoscience, flim-flam, gobbledy-gook, wibble-wobble, whatever, has in common:
- The discoverer pitches the claim directly to the media.
- The discoverer says that a powerful establishment is trying to suppress his or her work.
- The scientific effect involved is always at the very limit of detection.
- Evidence for a discovery is anecdotal.
- The discoverer says a belief is credible because it has endured for centuries.
- The discoverer has worked in isolation.
- The discoverer must propose new laws of nature to explain an observation.
Pretty good, actually. Point 1 is right up there, as the space devoted to climate change scepticism in the media is famously way above that in the scientific literature. And 2, the sceptics love to blame that powerful environmental lobby, particularly the IPCC, who have vested interests in making huge profits out of… canvas bags? Native trees? Those laundry ball things?
Point 3 might sound unlikely, after all thermometers aren’t exactly obscure. But if you think of all the people arguing over squiggly lines on graphs, claiming that if you turn them a certain way and squint just right they show the Earth is cooling…?
The next couple I’ll take a hit on – anecdote is mostly the other way (more on that later), you could hardly say it’s a belief that’s endured for centuries (unless you take “everything is normal” as the core belief) and they’re not exactly working in isolation. And I’m not entirely sure about point 7, but I’d be tempted to put the cosmic rays causing clouds stuff in there, even though there may be some real science there.
So I say they score at least 3.5 out 7, which is pretty damning. Climate change scepticism = bogus.
But hang on! What about the other side? They’re totally legit – or are they?
I won’t complain about pitching to the media, because the genuine publishing came first. But point 2… Every time a sceptic speaks up, the first attack is always on the basis of who funds them (hint: Big Oil), not on the actual science. And yes, bias can lead to bad science. But everyone’s funding has to come from somewhere, right? And if the science is so bad, shouldn’t it be possible to point that out?
Then there’s the “evidence is anecdotal”. Again, yes there’s genuine evidence for climate change. But what really sells it to the public is glaciers, polar bears and bees. Farmers leaning over their fence, staring dejectedly into their dusty paddocks.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m on your side. But I do feel that if you use the tactics of bogus science you’re opening yourself up to criticism on those grounds, and risking hurting your argument as a result.
Take another example: one of the other big arguments for the reality of climate change is “scientific consensus”. After all, there were over 2500 scientific reviewers of the 4th IPCC Assessment Report (thanks, Wikipedia). But then that’s why their opponents started their own petition, with the famous 31,000 dissenting scientists. Of course, to be a “scientist” you have to declare that you have a Ph.D., M.Sc, B.Sc., and M.D., that sort of thing. And only 40 of those 31,000 actually claim to be climatologists, so no, not terribly convincing.
But the point is, if you’re going to argue the validity of your case by the number of people who agree with you, then you’re opening yourself up to exactly the same counter argument.
When the pamphlet 100 Authors Against Einstein was published, the man himself famously said: “If I were wrong, one would be enough”. Ultimately, it’s the science that matters.
Alright, rant over for now. But this is a topic that interests me greatly – the interaction between science and the rest of the world, and how scientists sometimes hurt their own cause. Expect more of this in future.
In the meantime, for good, hard climate change science I recommend realclimate.org. Or, if you just want something to get angry about, nothing beats Andrew Bolt, Australia’s last great climate change denier. Although Mr Pipik gives him a run for his money.