Wednesday, 10 April 2013

Why do science part 3

Mrs Catmando had a bad day at work today. She has a cold and one of her colleagues was trying to persuade her to take extra vitamin C in order to boost her immunity and prevent a recurrence. Mrs Catmando has learned enough from me to realise that such advice is unscientific rubbish even though it has a good pedigree.
Linus Pauiling, two Nobel Peizes, one citrus fruit

That pedigree comes from the originator of the idea that Vit C is wonderful in preventing infections, Linus Pauling (1901-1994), one of the few winners of two Nobel Prizes (chemistry and peace). By anyone's measure that should make him a clever man, which indeed he was. He was also wrong. My point, science does not proceed by authority but by evidence. It was the evidence that spoilt Pauling's thesis. That is what science does.

That the world is warming up is incontrovertible. No matter how much I might wish it were any other way, that is the case. No matter how much I might perceive it to be different, the evidence from instruments and satellites, from ice cores and tree rings and every other source, points in one direction only. The Earth is warming up. And the only real factor that has changed in the last few hundred years is the increased used of fossil fuels. If I wanted to turn back the tide, I could do better than ask James Delingpole.
James Delingpole, University of Oxford English graduate

Well, actually I could. Delingpole is a journalist who writes racy prose full of clever jokes and turns of phrase for the Daily Telegraph website amongst others. Like many journalists he seeks his wares to anyone who will have them and just as scientists are often measured by their citations, journalists are measured by the number of comments their web pages attract. Delingpole is, therefore, a great success in the eyes of the Telegraph.  In the eyes of truth and evidence, however, he is less successful.

Delingpole is a climate change denier from the premier league of denialism and, in common with so many other denialists, evidence is not his strongest suit,  I find that strange because he read a proper degree at a proper university whereas I read biology at an upstart London college. But Delingpole does not hide his ignorance of science, nor his willingness to remain ignorant, as witnessed when Sir Paul Nurse interviewed him for Horizon a couple of years ago. It is insufficient to take the position of sceptic without being willing to examine the evidence, and science is great at putting that evidence in a place where it can easily be found. Why, anyone can do it.

I think the term denialist is better for the position Delingpole and others like him take, rather than sceptic, because the latter term implies a position that's open to change as a result of evidence. Denialists keep to their position and paint themselves into smaller and smaller corners when the evidence goes against them. It is simple. A denialist has made their mind up beforehand, usually, it would appear, for ideological reasons. In Delingpole's case it seems to be his libertarian conservatism. I will admit to having some libertarian views myself - I like the idea that if it is not illegal then it must be legal, but there are limits to liberty (I like Sir Humphrey Appleby's list of things that could be legal for sale if the country were truly "free").
A jolly good book that many people ought to read

I started off a climate "sceptic". I wasn't sure because I wasn't in command of the evidence. But I read up on it and came to a decision . That's what sceptics do. I joined the warmist camp because it was the one the evidence told me to join. But I can understand why some people don't enjoy following the evidence. There is comfort in certainty and science does not really deal in sure things but always hedges them around with the levels of doubt that remain. Science is incredibly good at that because scientists know that their peers are going to look at their work and decide if it is correct or not. And the more incredible the claim, the greater the scrutiny.

This is what peer review is, scrutiny before the work is published to establish if it is worthy of publication and then again afterwards to ensure it is correct. Delingpole doesn't like peer review. The Intelligent Design crowd also don't like peer review because it weeds out pointless publications but still permits work that is speculative or left field. Plenty of speculation gets through. The point is, it still has to be good science. It still has to tell you something you didn't already know.

Anyone can be an scientist. You just have to have an open mind.  Yes, an open mind. 

PS  I wrote this a day or two ago and find today that the MMR/autism non-debate has been given a kick in the pants by the re-emergence of ex-Dr Andrew Wakefield and given prominence by The Independent of all newspapers.  I won't bother to rubbish the man's case, rather link you to the blog Respectful Insolence where someone infinitely better qualified than I am demonstrates how poor the original research was.  And this brings up another point about peer review.  Sometimes it lets some utter rubbish through, as Wakefield's hypothesis and evidence was.  

But my substantive point about science is that it finds the rubbish research, weeds it out and throws it on the compost heap of science, the one that is fertile enough to bring forth new research but which will never itself flower.  There are dozens of examples of such moribund science - N rays for example - scientific mistakes that got found out because science deals with what works, not what we would like it to be.

There appears to be a temptation amongst some scientists to get involved in an area of science in which they are not qualified, not experts and which they find themselves stumbling.  The cold fusion escapade of 1989 is one such.  Fleischman and Pons ventured into an area of science that was well understood in theory, decided to announce that they had achieved in practice and came a cropper when their results turned out not to be reproducible.  Something seems to have gone on but not what they claimed it to be. 

It is this catching out of scientists that climate change denialists are hoping to achieve.  But they are often far from expert and hope you can win a scientific argument on a technicality.  No, you just can't.  You win when your evidence shows that your ideas are better than anyone else's.

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