Sunday, May 29, 2011

Scientific Skepticism

Prompted by a recent talk by a respected paleontologist, I’ve been thinking about skepticism and science.  This scientist observed that “science is a process of competing models” focused on identifying “which model is least wrong.”  It seems to me that, with its stress on degrees of “wrongness” in accepted models (read theories), this definition embraces a kind of skepticism that is central to science.  It’s part of the ongoing testing that moves science forward.  Importantly, this isn’t reflexive nay-saying or denying.

In an interview in the most recent Scientific American (“I Stick to the Science,” interview by Michael D. Lemonick, June, 2011), Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory physicist Richard Muller, a strong critic of past reports on global warming, responded to the question Do you consider yourself a climate skeptic?,
No – not in the way that the term is used.  I consider myself properly skeptical in the way every scientist should be. . . .
Muller’s adherence to this kind of skepticism is bracing.  He leads the Berkeley Earth Surface Temperature (BEST) project which, in an effort to address alleged biases in previous analyses of land surface temperature measurements, has gathered and analyzed a much more complete set of temperature data than heretofore assembled.

In March of this year, he testified before the House of Representatives Committee on Science, Space, and Technology and apparently “enraged climate skeptics” (Scientific American, June, 2011) because he didn’t endorse their orthodoxy.  Instead, he told the Committee that a preliminary analysis of BEST data showed a climate warming trend “very similar to that reported by the prior groups:  a rise of about 0.7 degrees C since 1957.”  In measured words, he concluded:
Despite potential biases in the data, methods of analysis can be used to reduce bias effects well enough to enable us to measure long-term Earth temperature changes.  Data integrity is adequate.  Based on our initial work at Berkeley Earth, I believe that some of the most worrisome biases are less of a problem than I had previously thought.
I spent some time earlier this week watching the webcast of that Science Committee hearing on climate change.  An interesting and frustrating experience.

I had one surprise – the diversity of opinion that the Committee brought together.  Not what I expected from a committee chaired by a member who very clearly resides in the camp that nay-says climate change and significant human contribution to it.

Over the years, I’ve attended many U.S. Congress hearings and know it’s seldom a satisfying experience.  Constructive exchange rarely marks the interaction between witnesses and members.  But the most frustrating attribute of most hearings is the inarticulateness of many members of Congress.  This House Science hearing easily fit the mold.  Regardless of where one stands on the issues of global warming, the quality of nearly all of the questioning (and badgering) by House members, whether Democrat or Republican, liberal or conservative, yea-sayer or nay-sayer on global warming (these days these three distinctions are pretty much synonymous), left much to be desired.  Further, the kind of skepticism largely on display on both sides in the hearing was of the common political variety – an instinctive and destructive distrust of the motives and accuracy of folks making assertions with which you disagree.

It made me wish to turn the clock back to the time when Sherwood Boehlert, a Republican from upstate New York, served on the House Science Committee.  Boehlert had a long career in the U.S. House of Representatives (1983-2007), spending the entire time on the Science Committee which he chaired beginning in 2001.  Boehlert (pictured below) dealt with many thorny issues in science, including climate change.  (This congressional photo of a press conference is in the public domain and, no, despite what's on the lectern, he didn't serve in the Senate.)

Convinced that global warming was real and merited a public policy response, the moderate Boehlert would clearly be at odds with the Republicans who now control the Science Committee.  But it’s not just his position on that issue that strikes a sharp contrast between him and his successors.  Boehlert brought an incredible degree of intelligence to bear on the complex issues he worked on.  He could deal with subtlety and weigh competing arguments.  I think he appreciated the kind of scientific skepticism that Richard Muller espouses.

And here’s the real attraction for me, as a political figure, Boehlert was singularly articulate.  I remember him once comparing the negotiations that had been taking place among several House committees to the relationships between various countries in Europe during the 19th century.

Indeed, how can you not appreciate a politician who, in a speech on climate change, could quote both Woody Allen and Wendell Phillips (the abolitionist)?

In his address to Climate Institute’s Washington Summit on Climate Change (September 20, 2006), he used Allen for some gallows humor.  (The speech appears in the Science and Politics of Global Climate Change blog.)  He told his audience,
Climate change discussions can be consumed by gloom. They can remind me of the opening of Woody Allen's classic essay, "My Address to the Graduates." It starts: "Today, we are at a crossroad. One road leads to hopelessness and despair; the other to total extinction. Let us pray we choose wisely."
Then, he topped Allen with a very dry comment,
I think our choices are a little better than that, and if they're not, we'll never win over the wider public.
Later in this address, Boehlert invoked Phillips in order to advise scientists to be careful and thoughtful in bringing their messages on climate change to the public.  Sound and measured words that many apparently did not heed.
The abolitionist Wendell Phillips famously said, "One man on the side of God is a majority."  But while that no doubt got Phillips through some lonely times, the anti-slavery advocates didn't gain political influence until they won more converts.
So scientists have to engage.  And what scientists say needs to be clear and accurate and modulated and persuasive.  Hyperbolic claims will only diminish scientific credibility over time.
Scientists have to be clear about what we know, and about what we don't.  They need to be "up front" about uncertainties - and about the potential costs of waiting until all uncertainties are resolved.
Amen.  We need more Sherwood Boehlerts.

By the way, according to The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (3rd edition), the Greek word from which we derived skeptic is skeptesthai.  It means examine.

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