Sunday, December 6, 2009

whither science when attacked by terrorists?

When attacked by terrorists who work outside the established laws of war, a people are faced difficult questions.  The toughest is..;

Do we hold strictly to our values and laws, no matter what the consequences?

People of good will and intelligence can differ in their answer.  It's not an easy question.  Without judging right or wrong, we may observe that a threatened people are likely to discard or revise their ideals if they seem to inhibit self-defense.

Recently, correspondence from some prominent (and not-so prominent) climate scientists have been released.  I've not read many of the actual messages, but have seen much of what passes for "analysis" in todays punditocracy.  The key charge is that the scientists violated the scientific method that requires dispassionate analysis of data.  For the sake of argument, let us assume the pundits are correct (although I am by no means convinced).  Now, I ask you to take a step into a scientist's shoes - even if you don't believe in global warming or anything I write below, pretend for a few minutes that you do and think about how a scientist might view his/her moral obligations.  Step into a role...

You are a typical senior scientist that has studied climate mechanics over an extended period, including 5 years in a Ph.D. program, a 2 year post-doctoral scholarship, and 20 years climbing up the academic ladder to make a salary that (if you're lucky) is about $90K per year (this description is not modeled any any particular person).  You understand a set of difficult and arcane subjects requiring a very high level of math to analyze.  To make the complexities understandable to non-scientists requires a level of communication expertise that isn't part of your training, and you're not very good at it.  You present your results to colleagues in the appropriate framework, discussing uncertainties and probabilities that are inherent in studying any natural system.  You and your colleagues are in agreement that global warming is occurring and is caused by human release of buried fossil carbon in oil, gas and coal into the natural carbon cycle.  The evidence to you and others with your training is simply overwhelming.  But it's not something that you can explain to a congressman, senator or even your teenage son without putting them to sleep.

You see your work distorted by "climate skeptics" who don't use the scientific method to support their arguments. Most don't have enough education to understand the science that you have done.  A few have the education, but are simply the contrarian curmudgeons that exist everywhere and are more interested in the publicity engendered by opposition. Many "skeptics" are funded by industry groups that have a stake in preventing any change in the status quo.  These groups have people trained in communication and government lobbying.  They are free to outright lie about the science.  They do not have scientific studies of their own that can show you are wrong, so they succeed only by casting doubt - in effect using science against itself.  You know there are always things you don't know and things that we may not yet understand correctly.  The "skeptics" use that doubt and caution inherent in your training to dismiss what you have shown to be true.  They use arguments between you and colleagues regarding technical details to throw doubt over things that you and your colleagues actually agree on.  They are winning a propaganda war because you cannot engage in the same tactics.  They seem to connect with the congressmen, senators and much of the public.  You can't just throw up your hands in frustration and cynicism - you understand the disastrous consequences that global warming is likely to inflict on  people across the world.  This isn't a matter of scientific pride, but is a matter of survival of our civilization.  You must decide your next step and answer some troubling questions...

Are you still applying the scientific method if you only present the data in such a way that you frame the proven results and neglect uncertainty? 

Do you try to communicate to the public in a way that they will understand the meaning of the science - even if this means leaving out the doubt and some of the details that might be confusing (or used to confuse)? 

Do you delve into outright propaganda?   

Do you stick by your scientific ideals and present the data and analyses in the correct scientific way that allows the "skeptics" to distort the results?

When survival of civilization is at stake, do you continue to play by the rules? 

Now step back out of the role...

There is a difficult ethical dilemma faced by climate scientists who are opposed by a well-funded and well-organized corporate campaign to obscure the results from science.  We haven't dealt with this problem as a society.  If we want scientists to deliver exactly their science and nothing more or less, are we going to hold their critics to the same standards?  If we can admit that well-intentioned people might torture for altruistic motives, should we be surprised if some climate scientists take the same road with their data for similar motives?  To those familiar with the science, the long-term threat to our national security from global warming is far greater than the national security threat posed by violent Islamic fundamentalism.

The above is meant to neither support nor condemn the climate scientists involved in "Climate-Gate."  I don't actually know what techniques they were using to analyze their data, and without knowing that I cannot have an educated opinion on whether they distorted the data or not. But I believe that some of the quotes I've seen in the scientists' email reflects their frustration of trying to fight the organized propaganda campaign against science.

For myself, I believe that whether we are talking about terrorists attacking ourselves or our science, we need to stick by our ideals.   I believe this because I am an optimist, and I think that we can recover from a lot of stupid or delayed decisions.  But I don't think we can recover from the loss of our ideals.  Once you make exceptions for this case or that in the name of expediency and the "correct" end, it is too easy for the human animal to justify anything.  Science succeeds when it is divorced from propaganda.  Justice succeeds only when linked to law.  There are consequences to such ideals.  I believe that science sticking to its ideals will result in deaths and environmental damage due to global warming that could be reduced by quicker action.  Likewise, staying with the ideals of our laws and rejecting torture may mean that we have less security and possibly more deaths from terrorism (although I'm not convinced on this point).  Nevertheless, as a scientist, I am unwilling to take the step to do anything other than provide dispassionate analysis of data - any step towards propaganda loses the long-term benefits that science has been proven to provide society.  Similarly, I reject calls for lawless treatment of the lawless - it loses the long-term benefit of laws for protecting the innocent who might be unjustly labeled as "lawless" - again a foundation of our jurisprudence that has served us well since the Magna Carta.

Above I've posed a question of philosophical consistency based on fairly disparate ideas.  I'd be interested if you see inconsistencies that invalidate my analysis.

No comments: