Dan Gardner is the New York Times best-selling author of Risk, Future Babble, Superforecasting (co-authored with Philip E. Tetlock), and How Big Things Get Done (co-authored with Bent Flyvbjerg). His books have been published in 26 countries and 20 languages. Prior to becoming an author, Gardner was an award-winning investigative journalist. More >

On Science, Dogma, and Zealots

Originally published in the Ottawa Citizen, June, 2010.

Over at the National Post, last week was "Junk Science Week," during which Post writers like Peter Foster and Lawrence Solomon identify and denounce widely publicized "science" that is, in reality, shoddy nonsense. The editors also give a sardonic award -- the "Rubber Ducky" -- "to recognize the scientists, NGOs, activists, politicians, journalists, media outlets, cranks and quacks who each year advance the principles of junk science."

It's a great idea. There is plenty of snake oil around and those who peddle it should be called to account. And mocked mercilessly. In that spirit, I'd like to award my own Rubber Ducky. Ahem.

Ladies and gentlemen, for twisting the statements of scientists and scientific institutions and misleading the public on an urgent scientific matter, the Rubber Ducky goes to ... Peter Foster and Lawrence Solomon.

Junk scientists everywhere find inspiration in Foster's and Solomon's opposition to the theory of anthropogenic climate. It's not merely that they think the theory is wrong. Debate is the lifeblood of real science. It's that they are dead certain the theory is wrong.

Certainty poisons real science, but it's vital nourishment for the junk variety because it determines how the junk scientist handles new evidence. If there were some possibility of being wrong, after all, evidence would have to be judged carefully and weighed against countervailing evidence. That's how real scientists do it. But the junk scientist can dispense with all that because there is no possibility he's wrong. And so, logically, new evidence always supports his conclusion, appearances to the contrary notwithstanding. This is how the nuttiest fruitcakes are baked.

Speaking of which, here's Peter Foster writing last week about "unprecedented set-backs" to the theory of anthropogenic climate change: "Britain's Royal Society recently released a statement that 'Any public perception that the science is somehow fully settled is wholly incorrect,' thus contradicting its own former president, and true believer, Lord May. And if the science isn't settled, there can hardly ever have been 'consensus' on the issue."

Another blow to the junk science of climate change! Peter Foster was right all along!

Or so Foster seems to think. But here is what the Royal Society actually wrote: "There is a wide variety of views across the Fellowship on any active area of science, not just climate science, and this diversity is an essential component of the testing that scientific knowledge must always undergo. Any public perception that science is somehow fully settled is wholly incorrect -- there is always room for new observations, theories, measurements, etc. However, the existence of some uncertainty does not mean that scientific results have no significance or consequences, or should not be acted upon. The enormous beneficial impact of science over the last 350 years is testament to the success of this balancing of uncertainty with action in the application of science."

Clearly, the Royal Society was referring to science in general, not climate science specifically. Its point was a truism in scientific circles: Science does not deliver absolute certainty, only degrees of certainty, and so science is never truly "settled" in the sense of being chiselled in stone and treated as unquestionable truth. As geophysicist Henry Pollack wrote, "the normal state of affairs in science is unsettled and uncertain."

If it weren't possible for scientists to form a consensus on a scientific question until the science on that question is "settled," as Foster seems to think, there would never be a scientific consensus about anything. Which demonstrates how fundamentally Foster misunderstands the nature of science.

I should also point out that in quoting the Royal Society Foster added a "the" that isn't in the original, which seems like a tiny detail until you realize that the addition of a "the" was necessary to make the sentence read as if it referred to climate science and not science in general. Foster often accuses others of acting in bad faith, but I'll assume this was an honest mistake and chalk it up, instead, to a mind so determined to confirm what it believes that it unconsciously misread the statement.

Which brings me to the relentless Lawrence Solomon.

Solomon recently announced some shocking news on the National Post website: A prominent climate scientist who worked with the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has published an academic paper in which he admitted the IPCC "misled the press and public into believing that thousands of scientists backed its claims on manmade global warming.... The actual number of scientists who backed that claim was 'only a few dozen experts,' he states."

Solomon's post went viral on the Internet. Another blow to the junk science of climate change! Lawrence Solomon was right all along!

But then the author of the paper in question noticed and took exception. "I did not say the 'IPCC misleads' anyone," Mike Hulme wrote in a statement he posted to his website.

He's right. He didn't. Hulme is a widely respected observer whose nuanced and thoughtful writing couldn't be more different than the extremism and zealotry -- from both sides -- that dominates the public debate about climate change. In the paper in question, Hulme made some modest, cautious, and precisely defined comments about IPCC process. Solomon misread them and crudely spun them into another climate-change-is-falling-apart story.

So now comes the test: Lawrence Solomon says Mike Hulme's paper is a smoking gun; Hulme says Solomon is completely wrong. Being rebuked by the author of a paper you are citing for having misread the paper would give most writers pause. Will Solomon acknowledge that, just maybe, he was off by a smidge?

If you said "yes," you really need to open a psychology textbook and bone up on cognitive dissonance theory.

Solomon dug in. Mike Hulme is wrong about what Mike Hulme wrote, he insisted. Don't listen to him! Lawrence Solomon was right all along!

Bravura performances, gentlemen. A Rubber Ducky to you both.