Creationism, global warming denial, and scientific integrity

Recently considerable attention has been drawn to the fact that some errors were found in the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report, and the fact that, as revealed in a set of emails exchanged by some leading climate scientists in the U.K., the report had been “dressed” to some extent. Many now claim that there is a full-scale conspiracy of the scientific world to hide the “truth” from the public, a view now apparently held by 16% of Americans, according to a recent poll [Broder; Vanderhooft].

Similar claims have been made about modern evolutionary biology. The recent movie “Expelled” claimed that creationist and “intelligent design” writers have been systematically “shut out” due to a “conspiracy” among the scientific establishment. Now, the two movements have joined forces to some extent, as legislators in several U.S. states are introducing legislation to require that students be taught “all sides of evidence” on evolution and global warming [Kaufman].

We certainly do not intend, in this column, to launch into a full-scale analysis of the claims of either group. With regards to creationism and “intelligent design,” numerous scientists have amply demonstrated that their claims are either refuted by the findings of multiple peer-reviewed published studies, or, in any event, fail to rise to anywhere near the level needed to challenge existing theories of geology and biology [SMR-creationism; SMR-ID].

With regards to global warming, we see no reason not to accept the overall consensus of the climate science community, namely that the planet is warming, and that this warming is due, at least in part, to human causes and is likely to increase in the future. We note, for instance, the indisputable fact that CO2 is a greenhouse gas (this can be confirmed in simple laboratory experiments), that levels of CO2 have increased significantly in the past few decades as compared with previous centuries (this is well-established from analyses of ice core samples), and that the decade 2000-2009 had the highest overall average temperature of any decade since accurate measurements began (confirmed by recently-announced NASA satellite data) [RealClimate; Revkin; NASA]. Further, human effects on climate have been confirmed in peer-reviewed studies for [Marshall]:

  • The rise in global surface air temperature;
  • The rise in surface air temperature over every continent, including Antarctica;
  • The rise in atmospheric humidity (caused by the higher air temperatures);
  • The rise in precipitation (rain, snow, etc) around the world, as a result of the higher humidities;
  • Shifts in precipitation: dry tropical regions are getting drier while wet regions closer to the poles are getting wetter;
  • The huge losses of Arctic summer sea ice;
  • The rise in surface ocean temperature;
  • Increasing salinity in the Atlantic Ocean.

It is important to keep an open mind, since future findings might draw some of these conclusions into question, but we see no reason to doubt that the process of peer review in the climate science field is capable of resolving whatever issues arise.

We also note that leading figures in the global warming denial community have ties to conservative research institutes funded in large measure by large corporations and oil companies [Sachs]. Fred Singer, arguably the leading figure of the community, has only six peer-reviewed publications in the climate science field, and none since 1997 [Singer]. In a similar vein, several of the leading writers in the “intelligent design” community are funded by conservative research institutes closely connected to the evangelical world, drawing into question their claims that they are merely doing objective, secular science. Philip Johnson, a leading intelligent design writer, is a retired law professor with no scientific credentials or peer-reviewed scientific publications [SMR-ID].

In any event, it is clear to us that those who lead the currently trendy movement to deny global warming (or to deny human causation of global warming), like creationists, “intelligent design” writers and the many “mathematicians” who keep our mail boxes and Inboxes flooded with claims that pi is rational or other similar nonsense, are operating well outside the established boundaries of peer-reviewed science, and thus, from these reasons alone, are deserving of considerable skepticism.

To begin with, there is a proper forum for debating scientific controversies, one that has been established for centuries and is an essential part of what is properly known as modern science. This forum is most assuredly not lectures, blogs, twitters, do-it-yourself websites, newspaper columns, Fox TV News, or state, provincial or national legislative bodies. Instead the proper forum for scientific debate is the system of peer-reviewed scientific journals and conferences sponsored by major scientific societies. If you see these issues being “debated” in any other setting, you can be assured that the discussion is decidedly “bush league” and not worth taking seriously as scientific debate.

Think of it this way: the next time you see a global warming denier or a creationist or an “intelligent design” writer or even some self-styled “mathematician” making a convincing-sounding argument in a lecture, blog, website or news column, ask yourself the following question: “If he/she really had a solid argument, why isn’t he/she back in the office furiously writing up this material for submission to a leading journal, thereby assuring him/herself future worldwide fame and glory?”

After all, overturning some long-held paradigm is what science and mathematics is all about. Much of the day-to-day work of a real scientist or mathematician is, frankly, somewhat tedious. Every mathematician dreams of being the first to prove (or, perhaps better, disprove) some long-standing conjecture or result. Every physicist dreams of being the first to uncover evidence that counters some decades- or centuries-old theory, or to publish a new mathematical theory that will, like Einstein’s papers on relativity, open up new realms of understanding. Every biologist dreams of finding a completely new species or biochemical feature that refutes some long-held assumption about how the natural world operates.

In many cases, those who attempt to grasp the public attention through other means are themselves well aware that they are short-circuiting this process, and, if pressed, further recognize that they do not really have an argument that could withstand the withering scrutiny of scientific peer review. They often allude to conspiracy or malign forces, or they latch onto underwhelming scientific constructionist arguments [Brown] to impute the scientific enterprise in toto. Thus, when they press their views in public — to a populace that for the most part does not understand how the scientific enterprise operates — they are either being more than a little bit dishonest or else are hugely ignorant (and thus unqualified to be pressing their case).

As mentioned above, some have claimed that various sectors of the scientific community are engaged in a “conspiracy” to silence critics and to keep the “truth” from the public. To a real scientist or mathematician, such claims are most absurd nonsense. How, in a worldwide community of hundreds of thousands of competitive researchers, from every nation on earth and from countless different cultural backgrounds, could a secret “conspiracy” be maintained? As Ben Franklin wrote in his Poor Richard’s Almanac, “Three can keep a secret, provided two of them are dead.” Or as one of us quipped, tongue-in-cheek, in response to a state legislator who was skeptical of evolution, “You have no idea how humiliating this is to me — there is a secret conspiracy among leading scientists, but no one deemed me important enough to be included!”

Here is another way to think about such claims: There are tens of thousands of senior scientists in their late 50s or early 60s who have seen their retirement savings decimated by the recent stock market plunge, and who now wonder if the day will ever come when they are financially well off enough to do their research without the constant stress and distraction of applying for grants (the majority of which are never funded). All one of these scientists has to do to garner both worldwide fame and considerable fortune (e.g., book contracts) is to call a news conference and expose the “truth.” Why isn’t this happening?

The system of peer-reviewed journals and conferences sponsored by major professional societies is the only proper forum for the presentation and review of new ideas, in any field of science or mathematics. It has been stunningly successful: errors have been uncovered, fraud has been rooted out and bogus scientific claims (such as the 1903 N-ray claim, the 1989 cold fusion claim and the more recent assertion of an autism-vaccination link) have been rapidly debunked. This all occurs with a level of reliability and at a speed that is hard to imagine in other human endeavors. Those who attempt to short-circuit this system are doing potentially irreparable harm to the integrity of the system. They may enrich themselves or their friends, but they are doing grievous damage to society at large.

  1. [Broder] John M. Broder, “Scientists Taking Steps to Defend Work on Climate,” New York Times, 2 Mar 2010, available at Online article.
  2. [Brown] Richard C. Brown, Are Science And Mathematics Socially Constructed?: A Mathematician Encounters Postmodern Interpretations of Science, World Scientific Publications, New York, 2009.
  3. [Kaufman] Leslie Kaufman, “Darwin Foes Add Warming to Targets,” New York Times, 3 Mar 2010, available at Online article.
  4. [Marshall] Michael Marshall, “Which climate changes can be blamed on humans?” New Scientist, 5 Mar 2010, available at Online article.
  5. [NASA] “2009: Second Warmest Year on Record; End of Warmest Decade,” 21 Jan 2010, available at Online article.
  6. [RealClimate] “IPCC errors: facts and spin,” 14 Feb 2010, available at Online article.
  7. [Revkin] Andrew C. Revkin, “Lacis at NASA on Role of CO2 in Warming,” New York Times, 17 Feb 2010, available at Online article.
  8. [Sachs] Jeffrey Sachs, “Climate sceptics are recycled critics of controls on tobacco and acid rain,” Guardian, 19 Feb 2010, available at Online article.
  9. [SMR-Creationism] “Have creationist writers uncovered significant technical issues that draw into question established theories of geology and evolution?” 9 Mar 2010, available at Online article.
  10. [SMR-ID] “Have intelligent design writers uncovered significant technical issues that draw into question the established theories of geology and evolution?” 16 Jan 2010, available at Online article.
  11. [Singer] “S. Fred Singer, Ph.D.: Recent Professional Activities,” Mar 1998, available at Online article.
  12. [Vanderhooft] Christian Vanderhooft, “Bill to freeze greenhouse-gas controls clears another hurdle in Utah Legislature,” Salt Lake Tribune, 19 Feb 2010, available at Online article

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