Who Defends Science?

Published January 20, 2013

The December 21, 2012 issue of the journal Science contained an editorial that left me wondering who we can rely on to defend science.

Science versus science?

In an editorial titled “The Breakthroughs of 2012,” Editor-in-Chief Dr. Bruce Alberts references with approval the opinion of a physicist named Pierre Hohenberg who “suggests that it would be useful to distinguish ‘between the activity of scientists and the product of that activity by denoting the former as (lower-case) science and the latter as (upper-case) Science.'”

“In this view,” Dr. Alberts goes on to write (again quoting Hohenberg), “‘Science emerges from science’ as ‘collective, public knowledge … universal and free of contradiction’ only after being repeatedly tested by independent scientific investigations.”

I could not have been the only reader who wondered if this distinction was being made simply as a way to make writing about science more clear, or to justify casting minority views in the science community into dark and bottomless pits labeled “non-Science” or even “anti-Science.” A few sentences later, Dr. Alberts writes:

Thus, it is through Science that we know that cigarette smoking over several decades has a high probability of inducing lung cancer; and that, over an even longer time span, human-induced greenhouse gas emissions will endanger life for our descendants on Earth.

Virtually no one disputes that long-term cigarette smoking is a risk factor for lung cancer, but the effect of human greenhouse gas emissions on future generations is the great scientific debate of our era. Does he really mean that the every-day work of scientists that contradicts one theory of global warming (which happens to be his) is not science at all? Apparently he does, since he ends his editorial with these thoughts:

It is deeply discouraging that in the United States, many political leaders feel comfortable denying the Science of climate change. The acceptability of this stance represents a general failure of science education and communication. It is but one grave example that should spur scientists to focus much more effort on the critical task of ensuring that students, and the general public, understand exactly how Science is derived from science. [my italics for emphasis]

Excuse me. The willingness of “many political leaders” to question the certainty of predictions about what Earth’s climate might look like 50 or 100 years from now is evidence of the success, not failure, of science education. Regrettably, that science education was not provided by the National Academy of Sciences, IPCC, or other mega-bureaucracies that claim to own that duty. 

Anyone who has “looked under the hood” of the hyped reports on climate from NAS, IPCC, and other groups claiming certainty on matters of attribution, future trends, and costs and benefits of global warming and cooling has found more uncertainty than certainty there. Alternative theories have been dismissed without due consideration, most of the authors are advocates writing outside their areas of expertise, and there is no real peer review.

In light of the considerable uncertainties, the correct policy prescription is to roll back, not increase, the mammoth public expenditures, regulations, and taxes passed during the high-tide of global warming alarmism. We should be thankful that growing numbers of political, civic, and business leaders understand this better than many scientists do. We should not confuse their wisdom with ignorance of the underlying science. 

What Alberts Sees and Chooses Not to See

Just three months ago, in an editorial in Science published on September 28, Dr. Alberts expressed a very different opinion about who were the friends and foes of science. Referring to the Human Genome Project, he wrote:

Each of these big-science efforts drives the development of valuable new methodologies, as required to bring each type of investigation to scale. But the scale also creates a constituency that makes these projects difficult to stop, even when there are clear signs of diminishing returns. In this time of very tight resources, it becomes increasingly critical to make objective, tough decisions about what kinds of projects stand the best chance of producing the results needed for deeply understanding, rather than merely describing, biological systems. [my italics for emphasis]

Why shouldn’t this same reasoning be applied to the IPCC and other “big-science efforts” in the global warming field? They have spawned an enormous “constituency” dedicated to the truth of their predictions. The reports of the largely discredited IPCC plainly are delivering “diminishing returns.”

In that same editorial, Dr. Alberts described the need for more research on the “emergent” properties of cells, using language that once again could be applied to the global warming debate:

Scientists currently lack the ability to decipher this complexity, and gaining this ability will require great ingenuity and many new developments whose exact nature is unpredictable. Much of the work will need to be done through small-science research in relatively simple systems, such as the E. coli bacterium, with the hope that what is learned will lead to new approaches and principles that can be transferred to the more complicated cells of mammals. 

Dr. Alberts recognizes the contributions made by big-science in compiling data, but says,

But the grand challenges that remain in attaining a deep understanding of the chemistry of life will require going beyond detailed catalogs. Ensuring a successful future for the biological sciences will require restraint in the growth of large centers and -omics-like projects, so as to provide more financial support for the critical work of innovative small laboratories striving to understand the wonderful complexity of living systems.

Replace “chemistry of life” in this paragraph with “Earth’s climate” and “biological sciences” with “climate sciences” and you have no more and no less than what global warming “skeptics” have been saying for the past three decades.

One marvels that an accomplished scientist can see so clearly what needs to take place in his own field of study, cell biology, yet be utterly blind to the fact that very same need exists in another field, global warming, where the symptoms and solutions are nearly identical.

Who Defends Science?

So who, then, defends science, whether we capitalize the “s” or not? It is not the editors of science’s most influential journals, and certainly not the bureaucrats who head the biggest government agencies that claim to speak for it. (And we see here the danger of allowing the same people to occupy both positions, even if not concurrently. Dr. Alberts was president of the National Academy of Sciences from 1993 until 2005.)

It is left to the rest of us, to individual scientists working in the field and to research and advocacy groups whose only interest is in making sure public policy decisions are based on sound science and economics.

We defend science.