The Age Of Unenlightenment

  • Date: 23/05/14
  • Pointman's blog

It’s not a matter of if, but a matter of how much collateral damage mainstream science is going to take with the crash of climate science.

That slick expression you’re entitled to your own opinions but not your own facts, now has a deeper meaning in this latest stage of the post-enlightenment. If your facts plainly contradict someone else’s orthodox beliefs, then you are simply being “unhelpful” or even “harmful” and should therefore be suppressed. That’s to be done not by logical refutation or counter argument, but intimidation, bullying, shunning, character assassination and threats to a person’s career or livelihood.

Basically, the gloves come off and you get mobbed by a gang of like-minded thugs. Destroy the person, not the argument.

It’s the sort of behaviour one could expect of a medieval theocracy whose dominance is under threat by the advance of reasoned argument. Indeed, the humanists of Europe fought that battle from the late seventeenth century onwards, resulting in what’s commonly known as the Age of Enlightenment. There’s a lot more to it but from then on, a clear separation was to be made between things which could be proved by a process of reasoning and matters which were purely a matter of individual faith.

For the first time, a line between Church and State was being drawn. It was hard-fought by both sides since it was at heart more about who would control the minds of men; the clerics or what was called at the time the natural philosophers.

Last week, the distinguished Prof. Lennart Bengtsson, whom I’d term a warmist rather than an alarmist, resigned from an advisory committee of the GWPF, an unpaid post he’d barely been in for two weeks. The reason he’d been forced to resign was an intense campaign of vilification and intimidation. Former colleagues even refused to work with him and his papers in the publication process were suddenly being rejected for what was obviously non-scientific reasons. Bear in mind, he’d already had over two hundred papers published, so obviously knew what would be viable in terms of publication. Most tellingly, one of the rejected papers highlighted the glaring disparity between computer climate predictions and the real world data.

What’s most disturbing about the treatment of Prof. Bengtsson, is the people acting like common or garden thugs were supposedly men of science rather than outraged clerics stamping down on a heretic. As Marvin asked, what’s going on?

Even a casual acquaintance with the history of science teaches us one simple thing; it advances across a battlefield drenched in the blood of sacred cows. The Earth revolves around the Sun? Something falls to Earth because it’s being pulled by some invisible force rather than just having weight? Space can bend and time can run at different rates depending on where you are in something called a gravity well? Continents can actually move? Where’s your head? Are you insane?

Given that recurrent pattern of outrageous and heretical ideas becoming text-book orthodoxy, I do tend to think over carefully even the most startling ideas. More often than not, I see the flaw in the idea but I always examine the idea, not the person articulating it. If you don’t do that, you’re a believer rather than a person of reason.

It’s that sort of thinking which ultimately makes the practice of science an unforgiving profession. You can propose a really beautiful theory, but it only takes one person to prove it wrong, just one. Most cruel of all, your beloved brainchild can appear to pass all the tests for years but is later found out to be wrong or nothing more than a special case of a bigger, more complete theory and there goes your life’s work. Your stab at being a someone of historical note becomes at best nothing more than a footnote annotation of you being that rather silly person behind the subsequently discredited theory of whatever. Everybody knew it was a rubbish idea all along.

It’s a tough gig and it’s all too human a temptation to start bending the rules as you begin to see the whole house of cards you’ve invested so many years in starting to wobble. Their first stab was something called post-normal science, which when you strip off the sociology verbiage and oily sophistry, was nothing more than a proposal to abandon the scientific method. Your theory was so important, so crucial, that it simply fell outside the passé science processes of the last few hundred years. It didn’t need things like that tiresome phase of testing your theory’s predictions against reality. Not even a largely cowed science establishment would grovel on its knees in abasement and come around to swallowing that.

The next line of defence was declaring that it was all settled. It had been so thoroughly proven, incidentally an impossible thing for any scientific theory, that it was no longer an open question. Move along now. The proof had been done by taking a vote and the novel idea of science by consensus rather than scientific method was born. There was to be no debate but it fell foul of that rebellious child it largely shaped, the skeptic blogosphere, which insisted on taking a can opener to every hermetically sealed debate, and so often found Blake’s great red dragon of chaos ready to emerge from it grinning in triumph.

By now, they were increasingly desperate men in a hurry towards some finishing line only they could see, and acted accordingly. It’s not very hard to get inside that.

You start to cheat, but somehow you know it’s not really cheating. You massage the data by tweaking it a little bit, just a teensy weensy little bit, moving it in the right direction. Once on that slippery slope, it becomes all too easy to get imaginative with the methods as well. By then, you’ve slipped so far into that mortal sin zone of science, all that’s left is stopping your ears to any criticism, shutting your eyes and defending it desperately at any cost. It’s your own inner voice making those carping objections. Nobody will notice, nobody will check.

But they did.

In the end, you’ve nowhere left to go but denying anyone wishing to replicate your work the data or details of your methodology.

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