The latest bit of climate controversy has kicked off in Texas, a state with a governor, RIck Perry, who has suggested that climate scientists have manipulated data. At issue is a report on the future of Galveston Bay, on Texas’ Gulf coast. The report was commissioned by the state’s Commission on Environmental Quality, and prepared by a private consulting firm. The CEQ, however, had issues with the report’s contents when it came to topics related to climate change, and tried to edit the report. Now, the scientists who prepared the report are asking that their names be removed from it.
The report was being prepared by the Houston Advanced Research Center, which contracts the work out to research scientists. One of the chapters of the report focuses on the impact of sea level rise. Studies in the peer-reviewed literature suggest that, after thousands of years of relative stability, the rate of sea level rise has been accelerating during the last century, and it’s expected to continue to rise as temperatures get warmer. That obviously has implications for low-lying coastal areas like Galveston, and the report touches on some of these.
That didn’t go over well with some people at the CEQ, who edited the report to remove all references to sea level rise (replacing “rise” with “change”) and made other alterations to diminish its significance. The author of that chapter, Rice University’s John Anderson, was appalled, and refused to approve the edits (he provided a copy of them to Mother Jones, which has posted them online).
Now all the scientists want their names removed. Because this sort of nonsense can and will damage their reputation. It will also make any researcher leery of providing the most accurate information to this group in the future.
Richard Feynman spoke of this in his 1974 CalTech Commencement address on Cargo Cult Science:
We’ve learned from experience that the truth will come out. Other experimenters will repeat your experiment and find out whether you were wrong or right. Nature’s phenomena will agree or they’ll disagree with your theory. And, although you may gain some temporary fame and excitement, you will not gain a good reputation as a scientist if you haven’t tried to be very careful in this kind of work. And it’s this type of integrity, this kind of care not to fool yourself, that is missing to a large extent in much of the research in cargo cult science.
I read that speech the first semester I attended CalTech. It made a huge impact on me, providing an understanding of how important it is to identify biases in order to do good science, that belief was not enough, that we are the easiest to fool and that we need to find the flaws before others.
Because the truth will come out. Nature always wins. Or perhaps, more precisely, the most accurate scientific model of Nature wins out. Science produces models – or simulacrums – of the natural world. The best models so closely parallel Nature as to be exact copies.
As an example in most ways, Newtonian mechanics is such a model – at the macroscopic level.
Until we get to very small sizes. At the microscopic level, Newtonian mechanics is a poor model, and is replaced by quantum mechanics.
All science can do is produce more accurate models of the world around us. These models will, as time goes on, become closer and closer to a full description of the truth.
Models that fail to provide an accurate model of Nature fall by the wayside.
Or they should, except when people chose to follow the path of the Cargo Cult World, where the narrative is more important than the facts. They are truly sure that they can build an airplane out of cardboard and straw, place it on some flattened Earth and if they truly believe, it will fly. Reality is unimportant in the face of their fervor.
Except the cardboard box never does fly, no matter how hard they try.
The head of the CEQ apparently sees climate change as a fraud. He heads a group that apparently beleives in Cargo Cult science. If only they have a strong enough will, the airplane made of cardboard will really fly.
This refusal to recognize reality has had some horrible consequences in the recent past. Feynman was there again for one of them. When writing about the Challenger crash for the commission, he stated “reality must take precedence over public relations, for nature cannot be fooled.”
When public officials think they can alter reality for public relations purposes, we all become trapped in a Cargo Cult World. The possible tragedies will be much more harmful than a Shuttle Crash.