Seth, I applaud your appeal to rationality.
John the TIB
12

John,

You make so many points that I can’t address them all. But let me try a few.

I have struggled mightily with this question of how we can believe science when most scientific papers are wrong. I even wrote about it here, and it was in fact that piece that led me to ask the question “how do we know, really?” about climate science that led to this one.

The bottom line is that bad science looks a particular way, and you can look at the structure of the scientific debate and tell the difference. That’s what I tried to do in this piece — I didn’t know how it would turn out when I wrote it, honestly, but it ended up pretty well in the camp of the status quo. And I can’t claim that the evidence is perfect— that would be unscientific, as you point out. But as with the connection between smoking and lung cancer, at a certain point you have to stop being a philosopher and start being a person. There is a breaking point where you say the risks are too great, and its time to do something.

In this piece I looked at the structure of the science, rather than the details, for a very good reason — I can’t parse all the details. None of us can, because there are >20,000 papers on climate change. If we pour through papers until we find something we don’t understand or that doesn’t fit, that either means #1, that we have truly found an error in field, or #2, that we can’t see all the evidence with any perspective. We know that #2 is true. Why do we assume #1 is as well?

My impression of your objections to climate science is that you are a very, very smart person who is hung up on details. And that is frankly my impression of a lot of the intelligent commentary I get from skeptics. There seems to be a fundamental misunderstanding among non-scientists — and frankly among many scientists as well — that this scientific process should be orderly and reliable, and all the details should fit into place. That’s an incorrect assumption. But some people, when they sense disorder, immediately become suspicious. This expectation for order is simply misaligned with the reality of science.

You seem to believe that there is something fundamentally wrong with the structure of the climate science debate, but I’ll tell you that it is a very similar structure to every other scientific debate. This one just happens to be aired out in public. Yes, there are some serious flaws with the journal review process, and how scientists self-confirm, and publication bias, but this exists in fields like exercise science or polymer chemistry where we can both agree there is no political meddling. You are seeing flaws and reading in a conspiracy. I am seeing flaws and reading in humanity.

We, as scientists, do an awful job of explaining how the field really works. And a lot of us hide our warts, because no one likes to admit weakness (remember, scientists are still people — being unbiased is a goal, not a natural state of mind). As someone who cares deeply about science and communication, the misinformation (both intentional and unintentional) saddens me, and it’s frankly what motivates me to write. But that subject, with all its nuance, has a hard time finding an audience — my writing on climate change has 200X more shares than the one I linked above.

The problem is not that climate science is biased. The problem is that most of us don’t have the proper tools at our disposal to recognize the difference. This article was an attempt to solve that problem. Science is a process, not an accumulation of details, and looking hard at the process is the only way to find your answer.

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