The Trouble With the Term 'Anti-Science'

The trouble with science is the way ideologues wield it.

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Thawing permafrost covering almost a quarter of the northern hemisphere could "significantly amplify global warming" at a time when the world is already struggling to reign in rising greenhouse gases, a U.N. report said on Tuesday.
A poll finds fewer Republicans believe in global warming this year.

Michael Lynch is the president and director of global petroleum service at Strategic Energy & Economic Research.

The term "anti-science" has become a part of our political lexicon, in part because of some actions by administrators working for George W. Bush, but certainly heightened by senior politicians admitting that they don't believe in evolution or recent comments about women's reproductive systems during rape by a senatorial candidate. But most often, it is trumpeted by those criticizing anyone who allegedly "denies" global warming.

The problem is that the phrase is used and abused all too often, with both alpha and beta errors. That is, there are those who refer to non-scientific work as being scientific, and others who ignore scientific work when it suits them to do so. 

[See a collection of political cartoons on energy policy.]

The original sin comes from thinking that any work done by a scientist is scientific. Peak oil advocates often refer to their work as "natural science," when it is really statistical in nature, with no scientific content. Similarly, the correlation between vaccination and autism is not scientific; that would require a demonstration of causality, and there is ample evidence that the correlation is spurious. (Cigarette smoking and lung cancer is an excellent case that proves the value correlation sometimes has.) 

Others attack scientific consensus on the grounds that it has sometimes been wrong or overturned, and describe instances of theories, originally derided, that were later recognized as correct. Such was the case of the theory of continental drift, among many others. This is not a good reason to embrace theories that appear unconventional, but rather to give them due consideration.

Unfortunately, when these theories are analyzed and rejected, as is the case of the purported link between vaccines and autism, their proponents rarely give way. Instead, they argue that the research was funded by industry, which wants to protect its profits, or that a grand conspiracy is out to cover up the truth.

[See a slide show of 10 reasons Americans aren't talking about climate change.]

Certainly, this has been seen on both sides in the case of global warming. Those who make the most extreme claims about climate change are said to be seeking research funding from sympathetic foundations, and those who question such claims are denounced as shills for the oil industry. (It's not clear why auto or coal industries don't get the same attention.)

The problem is with the science. Reality all too often is to theory what windshields are to bugs on the highway. The Earth-centric view of the heavens simply couldn't stand up to the reality of the solar system, and the failure of recent global temperatures to conform to projections should make open discussion of the precise model parameters and feedbacks easier.

Worst of all is the rejection of findings that hydraulic fracturing of shale is not dangerous, widely denounced by opponents. In New York, efforts to delay release of such reports sounds precisely like those alleged by Bush officials, but this time done by the environmental community, indulging in the type of hypocrisy worthy of the Daily Show.

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