The Red Herring of “Settled Science”


It has become very popular among climate science deniers to say that “the science is unsettled”, as if such a statement settles anything. It doesn’t. Of course the science is unsettled. Science is almost always unsettled. That’s why they call it science instead of religion. But just because scientists don’t know everything doesn’t mean they don’t know anything. There’s still much they don’t know about global warming, just as there’s much they don’t know about cancer and Pluto. That does not mean they’re uncertain that any of them exists.

“Settled science” is a straw man suggesting that scientists claim to have all the answers. How could they when they usually don’t have their own radio talk shows? And I’ve never heard one of them claim to know everything. What you might hear them claim, however, is that they know more about the field they work in every day than does someone who’s never worked in it at all. Fancy that.

Charles Krauthammer (pictured) recently paid tribute to the “settled science” decoy with an article in the Washington Post titled The Myth Of Settled Science. He prefaces his remarks with the insistence that “I’m not a global warming believer. I’m not a global warming denier.” But he certainly uses the tactics of a denier, including cherry picking, misinformation and distortion. And he follows the Golden Rule of today’s rabid ideologues: When All Else Fails, Attack President Obama.

He quotes a statement by the president that “the debate is settled … climate change is a fact” , for which he believes the president deserves the appellation of “propagandist in chief” — an irony too thick to cut with a chainsaw– and pontificates that

There is nothing more anti-scientific than the very idea that science is settled, static, impervious to challenge.

Scientists, of course, subscribe to no such credo, nor does Obama. He didn’t say that the science is settled, but that the debate is settled — i.e., the debate over whether global warming is a fact. And on this point he was all too accurate.  The debate indeed has been long settled among competent and disinterested scientists. Plenty of people still contest that conclusion, of course, just as plenty of people contest that a landing on the moon really occurred. But neither is really a debate in any meaningful sense.

Such individuals often cloak themselves in the mantle of “skepticism”, as if a skeptic would be more likely to doubt scientists than crackpots and ideological fanatics with little or no scientific background. You can also doubt gravity if you like, and test out your conviction with as many leaps from tall buildings as will support your thesis.  In the words of physicist and advocate for scientific literacy Neil deGrasse Tyson, “the good thing about science is that it’s true whether or not you believe in it.” One might argue that the leapers from buildings hurt nobody except themselves; but sometimes before they leap they get themselves into positions of power and influence. And they have a habit of vilifying and ridiculing people who do support science. (See Gore, Al.)

Are scientists sometimes wrong? You bet. But that doesn’t mean science itself is wrong. And you need a lot more to establish that scientists are wrong than ideological fervor and cherry-picked details.

Krauthammer likens global warming to mammograms, which have been used for many years to prevent breast cancer but which, according to one study, are more or less worthless. It’s a weak analogy because mammography research is experimental and remedial, whereas climate research is purely observational.  A more appropriate analogy would be: “The certainty that global warming exists is like the certainty that breast cancer and x-rays exist.” Or, if Krauthammer’s assessment is correct: “The idea that mammograms prevent breast cancer is akin to the idea that global warming can be dispelled by flapping your bedsheets at the moon.”

Krauthammer can speak with some authority about mammograms, having been trained as a physician. But to the best of my knowledge, he has little to no expertise in climatology. Which doesn’t seem to make any difference to the cult of denial.

It’s interesting to note that Krauthammer is generally considered a “conservative” — which may not be entirely fair, since he holds certain positions (i.e., pro-choice) that are antithetical to contemporary boilerplate “conservatism”. But he is a regular contributor to Fox “News” and The Weekly Standard. And he certainly follows the winger playbook on this one.

“Conservatives” — whether they’re genuine conservatives or modern neocons fraudulently wearing the badge of conservatism — have a long, long history of being on the wrong side of science. You’d think that just once in the long, long history of the human race, they could get it right. But they seem very, very determined not to.

(See previous posts,  Myths, Misconceptions and Mindless Misinformation About Global Warming and NASA Data, Computer Projections, Opinion Polls and Them Dang Libruls.)