"Uh, okay," I said, thinking it was some new guy tradition to buy coffee. "Why?"
"See that guy?" asked Tom, indicating the manager.
"Sure, " I replied.
"Check his shoes."
I dutifully looked at the shoes. Seeing nothing out of the ordinary, I asked "What about his shoes?"
"They're full of shit."
I bought the coffee.
When you're getting information from scientists or other "experts", there are some good signs that indicate when a shoe check might be needed (to see what they're full of). One of the best is when scientists argue for/against a particular hypothesis by lecturing about the scientific method, rather than actual evidence. Usually this is a bitch-fest about how opponents of their views are unscientific self-interested boobs, while casting themselves like Gandalf on the Bridge of Khazad-dûm (paraphrasing a bit):
You cannot pass! I am a servant of the Secret Fire, wielder of the Flame of Science. The dark fire will not avail you, Flame of Dumb-Dumb! Go back to the shadow. You shall not pass!
(Of course, since I spend a good chunk of this blog lecturing about scientific method, maybe I should check my own shoes :-)
I recently came across a couple of excellent examples of exactly this phenomenon, and thought we'd all benefit (and maybe get a good laugh) from checking the shoes of those involved. The first is T. Colin Campbell's "review" of the latest Atkins diet book. I haven't read the book, and am no particular fan of Atkins over any other diet, beyond the fact that it applies well-understood metabolic principles to achieve predictable results. And I won't spend time dissecting Campbell's review. He doesn't say anything that amounts to much beyond the Gandalf quote above (I can't shake this mental image of Campbell on the bridge, wielding a carrot and handful of wheat against a cow with a platter of bacon on its back). Jimmy Moore already did a great job of chewing up Campbell's argument, so I'll direct you there and to the links within (definitely see also Chris Masterjohn's review of "The China Study", and Campbell's unintentionally humorous reply). I just find it funny that Campbell is lecturing anybody about the scientific method, when he seems to apply it selectively, if it all. For instance, see his discussion about his personal "scientific philosophy" and "holistic" approach in The Protein Debate. I think it's pretty clear that Campbell is a conditional fan of the "scientific method," as long as it leads you to conclusions that agree with his own.
BTW, if you haven't read The Protein Debate, you should. For a long time you had to pay for access, but now it seems to be available for free. Loren Cordain provides a review of a lot of interesting evidence ranging from archaeological to biological, along with tons of references. Cordain has his own axe to grind, of course, so don't be fooled into thinking he's giving the whole picture. But he certainly provides a lot more background (164 references) than Campbell (0 references). Funny that Campbell complained in his Amazon review that Atkins never published a peer-reviewed paper and lectured on the requirement of peer review in "real" science (shoe check), yet neglects to reference said when arguing his own position. Read Campbell's part in the debate for lots of "check his shoes" examples. Plus it's great fun to see Campbell get handed his own ass - on a platter, with a side of bacon.
The second example is a letter to Science Magazine, entitled "Climate Change and the Integrity of Science". According to the guardian.co.uk,
A group of 255 of the world's top scientists today wrote an open letter aimed at restoring public faith in the integrity of climate science.
In a strongly worded condemnation of the recent escalation of political assaults on climatologists, the letter, published in the US Journal Science and signed by 11 Nobel laureates, attacks critics driven by "special interests or dogma" and "McCarthy-like" threats against researchers. It also attempts to set the record straight on the process of rigorous scientific research.
Wow, 255 scientists including 11 Nobel laureates? That's a lot of shoes to check. And we'll have to check those of Nobel winners twice.
The letter actually gets off to a good start:
We are deeply disturbed by the recent escalation of political assaults on scientists in general and on climate scientists in particular. All citizens should understand some basic scientific facts. There is always some uncertainty associated with scientific conclusions; science never absolutely proves anything. When someone says that society should wait until scientists are absolutely certain before taking any action, it is the same as saying society should never take action. For a problem as potentially catastrophic as climate change, taking no action poses a dangerous risk for our planet.
Clearly you cannot wait until uncertainties are resolved before making choices about how to deal with the possible outcomes of those uncertainties. And in theory, science is all about performing inference in the face of uncertainty, understanding how incomplete information about the world informs beliefs about competing hypotheses. Alas, the letter ruins this excellent start by espousing the opposite course, demanding that we should agree with their "facts":
Scientific conclusions derive from an understanding of basic laws supported by laboratory experiments, observations of nature, and mathematical and computer modeling. Like all human beings, scientists make mistakes, but the scientific process is designed to find and correct them. This process is inherently adversarial—scientists build reputations and gain recognition not only for supporting conventional wisdom, but even more so for demonstrating that the scientific consensus is wrong and that there is a better explanation. That's what Galileo, Pasteur, Darwin, and Einstein did. But when some conclusions have been thoroughly and deeply tested, questioned, and examined, they gain the status of "well-established theories" and are often spoken of as "facts."For instance, there is compelling scientific evidence that our planet is about 4.5 billion years old (the theory of the origin of Earth), that our universe was born from a single event about 14 billion years ago (the Big Bang theory), and that today's organisms evolved from ones living in the past (the theory of evolution). Even as these are overwhelmingly accepted by the scientific community, fame still awaits anyone who could show these theories to be wrong. Climate change now falls into this category: There is compelling, comprehensive, and consistent objective evidence that humans are changing the climate in ways that threaten our societies and the ecosystems on which we depend.
Oh brother, how much self-aggrandizing hyperbole can you pack into two paragraphs? Right off we get the lecture on the scientific method. The authors compare themselves to Galileo, Pasteur, Darwin, and Einstein (such name-dropping is another indication a shoe-check is required). The comparison with other "well-established" theories also needs some examination in comparison with the anthropogenic global warming (AGW) hypothesis:
- The Big Bang (or whatever process created the Universe), formation of the Earth, and evolution have all occurred already. For that matter, so has significant climate change on Earth, without help from human beings. What we don't have is a way of testing specific predictions about the behavior of a very complex nonlinear system, namely that human behavior is the driving force behind the recently observed global temperature variations, and that changes in human behavior can alter the course of future climate change. Big difference.
- The Big Bang, while "well-established" in the minds of physicists, is really only well-established in a semi-dogmatic sense. There are fairly major holes in the theory, in terms of predictive power. The current hypothesis required for getting from a Big Bang event to the Universe observed today ("inflation") has no evidential support - at all. It may be the best hypothesis we have at this point, but there's plenty of room for it to be supplanted by new information (and it wouldn't require much). The example is the most appropriate one for comparison to the AGW hypothesis, though for reasons opposite what the authors intended.
- Estimates of the age of the Earth leverage some other very basic "facts", amongst them that statistical behaviors of radioactive elements are observed to be the same every time we look. The nucleus of an atom on the Earth largely can be treated as an isolated system: it doesn't have a whole lot of complex interactions with the environment, in particular there really aren't any nonlinear feedback loops or other dynamical behavior to consider when doing radioactive dating. Inference of the age of the Earth can then be performed with some accuracy, as the relevant "givens" and observations don't admit much uncertainty. By contrast, global climate has many MANY interacting variables, most of which we probably don't even know about yet, and considerable uncertainty underlying the ones we do know about. It is difficult to see how any specific prediction of the future dynamic behavior of global climate could be as accurate as that for the past behavior of radioactive elements that have been sitting around in a rock for billions of years.
- Evolution is about as close to a "fact" as you're going to get. First of all, it effectively follows from a combination of the "laws" of thermodynamics (mainly the first and second) and the ability of a system (whether it is a molecule or a complex organism) to a) maintain a relative narrow set of states against environmental fluctuations, and b) reproduce itself at a rate greater than it's destruction. Evolution is just math, in the end. And of course, it is observed repeatedly in the laboratory and Nature. There may be many specific models that predict different evolutionary endpoints, or routes by which currently observed endpoints were achieved. But the fundamental phenomenon, that mutable self-reproducing systems will evolve, applies to all of these models, and all predictions are necessarily consistent with this "meta-behavior". By contrast, global climate is an instance of a specific system, which we model given what (very little) we know about the intertwined physical, chemical, and biological systems on the Earth, and continued warming is a specific prediction of that model. As climate is a system showing chaotic behavior across many timescales, it may be fundamentally unpredictable, for all practical purposes. So calling this prediction a "fact" is stretching thin even the approximate definition of "fact" made by the authors.
We also call for an end to McCarthy-like threats of criminal prosecution against our colleagues based on innuendo and guilt by association, the harassment of scientists by politicians seeking distractions to avoid taking action, and the outright lies being spread about them. Society has two choices: We can ignore the science and hide our heads in the sand and hope we are lucky, or we can act in the public interest to reduce the threat of global climate change quickly and substantively. The good news is that smart and effective actions are possible. But delay must not be an option.
I think everybody involved here is "ignoring the science" in one way or another. Threats of criminal prosecution is the sort of idiot knee-jerk response made by politicians, who, incapable of thinking for themselves, blindly follow the "expert du jour". When it turns out the politician made stupid and shortsighted decisions based on "expert" advice, they want to turn on the expert rather than accepting responsibility for acting like an idiot. Physician, heal thyself!
But the authors of this letter are no better. AGW proponents seem to ignore the elephant in the living room: the climate is probably going to change at some point whether or not human activity has anything to do with it. If anything is going to doom humanity, it is our anthropocentric view, that we are the masters of the Earth, able to bend Nature to our will. History shows that environmental conditions are large unstable, requiring organisms to adapt or die. We clearly should not ignore the possibility of climate change and the effects it will have on human life. But should we focus our resources on trying to force Nature to behave as we wish (and probably failing over the long term)? Or is it better to learn from history, assume that change is coming, and figure out how we will adapt to Nature's whims? I'm guessing the personal goals of the "scientists" aligns strongly with one of these scenarios, not so much the other.
And that's the real issue with both examples: the gap between the personal goals of those providing information and the goals of the receivers of that information. I've discussed this before, more in the context of organizations like pharmaceutical companies. But scientists are just as self-interested as any other organism or organization. The personal goals of academic scientists are centered around career advancement and getting funding for research. For both, you need to make some scientific hypothesis and be "right" about it, not necessarily in the sense of having actual evidence quantitatively weighting the hypothesis, but in getting some large chunk of the scientific community to buy in. Achieving said buy-in is the core goal of academic scientists, and whether or not "consensus" is obtained through actual evidence isn't really relevant to the practitioners. They generally think that the consensus so obtained is itself evidence that they're right, but there's circular reasoning and confirmation bias written all over that. When you are evaluating the evidence put forth by a scientist, you not only must evaluate the quality of that evidence, but also the context in which it is presented, because the presenter undoubtedly (and probably unconsciously) re-weights things based on their own beliefs and goals. The scientist has a vested interest in being considered "right", which can be a lot different than actually being "right". The stronger those beliefs and goals relative to the actual evidence, the more likely you'll hear about "facts" and the "scientific method" as opposed to detailed evidence, both supportive and contradictory.
So when a scientist speaks, be sure to check the shoes.