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Climategate and the American Physical Society

Professor Hal Lewis's resignation from the American Physical Society challenges the scientific — as opposed to the merely politically expedient — basis of the "consensus" on global warming.

by
Charlie Martin

Bio

October 20, 2010 - 12:00 am
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The Climategate revelations then opened the corral door, and the mustangs inside bolted. Examination of IPCC reports led to confirmation that the process had been politically influenced from the start, with major errors — like the discovery that the prediction that glaciers in the Himalayans were imminently to disappear was based on an off-the-cuff estimate in a telephone interview, further corrupted by a typographical error.

The report on which the U.S. government was basing their efforts at developing a new climate change treaty, as well as being the basis for Al Gore’s Oscar-winning polemic An Inconvenient Truth, was rapidly losing credibility, and the Copenhagen talks on a new climate treaty dissolved into a wave of meaningless platitudes and vast recriminations.

In 1962, Thomas Kuhn wrote his influential — and often misunderstood — The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. In it, he made an observation about science: what is called “mainstream” science tends to develop a consensus pattern, or paradigm, to which all “proper” science is expected to conform.  Kuhn called that “normal” science, which he contrasted with “revolutionary” science that challenges the accepted consensus.

Revolutionary science is never accepted easily; in general, what must happen is that the weight of counter-evidence, or of observations that don’t easily fit into the “normal” paradigm, must become overwhelming. Even then, the “normal” paradigm has many social defenses: revolutionary science can be difficult to publish and difficult to fund, and pursuing revolutionary science can be damaging to a young scientist’s career. So the breakdown of an old paradigm never comes easily; usually, as Max Planck joked, revolutionary science eventually succeeds when its opponents grow old and die.

In fact, the acceptance of “revolutionary” science and the breakdown of the existing “normal” paradigm isn’t usually quite that dramatic. In general, new evidence eventually becomes sufficiently convincing that “old” scientists, respected in the normal paradigm, begin to come around.

This is what is happening with Professor Lewis’s resignation. As a critic, he can be ignored; as a critic willing to take the major step of resignation, he becomes much harder to ignore.

This doesn’t mean resistance instantly ends. It’s no surprise to anyone who has actually worked in science, but first of all, science is done by human beings. And unlike what we are sometimes led to believe, scientists are not selfless, disinterested, secular monks. Instead, like other human beings, scientists are sometimes motivated by self-interest, ambition, and pride. The breakdown of a dominating paradigm means that work of many years may be questioned, and a reputation built up over a lifetime may be damaged by the recognition that you were, well, wrong.

The APS certainly shows how this resistance can work. As Professor Lewis notes in his resignation letter, the APS refused to act as required by its own constitution and by-laws to appoint a formal committee to examine the science involved. Instead, the APS has promised to form a poorly formulated and poorly defined group of its own, with little apparent input from scientists skeptical about the original conclusions.

Professor Lewis’s action — resignation from a scientific organization that had counted him among its most respected members, based on the perception that they no longer support “good science” over political expediency — is earth-shaking, even if so far in only a small way. But earthquakes are funny — a few small earthquakes can weaken an edifice, through repeated cracks, as thoroughly as one big earthquake.

Professor Lewis’s resignation is another sign that the foundation of certainty about anthropogenic, carbon-dioxide forced, global warming is showing cracks that suggest the weakness of the whole structure.

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Charlie Martin writes on science, health, culture and technology for PJ Media. Follow his 13 week diet and exercise experiment on Facebook and at PJ Lifestyle
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