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Stupid Science Tricks

When science and agenda collide.

by
Charlie Martin

Bio

August 29, 2013 - 1:30 pm

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I’ll warn you right now, this is likely to be a series, because there are a lot of stupid science tricks to talk about.

What, you may ask, is a stupid science trick? It’s when someone is using the façade of Science to pass off something that is, well, less than science. Of course, that means we need to talk about what “science” really is, and that can be a little bit tricky, because there’s no one who can finally define it. It’s not a thing, it’s a system of beliefs, and as with other belief systems, it can be a little hard to define. (Consider, for example, the arguments over what constitutes a good Christian.)

Still, there are some common characteristics we can identify. Science is an attempt to understand and explain the world based on some assumptions: that there is a real world outside of ourselves; that this real world can be understood and explained; and that those explanations are true for everyone, so they can be tested and confirmed, or fail the test and be discarded.

We’ve built up a bunch of social processes around these assumptions, something I’ve called the “social contract of science”, that establish some basic rules: when you are doing science, you publish your results so that others can see them and criticize them, and you make this easier by including in the publication full details of your methods, and by keeping your data and making it available to others.

Like other social processes, real-world science isn’t being done by saints, and the social processes can be messy, but over time science has proven to be self-correcting. Sometimes, especially as people get grants and build up reputations in the scientific world, that self-correction can be a little slow. Add in politics, and the self-correction can be even slower, the stakes for refutation higher, and the discussions can get just a little bit ugly.

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Of course, regular readers of this column seeing politics and ugly discussions in the context of science immediately think of the climate change debate; sure enough, that is the topic of today’s stupid science trick.

Undoubtedly, you’ve heard quoted the result from Cook and others that “97 percent of scientists agree that global warming is caused by humans”. (If not, have a look at this Google search.) This has been a subject of a succession of stupid science tricks.

The Cook et al study basically worked like this: a collection of papers were selected by computer, and rated by readers on a 1 to 7 scale from “Explicit endorsement with quantification” to “Explicit rejection with quantification.”

Richard Tol examined the paper statistically and found:

The claim that 97% of the scientific literature endorses anthropogenic climate change (Cook et 15 al., 2013, Environmental Research Letters) does not stand. Numbers are padded with irrelevant papers. A trend in composition is mistaken for a trend in endorsement. Reported results are inconsistent. The sample is not representative. Data quality is low. Key results cannot be reproduced or tested as data disclosure is incomplete.

Stupid Science Trick #1: Don’t Understand the Results

This one is a favorite of journalists. If you read the headlines in, say, the Washington Post

97 percent of scientific studies agree on manmade global warming, so what now?

they read as if 97 percent of all studies agree. Unfortunately, that’s not even what Cook et al say: the real result was that 97 percent of studies that they classified as taking a position on climate change agreed — but 66 percent of the papers they examined took no position at all.

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Stupid Science Trick #2: Be Caught Misclassifying Data

A number of authors whose papers were rated as taking no position actually were well-known climate skeptics, and objected firmly that their papers took an explicitly negative position.

Stupid Science Trick #3: Silence Implies Consent

It gets better, though, because in the paper, the authors argue that taking no position constitutes an endorsement of the pro-AGW position:

Of note is the large proportion of abstracts that state no position on AGW. This result is expected in consensus situations where scientists ‘…generally focus their discussions on questions that are still disputed or unanswered rather than on matters about which everyone agrees‘ (Oreskes 2007, p 72). This explanation is also consistent with a description of consensus as a ‘spiral trajectory’ in which ‘initially intense contestation generates rapid settlement and induces a spiral of new questions‘ (Shwed and Bearman 2010); the fundamental science of AGW is no longer controversial among the publishing science community and the remaining debate in the field has moved to other topics. This is supported by the fact that more than half of the self-rated endorsement papers did not express a position on AGW in their abstracts.

Since the range of time over which the papers were published is pretty long, this is basically arguing that there is a consensus and always had been so no one felt the need to express an opinion.

“Silence implies consent” may be good law, but it’s bad science. If a paper takes no position, then you can’t impute a position from that.

Stupid Science Trick #4: Science Is Not Determined by Polling

Let’s just imagine someone doing a similar study about Einstein’s Special Relativity (SR) in 1910. The original paper was published in 1905, and was very controversial. If you had examined papers at the time, most of the papers that took an explicit position on SR would have been against it, and most Physics papers would not have taken a position on it at all. There would have been substantial “consensus” against SR.

Of course, over time more and more attempts to falsify SR failed; now it’s very widely accepted.

Watch for stupid science tricks

The point here is really that what you read about science has to be taken very skeptically, especially if you agree with it. I could have written about nutrition, genetically-engineered foods, vaccines, or a dozen other things as easily. I have a Facebook friend who is absolutely committed to the notion of human-caused global warming; she quotes this result regularly, and no criticism of it can be considered.

Of course it’s just as true from the other side: I’m confident I’m going to have comments telling me that the whole notion of CO2 causing a greenhouse effect is false. (Folks, here’s a hint: both the physics and the experimental evidence is strong the other way.)

The real answer — and real science — isto think for yourself. What are the ideas, and what are the consequences? And if someone criticizes an idea, think again about it.

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A New Feature

I’ve set up an email address ask.charlie.martin@gmail.com for readers of this column. If you have science questions, or examples of stupid science tricks, send them to me, and I’ll try to answer them in this column. I can’t promise I’ll get to all of them, but I’ll try. Don’t expect me to get into debates with you through that email, though, as I just don’t have the time.

*****

images courtesy shutterstock -  Tomas Urbelionis,  CREATISTANinaMalyna

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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Top Rated Comments   
I can not even list the number of consensus proven researched facts, now abandoned in the field of medicine, the arena where I work every day. In medicine we take these things in stride. Just change and accept. Every day is a learning experience.

Medicine is much more simple and easily adaptable to experiment than "climate science". You cannot do double blind studies or put something like global climate into a petrie dish. We know we get it wrong often and just blunder on, these newbies think they got all the answers from the weak platform of mathematical modeling.

That is why I am a skeptic.
33 weeks ago
33 weeks ago Link To Comment
All Comments   (10)
All Comments   (10)
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An aside you may find interesting:

A number of years ago, a pair of researchers at UCAR used the IPCC's favored model, except instead of utilizing a vast array of assumptions, they used actual data collected from surface and sea monitoring stations from across the globe (except for 45 degrees South Latitude, there are precious few stations there due to geography, etc.).

What they got out as a result bore no resemblance to the IPCC's claims. All of their "proven" hallmarks of Global Warming didn't appear. None of them. No precipitous temperature increase; no Thermal Inversion centered around the ITCZ (Inter-Tropical Convergence Zone, a few hundred km north/south of the Equator, where the two hemispheric weather systems merge). Nada.

I find it very interesting that I have never been able to re-locate this paper again. It's as if it was purged. You think?
33 weeks ago
33 weeks ago Link To Comment
Having been a research scientist for 35+ years and having reviewed papers for publication as well as publishing over a hundred of my own research papers, I can tell you that there are a great many people who claim to be practicing science who do not understand what science is or how to do it properly. I have seen cold fusion and many other phenomena be one hit wonders only to die sometimes very slow deaths. These deaths occur by the generation of data by people who are attempting to build upon the original work, but nothing works as it is supposed to. Since the tie to get new data points about global warming is so slow, it is no wonder why it is taking such a long time to figure things out. On top of that, you have a funding environment that is extremely tight so people have to make big splashes in order to get funded. This leads to jumping onto bandwagons and ignoring evidence that doesn't fit. There is only one thing worse and that is when the field of study becomes politicized and non-scientists who know even less weigh in with the pseudo-education opinions. It becomes the blind leading the blind. People, especially politicians should leave science to the scientists and realize that reading two newspaper articles does not an expert make. We have reached a point where too many people are staying at Holiday Inn Expresses and think they know infinitely more than the, in reality do.
33 weeks ago
33 weeks ago Link To Comment
Y'know, maybe that's just life. It's certainly also true in the IT field. Probably 80% of the "workers" in the area could accelerate progress if they left the office and spent all day every day AFK on the golf course. Hmm, remind you of any POTUS?
33 weeks ago
33 weeks ago Link To Comment
The "Warmist" crowd lost me a long time ago for a variety of reasons - that their predictions are always dire, yet never pan out; that Climate sensitivity to CO2 increases appears to be much smaller than they continue to claim; that it's almost all Forcings, yet the only Feedbacks they mention are catastrophic, as if no other possibility exists.

And, yes, the constant barrage of smug Lefties who not only don't know any actual Atmospheric Science, they don't even know what they don't know. Just continual talking points they couldn't actually explain if their lives depended on it.

"Progressives" claim they don't believe in Religion, but that's a lie. The myth of Climate Change is their faith, and Al Gore is their Prophet.
33 weeks ago
33 weeks ago Link To Comment
I can not even list the number of consensus proven researched facts, now abandoned in the field of medicine, the arena where I work every day. In medicine we take these things in stride. Just change and accept. Every day is a learning experience.

Medicine is much more simple and easily adaptable to experiment than "climate science". You cannot do double blind studies or put something like global climate into a petrie dish. We know we get it wrong often and just blunder on, these newbies think they got all the answers from the weak platform of mathematical modeling.

That is why I am a skeptic.
33 weeks ago
33 weeks ago Link To Comment
Your paper said nothing about Anti-Gravity Engines. Therefore, you endorse the concept of AGE's! Wow.

Progressives: If they're speaking or writing, they're lying. That should be a principle of physics.
33 weeks ago
33 weeks ago Link To Comment
"I’m confident I’m going to have comments telling me that the whole notion of CO2 causing a greenhouse effect is false. "

Hmmm. Not sure you said what you meant to say here, Charlie. Or perhaps you were just anticipating flak from the Illiterati?

I don't think there's a debate about CO2 causing a greenhouse effect. The debate is about how much, and does it continue to increase now that we are past the point of 100% reflectivity for the relevant wavelengths.
33 weeks ago
33 weeks ago Link To Comment
33 weeks ago
33 weeks ago Link To Comment
Gotcha.
33 weeks ago
33 weeks ago Link To Comment
GREAT stuff, Charlie
33 weeks ago
33 weeks ago Link To Comment
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