by Martin Odoni

So, this is 2022 is it? Well, it feels little different to 2021 so far, but then every New Year is much the same as the outgoing one, in my experience.

I write today to propose a New Year’s Resolution that all rational people should be able to persevere at without difficulty. The only problem with it is that rational people are in very short supply in modern Britain, and so I realise I am pushing rocks uphill. But then I have Christmas calories to burn off, I suppose.

Here is my proposed Resolution; –

STOP DENYING SCIENCE.

By all means question science. By all means check science, insofar as you have the know-how to do so. I am not saying that science is infallible. I am not saying scientists can never let their egos get in the way of their judgement, or that the conclusions of scientific investigations can never be subject to revision. (In fact, science deniers are the ones who often think that – see Misapprehensions section later.) But in the end, science is the most reliable source of knowledge we have. Knowledge is what ‘science’ means, derived from the Latin word scientia.

How reliable is science?

Unlike religious ‘knowledge,’ or worse still, ‘knowledge’ from The University of Something-I-Read-By-Someone-I-Know-Nothing-About-On-Some-Random-Website, science has a method, and any research that has not adhered to it almost invariably gets found out. Most particularly, a scientific paper does not get published if it has not been subjected to a rigorous peer-review process, allocated by blind sampling to other experts in the field. They carry out a full analysis of every detail in the paper, the methods used, the conclusions drawn, and the objectivity of the observations. Any flaw identified in the paper, and it is rejected.

Subsequent to this process, even if the paper passes and is published, its results must be possible to replicate by other scientists of the field by following the same methods. If replication proves impossible, the paper soon becomes marginalised, treated as a bizarre anomaly, and eventually ignored.

I repeat, the occasional bad research does get through, as the process is not airtight, but be honest; how many anti-science sources are ever held to a standard even a tenth as rigorous as this? How many non-science sources, come to that? That science is not one hundred per cent guaranteed to get everything right is just the reality of human fallibility, but those who fight science are never held to remotely the same standard of account. That is my whole point though; that analytical process does have to happen with all science, or it is not science at all, and because there is such detailed cross-checking done, that is why we know that science is the most reliable source of knowledge we have.

Just accept it; unless you have also studied their field for as long and to the same level, scientists in that field are going to know more about it than you. That is not a bias or an authority appeal, it is simply the nature of their job. And you having the right to your opinion does not automatically make your opinion on the subject as valid as theirs

In fact, that reliability is underlined by scientists’ own tendency to encourage skepticism. They are far likelier than not to insist that we should not just take their word for anything, but to read their research and study the evidence available for ourselves. They acknowledge that, as they are always dealing with the edge of what is known, and often also with the unknown, their findings will often be subject to revision, attempts at greater precision, and ultimately more clarification, as more and more evidence is found and analysed.

When they come up with a hypothesis, a scientist – or at least a scientist with the correct attitude – will not set out to prove it is correct. Instead, they look for as many ways as they can think of to try and prove it is not correct i.e. they perform experiments designed to test whether the hypothesis stands up to scrutiny. Until such a time as it has passed every possible such test, the hypothesis remains hypothesis, no more. The badge ‘hypothesis’ is not lifted until testing is complete, in the same way a danger sign is not removed from the site of a hazard until the hazard has been removed.

Do people in any other field of information offer such admonitions? Think about it.

How reliable is any other source?

Consider the alternatives. Do climate change deniers submit their oil-industry-friendly trash to peer reviewers? Of course not. Frauds like Penguin-lookalike Christopher Monckton or Anthony Watts do not even know any real climate science, so if they submitted any papers, they would not follow any workable methodology and would be dismissed within minutes.

And any challenge or cross-checking such people receive is usually met with insults and arrogant jeers. The very suggestion that we should analyse their claims and make an informed judgement of them never gets so much as a whisper from them, unlike from scientists.

How about the Bible? Do we remember the bit when the Apostles submitted their accounts of the Crucifixion for fact-checking? Can anyone give me the book-chapter-and-verse that reads,

“And lo, there appeared before the Disciples of Jesus the Dean of Harvard University, who did sayeth unto them, ‘Now thou must put a full description of yon Roman Execution of the Lord onto clear manuscript and submit to yonder History department for examination and correction by Sir Simon Schama of Columbia University, and Professor Jeremy Black from yon University of Exeter.’ “?

Totally made-up.

Okay, I admit I have never been as rigorous as I might be in my attempts to memorise all seventeen hundred pages of my copy of the Good News Bible, but I am fairly sure that if such a passage were to be found therein, it would have been mentioned to me at some point in Religious Education classes at school.

No. Far from subjecting their own declarations to scrutiny, religions frequently bully and threaten their adherents into not asking questions about their validity at all. Religions can be thoroughly ruthless in their dealings with apostasy, and treat faith as more important than evidence. It is absurd to regard religious information as being anywhere near as reliable as science, as it is not tested, at least not by those who propogate it.

Journalists? Admit they might be wrong? Journalists?!?

How about journalists? Well, fact-checking used to be an integral part of that profession, but it is notable by its absence today, usually replaced with a lot of heavy-lifting by the word ‘allegedly’. The six years of relentless hysteria against Jeremy Corbyn, on their own, demonstrate that journalism is in such a cancerous shape that reliability of media message is almost non-existent. Any scientist or scientific institution publicising lies on the scale of The S*n or The Daily Mail would see their accreditation removed.

And has anyone else noticed the benighted arrogance of journalists – especially establishment journalists – when their reportage is challenged? Again, you will get no honest disclaimers from them imploring you to check what they say to the best of your ability, they demand you take everything they tell you at face-value.

Politicians? Admit they might be wrong? Oh get stuffed!

How about politicians? Do their statements and efforts come under scrutiny? Well, that is supposedly what the House of Commons is there for, but Parliament’s own rules often get in the way of the process, and inaccuracy, fudging, grossly misleading use of data, and downright lies dominate public discourse with unashamed abandon. This is a problem that has always been there, but is worse than ever today, with failing Ministers, even those found to have lied to the House and to the public, no longer expected to resign from their posts.

We have reached such a mad point in the current western world that a politician can have evidence thrust in his face that they have told a lie, and they can simply deny that the evidence says what it so clearly does. And somehow it never seems to affect their credibility.

Accountability, nothing.

Only science safeguards its own integrity

No, it is only science that has a properly integrated system of peer review. It may not be completely foolproof, but it is way ahead of any other system, way better at filtering out the chaffe than any other source of knowledge, and its failures are therefore vastly rarer.

I am often frustrated by the condemnation science gets, especially since the 1970s, and especially from other information sources like the media. The rise of the Bible-bashing right in the USA in the early-1980s clearly caused an upswing in anti-scientific attitudes, in vain and childish desperation to re-credibilise holy scriptures as alternative explanations for the world around us. But the anti-science process does seem to have started earlier.

The 50-Year War on climatology

In particular, there has been a long-running assault since the mid-1970s on climate science. There has been an orchestrated campaign to discredit the growing mountains of clear evidence that human activity has increased the carbon dioxide content of the atmosphere to such a degree that it is causing the planet to get warmer. This causes the polar ice caps to melt, releasing vast quantities of extra water into the oceans, and into the weather cycles, resulting in a more extreme overall climate.

(My own history on this needs stating. Until the late-2000s, I was something of a climate change skeptic myself, although not a loud one, and certainly not one who felt qualified to contradict a climatologist. The reason for my doubts was that I had not yet been able to get ‘unfiltered’ access to peer-reviewed climate science research. Once I had seen enough of the appropriate information, by around 2009, I did what I wish so many science-deniers would learn to do; I accepted that I had been wrong and changed my position.)

The key cause of this is Man’s relentless burning of fossil fuels since the start of industrialisation. This includes petroleum-based fuels, which the oil industry is almost entirely dependent upon. In its desperation to maintain its enormous and growing profits, the oil industry has routinely corrupted the public debate on when and how to switch from petrol to other types of fuels, through feeding disinformation into the public domain that encourages people and businesses to keep burning oil.

This disinformation takes many forms. Sometimes, it comes from suggesting that the “science isn’t complete enough yet” for us to tell whether the climate is really changing (yet another “half-a-loaf-is-the-same-as-no-bread” argument). Sometimes it comes from suggestions that the planet is actually cooling (nonsense usually arrived at by cynically cherry-picking a particularly warm year in the less recent past and comparing it to a cooler year in the more recent past, instead of analysing long-term temperature trends over twenty years or more). Sometimes it comes from pointing out that the climate has changed in the past by natural means so therefore concluding that current changes must be natural too (again nonsense, arrived at by lazily assuming that what caused an event in the past must be the only explanation for a similar phenomenon happening now – usually without even knowing what this ‘natural’ process of past climate changes even was). Or maybe it comes from suggesting that the whole notion of global warming is a fraud or hoax perpetrated by an evil cabal of scientists who are trying to take over the planet.

Scientists are not all Lex Luthor or Dr Frankenstein, you know

This last theory is easily the silliest, most Hollywood-movie-minded rubbish of the lot. It depends heavily on a 1950s stereotype of the mad, evil genius using insane inventions of his own making to win himself power. Anyone who has outgrown Superman comics (which in the 1950s always portrayed Lex Luthor as an evil scientist rather than the criminal big businessman of today’s stories) should immediately reject such notions as too hackneyed to waste time checking.

But it is striking that this myth of the climate hoax is probably the one that has proven most effective for science-deniers when attempting to mislead the public, at least since the 1990s. It seems that an awful lot of people are willing to believe the “Dr Frankenstein” figure very quickly, and genuinely accept that climate scientists are all Marxists trying to take over the planet by, er, by… well, by asking people to… use less petrol?

I am quite unsure how this elaborate scheme will ultimately bring Luthor, Frankenstein and their evil allies in the climatology world ultimate power, but hey, they are scientists, right? Their plan must be clever, and we just do not understand how it works!

The underlying reasons for anti-scientific resentment

Perhaps there lies the real motivation for thinking this way though. Scientists do indeed tend to be very bright, at least within the confines of their specialist fields. They have studied and worked long and hard over many years to become experts in their chosen subjects, whereas a lot of other people tend to find science too confusing to be worth the bother of applying themselves to anything like the same extent. When, later in life, the average Joe-and-Jane find themselves unable to compete with the scientists, and the scientists are offering conclusions that are perceived as threatening to their established way of life e.g. we have to stop letting gas-guzzling cars be the centre of our lives, the temptation to discredit them must be huge.

And if it is impossible to discredit the work of scientists intellectually – because the scientists are generally brighter than the man-in-the-street – rather than admitting that you should have paid more attention in chemistry class when you were a kid, the next best tactic available is to discredit the scientists’ honesty or intentions. Make it look like they are using the complexity of their work as a cover for self-enrichment. Knowledge of advanced science can look like a super-power to the uninitiated anway.

Hence why the dreary old stereotype of the evil scientist still holds traction even today.

Misapprehensions

To repeat, science is always willing to discuss its own flaws, and its need for skepticism and constant revision. Nothing is unchallengeable, provided actual, corroborated evidence demonstrating that the challenge is sustainable accompanies it. That is precisely why science is reliable though, because scientists are always checking each other’s work accordingly, always trying to reproduce the same methods to make sure they produce the same results. This side of science is particularly badly misunderstood in the wider world. Indeed, the wider world has a bad habit of assuming that once a scientist has offered a conclusion based on the best information he has at hand at the time he offered the conclusion, that conclusion must stand permanently, and without challenge.

This is not the case at all. Take as an example, Stephen Schneider, a major climatologist who first emerged at NASA in the early-1970s. At the time, there was much debate but little detailed evidence, over whether there was a greater threat from global warming caused by CO2 increases, or from global cooling due to increased artificial aerosols being released into the atmosphere by human activity, blocking solar rays from reaching the earth’s surface. (Contrary to popular myth put about by Penn & Teller, no, there was no consensus at all from the climate sector one way or the other back in the 1970s, as most climatologists at that point agreed that a lot more investigation needed doing first. But there was a lot of debate.) Schneider was among the early speculative proponents of cooling theory at the time. (It must be stressed, his paper was hypothetical, and not an outright prediction.)

In later decades, Schneider saw the growing evidence of warming and openly changed his position quite firmly to one of acceptance that anthropogenic warming was happening, and was a danger. But some climate change denialists even today, twelve years after Schneider’s death, insist that what he said originally in the 1970s must override what he said in the 1990s. Even though his words in the 1990s were a response to there being no evidence at all of the cooling he had suggested, and copious evidence of warming.

It is as though scientists are not researchers, but prophets making statements that must not be challenged – not even by the prophets who uttered them themselves. Far from scientists being the arrogant ones refusing to let their work be questioned, even by know-nothings, it is the know-nothings themselves who are presenting positions of the distant past as being unchanging and unchangeable.

Science is not static

To be clear, back in the 1970s, climatology was a relatively new field of science, and only had a rather superficial body-of-work at that point. There have been fifty years of research done since then, with ever-improving technologies and new-found measuring techniques enhancing our knowledge of how the climate operates, as well as how it changed in the past. If you can find an example of a climate scientist in 1977 saying, “There is no clear evidence for warming,” (and you will probably find hundreds) that means almost nothing today.

The ‘Greenhouse effect’ was more or less conclusively detected by the end of the 1980s, so evidence that had not been found in 1977 was found subsequently. Even finding examples of a climatologist saying the same thing as late as the 1990s is still pretty meaningless, as there have been around three decades more research subsequent to that. A lot of evidence not yet seen in 1997 had been discovered by 2007. A lot of evidence not yet seen in 2007 was discovered by 2017, and five more years of evidence have been added just since then. No evidence has ever actually overturned what was revealed before by prior evidence, but merely supplemented and clarified what we can take from that evidence.

The evidence for Anthropogenic Global Warming

And the evidence has long been great enough to be conclusive. Warming is happening, and it is not caused by natural conditions.

‘Natural conditions’ is a label climate change deniers love appending to current global warming without ever checking whether it is true. In fact, over the last fifty years, if ‘natural conditions’ had reigned, they would have meant global temperatures remaining roughly similar to what they were in the late-1960s, perhaps even showing a very slight cooling. This cooling is thanks in part to the eruption of Mount Kilauea in 1991-2 sending vast clouds of smoke and volcanic debris into the atmosphere over many months, which blocked a lot of sunlight. Even with that effect, however, the warming trend has continued with remarkably little drag factor
GISS mean surface temperature has risen consistently and markedly quickly since the mid-1970s. Output from the sun over the same period has broadly flatlined, so there is no way that solar activity can account for the current spate of rapid warming. Something else is causing it, and CO2 increases in the atmosphere are consistent with the changes. Those CO2 increases are chiefly from burned fossil fuels, confirmed by analysis of the proportion of CO2 in the atmosphere that is oxidised, as compared with CO2 melted out of sub-terranean rocks, which have no such oxidisation ‘signature’
Notice the yellow line, representing sun activity. It has not seen a net increase overall at any stage since the 1950s, and if anything has declined somewhat. Despite what denialists claim, there is no way that solar activity accounts for the current very rapid warming trend

If you really think science is unreliable, how are you reading this?

Science-deniers on the Internet are like Zionist-Jews who do not live in Israel – a complete paradox. After all, the Internet is one of the most powerful products of science. Now yes, your internet connection may be a bit choppy, but by and large, the accomplishment of computer science, from barely existing at the start of the 1980s to the internet becoming the dominant medium all over the world by the start of the 2010s, shows the capacity for science and technology to change life as we know it. (Television did the same thing between the 1960s and the 1990s.) It might be used for fair means or foul, but whatever the intention of its deployment, science is reliable for making sure that things work the way they are meant to, and for establishing why they work in that way.

So if science does not work, how are you reading this? I did not write all this down on a sheet of paper, take a photo of it, and transmit the photo into the ether, hoping the signal would somehow beam into people’s brains. Science shows that such an attempt would not succeed, as human brains do not have the necessary apparatus to receive radio signals. Science also shows us that wires and transmitters can carry signals consistently over computerised networks, including networks of networks, like the World Wide Web. Science shows that if I type something into an editor provided by a site on this web that has the approporiate software installed, and publish it as a location with its own IP address, and program various other software points to ‘link’ to this address, other people – ‘readers’ – can open the page and read what I have written. We are only able to do this because science discovered a long succession of workable and refined technologies allowing us to have what we call The Internet.

Technological advancement is accelerating, not stuttering

If science did not work, it would not be reliable for developing technologies. So how have we got here? And so quickly? How did the telephone not remain a manual exchange system of communication, as it was at the end of the Second World War? How did rotary phones become replaced with dial-pad phones? How did analog pulse phones become replaced with digital dual-tone phones? How did modems become separate from telephones? How did broadband become separate from dial-up? How did routers replace modems?

How did black and white 300-line TV pictures become replaced with 700-line colour TV pictures. How did analog TV signals get replaced with digital TV signals. How did 1080-line digital pictures become Hi-definition and even Ultra-hi definition pictures? How did terrestrial TV signals become replaced by streaming shows over the Internet? How did telex replace hand-written letters? How did telex get replaced by fax, and then fax replaced by e-mail, all in the space of about seven years in the 1990s?

And on. And on. And on. And all of this has happened since shortly before my own life began, all advancing so rapidly that the technology of the late-1980s now looks charmingly primitive compared with what is there now. If science were so unreliable, a lot of this new technology emerging all the time would not work properly and therefore never have caught on with industries or the public. But they do work properly, because science has made sure they do. And it works so well, advancements are happening more and more quickly. Changes that would have taken centuries in the past are now happening within the space of a couple of years.

The odd bad apple

This is why I think this New Year is the time we should all resolve to give science its due, and to stop treating it with such petty, ego-driven suspicion. Even where a technological advance is misused e.g. advanced cameras used for intrusive surveillance of individuals, that is not really the fault of the scientists, or a flaw in the scientific method. That is the attitude of the user of the technology, abusing it for corrupt purposes. The validity of the science that created it is no less real for all that.

Equally, it is hardly Chris Whitty’s fault that the current Government keep cherry-picking which bits of information he offers in the battle against the SARS-Cov2 pandemic, while contradicting those ones he offers that are less to their liking. Boris Johnson’s inadequacy as a leader, his lack of patience for detail, and his selfish deceitfulness are all there for us to see, and they would all be there with or without science.

If you resent science because you do not understand it, again, is that the fault of science and its practicioners? Or is the failing your own?

And yes, there is the occasional bad apple in the scientific bushel, the odd scientist who is only looking for self-advancement. But they are the exception, not the rule. The ones who do not adhere to the scientific method, and try to fake their research, are always caught out eventually, and the damage done to their reputations mean they will soon be without a University at which to practice. The evil scientist is not a frequent or prominent figure today, because the price to pay for being one is too high.

Covd-denial is doing a lot of damage

The recent movie, Don’t Look Up, is a bruising parody of the denial of climate science, but it could just as easily be a parody of the more recent problems with huge numbers of people, including politicians and media people, denying the Covid pandemic as well, or at least denying the suitability of measures to combat it. This hit a new absurdity point just before Christmas, when Jacob Rees-Mogg genuinely suggested that it was time to “trust the British public” instead of the scientists who were encouraging new restrictions.

Which British public do we trust to maintain social distancing then? This one? This one? This one?

The whole reason there has been a debate about whether to introduce more restrictions has been precisely because the British public have been ‘trusted’ to do the right thing, and they keep failing, in part because many of them deny the science!

Anti-science is not a principle

This anti-science nonsense in the Covid-19 debate must stop. The UK Government itself, as mentioned above, has contributed to that, and given the “defiance-of-Government” pride of many of the deniers, that really should give them pause-for-thought. Boris Johnson in particular, determined to keep tills ticking over to maintain the profits of his sponsors and cronies, has repeatedly shown great reluctance to lock down at times when he clearly should have done. Those who refuse to wear facemasks or maintain social distancing out of opposition to Government should reflect that they are in fact taking exactly the same attitude to the pandemic as Johnson. That is not rational.

Nor is it rational to point to scraps of cautionary advice from epidemeologists earlier in the pandemic that later prove unnecessary, as evidence that “science is unreliable.” The advice they give is often the substitute for science while observations are still being made and assessed – to err on the side of caution until the science is in, so to speak.

Perhaps most foolish has been the idiotic tendency to point to supposedly “low death-rates” in the pandemic. It is easy to say that when you do not have to face the reality of those who will die if no restrictions are in place. But let us leave that on one side. The concern is as much about the necessities of survival as about the death-rates. At no stage do the deniers consider the question that if half as many per head are hospitalised with the Omicron variant as were by previous strains, that actually means over twice as many hospitalisations, because it spreads five times faster and more freely. The NHS barely coped last winter dealing with the previous hospitalisation rates. How will it cope with Omicron’s?

Raw body counts are never rational, they are one-dimensional and myopic. But that thinking is clearly being allowed to play into Government policy, which still prioritises keeping businesses ticking over above keeping as many people alive as possible.

The difference between skepticism and rebellion

Skepticism is about not taking every claim you hear at face-value.

Unfortunately, too many people think they hear a rebellious overtone in that definition. This leads them to confuse skepticism with merely gainsaying of (what they assume to be) the majority opinion, or defiance of expertise, neither of which is rational. Especially not the defiance, which often endures during and even after the assessment of the evidence, thus preventing a fair analysis. Defiance is an emotion that should not be involved at all when trying to assess facts. It is the giveaway that a person’s ego is being serviced, not their perspective. Denialism born of defiance is ultimately about rebellion, not about objectivity, and rebellion serves no purpose in critical thinking.

This is why I tend to use the term, “Denier” rather than “Skeptic” when describing anti-science advocates. They are too often denying facts, and cherry-picking details that suit their premeditated conclusion. They are not avoiding gullibility.

It is not only immoral to do that, as there is a clear element of dishonesty involved, it is also fallacious, and therefore poor quality of thought.

Both are excellent reasons therefore for everyone’s New Year’s Resolution to be to stop denying science.