The science is unsettled

By Andrew L. Urban

In his popular book in praise of science, The Demon-Haunted World (Headline, 1997), the late and great scientist Carl Sagan* argues that science is a way of thinking, a process that demands rigorous standards of evidence and honesty – and values scepticism.

On the eve of the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris from November 30 to December 11, 2015, it is appropriate (if not urgent) to consider the failure of many scientists to adhere to the golden rules of scientific behaviour, a failure which politicians and activists have embraced with thoughtless abandon.

The oft-used put-down used to try and silence anyone questioning the extent of global warming and the contribution made by mankind –“The science is settled” – is perhaps the most damning phrase in what passes for a debate. Damning not of those who question the doom-laden predictions (based on computer models, not on proof) but of those who utter the words.

In the public debate, the two major questions –

1 Is planet earth warming, dangerously?

2 Does mankind contribute to the warming and if so how much?

– are conflated into one alarmist and simplistic, nonsensical question: “Do you believe in climate change?” If the question has to be asked, then clearly neither of the questions has been answered to the world’s satisfaction.  (Nonsensical because earth’s climate changes and has done over millions of years; the question is framed so as to make it meaningless scientifically … and intellectually.)

If we consider the following short extracts from Sagan’s book, in this context, we find some sobering – and entirely relevant – observations.

The demon-haunted world which was enlightened by science is not entirely free of the ghosts of those demons. If Sagan (alert to the real and verifiable dangers to our environment) were still alive, he would no doubt cringe at the state of debate about global warming: computer modelling replacing observation-driven evidence;scientists and their chorus denigrating scepticism and reverting to the language of ancient religious bigotry and fundamentalism by calling them denialists; and tampering with data to support a predetermined hypothesis.


“Science alerts us to the perils introduced by our world-altering technologies, especially to the global environment on which our lives depend. Science provides an essential early warning system ….  Science thrives on, indeed requires, the free exchange of ideas; its values are antithetical to secrecy. Science holds to no special vantage points or privileged positions. Both science and democracy encourage unconventional opinions and vigorous debate. Both demand adequate reason, coherent argument, rigorous standards of evidence and honesty.  … But democracy can also be subverted more thoroughly than any pre-industrial demagogue ever dreamed.”

“Mistrust arguments from authority”

“Science thrives on errors, cutting them away one by one. False conclusions are drawn all the time, but they are drawn tentatively. Hypotheses are framed so they are capable of being disproved. A succession of alternative hypotheses is confronted by experiment and observation. Propriety feelings are of course offended when a scientific hypothesis is disproved, but such disproofs are recognised as central to the scientific enterprise.”

“… every time we exercise self criticism, every time we test our ideas against the outside world, we are doing science. When we are self-indulgent and uncritical, when we confuse hopes and facts, we slide into pseudoscience and superstition.”

“Except in pure mathematics nothing is known for certain (although much is certainly false).”

“Humans may crave absolute certainty; they may aspire to it; they may pretend, as partisans of certain religions do, to have attained it. But the history of science – by far the most successful claim to knowledge accessible to humans – teaches us that the most we can hope for is successive improvement in our understanding, learning from our mistakes, an asymptomatic approach to the Universe, but with the proviso that absolute certainty will always elude us.”

“One of the great commandments of science is, ‘Mistrust arguments from authority’.”

“There are no forbidden questions in science, no matters too sensitive or delicate to be probed, no sacred truths. You must prove your case in the face of determined, expert criticism. Diversity and debate are valued. Opinions are encouraged to contend – substantively and in depth.”

“… a vested interest in discouraging scepticism.”

“The British physicist Michael Faraday warned of the powerful temptation “to seek for such evidence and appearances as are in the favour of our desires, and to disregard those which oppose them … We receive as friendly that which agrees with [us], we resist with dislike that which opposes us; whereas the very reverse is required by every dictate of common sense.”

“Science, Ann Druyan** notes, is forever whispering in our ears, ‘Remember, you’re very new at this. You might be mistaken, You’ve been wrong before.”

“One unerring mark of the love of truth, wrote John Locke in 1690, is not entertaining any proposition with greater assurance than the proofs it is built upon will warrant.”

“All science asks is to employ the same levels of scepticism we use in buying a used car or in judging the quality of analgesics or beer from their television commercials. …. Those who have something to sell, those who wish to influence public opinion, those in power, a sceptic might suggest, have a vested interest in discouraging scepticism.”

* Carl Sagan (1934 – 1996) was an American astronomer, cosmologist, astrophysicist, astrobiologist, author and science communicator in astronomy and other natural sciences.

** Ann Druyan is an American producer specialising in cosmology and popular science. She was co-writer of the 1980 PBS documentary series, Cosmos, hosted by Sagan, whom she married in 1981. Druyan was elected in 1988, and served for ten years as Secretary of the Federation of American Scientists, an organization consisting of five thousand scientists and engineers, some fifty Nobel Laureates among them. Founded in 1945 by the scientists who invented the atomic bomb, the FAS was the first group ever organized to deal with the danger of the misuse of science and high technology. It has been called the “conscience of American science”.


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