Monday, March 06, 2006

Michael Crichton talks sense

This posting was transferred from my original blog

On the environment as it happens. Crichton isn't always the most profound thinker, and I know that historically his research has turned out to be interesting rather than 100% accurate, but the basic concept here is sound. The problem that environmental scientists have is the same one that evolutionary scientists have: they're not prepared to say anything that confronts the orthodoxy because there are so many people who will jump on it to claim something that is driven by non-scientific motives.

For the environmental scientists, their opponents are driven by commercial motives. For instance, if you acknowledge that all we have on climate change at the scales we're looking is a correlation between CO2 levels and temperature, and a correlation between CO2 emissions and CO2 levels in the atmosphere, that we have no certain knowledge of the feedback effects and that it's entirely possible that we could be headed for another ice age, not a major temperature rise, then the combustion industries (oil, motor vehicles, and air transport above all) will jump on this and say "we don't know, so let's not worry about it and carry on buyng our stuff". The problem is that lack of proof of danger is seen as proof of safety, where what you really have is cause for concern.

For the evolutionary scientists, the opponents are religiously driven, and I'm sure that this is what has hardened evoluntionary science from "this is the best explanation that fits the evidence we have" to "this is as well-proven as gravity". It's about as well-proven as Einsteinian General Relativity, so while the latter is technically true, it gives off completely the wrong implication (viz. that it's as solid as things going down when you drop them, rather than there is no solid evidence to the contrary, fits all the available evidence and no better explanation has been offered). The other point is that evolutionary scientists regularly get pissed off by Christians trying to argue Intelligent Design in a completely non-scientific manner. So they get intolerant in return and end up with a quasi-religious belief in evolution.

What this goes to prove is that the scientific mindset is hard and is not really natural. Prejudiced, emotional responses are much more natural to the human being. Popperian philosophy (believe nothing, disbelieve only that which you have completely disproven) is, while necessary to science, something that few can maintain.


Joe Otten said...

What Creationists are demanding of science is not Popperian doubt, but special pleading. They certainly don't apply any Popperian rigour to their own fanciful notions.

Evolution is not just the best explanation of what we see in the natural world, it is the only explanation.

Creationism insists that there is no explanation because it doesn't like the explanation. Asserting intelligent design as an alternative to evolution is no different to asserting intelligent falling as an alternative to gravity.

Creationists accuse scientists of dogmatism and intolerance, and you repeat those accusations. There may be the odd case of course, but not in any way that is important to the debate. If you think otherwise, perhaps you can provide a quote or two?

Joe Otten said...

OK I've read Chrichton's piece now too. He's quite right about needing good science rather than recieved wisdom. And it seems he could do with some of his own medicine.

Second hand smoke harmless? Yeah, right.

Contrarian science has just the same weaknesses as environmental science. Stuff people hear and want to believe gets elevated to dogma, and corrupted in the process.

This is probably fairly inevitable when political will needs to be applied to some goal that is technically difficult, whether it is because of the science or the economics, or some other technical discipline.

Mere punters, politicians and journalists don't have the technical ability to do any better than receiving wisdom and spreading it.