Thursday, August 5, 2010

Absolute and Provisional Certainty in Science

There is a story about the Physicist Wolfgang Pauli that illustrates something about how science is done. After a seminar at which the speaker described some recent work, Pauli was asked his opinion of the work described. He responded by saying "it wasn't even wrong." Pauli was a tough audience, but his comment illustrates what sort of things occur as scientists study a problem. His point was that the problem the fellow had studied was so simple that the results probably were correct, but were not interesting. If he had been studying a challenging problem, the results would have been wrong, but in determining why they were wrong, others would have learned more about the subtleties of the subject. Progress is not made by studying easy problems.

I do not recall seeing reports in the media that nuclear physicists did not know what they were doing because many published studies about the structure of an atom's nucleus turned out to be wrong. Perhaps this was because few people understood what was being done, and perhaps it was because the studies did not seem to have an impact on people's beliefs or on how they lived their lives . On the other hand, current controversies over scientific studies, such as Evolution and Global Warming exist, perhaps because one affects traditional religious teachings, and the other has the potential to affect the standard of living in the industrialized nations.

Global warming provides a good example of the kind of scientific study that attracts public attention and criticism. It is also an example of how modern scientific studies are done because the subject is sufficiently complex that many teams of scientists with different specialties are studying it, using a number of different approaches. One interesting result of these studies is that the different teams, using different approaches seem to be arriving at largely similar conclusions. The studies conducted by these teams, from several different countries, examining different aspects of the subject conclude that the likelihood is very high that human activities associated with the emission of carbon to the atmosphere have been causing the earth's average temperature to rise. A report from a U.N. committee based on these studies recommends reducing CO2 emissions drastically and quickly to prevent dire consequences to human populations from climate change.

It should be emphasized that recommendation that CO2 emissions to the atmosphere be reduced is based on the evidence that exists and on analyses of that evidence. The evidence consists in part, of temperature measurements taken since the early 19th Century that coincide with the development of the Industrial Revolution, which show that world-wide temperatures have been increasing for the last 200 years. The evidence includes about 50 years of C02 measurements taken at a station on the top of the volcano Mauna Kea, in Hawaii, far from any industrial activities, which demonstrate that values of C02 in the atmosphere have been increasing for the last 50 years. And the analyses include predictions of future average temperatures based on computer models of the atmosphere-ocean system, several different versions of which, developed by different teams of climate scientists in different countries, predict future warming of the planet if CO2 emissions continue to increase.

Unlike the example of nuclear physics, the work on global warming has been criticized strongly. As is the case in all scientific studies, we have to recognize that the results of these studies are provisional. The predictions of future conditions on the planet based on the analyses of the data sets and on the modeling studies may turn out to be wrong, but no one has as yet shown that they are wrong. That is important.

No one has shown that the correlation between temperature measurements taken since the early 19th Century and the emission of C02 is spurious and for that reason we should not infer that human activities are causing global warming. No one has developed computer models that predict that CO2 emissions will not cause global warming in the future. And no one has developed a theory of atmospheric chemistry that shows that CO2 emissions could not cause warming. Yet critics of the results of climate research persist.

Those who express doubts about global warming have no evidence to substantiate their claims, so they are reduced to complaining that the studies indicating warming is occurring are not conclusive. For example, they claim that the correlation between rising temperatures and CO2 emissions does not prove a causal relationship between the two sets of data. This is certainly true, but Biologists working at the Tobacco Research Institute once made the same argument about relationships between smoking and lung cancer. Or, the critics of global warming complain that the computer models that predict serious warming in the future unless CO2 emissions are reduced do not take into account everything that could affect the climate, so the models' predictions cannot be trusted. They do not mention that those who build and use the models are aware of their limitations, and have developed ways to determine by how much the limitations affect the reliability of the models' predictions.

Because implementation of the recommendations of the U.N. report dealing with global warming will require serious societal changes, those who refuse to accept the conclusions of the report usually base their reluctance on the need for absolute certainty that the changes are warranted. Due to the costs of the changes, they require that the scientists be absolutely correct before they will consider implementing the recommendations. Of course, that assurance will never come. It is interesting to note that editorial positions in Conservative media outlets, which deplore any attempts to deal with the threat of global warming, also contend that if there is one chance in a thousand that terrorists will attack the U.S. again, we should spend billions of dollars to ferret them out and prevent the attack. This inconsistency in the use of the "precautionary principle" suggests that a great deal of "compartmentalizing" occurs in the minds of some people.

How do we get the general public to understand that the assurance they require is not possible and that definitive statements about complex phenomena are usually the result of oversimplifying the topics? How do we get the public to become comfortable with the idea that even if scientific knowledge is provisional, it is not necessarily wrong? How do we get people to accept the idea that policy decisions made on the basis of a provisional understanding of a process is not foolhardy because the provisional understanding is the best that can exist with the current state of knowledge?

Consider what happens if global warming is happening and we do nothing about it because absolute certainty is not available. The results to society will be devastating: inundation of coastal cities and island nations, changes in agricultural patterns, severe droughts, etc. On the other hand, if we take steps to reduce carbon emissions, and global warming is not occurring, the only cost to society will be monetary. Comparing the two sets of consequences, does it make sense to wait for certainty?

Friday, July 30, 2010

Influences on the Public's Perception of Science

Letters sent to the editor of a newspaper do not represent a random sample of the general population because most people do not write to newspapers, and the editorial staff of a paper determines which letters will be published, so a great deal of filtering occurs. Letters that have passed through the editorial filtering process represent the opinions of a vocal group of readers who, with few exceptions, do not appear to be experts on the topics that concern them. But the number of such letters that are published, suggests that that a substantial proportion of the population may share these misconceptions about scientific subjects. For this reason the way members of the public in general acquire their information is worth considering because it illustrates something about how opinions are generated in our society. Perhaps we should start by considering how a well-known myth began and was transmitted.

Between 1950 and the 1970s the myth of the Bermuda Triangle flourished in the media and in popular opinion. Many people believed that a large number of boats and airplanes had disappeared due to unknown reasons in a triangular area in the central Atlantic ocean south of Bermuda. A reference librarian at a university in Arizona wondered about the rumors, so he traced the story back to its original source, which turned out to be a fictional account in a men's magazine about a squadron of navy planes disappearing in the Atlantic Ocean. Someone who read the story must have mentioned it to someone else, who apparently did not realize that it was fiction. The next time the "story" appeared in print, it was reported as fact, not fiction. After that, it took on a life of its own; everyone who wrote about it seemed to reference only the last article on the subject, implying that the events had actually happened, so for about 20 years, many people believed that this zone had some mysterious properties.

I do not see references to the subject any longer, perhaps because other topics have captured the public's attention. Unsubstantiated claims develop a life of their own more quickly today because of the ease with which people can post things on web sites and blogs. Someone posts material about climate change (or crop circles, or aliens crashing UFOs near Roswell, NM, etc.) on the Internet, and someone else reads the file and forwards it to friends. The result is rumors developing like the mythical soldiers sprouting from dragons' teeth. The important characteristic of all of these claims is that, like the Bermuda Triangle myth, they have no supporting evidence.

Not all of the stories that persist in the media are about exotic topics such as aliens. Many of them pertain to real scientific subjects such as the ozone layer and global warming. The sources of the misinformation on these topics are not always obvious, as shown by the global warming controversy. Letters claiming that legislation to reduce carbon emissions is not necessary because warming is not occurring, and that the legislation will destroy the economy never seem to mention that these beliefs are based primarily on misinformation provided by the energy industry. Reducing the amount of carbon emitted by power plants and automobiles will have a significant adverse effect on energy companies' profits, and clearly, that is not in their best interests. So they fund "research scientists" who do no research at conservative think tanks; they fund advertising campaigns to influence the public; they hire lobbyists to interact with the legislators who will vote on laws reducing carbon emissions; and they fund conferences, supposedly on the scientific aspects of global warming, but which are attended mainly by economists.

There probably is not any organized conspiracy by companies associated with the energy industry to propagate misinformation about global warming, but their efforts do not have to be coordinated to be successful. Independent continuous public relations activities contending that regulations that constrain industry in any way are not necessary and are counterproductive are just as effective as some sort of global conspiracy. Eventually, large segments of the public become suspicious of anything that seems to involve increasing governmental actions. The amount of money spent by a number of companies independently of each other clearly has been successful in affecting the public's opinion about global warming, because surveys find that a substantial percentage of the population believes climate change is not occurring, regardless of what the overwhelming majority of professional climate scientists claim.

Lest I be accused of scapegoating by blaming just the energy industry, I will merely say that the relationship between its public relations efforts and the misinformation found in all the media (not just newspapers) on global warming passes the "duck test." Sadly, the letters published in newspapers are evidence that these public relations activities are as effective as those once used by the tobacco industry.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Conspiracy Theories

More on ideas promulgated by Letters to the Editor in newspapers.

The conspiracy theories that are proliferating today about global warming in various
media outlets are simplistic because they give the impression that a small group of people are responsible for the problem considered, and that removing them from any positions of authority will solve whatever problem is discussed.

Things rarely are that simple, and unfortunately, the scapegoating associated with these accusations distracts attention from their real source, which often is the efforts of major industries to influence the media and public opinion. For example, the claims of scientists who showed a relationship between tobacco and a variety of diseases were discounted by other scientists working for the Tobacco Research Institute, which of course, was funded by the tobacco industry. The effects of that propaganda campaign persist today, a generation later. Whenever a city tries to ban smoking in public places letters appear in the newspapers claiming that there is no proof that secondhand smoke from other people's cigarettes is dangerous, Of course, these letters do not come from representatives of the medical profession; they usually are from smokers, or from the owners of bars and restaurants who predict that they will lose customers if such a ban is enacted, or from Libertarians who object to any legislation that restricts peoples' activities.

The funding sources of contemporary misinformation campaigns are not obvious, as is shown by the global warming controversy. Letters claiming that legislation to reduce carbon emissions is not necessary because warming is not occurring, and that the legislation will destroy the economy never seem to mention that these beliefs are based primarily on misinformation provided by the energy industry. Reducing the amount of carbon emitted by power plants and automobiles will have a significant adverse effect on energy companies' profits, and clearly, that is not in their best interests. So they fund "research scientists" who do no research at conservative think tanks; they fund advertising campaigns to influence the public; they hire lobbyists to interact with the legislators who will vote on laws reducing carbon emissions; and they fund conferences, supposedly on the scientific aspects of global warming, but which are attended mainly by economists.

Letters to the editor are probably not effective in influencing elected officials; behind-the-scenes lobbying is surely more effective in affecting legislators' decisions. But the fact that the letters appear illustrates two things: first, some segment of the population is affected by the public relations campaigns; and second, the editorial staff of the newspaper thinks that both sides of an issue should be publicized. I believe it was Edward R. Murrow who claimed that to the media the opinions of Judas and Jesus are of equal value.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Letters to the Editor on Scientific Topics.

This is the first posting of my blog, which will deal with a variety of examples of the lack of understanding of scientific topics by an apparently large percentage of the public.

Letters to the editor in newspapers provide an interesting picture of how well members of the general public understand scientific subjects. A good example is a letter on climate change that appeared in the Indianapolis Star on June 29, 2009, which denied that human-induced global warming is occurring, and stated that "...a few hundred years ago, during the Dark Ages, the Earth cooled. Before that, Vikings grew crops in Greenland."

It is clear that the writer is confused about more than climate change. The Dark Ages had no relation to the "Little Ice Age." The letter went on to say that "The effect of man-made CO2 in the atmosphere has been debunked..." without saying how or by whom. He then mentioned "...fluctuating magnetic fields of the earth and the cycles of the sun..." as the causes of the current warming (without mentioning how they cause warming), and if those things were known in general, climate researchers would all be out of jobs. The writer clearly believes that human-induced global warming has been fabricated by the media and that climate scientists are in on the fabrication.

Another letter that appeared in the same paper ten days later claimed that the energy legislation being considered in Congress is not necessary because the earth is cooling, not warming. Once again, no evidence was given for the claim; the public is just supposed to believe that it is true. In fact, a drop in temperature in 2008 was caused by the La Nina effect in the tropical Pacific ocean, but 2009 was the second warmest in the decade.

If the writers of these letters had any background in science, they would have noted it, so we can assume they have none. The fact that letters such as these appear fairly regularly indicates that the editors of the paper feel that there is an audience for the views expressed (which which the editors may well agree). On the same day that the first letter appeared, Paul Krugman noted in his N.Y. Times column that to be true, claims of the kind mentioned would require a conspiracy involving a few thousand scientists who work in dozens of countries. How such a conspiracy could develop and persist without anyone except the letter writers knowing about it is hard to imagine. But the fellows who write the letters do not seem to understand that: to a conspiracy theorist, anything is possible except the possibility that there is no conspiracy.

Future postings will develop these ideas further.