The Relative Comment

soothing waves of relativity

the method of science is universal.

with 2 comments

Did you hear about the discovery of a planet made of diamond? If you are interested in science, space, or use the interwebs, or receive media input from any source, I imagine you did. It was a scientific discovery that people of all ilks loved to discuss, pass around, and chat about over the water-cooler (do people still do this?).

In the general population, this is the kind of science we can all get behind. It is fun. Interesting discoveries about the universe are received, processed with minimal critical consideration, and filed away without much controversy. The national coverage allowed a few days of fame for the researches who discovered this planet, and then they went about their lives.

According to one of these scientists, Matthew Bailes, this finding will be the biggest discovery of his career because pretty much the whole world’s media covered it, and covered it positively. But at the end of the day, it’s not really that big a deal. Of course, this brush with fame did not have to go this way. Bailes wrote an article on this celebration of the diamond planet, and wondered how different his life would be if he were a climate scientist. After all, same method used to discover this planet has provided that other, easily rejected and dismissed science of the swindlers: climate change. Here’s Bailes:

Following the publication of our finding in the journal Science, our research received amazing attention from the world’s media.
The diamond planet was featured in Time Magazine, the BBC and China Daily, to name but a few.
I was asked by many journalists about the significance of the discovery. If I were honest, I’d have to concede that, although worthy of publication in Science, in the field of astrophysics it isn’t that significant.

And yet the diamond planet has been hugely successful in igniting public curiosity about the universe in which we live.
In that sense, for myself and my co-authors, I suspect it will be among the greatest discoveries of our careers.
Our host institutions were thrilled with the publicity and most of us enjoyed our 15 minutes of fame. The attention we received was 100% positive, but how different that could have been.
How so? Well, we could have been climate scientists.
Imagine for a minute that, instead of discovering a diamond planet, we’d made a breakthrough in global temperature projections.
Let’s say we studied computer models of the influence of excessive greenhouse gases, verified them through observations, then had them peer-reviewed and published in Science.
Instead of sitting back and basking in the glory, I suspect we’d find a lot of commentators, many with no scientific qualifications, pouring scorn on our findings.
People on the fringe of science would be quoted as opponents of our work, arguing that it was nothing more than a theory yet to be conclusively proven.
There would be doubt cast on the interpretation of our data and conjecture about whether we were “buddies” with the journal referees.
If our opponents dug really deep they might even find that I’d once written a paper on a similar topic that had to be retracted.
Before long our credibility and findings would be under serious question.
But luckily we’re not climate scientists.

The point that Bailes makes often goes unmentioned in popular scientific discourse in the US, where science literacy continues to decline and ignorance about the scientific method is rampant not just in the citizenry but in the media. The scientific method is the scientific method, and is no less valid a method in astronomy than it is in climate science, or any other scientific endeavor.

The labor and attention to detail and  process is no more absent in climate science than in other disciplines. The need for testing and repeating hypotheses, recording observations, submitting to peer review is necessary in climate science and astrophysics, and it is a process whose participants make mistakes, and when they do they can be loud jerks, or humbly correct the record. Often they don’t make big mistakes and are quiet and desire not to be in the public eye. When something important comes about that challenges the status quo it is not hidden from view, at least not for long, and will be adopted into the scientific literature. It will be dealt with by future research, and compared to other observations, tested against other hypotheses, and the conclusions that stands up will be the conclusion that stands up.

I have said this before, and I was told that this is too rosy a picture of science. But I don’t think it is. Mostly this accusation accompanies a defense of climate science. Making that accusation against the process goes beyond climate science and attaches to capital S Science.

It is not appropriate to simply accept without question one field of research, such as astronomy or astrophysics simply because the results provide something bizarre or heretofore never envisioned, and reject another field, such as climate science, because politics allows it. If as a community we want to take science with any seriousness, then this selectivity has to be done away with. As Balies concludes:

In all fields of science, papers are challenged and statistics are debated. If there is any basis to these challenges they stand, but if not they fall by the wayside and the field continues to advance.
When big theories fall, it isn’t because of business or political pressures – it’s because of the scientific process.
Sadly, the same media commentators who celebrate diamond planets without question are all too quick to dismiss the latest peer-reviewed evidence that suggests man-made activities are responsible for changes in concentrations of CO2 in our atmosphere.
The scientific method is universal. If we selectively ignore it in certain disciplines, we do so at our peril.


Written by Christopher ZF

September 13, 2011 at 16:51

2 Responses

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  1. There is a massive difference between the discovery of a “diamond” planet (or so they think) and models in climate science. The models in climate science are just that, models. The diamond planet is based on observable fact. Even though much of planetary formation is unknown, it is very simple compared to modeling global climate change. What science can do is point to what happened, but becomes VERY complicated when it is trying to predict the future. The scientific method is not without its bias, hidden assumptions.

    And this is what gets my goat. I agree that the planet is warming and that it is caused by humans. But that doesn’t mean we should do policy XYZ. In the climate debate Science cannot tell us what is the best policy or what will cause the most human benefit. In fact we know that what would be “best” for the environment would cause the most human misery (end all burning of fossil fuels and kill the cows). We cannot confuse science with policy.

    redhead in rapid

    September 13, 2011 at 21:12

    • Once again, Redhead, I agree with you that science does not provide policy prescriptions. But once again, I think that you betray your own biases in your discussions of science, which is that science’s downfall is always related to its inability to provide policy prescriptions.

      This post is not about policy. It is about science. And the point that Baines is making is not that climate science or astronomy provide any solutions to policy makers. It is, rather, that the process of science is the scientific method, and the process that allows for the discovery of a diamond planet also allows for the understanding of climate change as a scientific theory. And if the media/public are willing to accept the discoveries of astronomy but neglect the results of climate science, there is a problem with the understanding of how the scientific method operates.

      Also, science’s job is not to provide policy positions. Science instead provides knowledge and understanding of the world, the universe, etc.


      September 13, 2011 at 22:29

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