The CRU mini-scandal has gotten an lot of press, at least in the slice of the blogs regularly read by myself, two examples here and here are not unrepresentative. There are two facets of this little kerfuffle that might be noted.

The first matter is to look at this event in the light of Michael Polanyi’s book Personal Knowledge: Towards a Post-Critical Philosophy. In this book, Mr Polanyi examines the traditional (taught) understanding about how science is done and compares that to the reality of how scientific pursuit is actually done. His conclusion is that the scientists passion and belief is the primary driver in scientific process. The notion of experiment, hypothesis, and dispassionate evaluation of fact is actually hogwash. That isn’t to say science is some Derridan relativistic mish-mash. Training, itself an art-filled process which is not as well understood as normally imagined, first must be mastered by the participants. Then trained individuals convince themselves of a hypothesis which fits their intuitions. Then that person attempts to convince the larger community that he/she is correct, that experiments can be and are done which support this hypothesis and data which contradicts the hypothesis is flawed, misunderstood, or not relevant. An example of that last part that he points at early in the book is that throughout the 19th century, no credible member of the scientific community gave any credence to the notion that meteorites were real … in the face of contradictory evidence, actual meteorites falling to earth. It was just that belief in that evidence would discredit the prevailing ideas of the nature of extra-solar stuff … so the data was off scope so to speak.

With this in mind revisit the revelations of events at CRU (recalling also the maxim that one should never assign as mischief what might be instead attributed to incompetence). Ultimately the shocking revelation behind this data is that scientists who are proponents of global warming, like those at CRU, are advocates of their point of view (AGW) prior to examining the data. Yet this is exactly what Mr Polanyi claims occurs in the scientific process. So there should be no surprise that this is what is actually going on under the covers, so to speak.

Secondly, often it assumed that the left/right divide on the AGW issue is one based on a perceived animosity on the right to science in general especially as compared to the left. This however, fails to explain persons like Mr Motls … certainly not one who one could reasonably expect to have any dislike of science. This isn’t to say that there are not those on the right who are in fact distrustful of the scientific community, it’s just that there is likely another factor at play which is at least as important. While the there are those on the right who distrust science, there are at least as many if not more on the left who feel that American corporations and industry mostly do harm to the environment. The trope of corporate malfeasance and disregard for ethics in the pursuit of profit is almost universal on the left. So when AGW arrives as a suggestion it fits right in with the preconception that industrial pursuits are harmful. (Norm has some thoughts on this as well).

With CRU and climate in general the question remains whether the hypothesis and the advocacy for the same is driven more by intuitions developed in the discipline or as much by how it fits with preconceptions formed outside that discipline, i.e., notions of corporate/human harm to the environment.

Filed under: EnvironmentGlobal WarmingMark O.Science

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