The Longest Now

Zeal is zeal is zeal
Wednesday July 01st 2009, 9:44 am
Filed under: Uncategorized

Jeremy and I were discussing climate dynamics and related brinks claimed in countless debates around the globe – from academic journals to political and economic forecasts to doomsday prophecies.

We disagreed about whether the truth of the importance of the matter was obvious.  As someone who still has no idea what the real fundamentals are, I don’t find this obvious.  Some clever scientists doubt the brinks.  Some dedicate their lives to explaining that this is the defining crisis of our times.  It offends me deeply as a scientist that the opinions of scientists fall strongly along political lines.  What the hell is wrong with our scientific community?

Jeremy and I noted that some very smart people are convinced that human contributions to climate change will change and effectively destroy life on Earth within short order.  They put their careers on the line with projections of environmental and economic catastrophe with low error bars within 30 years, and work to convince everyone, in science, art, media, policy, business, and planning, that this is the essential crisis of our time.  Others put their careers on the line insisting that there is no such crisis and everyone should stop wasting effort even investigating it.

Or do these zealots put their careers on the line?  It’s acceptable as a scientist to tilt at windmills, even drawing many others along with you, and then to end up having been wrong.  There are certainly scientists who are make a good living holding forth a minority theory, and I can’t think of any active mechanism to censure someone for mere ‘innocent’ deception and misguided analysis if they don’t stoop to plagiarism or data forgery.

I reckon our society hasn’t moved passed the stage where playground challenges and antics are acceptable discourse, and where shouting “Fire!” on the global stage evokes more than a raised eyebrow.  Scientific disciplines should be the first to change this.

It would be nice to live in a world in which this sort of ruckus signals real consensus and indicates a focused field-wide annealing of research and analysis which, neutrally and from specific perspectives, steadily refines our understanding of the fundamentals and possibilities involved.   Instead this seems to play out like almost any zeal-on-zeal controversy : people caught in their own emotional cycles, and professional and social circles, come up with bold ideas, become attached to them, get into edit wars and public fights, and come to represent caricatures of their own analyses on teevee.   There’s not much scientific purity and valor that makes it through that awkward human noise.

Some of this can be blamed on laziness on the part of fields themselves.   We have strong ethical or guild codes within academic disciplines, but in ways they could be stronger.  In mathematics, there is a compulsion to take unsolved problems very seriously.  If someone has a wild idea that they insist revolutionizes all of math, you can go to any card-carrying mathematician and get their take on a neutral assessment – or a pointer to someone who can offer the same.  It is hard to find yourself in the middle of a turf war, with Italians dismissing the French topologists’ wacky methods, or a group of set theorists attacking the credentials of a Quinian or hinting she is funded by the NSA (? who are the big corporate baddies in good math-conspiracy fiction?) to suit their ulterior motives.

The same is often true of physics and engineering – it’s hard to get people to put dogma ahead of making sure a result is strong, resiliant, and doesn’t fail.  But somehow I don’t see people taking environmental, energy, or medical scientific studies as seriously – there is a willingness to be sidetracked by entrepreneurial business ideas, political and economic overtones, and a desire for personal recognition.  There is less open research and more done behind closed doors or with conflicted funders.

Maybe this is inherent to the topics involved and the difficulty we now have in immediately testing hypotheses, but I think not.  We should be tackling climate analysis the way we tackle searching for supernovas and Higgs bosons : with coordinated global research efforts funded by dozens of interested groups, gathering billions and trillions of data points, and funding hundreds of the world’s best scientists to work together on what is recognized as a project of extraordinary public importance.

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