Thursday, December 3, 2009

Patrick Michaels is Not Galileo

Such comparisons are absurd:
Less than 400 years ago, Galileo challenged the prevailing orthodoxies and became “the father of modern science.” Today, men like Patrick Michaels are again challenging the prevailing orthodoxies and they may just save science from politics.
Galileo used the data that he himself had collected to form a theory of motion that revolutionized the way people thought about physics, an alternative to the contemporaneously accepted theories of Aristotle. Michaels nit-picks, at best. One of the chief criticisms against "climate deniers," generally speaking, is that they lack their own raw data to back up their criticisms of the science and they offer no comprehensive alternative theories to explain related natural phenomenon. When Michaels can bring back ice core samples from Antarctica and offer an elegant alternative explanation to anthropogenic climate change, then we can start to think about calling him Galileo.

Until then he's just another guy on the Cato Institute's pay roll who runs his own PR firm.

It's far more instructive to think of the recent e-mail leak fiasco as a combination of two more recent episodes in science. The first was the rediscovery of Gregor Mendel's seminal paper on genetics and the ongoing debate over whether he falsified his data. We will never have an answer to this question, no matter how much time we devote to it. We do know, however, that Mendel was on to something.

The terrestrial climate is in many regards far more complicated than the human genome largely because it's so uncooperative and difficult to manipulate or recreate in a lab. Galileo could drop objects off the Leaning Tower of Piza to his heart's content (something of an apocryphal tale, by the way), but if one wants to study precipitation he has to wait until it rains. This means unlocking the climates secrets will take thousands of people -- thousands of personalities, work ethics, personal problems, perspectives, etc.

Which leads us to the second event: the publication of James Watson's "The Double Helix," a book that should have dispelled the the image of the scientist as an ascetic devoted solely to the investigation of nature. It turns out that scientists are dicks just like the rest of us. They're competitive, envious, ego-maniacal, stubborn, jealous, prejudice, bias, and want to get ahead just like everyone else. Scientists argue like lawyers, compete like capitalists and sometimes cheat like card players -- but just because the Piltdown Man was shown to be a hoax doesn't mean Evolution is any less valid.

There are no heroes coming out of the email debacle, to be sure, but let's not mistake real persecution for professional ostracization. Galileo was willing to suffer house arrest for the last eight years of his life for his beliefs. No such fate awaits Michaels, who has made a tidy fortune selling his "expertise." The ancient Greeks had a word for these folks: sophists.


Cindy Kilkenny said...

Then might I suggest you run out there and prove that global warming is more than a hoax because "hoax" is now the prevailing theory.

Jb said...

That is fundamentally not true.

The email fiasco may have convinced folks with previous dispositions to believe that it is a "hoax," but it has done little, if anything, to deter many of the scientists working on the issue.

Scientists don't give a fuck what bloggers think about their work. That's one of the reasons they are in this mess.

Proving that some thing is a "hoax" is an examination of human behavior, not of climate behavior. Climate change deniers have yet to offer hard natural data that supports an alternative theory to AGW. When that happens, we can start talking about re-evaluating contemporary accepted theories. Until then they are left to helplessly politicizing science.