07 July 2008

Science not politics

Continuing with Dave's comments about climate science:

Secondly you have a topic that's polarized many different groups, and many an individual will merely argue a point because a group they might relate to is arguing the same point.

Many people have vested interests relating to climate change and thoughts about what, if anything, to do about it. That does produce politics, in that groups of people with interests act politically.

But the science is the science, and respects no party, no nation, no religion, etc.

This does make for the problem that groups with interests other than explaining and discussing the best science also establish web sites, write editorials, produce shows, etc. to propagandize their views, distorting and lying about the science along the way. So if you're interested in the science, you have to work harder to find it than in something which doesn't scare people. You also have to work harder to disentangle the parts of an article that are science from those which are opinion, wishful thinking, and such.

One thing which I think is helpful in deciding about sources is to, first, hold your nose about their political viewpoints. This can be hard when the politics are greatly different from yours, but bear with it. As you read through, look for scientific claims, or claims which the author thinks are scientific. As you find them, go hit the literature on the topic and see if the author has represented the point correctly. It may sound like a lot of work, but in practice, most web sites which are more concerned about their politics than the science display this fairly quickly by lies and distortions, and some are at an extremely basic level. Basic enough that you can check the truth of it by looking at a textbook from 30 years ago (before the topic was getting nearly as much press, but well after the scientific basics were understood). If not an outright lie, very often what you'll see is a quote selected from a scientific article and removed from its context. Once you find the context, you see that the original author's intent was quite different than the bit quoted.

As you proceed with this, you'll find some sites are very prone to distortion or lying, and some are, if not doing it, then at least only doing it on such a subtle level that you can't detect it. Eliminating the most egregious (and those who quote the same lines -- there's very little originality, so learning a few facts suffices to eliminate a lot of the bad sites) narrows the field greatly, and productively. The difficult part is where you have to eliminate sites whose politics you generally like. On the other hand, if you want your car fixed, you go to your mechanic, not to your representative (aside from the times they're the same person :-). Scientists working in the area are better sources than political groups anyhow.

After you start to understand the science, you have separate questions. (for all 'you', including me). I don't think the responses are dictated by the science. Once you understand the science and the probable outcomes, now you have to ask the questions of what is morally appropriate, what is politically appropriate, what is economically appropriate, and so on, by way of responses (including 'do nothing'). Different people, even if agreed on the science, will (and should) disagree here. But, if the discussion were to be based on our best understanding of the science, I think we'd be far better off.

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