The difference between science and entertainment

There has been an on-line kerfuffle following some comments I made to an audience question at the Society of Biology on Tuesday. I thought I’d clarify. It’s quite simple.


Scientific predictions are always uncertain; models are refined, theories come and go in the face of new evidence. Good scientific predictions come with an estimate of the uncertainty, usually presented as error bars, or as a so-called confidence interval. You can look these up on the web if you want to understand what statements like “5-sigma” mean. They are clearly defined.

The point I made during the discussion at the Society of Biology was as follows. One has to be careful when communicating uncertainty in science, especially in politicized areas such as climate science. The reason is that uncertainty is often misunderstood and occasionally misused by self-styled “on-line magazine editors” or opinion formers “who are always right” – you know the sort.

But surely it isn’t a bad thing to challenge a scientific theory or prediction? Isn’t the reason for the success of science the fundamental axiom, if you like, that all theories or predictions MUST be falsifiable, and are NEVER to be assumed to be absolutely correct? And doesn’t the very requirement of the falsifiability of any theory or prediction demand that someone should try to falsify them? Yes, to all of the above.

BUT, there is statement that I believe to be correct, and can be made with certainty. It is this: The consensus scientific view is the best we can do at any given time, given the available data and our understanding of it. It is not legitimate and certainly of no scientific value (although there may be political value) to attack a prediction because you don’t like the consequences, or you don’t like the sort of people who are happy with the prediction, or you don’t like the people who made the prediction, or you don’t like the sort of policy responses that prediction might suggest or encourage, or even if you simply see yourself as a challenger of consensus views in the name of some ideal or other. It is only appropriate to criticize a prediction or theory based on specific criticisms of the data, methodology or the underlying theoretical framework. It is content-less to criticize a scientific prediction because you don’t like it. There are a (very) few ‘climate skeptics’ who criticize and question specific methodologies, assumptions or conclusions within the IPCC reports in a well-structured and precise way, and they are not to be criticized. They shouldn’t really be called ‘climate skeptics’ – they should be called scientists. Similarly the (overwhelming) majority, who also proceed in a careful and scientific way, shouldn’t be called ‘warmists’ or some such daft term. They are also simply scientists. Specific challenges are valuable and must be answered – in this way, scientific understanding grows. The scientific understanding is always growing and changing, and the latest snapshot, which contains the results of challenges from scientific ‘skeptics’, is summarized in the latest IPCC reports.   

In summary, the scientific consensus position is the best we have. This is a definite statement, with no caveats. There is no way to predict the likely range of global average temperatures in 2100 other than by modeling the climate, using climate science. The scientific consensus can and does change, but it changes because of new science, not because of the amateur histrionics of on-line “opinion formers”. These people are part of the entertainment industry, generating hits for websites to increase advertising revenue. They are not in general clear thinkers capable of making a genuine contribution to knowledge. It follows that any appeal to Mill’s statement that ‘controversy is the lifeblood of knowledge’ must be tempered: Controversy where? Within the scientific community, or within the entertainment industry? Controversy within the entertainment industry is the lifeblood of inaction and confusion, not knowledge. Policy decisions must be made now - doing nothing is a policy decision. The only logical way to make a decision is to base it on the best science available at the time because there is no other way. So read the most recent IPCC document for policy makers, which is the best summary of the science we have at the present time. Make decisions based on that.


My new book 'The Human Universe' is out 9/10/14.

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