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Thursday, May 14, 2009

On "Science"

I found an interesting blog post the other day (via a link from that talked about the decline of intellectualism in the conservative movement. It's quite an interesting read, I think, regardless of your own political bent. I did notice that they've gone out of their way to avoid terms like "Fiscal Conservative" and "Moral Conservatives", because it does sound like they are referring to one group as being "intellectual" and the other not. It's an interesting read in either case.

What I found most interesting was not the blog post itself but instead some of the comments that this post generated. Of course, this is true of any partially-controversial blog with decent exposure: All sorts of people come out to share their hastily-formed opinions anonymously. Immediately interesting is that some of the most ignorant of these comments are coming from the very "emotional conservatives" that the blog post itself is lamenting the rise of. Here's one particularly interesting comment, edited for brevity and clarity:

I love when Democrats pretend they are intelligent on the global warming issue. They love to pretend Republicans ignore science on this subject and that science is the be-all end-all for policy.

But then they ignore the scientific fact that life begins before birth. They use judicial activism to come up with an UNSCIENTIFIC definition for life.

Partial Birth Abortion is murder. This is a scientific fact. Barrack Obama is the worst abortionist to ever step foot in the white house. While we debate how to "stimulate" the economy with his Keynesian, Barrack is sending our money overseas to fund abortion. The man supported infanticide. At what point, do all you brilliant democrats who preach science wake up and realize how crazy you all are...?

What's most interesting here, and something that I find to be interesting throughout these interwebs at large is the fundamental misunderstanding of what "science" is. Science generally has two components: The terminology which attempts to be very particular and precise (even on occasion being in stark contrast to the common understandings of certain words) and the methods which aim for precision and repeatability. Saying something like "partial birth abortion is murder, that's a scientific fact" is really not a true statement, because it's not scientific. I won't suggest an opinion about whether or not the procedure is actually murder or not, this isn't a political blog. "murder" is a legal term, not a scientific one. It doesn't have a precise definition in such a way that any person can look at any case and say "yes this is a case of murder" or "no this is not a case of murder" for all possible cases. There are gray areas: Think of self defense, or accidental homicide, or war. Even though these are cases where one person ends the life of another person, I doubt we would brand all of them "murder", at least not all the time. Most people would also not call the act of ending life in general as "murder", killing a plant or an animal doesn't usually label somebody as a murderer.

When it comes to global warming there are several facts that can be verified scientifically: global Carbon Dioxide gas levels have risen steadily since the industrial revolution, global temperatures have also risen during that time in a way that correlates positively to the level of carbon in the atmosphere, other known causes of global temperature variation (solar cycles, orbit variation, volcanic activity, etc) are measured and accounted for and do not by themselves account for 100% of the measured temperature differences.

I use the word "correlates" in the sentence above for a particular reason: Correlation does not always imply causation, but in the absence of other causes a strong correlation can point us towards the likely cause of an observed effect. We can think about a trial where a suspect is convicted based on the correlation of the facts of the crime and the means, motive, and opportunity of the suspect. Imagine that some people can be given the death penalty (which some would say is a form of "murder") based only on the correlation of certain pieces of evidence and the lack of a better explanation. We can take away a person's life or lively hood based on correlated evidence, but we can't look at a wide array of evidence of man-made climate change and say "you know, this makes good sense, we should explore this issue a little further". At the very least, it's worth exploration with an open mind, and if we can improve ourselves by becoming more mindful and considerate of the ecosystem at large (whether it's an absolute necessity or not) all the better.

I never understood the resistance to the idea of global warming that some people get so fervent about, but then again I know that proponents of the idea aren't always the best salespeople. Is it really so unthinkable that humanity has the power and ability to modify the climate? Is it unthinkable that we could have been inadvertently exercising that power without having given it the proper forethought and consideration? It's ignorant to think that our chemistry, our waste products, our deforestation and our geoengineering projects don't have some net effect on the atmosphere, the climate, and the planet at large. It's ignorant to think that humans don't have the power to change the planet, and it's ignorant to think that we as a species would never be so ignorant as to allow it to happen in the first place. The question is whether we are we ultimately doing these things or not, and I think the answer is "There's a lot of evidence to support it, and a lot of bright thoughtful people believe it to be so".

So that's my rant for today. I try not to let my blog get political but political discussions, especially those carried by anonymous internet users, tend to display the kinds of ignorance, unreasonableness, and pseudo-science quackery that really gets under my skin. I'm in Houston today on business, and should be back in good-ole' PA tomorrow.

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