Sunday, December 19, 2010

The limits of (climate) science

The last time I visited Spain a few weeks ago, I needed to buy some drugs in the pharmacy. I was surprised and amused to see that, for the small amount of 10 euros, customers could recharge their 'bio-magnetic wristband' to protect them from multiple diseases, increase their well-being and general personal balance. And then I realized that the prospects of convincing the general population that we should reduce our carbon emissions because 'science tells us so' are really slim. 

Human mind seems to be well adapted for its environment, but in the end it is pretty irrational. This is the reason why the scientific method was invented in the first place: to protect ourselves from our own follies. But let us face it. The general population has only a very shallow knowledge about the scientific method, peer review, controlled experiments, test of shallow as that of the scientist themselves argues Anthony Gottlieb in The limits of science, an interesting piece that appeared a few months ago in Intelligent Life – probably an oxymoron.

How to drive our present towards a low-carbon economy ? I am increasingly convinced that the scientific discourse based solely on (scary) climate science is perceived only by those that were previously convinced that capitalism must be bad. IMHO 'soft' science by itself, with all its endless discussions and debates, cannot drive societies. Hard technology, like mobile phones, on the other hand, can. I keep my fingers crossed..


Werner Krauss said...

Eduardo, it's a pleasure to follow your meandering thoughts. Great story. By the way, even in case the general population would understand the scientific method - would it make any difference? As we know, climate science speaks with many different (and often contradictory) voices. On the other hand, science doesn't have to understand the method of popular belief, such as bio-magnetic wristbands, evil eyes, or, as in your case, crossed fingers -:) It's just okay, we all try our best to get along!

But I do agree, we all need better technology. As usual, we should support the engineers, spatial planners and politicians (and scientists, too). I doubt that it is about convincing people any more; now it is about organizing carbon-free energy supply here and there and everywhere! People will be happy to follow and to contribute. All people is your friend (except those free-market-corporate-industry-apologetics and growth-for-its-own-sake-bastards)!

Harrywr2 said...

The science behind bio-magnetic wristbands is well documented.

The Placebo Effect is real.

Stress is an immune suppressant.

People that are overly concerned about their health end up sick as a result.

People who have found a magical cure for all disease are not sick, because they don't worry about being sick and their natural immune system ends up working to it's full potential.

As far as science informing policy on 'climate change', it wasn't very long ago that humanity would have just tossed a virgin into a volcano. Of course tossing a virgin in a volcano didn't work and humanity had to adapt.

eduardo said...


you mean the placebo effect is as real as the carbon-offset programs ?

sHx said...


I am surprised that you are surprised. The limits of science have always been the walls of churches and cathedrals that you walked by on the way to the pharmacist. Many people still wear amulets, mostly those that have some religious significance, despite total absence of scientific evidence regarding the usefulness of such objects.

If anyone is visiting a pharmacist to recharge a 'bio-magnetic wristband', that's because they see scientific justification in carrying such a 'high tech' amulet. One can further extrapolate that the owners of such objects are more receptive to norms and values based on rational reasoning than those values derived from sacred, ancient texts. Otherwise, they'd be wearing crucifixes (in Spain), not 'bio-magnetic wristbands'.

I wish you could question a few of them in the pharmacy about Climate Change. The chances are you'd find they are also fire breathing members of Climate Science based, anti-CO2 movement. Because these people tend to do what 'science tells us so'.

Scientific method is the most sophisticated tool we have for knowledge production. It is not perfect, but it is the best we have. It has taken us to the Moon and back several times. Now we are sending a probe (New Horizons) to a planetoid that we didn't even know existed until 80 years ago. It'll take ten years to get there. Date of arrival, velocity, angle of approach, the tasks it'll undertake, etc, etc, were already calculated and known even before the launch. Now, that is the kind of science that I respect and salute!

Once Climate Science reaches that kind of sophistication, once it has proven its predictive powers repeatedly and with some precision that could inspire confidence, we may sit up and pay attention... or at least, I will. You cross your fingers, and I cross my heart and hope to die. :)

Stan said...

You wrote -- "The general population has only a very shallow knowledge about the scientific method, peer review, controlled experiments, test of hypothesis"

Given what we have seen from climate scientists, the problem isn't limited to the general population.

Anonymous said...

"Aufladung" von Magnetarmbändern ist für meinen Geldbeutel relativ ungefährlich;-)

Welches Geschäft steht hinter dieser Ankündigung?
Das IAMP, die internationale Vereinigung medizinischer Akademien und medizinischer Sektionen von Wissenschaftsakademien, stellt darin fest, dass eine Reduzierung der Treibhausgase bereits kurzfristig einen positiven Einfluss auf die menschliche Gesundheit habe und fordert die in Mexiko verhandelnden Regierungen auf, den Klimawandel auch im Sinne der Gesundheitspolitik zu bekämpfen.

eduardo said...

@ 4

I am not really surprised. I was wondering about the factors that can explain why some 'scientific practices' are accepted without much questioning, even as you said in literate circles, and others encounter high resistance.
The justification to reduce emissions is based in the current discourse by the climate disruption that will occur in 50 years time, and so is based solely on the confidence that the population may have on climate science being able to predict those climate disruptions. If the population is only very limited aware of the power and limitations of the scientific method, the prospects that it will accept limitations in carbon emissions just because science tells them so are very small. Either technology will have to give the population the tools to limit emissions without much sacrifice, or even with no sacrifice at all, or emissions will not fall.

Just a further comment to the 'the scientific method'. It is true that it brought us to the moon, etc, etc but we should also be aware that the path is not very clean. It is full with approximations, errors that have to be later corrected, etc, etc. I remember have read in one blog one comment complaining that present climate models were full of approximation, and that the commenter would only believe in climate projections when the models were exact, without approximations. Of course this is nonsense, approximations and failures and misinterpretations are everywhere in science.