March 24, 2004

Junk Science

Filed under: Climate Politics

In a city swept by major maelstroms, a smaller but not insignificant one swirling through our Nation’s Capital concerns a purported Republican effort to employ something called “sound science” to loosen environmental regulations. What keeps this one spinning is pressure by Democrats to purportedly strengthen regulations using what they too deem to be “sound science.”

Sound science is science its proponents find to be agreeable. What they find scientifically disagreeable is labeled “junk science.” Sad to say, whenever you hear someone using the term “sound science” you’ll hear a lot of the first word and not see very much of the second.

The March 20, 2004 edition of Congressional Quarterly contains an extensive article on this notion of “dueling science” and laments the politicization of science. Despite the lamentation, there’s very little background as to how and why it this is happening.

To appreciate this dynamic, consider the dissonance in the research on climate change. On one side, a large group of scientists appears to believe climate change is a dire issue all but ignored by the Bush/Cheney Administration. A smaller group of scientists makes a logical argument that the prospect of catastrophic climate change is overblown. Why is the second community smaller? Is this indicative of its relative credibility? Which science is sound and which is not? How is a politician or a policymaker to know?

Let’s begin with a reality check. Science isn’t the Simon Pure beast your grammar school teacher made it out to be. It’s not even a particularly logical enterprise. Further complicating matters, today’s sound science can become tomorrow’s junk science. This is because scientists tend to work within what the great historian of science, Thomas Kuhn, called “paradigms” or overall belief systems. Kuhn first advanced this concept in a number of academic papers in the 1950s,and more comprehensively in his oft-quoted Structure of Scientific Revolutions, a book first published in 1962 and still a top seller on the topic.

A Band of Rebels

Kuhn notes that most scientists spend their lives working to shore up the reigning world-view and that those who disagree with it are by definition much fewer in number. The outsiders tend to find inconsistencies within the current paradigm. As a consequence, they tend be unpopular among their peers and are derided. But often they are more logical and (dadgummit) they frequently turn out to be right. The few eventually overwhelm the mass, but it happens against impressive resistance.

This model very neatly fits the evolution of climate change and global warming. Up until the mid-1960s, the view of climate could be summarized as “Weather changes from day to day, but climate does not.”

Kuhn writes that those who bring down paradigms often have significant training outside the field covered by the paradigm. In this instance, the University of Wisconsin’s Reid Bryson, who trained first in geology and then in meteorology, pointed out the obvious: Earth’s climate continues to flirt with an ice age and hardly is stable.

Substituting Paradigms

Kuhn says that when a paradigm is brought down, a substitute is required. Bryson, who teamed up with some of the best archaeologists of his day, proposed that human activity could influence regional, and even global climate, and further, that climate was sufficiently unstable that it in turn influenced human activity. As could be anticipated from Kuhn’s analysis, Bryson was ostracized by the scientific community. But, guess what, his view is today’s dominant paradigm even though he was much more concerned about a coming ice age brought about by human activity injecting dust into the atmosphere than he was about global warming. But Bryson set in motion a new paradigm: climate changes.

A legion of scientists work in support of the idea of a changing climate. One is the University of Virginia’s Michael Mann, who added a new twist. He contends recent human influence (greenhouse gas emissions) is the major driver of climate change. Old fluctuations like the Little Ice Age identified by Bryson and others in Mann’s view were local perturbations and barely a blip in the global march of climate.

With little questioning, Mann’s hypothesis was adopted by the dominant political process in climate, the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. This happened despite the fact that there is a vast literature running to thousands of refereed papers that describe the Little Ice Age or similar variations going back all the way to the end of the last major glaciation some 11,000 years ago.

A Hidden Agenda?

Something else is operating in addition to Kuhn’s model and it is making science exceedingly political. That “something” has existed as long as Kuhn’s notion. Public funding makes politics an inevitable presence in the scientific process.

Sciences from different paradigms compete with one another for finite federal funding. Global warming research competes with research into AIDS, AIDS with cancer, and cancer with the war on drugs. In such an environment, no one is differentially rewarded for soft-pedaling the nature of his or her issue. Anything that serves that paradigm is immediately adopted; anything or anyone that threatens it is ostracized. If we need to solve a problem, the government needs to dedicate more research money to solving it. Otherwise, funding of research stops. Consequently something like Mann’s hypothesis is embraced with little questioning, despite its obvious variance with a large body of literature. So it is not surprising that when subsequent studies by Harvard University’s Willie Soon and Sallie Baliunas that question Mann’s concepts about recent climate variability caused controversy. Soon and Baliunas pose a threat to a much larger community.

Soon’s and Baliunas’ fields primarily are astrophysics not atmospheric physics so, as Kuhn predicts, this criticism largely comes from outside climatology. Their work prompted two more outsiders to question the data that went into Mann’s original studies. An economist (Ross McKitrick) and a businessman (Steven Mcintyre) found several discrepancies and possible errors in Mann’s data, re-ran the (apparently) same mathematical analysis, and came up with a result much more like Soon and Baliunas than Mann’s.

A Split Opinion

The keepers of the paradigm claim to be defenders of the real science — or sound science. They label those who attack it as practitioners of junk science. This process is ensured by several interlocking levels of interaction. When scientific paradigms interact with the political process, there is a classic positive feedback loop. As Kuhn notes, most of the rank-and-file presently are funded for additional research and will devote their research to the care and feeding of the reigning paradigm.

When such funding finally produces research, the outcome is a manuscript submitted to a major journal like Science or Nature. Who will be its peer reviewers? The people chosen by journal editors for peer review must have an established a reputation in the field, meaning they will have to have been published a lot. This in turn means there is a high probability that they are beneficiaries of the same funding stream as the manuscript writer. As a consequence they too are devoted to the paradigm. Conversely, a manuscript that argues global warming is exaggerated is going to have, to put it mildly, a much lower chance of acceptance.

Kuhn puts it this way, “Novelty emerges only with difficulty, manifested by resistance, against a background provided by expectation.”

The body of scientific writing that comprises peer-reviewed literature defines the canon of science. It carries the most weight when presented in public, whether by The New York Times or to a Senate Committee debating a bill on global warming. Given the way science is funded guarantees that this literature will be biased towards the reigning paradigm.

Ethically Bound?

All of this makes for predictable behavior. Most scientists are compelled to support a politically-charged view that their “issue” is of dire importance to society. This allies the doomsayers with political interests in support of regulation of greenhouse gases. The minority naysayers find their support from those who oppose regulation.

Kuhn notes that what he calls “personal biases” enter into the paradigm process. What happens in environmental science is no different than what happens in another field of applied science, medicine. People become doctors out of (among other reasons) concern for others’ well-being. People become environmental scientists because (among other reasons) they are concerned about what they perceive to be the well-being of the environment. Consequently, the oft-pilloried statement by Stanford University’s Stephen Schneider is completely logical for a paradigm-supporting scientist:

…We are ethically bound to the scientific method, in effect promising to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but…

On the other hand, we are not just scientists, but human beings as well. And like most people we’d like to see the world a better place, which in this context translates into our working to reduce the risk of potentially disastrous climate change. To do that we have to get some broad-based public support, to capture the public’s imagination. That, of course, entails getting loads of media coverage. So we have to offer up scary scenarios, make simplified, dramatic statements, and make little mention of any doubts we might have. This ”double ethical bind” that we frequently find ourselves in cannot be solved by any formula. Each of us has to decide what the right balance is between being effective and being honest. I hope that means being both.

If that statement were philosophically divergent from the paradigm-supporting rank-and- file in climate science, it would surely have harmed Schneider. Instead, it enhanced his reputation and ensconced him as a leading defender of the paradigm. Thirteen years later, Björn Lomborg publishes The Skeptical Environmentalist, a compendium arguing that the specter of ecological gloom and doom is highly exaggerated. His book is especially anti-paradigmatic in its claim that the body of scientific evidence already has determined that global warming is likely to be modest. Scientific American recruited Schneider to knock Lomborg down. It is difficult to argue there is a more paradigm-centered publication in world science than Scientific American.

The war between “sound science” and “junk science” actually is a common dynamic forced by the nature of scientific paradigms competing for finite public support. It is nothing new, nor is its demographics. There must be many more doomsayers than optimists. Optimists are not funded. They don’t review many papers. They don’t define the canon of science.

Who is right, in the end? Often it’s the minority initially labeled as “skeptics” who were on to something all along and eventually overturn the paradigm. What’s operating on global warming is no different.


Intergovernmental Panel for Climate Change (IPCC), 2001. Climate Change 2001: The Scientific Basis, Cambridge Univ. Press, New York, 881pp.

Kuhn, T.S., 1962. The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Chicago University Press, Chicago, 172pp.

Lomborg, B., 2001. The Skeptical Environmentalist. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 496pp.

Mann, M.E., Bradley, R.S., Hughes, M.K., 1999. Northern Hemisphere temperatures during the past millennium: inferences, uncertainties, and limitations. Geophysical Research Letters, 26, 759–762

McIntyre, S., McKitrick, R., 2003. Corrections to the Mann et. al. (1998) Proxy Data Base and Northern Hemispheric Average Temperature Series. Energy & Environment,14, 751-771.

Schneider, S.H., 1989. Discover Magazine, October 1989.

Schneider, S.H., 2002. Global Warming: Neglecting the Complexities. Scientific American, January, 2002.

Soon,W., and S. Baliunas, Proxy climatic and environmental changes of the past 1000 years. Climate Research, 23, 89–110, 2003.

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