Climate consensus deniers perceive lessons for science in dramatic recent news stories
What—if anything—might that consensus have to do with speedy neutrinos or quasicrystals?
October 11, 2011Published: October 11, 2011
By Steven T. Corneliussen
Deniers of the climate consensus have begun to press comparisons between the dynamics of climatology and the dynamics revealed in two recent, high-visibility science news stories.
A European experiment indicating that neutrinos can exceed the speed of light calls into question a century of fundamental physics—and also calls for attempts at replication and confirmation. The Nobel Prize in Chemistry has just gone to a scientist who originally suffered harsh professional ostracism for his discovery of quasicrystals. Do those dramas really imply anything about climate science?
An op-ed that the Wall Street Journal summarized as “Robert Bryce on why global warming alarmists are losing their crusade” included this:
The science [of climate] is not settled, not by a long shot. Last month, scientists at CERN, the prestigious high-energy physics lab in Switzerland, reported that neutrinos might—repeat, might—travel faster than the speed of light. If serious scientists can question Einstein's theory of relativity, then there must be room for debate about the workings and complexities of the Earth's atmosphere.
But blogging physicist Joe Romm countered in a Climate Progress blog posting with mockery:
Yes, a report on one as-yet unreproduced finding in a completely different area of science that might—repeat, might—mean one well-known theory needs modification means we should call into question everything we know about everything. Stop taking all your medicine now, just to be safe!
Three examples suggest that the comparison is being drawn widely:
* A letter in the Washington Post under the headline “Science as it should be” marveled at the news of the speedy-neutrino and then declared, “However, it is what did not happen that is more important. No ‘relativity deniers’ were castigated by the press or political groups.” The letter ended by offering a lesson:
People on both sides of the climate-change argument should take note. This is what science looks like: a skeptical, methodical, precise and open process. All science is “settled,” until it is not. Everything else is politics.
* A Wall Street Journal letter marveled at an op-ed about the speedy neutrinos and then declared the following:
[The op-ed author’s] response [to uncertainty about the experimental results] is to do [the experiment] again and again and again, and have others replicate it in laboratories around the world under the same experimental conditions used by CERN scientists. He does not seek a consensus from other physicists. Scientists are obliged to affirm the null hypothesis. Until proven otherwise by multiple studies over many years, the CERN finding must be considered either a false result caused by a flaw in the methodology or a random event incapable of replication. What a contrast to the pseudoscience promoted by the consensus-driven global-warming crowd.
* A Richmond Times-Dispatch letter called “fallacious” the belief that climate consensus is settled science. The writer added: “Just ask Albert Einstein and the generation of scientists afterwards about the speed of light, now that we are getting closer to violating that scientific law that was settled science.”
Nothing about climate appeared in the Washington Post’s article announcing the quasicrystal Nobel Prize. But the online headline exclaimed, “Vindicated: Ridiculed Israeli scientist wins Nobel for discovering strange chemical structure.” The article highlighted science-related conflict. In fact, it began with a focus not on the science but on the conflict:
When Israeli scientist Dan Shechtman claimed to have stumbled upon a new crystalline chemical structure that seemed to violate the laws of nature, colleagues mocked him, insulted him and exiled him from his research group.
After years in the scientific wilderness, though, he was proved right. And on Wednesday, he received the ultimate vindication: the Nobel Prize in chemistry.
The editors of the Wall Street Journal have noticed that conflict too. Their 10 October editorial “Chemistry's Cinderella story: A Nobel winner who challenged dogma” charges that the “scientific community ... would often prefer to keep its Cinderellas in the attic.” It says, “Just ask Israel's Dan Shechtman.” The editorial explains how Shechtman “was accused of ‘bringing disgrace’ on his lab,” how Linus Pauling, “the chemistry (and peace) Nobelist, called the discovery ‘nonsense’ and denounced Mr. Shechtman as a ‘quasi-scientist,’” and how it “took two years before a scientific journal would deign to publish his findings.” The editors lament what they call the problem of a scientific consensus that “hardens into a dogmatic and self-satisfied enterprise.”
The editorial ends with sarcasm:
Isn't there another field in which a similar kind of consensus has taken hold, with similarly unpleasant consequences for those who question its core assumptions? Take a guess. Meantime, it's worth noting that, as with Cinderella, Mr. Shechtman's story has a happy ending. No doubt this will turn out to be true for others who dare to think different.
Steven T. Corneliussen, a media analyst for the American Institute of Physics, monitors three national newspapers, the weeklies Nature and Science, and occasionally other publications. His reports to AIP are collected each Friday for "Science and the media." He has published op-eds in the Washington Post and other newspapers, has written for NASA's history program, and is a science writer at a particle-accelerator laboratory.