Rick Perry has been getting dinged for making the allegation that “there are a substantial number of scientists who have manipulated data so that they will have dollars rolling into their projects.” Finding him to be willfully ignoring if not ignorant of the facts, and to be making false accusations based on little evidence, even the Washington Post Fact Checker gives him the maximum rating of four Pinocchios – and provides the facts so I don’t have to. Never mind that Perry himself has accepted $11 million from oil and gas companies – who also happen to be his top contributors. Not at all surprising. But I would be pleasantly surprised if clearing any of that up actually makes any difference in the beliefs of the Republican base, who only seem to hear what they want to hear.
What actually caught my attention was Perry’s less commented on reference to “man-made global warming” as a “scientific theory that has not been proven” – which is actually correct, because science doesn’t actually prove anything to be true. It can only falsify or disconfirm a hypothesis, and provide “levels of confidence” in its findings. The statement could just be careless and sloppy, or could be a very convenient way to call for postponing action on climate change indefinitely no matter what the science says, without appearing to oppose science or action.
Either way, I’m giving it a fifth Pinocchio because it is either based on, or takes advantage of a general misconception of what science can deliver, not to mention deep anxieties about the future in what have become post-normal times. Therefore it is more deeply misleading than a mere misrepresentation of facts. If there were a more general understanding that uncertainty is part of life, and that science is not a crystal ball, I suspect fewer people would be taken in by the arguments of the “skeptics”, whose arguments tend to hype uncertainties to make the case against taking action in response to human-induced climate change. As well as downplay, ignore or misrepresent multiple lines of evidence that all point in the same direction. The focus of public discourse could then actually be on whether and how to address human-induced climate change rather than whether it is happening.
Acceptance of uncertainty of course leads to many more questions as to: the implications of various kinds of uncertainty for decision-making, stakeholder participation in science-based decisions, and evaluating the quality of scientific information when there are cranks at the table, who are more interested in disrupting the process than in reaching a decision that is in the public interest. And why the double standard for acting with uncertain information when it comes to climate and other environmental sciences? Uncertainty does not seem to stop most people from following medical advice or investing in the stock market. I will come back to all of this in my promised and long-overdue forthcoming post, in which I revisit the basics of post-normal science as context for commenting on the recent conference of the Heartland Institute, and on the puzzling turn taken by Jerry Ravetz. To those who asked me to comment on these – my apologies for the delay – it is a topic that really merits a full article that I have not had the time to write, but I have not dropped it.