Here’s a quote from the column that runs down the right side of this blog:
One of the great commandments of science is, “Mistrust arguments from authority.” … Too many such arguments have proved too painfully wrong. Authorities must prove their contentions like everybody else
The author is noted populariser of science – but also a real scientist – Carl Sagan.
What can he possibly be getting at? Let’s try another famous scientist: Einstein. In 1905 he’d proposed his Theory of Relativity, and worked on it until 1916 (the year of the Somme, which made communications tricky), and it immediately had a huge impact, with British scientists, notably Eddington, who publicised it through the Physical Society in London.
Here’s where the key point is. Despite the acclaim he was receiving, Einstein refused to accept it until the theory had been verified by empirical observation. Which makes sense, no? Here is the extract from Paul Johnson’s essential history of the 2Oth century, Modern Times:
Which is where Eddington came in, setting off to the coast of West Africa to photograph a solar eclipse, with all the vagaries of the weather. It worked. He proved two of the three tests were correct, and the third, related to the phenomenon of red shift, was confirmed in 1923 by the astronomers of Mount Wilson observatory. Four years earlier though, Einstein had received a huge amount of publicity following Eddington’s trip, which he disavowed, until all of the empirical observations had been made and had proven his theory.
So what’s my point?
I think it’s best made by a youthful Karl Popper, then at Vienna University, who ended up knighted and a doyen of British academia at the LSE and elsewhere, only dying in 1994. He knew Einstein personally. Here he is:
None of this is remotely controversial. It demonstrates well two key requirements of real scientific endeavour:
- The role of observable, verifiable data in proving – or disproving – a theory
Of course, point 1 is routinely abused with a cornucopia of computer modelling (the most easily abused of all the techniques), surrogate endpoints and allowing one’s politics, emotions and beliefs to play with whatever data you’ve got.
Point 2 is a rare quality in humans (me included).
In medicine there are quite a few examples. For instance, death from a pulmonary embolus after a hip replacement is self-evidently a bad outcome. it’s also very rare, despite the huge number of joint replacements performed. It is ‘prevented’ by the routine use of chemical agents which reduce the body’s capacity to clot blood. As you might imagine, an undesirable consequence of this is bleeding – from the wound, the gut etc – which can lead to all sorts of problems. The ‘cure’ might lead to other serious complications. It does, in practice, to a degree.
So why do we use these drugs? Well, they actually don’t reduce the risk of fatal pulmonary embolus. They may not even reduce the risk of a symptomatic deep vein thrombosis. They do, in relatively small studies, reduce the risk of clots in the leg visible on some sort of sophisticated imaging. That is the basis of the ‘big pharma’ marketing that everyone buys into, for fear of being sued. Yes, fear and loathing stalk the NHS too.
A surrogate endpoint like that (a leg clot visible on an ultrasound scan, whether or not it’s symptomatic), with no definite link to fatal pulmonary embolus, is bad science, yet it’s out there.
None of us is immune to such dodgy data. Einstein’s ‘purity’ is getting rarer in medicine, and it’s very rare in another area of Big Science: climatology as it relates to ‘anthropogenic global warming’ (AGW).
I won’t rehearse all the very justified arguments as to why #climatechange is chock full of bad science and histrionics, I’d rather show good scientific papers, which helpfully debunk a lot of the propaganda. So here you are, courtesy of the much-attacked James Delingpole. These are from the recent literature, and the usual climate change mob are not enamoured of them:
- The alleged ‘pause’ in AGW that the computer models mysteriously allow for is actually more than a pause. The warmists tend to ignore the well recognised El Nino phenomenon. Astronomical influences and empirical observations tend to point away from the AGW claims. Read it here.
- Flooding in the USA and Europe is a random event with no relation to alleged AGW/’extreme weather’ etc etc. Or as they put it “The number of significant trends was about the number expected due to chance alone”. Read it here.
- The confident predictions of a global 1.5 degrees C temperature rise by 2022, upon which most of the hype, whining, government virtue signalling and overreaction is predicated, cannot possibly happen by all the postulated mechanisms. It’s really not going to happen. And these researchers are far from being AGW sceptics. Read it here. And if it seems a bit abstruse, here’s Delingpole’s very neat summary.
…and if that wasn’t enough, despite the utterly pathetic attention seeking underwater cabinet meeting by the Maldives government in 2009, sea levels are dropping, much to NASA’s disappointment. Of course, if the Maldives’ dismal excuses for politicians meant what they said, they wouldn’t be building 5 new airports, to add to the 11 they already have.
I won’t even mention the news that the much maligned Great Barrier Reef is in fact doing just fine, despite predictions of doom. Or that the now disappearing Independent newspaper’s famous news story from the year 2000, that snow would ‘soon be a thing of the past’, has been quietly erased from their website – but not from others (read it here). Who’dathunkit?
Note that the above references that I have provided are refutations of the AGW hysteria and associated hype, not mere denials. The Warmists’ favoured meme of Deniers v Scientists just took a big hit.
It’s all a scam. I could live with the propaganda, it’s the abuse of the scientific process that I can’t stomach (plus the outrageous expense). I’ve written on this before. The wise doctor and writer Michael Crichton had these guys sussed.
By a strange quirk, where this post began, with Einstein insisting on observational proof of his Theory of Relativity, has been repeated in this last couple of weeks, about 100 years later. The news was rightly full of the observation of gravitational waves – predicted by Einstein – following the remote collision of two neutron stars. Hard observational data, not a computer simulation.
As Lord Rutherford, splitter of the atom said, with some truth: if your experiment needs statistics**, you should have done a better experiment.
**to update this, I would add ‘and computer simulation’