Commentary

John Lloyd & Christopher Rimmer: Stand up for science

Editor’s note: This commentary is by John Lloyd and Christopher Rimmer, the director of science and the executive director respectively, of the Vermont Center for Ecostudies.

The sun revolves around the Earth. Smoking is perfectly safe. Burning coal does not cause acid rain.

There exists a long history of selectively questioning scientific findings that run counter to cherished beliefs, economic interests and personal experience. Only in recent times, however, have we Americans seen so many of our political leaders deny entirely the value of science as a tool to facilitate understanding of the world.

We have recently witnessed people who willfully ignore established science regarding climate change, evolution and vaccine safety placed into positions of power and influence. We have seen in the past month the emergence of a phenomenon called “alternative facts,” whatever those may be. We have seen the work of government scientists censored. But more generally, we are bearing witness to a collective unlearning about the importance of science in our lives.

All of us, scientists and non-scientists alike, who believe in rationality, who believe that science can and should contribute to good decision-making and public policy, need to stand up and make our voices heard.

 

Now, more than ever, we must remind ourselves that science fundamentally elevates our quality of life. The products that we buy and use every day, the medicines that cure us or ease our suffering, all were born of science. Right here in Vermont, decades of hard work by scientists have taught us how to manage our forests so that they produce sustainable yields of wood and pulp, while also providing habitat for deer and grouse and salamanders and clean water for drinking and swimming. Scientists have helped us understand the causes and costs of pollution in Lake Champlain and how we can fix it, which is good news for boaters, anglers and lakeside property owners. Climate scientists have given us a statewide climate assessment that brings the reality of human-caused climate change to Vermont and offers ideas for adaptive, wise responses. Social scientists help Vermont’s law-enforcement agencies better meet their mission to protect and serve the public. Agronomists and entomologists help us understand how to stop declines among the vulnerable pollinators that underpin our local food systems.

To be sure, scientists don’t always get it right and not every research question has an immediate, practical application. But science is a self-correcting process that, with time, yields objective and reliable information that helps us make better choices. Today, there are loud voices that would like to sow doubt about the legitimacy of science as a way of knowing. Anything that lends credence to this view, including silence, puts at risk our health, our economy, and our environment.

All of us, scientists and non-scientists alike, who believe in rationality, who believe that science can and should contribute to good decision-making and public policy, need to stand up and make our voices heard. We need to reject notions of alternative facts. We need to call out elected representatives when they demean and intentionally misrepresent the scientific process for political gain. We need to reject, firmly and consistently, false claims designed only to destroy public trust in the work of scientists. We need to tell our politicians, and those whom they appoint to positions of power, to stand up for open, transparent, and uncensored science. Too much is at stake to let the cynical partisans of a post-truth world treat science as just another point of view.

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  • George Plumb

    And environmental organizations need to acknowledge the scientific fact that population growth is the primary cause of the destruction of our ecosystems and climate change. Unfortunately most have refused to do so like this organization.

    • George Plumb

      Actually the Vt. Chapter of the Sierra Club, which is largely volunteer driven, is the one state environmental organization that acknowledges the extremely important scientific factor of population growth in causing our environmental problems. Right on the front of its home page is the strongest definition of sustainable that is out there: “Sustainable means that the people living in a given politically or geographically defined area do not live beyond the limits of the renewable resources of that area for either input (energy and matter) or output (food, material goods, and absorption of pollution). They purchase or trade from environmentally conscious sources for those necessities that cannot be locally satisfied. They live both in numbers and in a manner that allows present and future generations of all life in that area to enjoy a healthy habitat over the long term.”

  • James Rude

    When people take uncompromising and strident views to avoid the cognitive dissonance when faced with data or theories that question what one believes to be absolutely true, particularly when it becomes politicized, then that is when you have some who question, not science, but the belief that some of the “science” may be manipulated to avoid evidence that may not support a finding or theory. When I was in graduate school, one big take-a-way was that one can never be certain when complex systems with known and unknown moving parts are involved. Yet, some will still try to rig the data to fit an agenda. http://www.dailymail.co.uk/debate/article-4216180/How-trust-global-warming-scientists-asks-David-Rose.html

  • John McClaughry

    As a onetime scientist (AB physics, MS nuclear engineering) I heartily agree with the authors’ view that “ science is a self-correcting process that, with time, yields objective and reliable information that helps us make better choices.” But these fellows need to be reminded of the scandals produced by establishment climate “scientists” intent on vilifying any skeptical scientist who discovers flaws and falsehoods in their findings. The latest revelation, of many, is Dr. John Bates’ (NOAA, just retired) explanation of
    NOAA’s data manipulation to dismiss the 18 year warming “pause”, in order to
    bolster Obama’s position at the Paris Climate conference last year Let’s hope
    Lloyd and Rimmer stand up for him.

  • Don Dalton

    Marine science seems to be in good place: they acknowledge valid disagreements over ocean acidification and even bring dissenting voices to the forefront. https://academic.oup.com/icesjms/article-lookup/doi/10.1093/icesjms/fsw010 They acknowledge media sensationalism. They don’t demonize dissenters or claim that studies they don’t like are backed by the oil industry. I’ll buy it.

    Contrast that with what we call “climate science.” In climate science, no dissent is allowed (it’s “irrefutable”), dissenters are called names and viciously attacked, and Michael Mann, our premier “climate scientist,” constantly complains about how his detractors are funded by the fossil fuel industry– as if that makes one single iota of difference to what the science says, no matter who is funding it. http://www.npr.org/2012/03/02/147815862/michael-mann-from-the-trenches-of-the-climate-war.

    How about the climategate email to “destroy all your emails” to avoid FOI requests? What could they possibly be hiding? Does a real scientist care if anyone sees the data and methods and logic of discovery?

    As I’ve mentioned before, John Christy has shown that the climate models are running too warm. The deceptive retort is: Christy is measuring the mid-troposphere, where no one lives. The retort to this: it is exactly the mid-troposphere where the “hot spot,” the one key piece of evidence showing increased atmospheric warming due to CO2, will be found. There is no evidence of this hot spot but, in typical climate science fashion, they (deceptively) attempt to show that the hot spot is really there. See if you can spot the error: https://wattsupwiththat.com/2017/01/30/this-is-how-climate-works-part-3/

    No hot spot means: climate feedback from CO2 forcing is overall very small. That is the inconvenient truth, but our wonderful climate scientists are kicking and screaming because that isn’t what they want to hear. Is the heat going to the ocean instead? How? Because if the atmosphere isn’t showing catastrophic warming, then where is the ocean supposed to get that extra heat from the atmosphere that it’s supposedly hiding?

    There is a very good reason why physicist Harold Lewis called climate science “pseudoscience” in his resignation letter to the APS.

    A short note on vaccines: see the essays on aluminum at http://vaccinepapers.org/ and compare it with the mainstream science view, and see who has the accurate science.

    • David Bell

      “In climate science, no dissent is allowed”

      This statement is false. Dissent is clearly allowed, climate scientists simply won’t pretend that thoroughly debunked conspiracy theories and fossil fuel backed “studies” that cannot pass peer review constitute credible evidence.

      “detractors are funded by the fossil fuel industry– as if that makes one
      single iota of difference to what the science says, no matter who is
      funding it.”

      So, you believe that if the tobacco industry buys a study claiming smoking is perfectly safe, this is a credible source of data? If an anti-gay hate group buys a study claiming homosexuals are a bunch of child molesters who can be “cured” by praying to Jesus, this should be treated as equal to a peer reviewed study by the AMA?

      Similarly, your claims regarding models are misleading. Actual, peer reviewed studies have shown this fact.

      https://www.theguardian.com/environment/climate-consensus-97-per-cent/2016/jul/27/climate-models-are-accurately-predicting-ocean-and-global-warming

      http://www.latimes.com/science/sciencenow/la-sci-sn-climate-models-predict-warming-20150128-story.html

      But the AGW deniers are kicking and screaming because this is not what they want to hear. Some guy with a blog said climate models are junk! Those credible, peer reviewed studies cannot conflict with this belief!

      As a short note on vaccines, just to clarify, when you say “the mainstream science view” you mean the view of every major medical institution on the planet, correct?

      The irony is, your previously stated reason for denying the validity of vaccine safety data from the AMA, CDC, WHO, etc. is that any organization with even the most tangential link to the Pharmaceutical industry is compromised, yet studies bought and paid fro by the fossil fuel industry are simply beyond reproach.

      • Don Dalton

        Read the climategate emails: Michael Mann and his cohorts attempted to shut down studies that contradicted them even before they were published, and indeed even before they had read them. http://www.lavoisier.com.au/articles/greenhouse-science/climate-change/climategate-emails.pdf That might be your idea of time well-spent for a climate scientist, but it seems rather curious to me.

        If a study is paid for by big oil, or by big pharma, then we should take that into consideration when evaluating the study (is it biased?) But the fact of funding doesn’t by itself mean a study is false. I think this is common sense.

        Here is another side to the climate model debate: https://wattsupwiththat.com/2016/05/25/climate-models-dont-work/. I can’t help it if the Guardian and the LATimes refuse to look at both sides of the issue, or if their reporting is biased toward the alarmist vision. That’s why we all need to look at a variety of sources.

        If “some guy with a blog” says climate models don’t work, then I look at the logic and the evidence behind the claim. Sometimes this takes an awful lot of time to sort out. What do you do?

        • David Bell

          “Read the climategate emails: Michael Mann and his cohorts attempted to
          shut down studies that contradicted them even before they were
          published, and indeed even before they had read them.”

          Read the dozen independent investigations into the climategate emails from (among others) the EPA and the UK government:

          https://www.theguardian.com/environment/blog/2011/nov/23/attacks-climate-scientists-real-climategate

          http://www.bbc.com/news/uk-england-essex-10899538

          The fact a blogger wrote a blog post claiming conspiracy may seem like strong evidence to some, in reality it is on par with the evidence put up by moonlanding hoaxers.

          “detractors are funded by the fossil fuel industry– as if that makes one single iota of difference to what the science says, no matter who is funding it.”

          “If a study is paid for by big oil, or by big pharma, then we should take
          that into consideration when evaluating the study (is it biased?)”

          Which is it Don? Does the funding source make one iota of difference or is it something to take into consideration?

          “If “some guy with a blog” says climate models don’t work, then I look at
          the logic and the evidence behind the claim. Sometimes this takes an
          awful lot of time to sort out. What do you do?”

          Much like funding sources, I take the credibility of a source into account. Anthony Watts is a college drop out with a long history of dishonesty, running a blog where he is the first and last word in what is posted with no regard to factual accuracy.

          The Guardian and LA Times, while imperfect, are at least subject to some standards for honesty and accuracy.

          This is like saying the AMA, CDC, WHO, etc. only show “one side” of the vaccine debate, and in order to review “both sides” we must check with outright frauds like Andrew Wakefield or Mark Geier as credible experts. The fact both “researchers” were shown to be engaging in blatant fraud somehow makes no difference.

  • John Klar

    I do not challenge the power of science, but that power is not always used well. I caution the authors, and readers, against embracing all science as good. Wendell Berry has called such blind faith in scientific progress “technomysticism.” We have not figured out what to do with nuclear waste, used tires, swollen landfills, or the toxins generated by those new lightbulbs. We have created thousands of new chemicals, with little awareness of their effects on life. in just 150 years, we have perhaps irrevocably destroyed our global ecosystem….thanks to science. And neo-Darwinian evolution does not explain the origin of life: to pretend that it does is not science.

  • Gretchen in Washington State

    My sincere thanks to the folks of VCE for standing up and speaking out. The scientific work that you and other nonprofit organizations are doing helps us to monitor our environment and take appropriate corrective actions. You are truly “the canary in the coal mine.” Thank you. I stand with you and with all true science.