A thoughtful commenter to my post on the hacked emails of climate scientists from the East Anglia CRU heard, in my tone, “contempt for those who might attempt to use their knowledge and insight to direct human events.” It wasn’t intended. I don’t feel contempt for science or its practitioners. But my unceasing admiration for science as an enterprise is matched by a perception of its fragility – let me say it bluntly: its mortality.
The science of classical antiquity was the greatest collection of human knowledge before the rise of modern science. It died. It was entombed under the wreckage of the Roman Empire. How can the cumulative intellectual achievement of a thousand years perish? We know conditions changed. Untutored Germans lorded over the empire’s populations. Poverty, insecurity, and ignorance afflicted ever more lives.
The requisite behaviors for classical science were lost. The fragile threads of its working traditions snapped. It died. Once dead, it would take a historical miracle to bring science back: a resurrection, a Renaissance.
Today we consider ourselves invulnerable to such a catastrophic fall from grace. There are no barbarians at the gates. Education is near universal. Classical science, we imagine, was only the childhood of knowledge, while in our day the human race has attained the age of reason.
We invest our scientists with enormous prestige because we believe them to personify the universal reach of science, and we feel confident our science is immune to decline because it rests on an infallible, almost magical, method. Yet neither of these beliefs is true. Scientists are merely workers in a knowledge profession, and no more embody science than an ambulance-chaser embodies the majesty of the law.
Modern science, like its classical ancestor, is a tradition, a set of culturally evolved behaviors and human relations – many methods have been found in this tradition, but virtually none of any practical use to the scientist. Peter Medawar, Nobel laureate in medicine, wrote:
Science, broadly considered, is incomparably the most successful enterprise human beings have ever engaged upon; yet the methodology that had presumably made it so, when propounded by learned laymen, is not attended to by scientists, and when propounded by scientists is a misrepresentation of what they do. Only a minority of scientists have received instruction in scientific methodology, and those that have done seem to be no better off.
Which brings me back to those appalling emails and documents from the climate professionals at the CRU, and to the attempt of the latter – in the words of my commenter – to use their knowledge and insight to direct human affairs.
The CRU workers vandalized the traditions of science with abandon, for reasons that may have been idealistic, ideological, or simply venal. It’s impossible to say, and it doesn’t matter. They wanted to direct human affairs, and to that end they persecuted those who contradicted their findings, corrupted the peer review process, flattered journalists, concealed and deleted data, in fact hid their proceedings behind the veil of the temple of science, from which they emerged, now and then, to prophesy doom.
The stakes are immense. In the lead articles of its November issue, the Scientific American endorsed an initial investment in green technologies of $100 trillion over 20 years. To achieve this, our present political and economic systems would have to be scrapped and new structures put in place, with scientists directing from the top – assuming, in my terms, guardianship over the human race.
What makes critics barking mad, of course, is the evidence from the CRU documents, which demonstrates without a shred of doubt these particular science professionals weren’t relying on their knowledge or insight. Seduced by the immensity of the prize, they systematically obscured their knowledge. They fudged, and they cheated.
This is evident from their reaction to the decline in global temperatures over the last decade. In public, the CRU climatologists argued with some vehemence that global warming will be a calamity for our species. In private, they were horrified when warming stopped in 1998, and conjured methodological “tricks” to conceal this fact – enshrined in the notorious phrase, “hide the decline.” Such duplicity effectively rules out idealism as their motive.
But there’s another aspect of the scandal which I find even more troubling, though it has received less attention: the damage done to science, to the scientific tradition. At the CRU, as in medieval theology, the answer was known. Virtuosity was demonstrated in the various techniques for reaching the one answer. This approach soon pollutes and confuses the fact-seeking mind: reality, after all, has now become an obstacle to be surmounted. The hacked documents from the CRU betray a disorientation, a bizarre loss of coherence, which is humorous on the surface but frightening in its implications.
The commented software code in the HARRY_READ_ME.txt file – described as the “core of CRU’s climate model” – reads like something out of Through the Looking Glass. Facts mean what climatologists say they mean. We realize immediately, on looking at the arbitrary muddle of the code, why the CRU imposed such secrecy. The alternative, we now see, was to fall from the pinnacle of professional prestige to the depths of ridicule and contempt.
The file calls to mind some epigone in the dim twilight of the Roman Empire, copying a copy of Ptolemy’s Almagest, introducing more errors with each version, growing irretrievably divorced from the spirit of inquiry which sustained classical science.
I don’t really believe mad scientists are going to take over the world. But I do worry about arrogant, irresponsible professionals tearing away at the fabric of social relations which keeps modern science alive. If science was merely a method, there would be no harm done: we would just go back to the book, find the formula, and start over. Unfortunately, science is craft, behavior, tradition, and once these are forgotten science can be lost.
I worry that my children’s generation will stand on the edge of a chasm darkened by ignorance and zealotry. It adds a deeper, sadder meaning to the phrase, “hide the decline.”