The media coverage of last weekend’s March du Jour, this one supposedly a celebration of Science (capitalization mine), portrayed the event as just that – celebratory. But when Progressives get together carrying signs it almost always means a demonstration, and this gathering was as much a vehicle for the Left to chide conservatives about their refusal to accept the “settled science” of human-caused climate change as it was a paen to Science itself.
Watching the festivities unfold, I thought of a recent commentary by Vincent Carrol in the Denver Post. He reported that Boulder County Commissioners had just voted to ban the growing of all genetically modified (GMO) crops on land owned by the county. This edict will be problematic for farmers who have been raising GMO corn and sugar beets for many years on this leased land because, according to Carroll, there no longer are any non-GMO strains of sugar beet. The farmers will have from three to five years to eliminate GMOs from their rotations. Case closed.
Here’s the Science rub. There is no scientific evidence – none – that genetically modified crops are harmful to humans, insects or anything living. The decision to flatly ban them flies in the face of all the research that has been done on the subject, and will do nothing but cause harm and hardship to the affected farmers, many of whom have tens of thousands of dollars tied up in equipment used to grow and harvest a crop which they can no longer plant.
The GMO ban was met with loud approval by liberal Boulderites, many of whom no doubt paraded last week in unwavering support of Science. In fact, Boulder liberals show the same disregard for GMO research that conservatives hold for the study of man-caused climate change. Clearly science denial knows no political affiliation.
Why this distrust of science cutting across the political spectrum? Science is supposed to be provable, reliable, the epitome of fact. Remember junior high science class, where we learned the basics of the Scientific Method? Start with a theory – what do you think is happening and why. Then try to dream up an experiment that proves your theory, or disproves someone else’s. Compile your results. Then the most important step; submit your findings to others who will try to duplicate them, using your methodology. If your experiment can be repeated by others, your “peers”, then and only then are your conclusions scientifically valid. That’s how science works. Or used to.
Peer review has been the backbone of scientific investigation since Isaac Newton lounged beneath his apple tree, and the science it produced seemed for the most part apolitical. These days science methodology is becoming bastardized, thanks in large measure to our newfound reliance on computers and algorithms instead of beakers and Bunsen burners. For example, our seemingly unlimited capability to gather and analyze massive quantities of data has led to the proliferation of often agenda-driven studies that arrive at their conclusions by asking a large number of subjects a long series of questions under the assumption that a small but publishable number of queries will yield a positive result (i.e., the result the authors wish to see). This statistical alchemy was used in a study released last year which pointed to an increased incidence of certain types of cancer in communities located downwind from good old Rocky Flats. More traditional studies have found no such link. More recently, another megadata study found an increase in dementia and strokes in people who drink diet soda. The researchers relied on data from massive numbers of soda sippers (full disclosure: I drink two or three cans a day) but somehow failed to correct for obesity and several other possible variables. Another junior high science lesson: Correlation does not automatically equal causation.
Each of these studies was ostensibly peer reviewed. But that most vital step in the process, according to many in the scientific community, has become sloppy and incestuous, bowing to political pressures and the “publish or perish” dictum so pervasive in academia. The problem has become so epidemic, according to a study published last year in Nature, that researchers attempting to replicate other scientists’ experiments were failing to get the same results more than 70% of the time. More than half the time the results could not even be duplicated by the original researchers. When the supposedly peer reviewed (and widely publicized) study that claimed to find a link between vaccinations and autism was debunked, the British Journal of Medicine in which it was featured took nearly 10 years to publish a retraction. That study triggered a public health crisis in Britain and the author was eventually tried and found guilty of gross ethical misconduct and fraud. In spite of the criminal misapplication of science involved, thousands of American parents continue to cite the study when refusing to have their children vaccinated. Most of these doting parents are well-educated (and liberal). So much for the robustness of peer review.
Stories like these invite skeptics of all political lineages to dispute the results of what may be credible, critical studies, and contribute to the ideological fog that is threatening to smother the legitimate, rigorous methodology behind the bulk of science research. They also infer that there are both liberals and conservatives (and evidently some scientists) willing to bend science to their ideology. So forgive those misguided wretches who choose to take the assertion that human activity is the primary cause of global warming with a grain or two of salt.
We all want and need Science to be worthy of celebration, but clearly the science establishment has some housecleaning to do. To regain our confidence those who do science right and proper have to be willing to call out the ones who distort its process for their own ends. The rest of us, meanwhile, need to improve our science literacy so we can recognize questionable science when we see it, even if it means looking past our ideology. Best that we reach consensus on climate change, among other headline issues, before the research findings become moot.
Events will eventually settle the scientific disputes that bedevil us. Hopefully we will survive the proof.