Open Inquiry: A Casualty of the Climate Change Debate

The extent to which global warming, or more generally climate change, will make life on Earth more difficult is a consequential and pressing question. However, it is already clear that the debate about climate change is damaging free scientific inquiry and contributing to popular misunderstandings about science. The contentiousness of the debate is making it more and more difficult for scientists to speak freely and has allowed politicians to cite scientific authority in an unquestioning way. Consider the following cases:

About a year ago, climate scientist Dr. James E. Hansen of NASA’s Goddard Institute was directed to have his lectures and papers reviewed by NASA’s Public Affairs Office. Hansen interpreted this as an obvious effort to suppress his warnings about global warming. Fortunately, cooler heads prevailed when NASA’s Administrator Michael Griffin, in an e-mail to all NASA employees, explained that it is not the job of management, “to alter, filter or adjust engineering or scientific material produced by NASA’s technical staff.”

Democratic Representative Henry Waxman is holding hearings on whether NOAA scientists where inhibited in making clear their scientific assessments about global climate change.

During the Clinton Administration, Dr. Indur M. Goklany, of the Interior Department was redirected to non-climate related work after he suggested that the economic costs of restricting greenhouse gases should be balanced against potential consequences of climate change.

Bjorn Lomborg, author of The Skeptical Environmentalist was brought up on charges of scientific dishonesty that were ultimately dropped for his critique of what he considered shrill predictions of environmental calamity. The Chairman of the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Dr. Rajendra Pachauri derisively compared Lomborg to Adolf Hitler: “What is the difference between Lomborg’s view of humanity and Hitler’s. If you were to accept Lomborg’s way of thinking, then maybe what Hitler did was the right thing.”

If you believe some, all must now accept, without question, the scientific consensus on climate change. David Miliband, the British Secretary of State for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, declared “debate about climate change is now over.”

The debate about climate change and its political repercussions have revealed some fundamental misunderstandings about the nature of science. All who take the discipline of science must seriously subscribe to certain enabling axioms that seem to have been forgotten, or at least neglected.

Free and open discussion of data, hypotheses, and theories must be maintained. Ultimately ideas are tested in open forums. Others may or may not be persuaded, but logic and data are the agreed upon pillars upon which the debate rests. The suppression of expression, whether through government edict or popular intimidation, undermines free debate and is inconsistent with any scientific enterprise.

The validity of a scientific argument is independent of the character of the person making the argument. It only depends on the argument itself. Those who worry the most about climate change argue that some eco-skeptics are not to be believed because they receive funding from fossil fuel companies. Others, more critical of climate change predictions, suggest that scientists receive more federal funding if they can nurture fear and dread about the environment. Those arguments might be politically persuasive, but are not scientifically relevant. Even if inspired by the vilest of motives, the validity of an argument relies only upon evidence and logic.

Scientific consensus does not ever end debate. Science is entirely provisional, all ideas and theories are subject to re-investigation, all data open to re-analysis. Although it is true that if someone makes an important scientific claim, that seems on its face to contradict previously agreed upon conclusions, the claim must meet high standards of scrutiny and evidence. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. However, there are no scientific theories about natural phenomena that cannot be challenged.

Living by these rules is a necessary condition to claim to be practicing science.

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