Nullus in Verba or why 2011 was a great year for science

It’s been a wonderful year for science. Why? Because 350 years ago a bunch of eminent thinkers in London decided to get together and form a club to “look with favour upon all forms of learning”. They called it the Royal Society and it’s still going strong today. In order to emphasise their desire for “experiments to shape out new philosophies or perfect the old” they also developed a motto: Nullus in Verba; Take Nobody’s Word For It. It reminds us that at heart all scientists are skeptics — a dirty and loaded word in certain fields but it’s a philosophy which this year has been beautifully upheld in full glare of the public eye.

As you’ve probably guessed when I say “certain fields” I’m talking about global warming. Al Gore calls it “An Inconvenient Truth” which I’d agree with, but when he and others go on to say “the science is settled” they’re on much shakier ground. In terms of the data available for climate analysis there appears to be at most 750,000 years worth kicking around thanks to some very old ice-core samples however, compared to the age of the Earth this is an insignificant speck. Also, modern techniques for investigating climate change began at most 60 years ago — a toddler compared to other disciplines such as astronomy. The science of global warming is not settled, it’s barely started and at this current stage of theory formation those who advocate global warming is real and man-made possess — in my view — very much the stronger argument. However, as we saw this year, satisfaction should never be an excuse for inaction. The ‘science is settled’ is a phrase that should spur any self-respecting scientist at best back into the lab and at worst into paroxysms of rage.

Now you might say that prominent environmental campaigners like Al Gore should be allowed to pick, choose and say what they like — hearing what you want to hear and disregarding the rest is hard currency of those in the persuasion business and as I’m doing exactly that now I’d have to concur. But outside of Congress, opinion pages and certain Simon and Garfunkel songs that philosophy is morally bankrupt. When in 2009 those guys at the UK University of East Anglia’s Climate Research Unit (CRU) were shown to have been trashing colleagues and concealing data it wasn’t just a dark day for global warming, it was pretty poor for the whole of science.

Take Phil Jones, head honcho of the hugely influential CRU, in a leaked 1996 e-Mail he refers to British climate skeptic Piers Corbyn as an “utter prat” and then goes on to complain about the “air time” Corbyn’s getting. This excerpt says far more about Jones’ biases than about the theories espoused by the target of his ire. Much has been written about how the leaked Climategate e-Mails were taken out of context and used by skeptics to bash the CRU. Very true and I should point out that no CRU staff were found guilty of anything illegal, but it is evident from even a cursory glance at those leaked e-Mails that pre-conceived prejudice, condescension (one scientist refers to those outside his immediate circle as “ignorant masses”) and an unwillingness to consider data that doesn’t fit with their desired results pervades the whole sorry mess. In one of his more revealing exchanges from 1999 Jones writes: “I would ignore the so-called skeptics until they get to the peer-review arena. The skeptics are fighting a losing battle”. In another e-Mail two years later Jones complains to an editor of Science magazine that an article they published contains: “several inaccuracies and sweeping statements”. In a swift aside to colleagues he goes on to diss Science magazine’s admissions procedure adding “this isn’t great as none of us got to review it.” In other words what Phil Jones means when he says peer-reviewed is me-reviewed, and if you’re the unfortunate “prat” whose managed to get past Jones’ self-selecting cabal and are trying to get your paper published your next challenge is to locate an editor prepared to resist pressure from the CRU to ignore your “inaccuracies”. Piers “prat” Corbyn incidentally is an astrophysicist.

Contrast the CRU’s behaviour with the folks at the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN). Late this year a guest team running an experiment called the Oscillation Project with Emulsion-tRacking Apparatus (OPERA) Collaboration suggested that some particles called Neutrinos might actually be able to travel faster then the speed of light. Faster. Than. The. Speed. Of. Light. Got that? In terms of blowing up conventional wisdom this is off the scale; a bombshell so fundamental that if proved true a huge chunk of physics would have to be rethought and a certain Swiss scientist’s special theory reduced to toilet paper. In climate terms it’s like being told that not only are sea-levels not rising, there actually isn’t any water in those large gaps between the continents anyway. As I write some doubts are emerging but what’s crucial is the reaction at the time to this potential upending of knowledge. British scientist Dr David Whitehouse said it could be a “revolution” in physics; “This will be a tremendous revolutionary finding if it is true,” said Chang Kee Jung, a particle physicist, while the physicist Brian Cox said it could be “the most profound discovery ever”. Antonio Ereditato, spokesman for the OPERA team, said “we look forward to having confirmation from independent measurements”. In short: words of encouragement from the wider scientific community while the actual scientists involved conceded doubt and openly invited further testing. Toys remained firmly inside the pram.

The second reason this was a great year for science again involves CERN and their quest to find that strange sub-atomic particle the Higgs boson — crucial to our the understanding of the universe. As I write the existence of the elusive beast teeters on the verge of being confirmed but why are they doing it?

“Because the theory might be wrong” says eminent Oxford University mathematics professor Marcus du Sautoy. Put another way: we think we’ve got it right but let’s test, retest and test again. And when that’s done we’ll run more tests. And what if it’s proven that the Higgs doesn’t exist? What if it’s all for nothing and CERN’s funding dries up, the boffins leave and that 27km underground tunnel is snapped up by NASCAR? Let me quote Sir John Butterworth of CERN in response to that very question: “In a way that’s even more interesting, that means the we have no good theory; back to the drawing board.” How many climate change scientists would be as willing as he to have their own work junked in a nanosecond? When you’re so certain of your findings that you actively seek to rubbish skeptics and whine about articles you didn’t get to pre-approve it shows there are far deeper pathologies at play, but if asked to choose between CERN and the CRU censors I know who gets my trust.

So my message to climatologists of the “settled” variety: doubt and criticise climate skeptics all you want but engaging with them in debate — not excluding them — is how the truth will out and the public — those “ignorant masses” — are cleverer than you think at sifting out the crazies. Above all remember there’s a bonus in it for you: you just might be proved wrong. Real scientists know it and in 2011 CERN exemplified it: standing on the shoulder of giants and taking a tumble is near-as-dammit up there with total vindication as one of the most joyous moments of a scientist’s life.

Science is a never-ending learning curve, asymptotic in nature, constantly nearing the ultimate revelation but doomed never ever to get there. Like that crazy old geezer at the end of One Hundred Years of Solitude who finds the truth revealed just as the foretold oblivion beckons, it is the lot of scientists to quest their whole lives, fingers to the bone only to emit at the cusp of ecstasy a Homer Simpson-like ‘Doh’ as they realise they’ve been barking up the wrong tree. What Al Gore et al don’t realise is that climate science isn’t at the Einsteinian phase yet, it’s not even reached Newton’s apple. When it comes to global warming we’re still cavemen banging rocks together. And when someone comes along and tells you it’s over, switch off the bunsen burners, your work is done, we should scoff like those pioneers in 17th century London: nullus in verba. On nobody’s word.

 

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