Thursday, December 3, 2009

"Contact Sport"? I think you mean Death Match.

There's a neat review over at Newsweek on the book "Science as a Contact Sport". It is written by Stephen Schneider, the author of a famous 1960's paper that predicted global cooling. His results came from a climate predicting computer model that had an import omission in the physics simulated by the code. This omission halved the effect of CO2 in the atmosphere. This paper has been trumpeted by climate change denialists but crucified by real scientists (y'know, those who have dedicated their lives to understanding this stuff.) The book then describes how climate change scientists fight fiercely over the veracity of results coming out of the community. There's a word for this fierce, empashioned battling when a group of people are working tirelessly to expose the truth: SCIENCE.

When one produces results in a scientific field, he or she must first go through the peer review process to get these results published in a journal. This involves intense scrutiny over that scientist's work followed by alteration of said work so that the reveiwers' concerns over potential weaknesses are properly addressed. If the research cannot stand such scrutiny, it is rejected. This process takes months to years and is not for the weak of mind. You watch others take your projects, for which you have invested a great amount of time and effort, and rip them to shreds. It is an absolute necessity to push through this process because unpublished research is as useful as no research at all.

It is possible that weak, poorly derived products may slip through the process unscathed. In such cases, the paper is subject to strong rebuttals and harsh criticism from the scientific community. Even if the paper is not pulled from the journal (an extreme case for particularly bad science), its place in history will be a poorly constructed counterpoint standing against mountains of contradicting evidence. And in the scientific world, what matters is the amount of physical evidence, not the number of people, that supports a hypothesis.

All of this is lost on those who fervently assert that global climate change is a farce, a "liberal religion", a misguided opinion. In science, opinions and beliefs do not matter. They are crushed in the peer review forum. They are slaughtered in the open research market. The only thing that can stand is physical evidence. Those who irrationally follow a claim without evidence become the laughing stocks of the field.

Thunderfoot presents a far more eloquent (and entertaining) summary of how science works (about 5 minutes in):

Be sure to check out the comments in the Newsweek article. They're delightfully awful.

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