A study of abuse of science

Political abuse of science, such as the recent attempts to stop NASA sceintists from public statements about the possiblity that global warming may be pushing Earth to a “tipping point,” have a long history.

Today’s political abusers of science are pikers compared to the Nazis, and no one claims that their motives and ideology are as vile as those who viewed themselves as members of the “Master Race.” Still, it’s useful to look back at Nazi tactics to see how easy it is to abuse science to achieve political objectives.

A book review in today’s Seattle Times discusses how far afield abuse of science can go. According to reviewer Adam Woog, The Master Plan: Himmler’s Scholars and the Holocaust by Vancouver, B.C., science writer Heather Pringle, “describes a massive effort to retool history to fit pet theories — and it shows just how easily that retooling can happen.”

In this case, there was a hypothesis to prove: that “Aryans” were inherently superior to other people. Heinrich Himmler’s scholars knew the answer. Their task was to find evidence, however flimsy, and to weave a persuasive story around it.

I have not yet read Ms. Pringle’s book, but Mr. Woog’s review is enough to make me want to recommend it. I’ll try to contact Mr. Woog to see if I can add his review to my Science Shelf book review archive. It will be a valuable companion piece to my reviews of Hitler’s Scientists: Science, War, and the Devil’s Pact by John Cornwell and Master Mind: The Rise and Fall of Fritz Haber, the Nobel Laureate Who Launched the Age of Chemical Warfare by Daniel Charles.

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24 thoughts on “A study of abuse of science”

  1. I am grateful that this thread has resulted from a long and beneficial discussion below. I am opting out to let others speak their piece, and I hope the largely civil tone continues.

    Meanwhile, I encourage all of you to visit my Science Shelf web site, discover its collection of weather and climate book reviews, and subscribe to get updates, including my new comparative review of Field Notes from a Catastrophe and The Weather Makers. I talk about my initial impressions in my closing reply to Aaron below.

    Signing off for now….

    Fred Bortz — Science and technology books for young readers (www.fredbortz.com) and Science book reviews (www.scienceshelf.com)

  2. Aaron, I understand Shannon, who seems to get the consensus fairly well. S/he just operates from an ideology that includes the assumption that scientists are drawing conclusions based on their politics. That’s unfortunate, because Shannon then starts espousing increasingly discredited fringe views — views that are being pushed farther to the fringe because of increasing support for the consensus view — only because they are more consonant with Shannon’s ideological mindset.

    What is that consensus? It is that the cause of global warming is human activity, mainly the burning of fossil fuels.

    The consequences of global warming are less certain, although as climate data accumulate, modeling tools become more sophisticated, and computer power increases, the signs are strong that we are on the verge of an abrupt change in climate, a “tipping point” in current parlance.

    Just as you need lots of time and space to turn an aircraft carrier, you need to act early to avoid the tipping point. Somewhere on the trajectory there is a point of no return. Most of the present climate discussion concerns where that point is and at what rate we can continue to burn fossil fuels and still not go over the edge.

    Some people, looking at the data from the polar regions in particular, see evidence that we may have already crossed the threshhold. In that case, all this discussion may be moot. Others say we need to take extreme measures to prevent reaching that threshhold, but those measures carry extreme risks as well. That’s the kind of thing Shannon has been focusing on.

    All the models provide scenarios for policy makers to consider. There are plenty of scenarios that show serious danger that can be avoided by prudent, manageable action today. That’s probably where the majority opinion is. It is not yet a consensus, but we must pay attention to it and make policy on the basis of what we know and how well we know it.

    The various climate models are not in perfect agreement, but they all point to the need to change our current behavior. The first thing we need to do is stop the ideological squabbling and focus on the evidence and the various interpretations of it by credible scientists. Then we can talk about how to slow down our rate of dumping carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. That’s where policy makers need to be working.

    I am presently reading the second of two new books that discuss the tipping point scenarios and our responses to them. One of them has some interesting but more extreme interpretations. In my review, I will try to distinguish consensus from speculation. I will recommend both the books and suggest that people read them with an open mind and skeptical eyes. But I will also note how quickly the consensus view has moved in the past decade, which makes it necessary for us to consider all the scenarios carefully.

    I hope I have succeeded in moving this discussion across a tipping point of a different kind, from ideological to scientific approaches in the interpretation of climate models and scenarios. I began this thread by recommending a book review that showed how easy it is to misrepresent science and history for political ends. The point I wanted to make is that ideologues can be dangerous. The fact that people like you and Shannon seem to be swayed by ideology rather than science is why I opened this discussion.

    Now it is time for me to drop out of it and let others get involved. I’ll post a new thread at the beginning stating that fact.

    Meanwhile, if you want to be sure you get my reviews, visit my Science Shelf website and subscribe to my occasional newsletters. As soon as my review is published in a major newspaper, I’ll put it up on line.

    Fred Bortz — Science and technology books for young readers (www.fredbortz.com) and Science book reviews (www.scienceshelf.com)

  3. What I know of complex systems is that they are NOT fragile. They adjust and adapt and rebalance. We are talking about a small temperature change over a long period of time. There are many factors that may prevent it from even happening. There will be plenty of time to adapt.

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