Wednesday, November 26, 2014

On Certain Recent Advances in Scientific Proof

On Certain Recent Advances in Scientific Proof.

(A lightly edited version of an essay I wrote in the days of Climategate. Think of how things have changed since then...)

Climategate has been a nearly universally nauseating experience for anyone who cares for good facts or good faith, but let us not be too negative. In its own way it has been instructive.  Even nausea can favour the prepared mind with insights, as Pasteur didn't quite say: for example, in the small hours one night, many years ago, I gained a helpful insight into the significance of motion sickness; I was bowed over a lavatory bowl in obeisance to a transient, but peremptory, attack of viral gastritis, and too sleepy to concentrate on the personal nature of a normally very personal experience. This left my mind free to concentrate on the resemblance between my sensations and those of seasickness. 


And Climategate in all its unexpectedness takes me in much the same way. I have lived a largely sheltered life, most of my associates being persons of as much good sense, good will, and honesty as anyone might reasonably ask. One gets spoilt. Perhaps the occasional experience of the likes of Climategate is a necessary corrective for the poor, abused victims of sheltered lives. In my attempts to develop a proper sense of gratitude however, I could not help reflecting that this particular course of treatment seems excessively expensive, and pernicious to boot. An occasional violent two-minute submersion in sewage, followed by a couple of hours in Monty Python' s room for abuse or the one for an argument should be just as effective and far cheaper. 

(Hmmm... I feel I am onto something here; I must contact Al Gore for advice on how to apply for a peace prize.)

Now, even a superficial sampling of Internet exchanges on the subject of Climategate will yield a pretty representative list of the classical logical modes of proof. Argumentum ad hominem occurs so frequently in various forms, ranging from fairly reasonable to downright hysterical, that one ceases to notice it. Argumentum ad baculum is rife, hardly surprisingly. Argumentum ad misericordiam is popular, and those are just examples. Ticking off the lists is too easy to be interesting.

Possibly least surprising has been the ubiquitous Red Herring, the long-standing favourite of the lawyer, the politician, and Sir Humphrey Appleby in his various incarnations. In fairness however, it would be ungracious to dismiss the artless hopefulness, the sheer creativity, and the deftness, with which different, often diametrically opposing, simultaneous Red Herring trails are intermingled and combined. What starts out as kipper ends up as kedgeree. 

Such tours de force of persuasion are undeniably impressive, but hardly novel. The Internet supports expression with impunity better than the traditional gutter press, or even Hyde Park Corner, where appropriate sensitivity might forefend painful physical counter-arguments before police can step in. Immunity from punched heads and thick lips has encouraged online development of novel forms of scientific proof, and Climategate has fostered many. I lack the time, energy, and erudition to construct a diagnostic taxonomic key, but readers will recognise hopeful seedlings that never could have survived on the stony ground of traditional civilised debate. 

Consider a few examples. 

To begin with, proof by assertion is rife. Proof by stamina is common (to call it Argumentum ad Nauseam would do the Internet version scant justice). Proof by abuse nearly deafens one to read it. Proof by undirected rage practically covers the reader with spittle when the page comes up. Proofs of the form: "he was my professor and I have worked under him and he would never do such a thing..." comes in six-packs, exculpating prominent scientists who publicly have delivered themselves of the likes of: "Why should I make the data available to you, when your aim is to try and find something wrong with it". 

(No, I jest not, nor speak in metaphor, worse luck.)

Then there is Proof by Democracy, in which organisations appeal to the widely-accepted fact that thousands of "scientists" form a "consensus". This they distinguish from Argumentum ad populum by repeated double-entry accountancy which expands a quorum of arguably a few dozen to an army of thousands (still a pretty sparse consensus mind you, but undeniably impressive propagation, all the same). They sagely spare us tedious data concerning the proportion of these scientists that are climatologists supporting their climatological consensus as professionals working in the field.

 That makes good sense, because each scientist, as a professional in a relevant discipline, should no doubt contribute his or her own skills to the relevant questions, of which there are many apart from puristic climatology. Toleration in science is of course a virtue in virtuous moderation. Excessive tolerance in science being a fault however, those selfsame professional cadres of climatologists then are very properly dismissive of tactless questions. Among infidels, non-climatologists may be dismissed out of hand by condemning them as ignorant denialists; no one but a climatologist could validly base climatological doubts on their mastery as climatologists, of pure logic, or empirical knowledge of history, archaeology, palaeontology, physics, thermodynamics, astronomy, statistics, engineering or biology. And any sort of climatologist who actually expresses doubt or reservation on any such points must be in the pay of Satanic corporations.  

Denialists all! Proof positive. 

Nor should anyone harbour doubts simply because the Prominent Faithful occasionally present false or conflicting pronouncements, much less conflicting computer models. Such aberrations offer no extenuation for Denialism; after all, the science has been proved by assertion and re-affirmed by Scientific Consensus (Cast of thousands! Don't miss the show!) What does a bit of inconsistency count for in unanimity on such a scale?  

One towering figure refuses to be intimidated into revealing his data to non-climatologists? That surely is nothing but praiseworthy amour propre? Another, a veritable data-Hampden, will not yield in his protection of his data from anyone who might try to find something wrong with it? Well, naturally if it has nothing wrong with it, how could it not deserve protection? So, yet another climatologist rejected data that failed to support his thesis? Well, of course he should! What is the point of data that is not a team player? See for how many years judicious exclusion of data averted the growth of the ozone hole!

Nothing in all that invalidates their conclusions or their credibility. On the other hand, when the correspondence of such Good People is made publicly available, that patently is a criminal act, in stark contrast to responsible data protection or negation. And criminality logically demonstrates that any uncomfortable premises thus exposed should be rejected as being without merit. 

Mmm...  No doubt. If you say so. 

I must confess that those hacker fellows had me going for a while there, so the Faithful patently have a point... 

So there was I, demoralised by all the denialists, totally unable to imagine how the IPCC could retain any credence in the AGW thesis, much less in carbon reduction as a mitigation strategy; a right slough of despond. But then the Good and the Great assembled to save the world from itself, from the denialists and their paymasters. In their dread assurance of their new Forms of Proof they brooked neither doubt nor denial. Son of Kyoto will surely make good all that we got wrong the first time round, all the bickering, all the futility, all the misdirected technology, and especially all the corruption. 

After all, if it were otherwise, why should all those disinterested leaders and savants in their tens of thousands, expose their persons, their careers, their efforts, their models, their credibility, to denigration by denialists, to the exhaustion of travel and conferences, to the discomfort of foreign hotels, to the difficulties of explaining the inexplicable to press and public, or their conference expenditure to their countrymen, why, I repeat, should they commit without thought of self or of reward, to the cause?

And so reflecting I turn to the news broadcasts. And inevitably more dignified spokesmen appear to explain it all again and yet again in language more emphatic than four-letter words, loudly, reprovingly, uncompromisingly, urgently, even angrily. Just as in the days of Kyoto, there is no time to spare; doom still is imminent and no denialist should question it, nor even discuss it in terms that could give rise to pointed off-script questions. 

And anon nausea assails the prepared mind once more as it did over the lavatory bowl one night of yore. And do you know what I hear? Every time any of them opens his mouth I hear a cash register, loud and clear. 

Only, I don't know how to prove it.

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