Some climate scientists, authors and advocates could learn from how cosmologists deal with scientific controversy.
Science is of course a human enterprise full of the imperfections of humanity. It’s more competitive than it’s ever been and there are more scientists than ever. So many want to communicate their science and this is wonderful. But the media, especially social media, can bring out a nasty streak in some especially when they take the moral high ground: ‘Some people should not be debated.’ ‘We are too right to be challenged.’ ‘Excommunicate!’
Recently in a debate about the nature of gravity comments were made about cheating alongside ad hominem attacks.
Most regard dark matter as a shy particle that only interacts with other particles via gravity. Thus it can’t be seen, only its effects. There is a minority view however that believes that the answer to dark matter lies in modifying the laws of gravity. Dark matter as a particle is undoubtedly the majority view despite the most sensitive dark matter experimental search, called XENON, finding nothing. Despite this “modified gravity” definitely has a great deal of work to do.
Recently some in the particle camp have become annoyed that the modified gravity proponents have become a little too vocal: Too many mentions in the media than they are happy with, or is even permissible. An article in Forbes’ said, “There’s a debate raging over whether dark matter is real, but one side is cheating.”
The argument is the old one of balance. The so-called setting up of a false narrative by treating both sides as equal. Ethan Siegel, the author of the Forbes’ article has blogged, “What’s not a responsible thing to do is say, ‘let’s throw away all of cosmology, and now tell the story about how it’s wrong—we just have to throw away general relativity, replace it with a theory we don’t have, and then we’ll have a new theory of gravity and solve the problem, not with dark matter but with modified gravity.’”
One of those accused of cheating is Sabine Hossenfelder. She has said, “I think that people aren’t aware of how the size of this community affects their judgment,” Hossenfelder told Gizmodo. “Yes, particle dark matter does better with the cosmic microwave background, but it doesn’t explain why modified gravity works so well in galaxies. I feel really queasy about people who want to wipe it off the table like it’s not there.”
Outside the isolated accusations of cheating most cosmologists are fair and agree that modified gravity should have a seat at the table. Perhaps there is a feeling at the back of many people’s minds that the lessons we have learnt about the universe may show us that both theories are wrong!
Physics has seen fashion and controversy as have most sciences. In the 1950s it was difficult to get a post researching General Relativity, then difficult to research quantum gravity. The great physicist Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar once said in the 1960s “General Relativity is outside the mainstream of physics. That is OK for people at my stage of a career. But as a young person you need to consider whether you want to work outside the mainstream.” This soon changed, drastically.
The connection of dark matter to the climate debate should be apparent. Many concerned in the debate object to the “balance” idea that someone who accepts climate change should be placed alongside someone who does not accept climate change thereby giving the impression that both are equally held viewpoints.
I am not inclined to ban people from the media. The balance problem however needs a more scientific approach. Who should not be debated?
Those who do not accept that the Earth’s climate changes, or mankind’s influence, or the physic’s of greenhouse gasses, radiative transfer and the realm of thermodynamics are very few and far between and are as credible as those who think sea level rise will overwhelm Big Ben.
Consider the IPCC, who for the majority have laid out the science of climate change (far too moderately for some). When it comes to parameters like climate sensitivity it gives a range of estimates. Are those whose research leads them to deduce a high level of sensitivity denying the work of those who conclude climate sensitivity is much lower? It has been the case that some who believe the sensitivity is high would not debate those who hold it is lower, yet both are within scientific speculation. So who should be not debated? What about those who don’t think that all of the global temperature change in the past 150 year is down to mankind? What if they think 50% or 25%? Should they be called deniers?
We Will Not Debate…Who?
This is the fundamental flaw in the letter published in the Guardian this week.
The long list of signatories say they will no longer lend their credibility in debates with someone who questions whether climate change is real, or who denies the reality of anthropogenic climate change.
This I take as their definition of a climate change denier. Good luck to them. I don’t know anyone who fits the bill. They are out there of course. Perhaps the signatories would like to produce a list that makes clear who is a denier and who is a sceptic and why? Perhaps they could host a website detailing with whom they were asked to “debate” along with their reasons why they declined to take part.
Meanwhile at the pit face of science – the peer-reviewed journals and conferences – there are fascinating papers, presentations and debates about climate science, its progress and its uncertainties. Stuff that when repeated in public would enrage many climate campaigners. Not debating people you don’t agree with is the antithesis not only of science but of civilization.
Seems to me that some climate scientists, authors and advocates could learn from the cosmologists.