Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Science in the Independent, aka being wise after the event

Science and non-Science

Here below is an extract from that apocalyptic front page of today's Independent.

As soon as I saw the headline, I knew roughly what it would say (which poses the question as to why one would elect to read, or buy, something that is largely predictable).

A 21st century catastrophe

By Michael McCarthy, Environment Editor
Published: 24 July 2007

"... But the catastrophic "extreme rainfall events" of the summer of 2007, on 24 June and 20 July, are entirely consistent with repeated predictions of what climate change will bring.

It is nearly 10 years since the scientists of the UK Climate Impacts Programme first gave their detailed forecast of what global warming had in store for Britain in the 21st century - and high up on the list was rainfall, increasing both in frequency and intensity.

This was thought most likely to happen in winter, with summers predicted to be hotter and dryer (ed. my italics) .

But yesterday Peter Stott of the Met Office's Hadley Centre for Climate Prediction and Research, an author of a new scientific paper linking increases in rainfall to climate change, commented: "It is possible under climate change that there could be an increase of extreme rainfall even under general drying."

(End of quotation)

Sorry, Peter Stott. Sorry Independent, but that's not science. Predicting that global warming will give hotter drier summers is no big deal. Nor is predicting that winters will be wetter: less rain in summer implies more in winter, unless unless one is predicting a Saharan climate with a year round reduction in total rainfall.

But to wait until we have had one of the most unexpected events of all - namely to be deluged by torrential, almost monsoon rain, in July- and then tell us that fits the theory too, or that the theory can be modified - retrospectively needlessto say - to accomodate new facts, is NOT science. Not only is it not science, but it is intellectual chicanery of the first order to attempt to claim credit for something that one's theory failed to predict.

For the Independent to use its front page headlines day in, day out, to proselytise the gospel of man-made global warming is one thing. Even non- scientists can appreciate that whatever the merits or otherwise of the theory, the Independent cannot be taken seriously as a serious newspaper, assuming that its role is to report NEWS, confining opinion to its leader and Comments pages.

If the Independent wishes to break with time-honoured tradition in order to embrace and proselytise a theory, then that is its decision . No one is forced to read the Independent.

But if I were Peter Stott of the Met Office Hadley Centre for Climate Prediction and Research, I would be seriously concerned about my scientific credentials right now. If I were funding his research, I would be seriously concerned at what I see as a serious lapse in scientific standards, assuming Stott has been quoted accurately and comprehensively.

It's just as well I have my own blog for pouring scorn on things that stick in the craw, since there is no facility under McCarthy's article to submit one's comment.

Something similar happened about 18 months ago where the Independent and its "wise-after-the event" quoting of scientists are concerned.

You may recall Sir James Lovelock (who, let me say, has made some highly significant contributions to science, notably NASA's early Mars exploration programme, for which his FRS and knighthood were fully deserved). But he then developed his quasi-religious Gaia theory, suggesting the multiplicity of life-forms on our planet behaved as a single giant organism that regulates its own environment, thereby enhancing the survival of the whole.

But Sir James then published his "Revenge of Gaia" (an absurd title I thought) claiming we had provoked Gaia too far with all our burning of fossil fuel etc, and that those self-regulating mechanisms had been fatally impaired: life on Earth was now doomed and it may well be too late to prevent a self-perpetuating cycle of destruction.

As soon as I read this in the Independent, I shot off a letter, pointing out that it was hardly scientific to predict that something was self-regulating, self-protective, one day, able to roll with the punches, so to speak, if this or that factor changed in the environment, but could then be totally overwhelmed by an increase in C02 concentration in the atmosphere from 0.033 to 0.045%.

A theory that can explain or accomodate anything and everything is not a scientific theory; the Gaia hypothesis may have a limited utility in stimulating research into mutually beneficial relationships between organisms , but Gaia is not the paradigm that some have cracked it up to be.

The Independent did/would not publish my letter. I protested, but to no avail. The Independent is not only selective in which scientists it quotes, but protects those same sources from the kind of criticism that is an accepted part of the scientific process - the kind that gives us the distinction between astronomy and astrology, or between science/technology and Scientology.

Oops, sorry, I nearly forgot. This is the dawning of the Age of Aquarius. Now where did I put those crystals - I must remember to put them under the pillow tonight.

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