Scientists as Soothsayers

I wrote a piece a month ago about the L’Aquila earthquake, and the jail sentence imposed on six scientists and one administrator who offered what turned out to be unfounded reassurance to the citizens of the town that the earth tremors they had been experiencing were not to be alarmed at.

In this essay I want to dwell on some implications of that event, and the role of research in public life. In doing so I was stimulated by a piece written by Brendan O’Neill and published in the UK online journal Spiked.

The thrust of the article was that as scientists become more prominent in predicting the future of the world they need to realise how dangerous it might be for them and their endeavour if they get it wrong.

‘Over the past decade, leading scientists have repositioned themselves as modern-day diviners, particularly in the climate change debate, where they insist that not only can they tell us what the world will look like in 50 years’ time, but also what minute changes all of us must make now if we want that future world to be different. And their predictions are treated as unchallengeable credos…  If scientists play God, it’s also possible for them to be treated as the Devil.’

O’Neill goes on to say that there’s a blame game after every disaster. Long ago the religious would tell us that the flood or drought was God’s punishment on us for our wickedness, and remind us of what happened to Noah. In the Little Ice Age, witches were thought to be responsible for the bad harvests. Today’s environmentally religious will tell us that ‘Gaia’s balance has been upset’ or something like that.

Lisbon in Portugal suffered an earthquake in 1755 that killed 100,000 people, and that too was said to be God’s punishment. Inconveniently for such a theory, while all the churches fell down, the red-light district was apparently unharmed.

For me the real weakness in the Scientist as Soothsayer stance is that so much of what we know is contingent – that is, it is open to correction as new data or new theories emerge. Most statements about what will happen in the future should be couched in terms of the uncertainty of the prediction. It amazed me, at the time of the Garnaut Report, that its author could accept either that economists could predict accurately Australia’s GDP a hundred years later, or that scientists could predict accurately the nature of Australia’s climatic pattern over the same period.

Of course, that was his job. But the uncertainty of it all got little mention. Because there had been a close approximation in the 1980s and 1990s between the rise in carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and the rise in the global temperature anomaly we were warned that this would continue, and doom faced us unless we reduced the production of carbon dioxide. But the relationship has been flat for the last 16 years.

We were told that what we now call ‘the Millennium drought’ was the new norm. Australia was drier now, and that was because of global warming. Again, we had to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The last few years have given us floods, not droughts. And the ENSO indicator is neutral and pointing to at least the possibility of another La Nina.

To cap it off, a new paper in Nature is now telling us that scientists have been using the wrong methodology in accounting for drought and dry years – and that there has been nothing special about the last sixty years, despite global warming. I’ve mentioned before the anxiety (and anger) experienced by those who live in beachside houses, told that the seas will wash over them because of the inexorable rise in sea-levels. There are many different estimates of sea-level rise, and the assumption that any of them will continue throughout the present century is untenable.

Over-confident scientists are joined by unquestioning journalists and editors. They like certainty and doom, because the two together make for good news stories. ‘We don’t really know’ is not going to make the 7.00 news telecast.

However exciting it is for scientists to be part of breaking news, those concerned need to think also of the endeavour of which they are part. Research, and scientific research especially, depend in large part on taxpayers’ money. Making bold claims that prove not to be the case does not augur well for the enterprise and its future funding. And they might think of what happened after the L’Aquila earthquake.

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