This post at Reason’s Hit & Run links to a Pew study that shows a divergence between the views of scientists and the laity on such matters as evolution, global warming and nuclear power. The study also shows that scientists blame the general public’s ignorance of science for the divergence. I think that scientists themselves are to blame because they too often oversell weak science.
The problem with polling “scientists” is that there is a wide divergence in the predictive power of different fields of study that we lump together as “science”. For example, physics has tremendous predictive power but sociology has almost none. Worse, scientists in highly predictive fields tend to project their own fields’ predictive power onto less predictive fields, and scientists in low-predictive fields try to parasitize the public’s trust in highly predictive fields.
Non-predictive sciences are highly vulnerable to social and political fads and scientists often get swept up in them. For example, a hundred years ago you would have found a wider agreement on the validity of eugenics than we see today on global warming. Even scientists such as Darwin who strongly opposed the implementation of eugenics nevertheless believed in its scientific validity. Likewise, most scientists of the era thought it obvious that different races differed in their behavioral attributes on a biological level.
Science goes awry when both scientists and the laity project the predictive power of the entire institution onto one limited area. Scientific racism arose because (simplifying here) people projected the predictive power of evolutionary theory in explaining the fossil record and the distribution of species onto the complexity of the entirety of human biology, history and culture. A lot of bad policy, even in politically liberal countries, was based on this flawed and oversold “scientific” idea.
They hypothesis of Catastrophic Anthropogenic Global Warming (CAGW) has the same social and political dynamics as did eugenics. Climatology has a zero-accuracy track record of predicting climate either in the short or long term. The computer models cannot be tested by any observation in the here and now, yet in the mind of the polity, climatology is accorded the same respect as meteorology, physics or chemistry.
To global warming we could add the “scientific” consensus of the population bomb, resource depletion, the energy crisis, inevitable nuclear war, etc. In all these cases, scientists and non-scientists confused untested models with no predictive power with highly predictive models.
Contrast this with nuclear power, a technology (not a science) which we’ve had 70+ years of experience in using safely. No better evidence exists that a modern, liberal democracy can safely employ nuclear power than numerous modern, liberal democracies safely using the technology decade after decade after decade, but you can find more people absolutely convinced of CAGW than you will find who believe that we can use nuclear power safely.
I blame the overstatement of science’s predictive power by scientists themselves for the public’s refusal to accept such theories as evolution. In the case of evolutionary theory, science went on an 80-year detour in which it rejected natural selection as the primary mechanism of evolution and instead concentrated on a now wholly discredited idea called orthogenesis. Imperial German militarism, Marxism, communism, fascism, eugenics, etc. were all based on this flawed model of evolution which the vast majority of scientists of the day nevertheless pushed onto the public as settled science. Had the scientists of the time not oversold the predictive power of their models, a lot of evil might have been avoided and more people today would trust modern evolutionary theories.
I suspect that global warming will follow the same pattern with the same dark results. In the most likely scenario, CAGW will prove to be only a minor problem on which we will waste vast resources that could have been devoted to improving the standards of living of everyone. Less likely but more dire, the hysterical overselling of the predictive power of climate models could lead to a backlash if CAGW is a serious risk but the models fail to predict a long cold snap such as the one that might be currently starting [here and here]. If we have a decade or more of unusual cold caused by solar activity or unusual ocean currents, then the general public will conclude that greenhouse gasses are not a problem. When the cold snap ends, we could get a dangerous greenhouse-gas-amplified warm period.
We lack a social mechanism that communicates the relative predictive power of different scientific models to the general public. To date, scientists as a group have failed to rise to the challenge of educating the public. Instead, all models produced by any “scientist” are accredited the same predictive power. As a result, we end up with many political policies based on weak, non-predictive models. As we use science to make more and more decisions with serious consequences, the consequences of failing to weed out the non-predictive models grow increasingly dire.