These days, if someone makes some scientific claim, it seems you only need to wait five minutes before somebody else refutes them.
The internet is chock full of refutations of global warming alarmists by sceptics. And it’s also chock full of refutations of sceptics by alarmists.
And it’s not just climate science. It’s the same everywhere else. Ever hear of the Grand Tack hypothesis? Me neither until a couple of days back. The classical theory of the formation of the solar system is that the Sun and planets condensed out of a spinning cloud of dust and gas several billion years back, and they’ve remained pretty much exactly where they were when they were formed. But in the Grand Tack hypothesis, Jupiter spiralled in towards the Sun, and so did Saturn, and the two then threw each other back out away from the Sun to their current positions. So they both first sailed towards the Sun, and then performed a grand nautical tack, and sailed away again. And basically the entire solar system was pretty chaotic for a long time, and the idea of a serene stability is old hat. It’s a contentious new idea, less than 5 years old, and it’s not hard to see what charges will be (and probably already have been) levelled against it: if nothing else it’s been constructed using computer simulation models (just like with global warming alarmism).
Science didn’t used to be like that. Scientists always used to agree with each other. Or used to seem to agree with each other. There actually was a “settled science” on which pretty much everyone was agreed.
How come that happened? How come science seems to be less and less settled these days?
Sitting outside a pub today with a beer and a few cigarettes, it seemed to me that one simple explanation was that, in the past, there were a lot fewer scientists than there are today. Back in the days of Copernicus and Galileo and Kepler and Newton, about the only scientists around were, well,… Copernicus and Galileo and Kepler and Newton. Very few people needed to be persuaded when one or other of them had a new idea. They could agree very quickly. And they did agree very quickly.
But these days when there are hundreds of thousands of scientists – many of them professionals in ways that Galileo and co weren’t – lots of scientists have to be persuaded when someone comes up with a new idea, like the Grand Tack hypothesis. And the more people that need to be persuaded, the harder it is to persuade them. And some of them never are persuaded. And so instead of there being a mono-polar science where everyone is pretty much agreed on everything, you start getting first a bi-polar science – e.g. alarmists and sceptics -, and then a multi-polar science with several – maybe even dozens of – rival views. And there ceases to be any “settled science” at all.
And in this circumstance, anyone who takes any interest in science is likely to find themselves being pulled first one way by one set of arguments, and then pulled another way by another set of arguments, and so on until they don’t know whether they’re coming or going. And I think that in this circumstance people are likely to end up being sceptical of everything, or at least be agnostic don’t-knows. And the persuasive power of science, which largely grew from scientists all agreeing with each other, is steadily eroded. Science loses its force. It loses its persuasive power.
The same goes with religions. When a new religion starts up, there’s a brief period when all concerned agree with each other, because they were all taught by the same guy – Jesus, Buddha, Mohammed, or someone – , and there’s a settled Credo, and maybe even an accepted descendant Teacher or Pontiff. But as the religion grows, disagreements begin to multiply and divisions emerge, and you get Catholics and Protestants, Sunni and Shia, and the average joe in the middle of it all no longer knows what to believe, and ends up believing nothing.
Or, to use the older metaphor of the Tower of Babel, everyone speaks the same language and believes the same things when they start building the tower, but by the time it’s got to be 100 storeys high with lots of people working on different bits of it, they no longer speak the same language, or believe the same things.
And that was the thought that I had over a beer and a cigarette, sitting outside an English pub today.
What brand of beer, you ask?
Kozel. It’s a Czech lager. 4% proof. Slightly fruity.
If I’d been drinking German Becks or Dutch Grolsch or American Budweiser I’d have undoubtedly thought something completely different.