When fighting political battles through science, scientists are at a distinct disadvantage. Unlike politicians and political advocates who can cherry pick and even change their arguments and justifications as they see fit (since that is what they are expected to), scientists’ claim to authority rests on the assertion that they have access to the truth. So they often enter political arenas explaining that their views are more true than their opponents, and thus on this basis their political agenda deserves to win out. The more strident the scientists appear in political debates the more compelling their grasp of truth appears to be. By contrast, changing one’s views or even acknowledging uncertainty, even if fundamental to how science progresses, is not an asset for scientists in the political arena.
But science can be fickle. The notion of what is true evolves in science, as new studies come in and new data, theories, and techniques are developed and advanced. Further, science rarely speaks with one voice, which also is quite normal and fundamental to how science actually works. The very process of science with all of its messiness and shades of gray does not lend it well to political battles, where issues are typically defined in black and white terms.
In the latest installment of the climate wars, a tempest in a teapot has blown up over a recent paper in Nature, which illustrates the perils of playing politics through science. In this case the political battle is over climate change and between the skeptics and their self-appointed enemies. The skeptics have in the past seized upon normal uncertainties and contradictory results in climate science to advance a political agenda. In response, their self-appointed enemies have asserted a sort of infallibility, claiming that such contradictions in the science have never actually existed. As might be expected in political battle, according to their self-appointed enemies, the skeptics have always been wrong about the science (politics) and their self-appointed enemies have always been right about the science (politics). The reason for this view is that any admission of uncertainties or contradictions in the science of climate change by the self-appointed enemies of the skeptics might give some aid and comfort to those nefarious skeptics with evil political agendas.
This long, boring, and detailed post tells the story of how the scientists at Real Climate over-reached in this political skirmish on the issue of cooling and then warming in Antarctica. But as is often said, it was not the overreach that was the problem as a mild corrective would have rendered it but a footnote. Instead it was the overreaction to the overreach that has damaged their credibility. Still as I write this, the battle continues to escalate. Let this story be a lesson in the perils of climate science infallibility syndrome.