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Contrarians and consensus: The case of the midwife toad

Filed under: — gavin @ 7 December 2008

I recently came across an old copy of Arthur Koestler’s “The Case of the Midwife Toad”. Originally published in 1971, it’s an exploration of a rather tragic footnote in the history of evolutionary science. Back in the early years of the 20th Century (prior to the understanding of DNA, but after Mendelian genetics had become well known), there was still a remnant of the biological community who preferred the Lamarckian idea of the inheritance of acquired characteristics over the Darwinian idea of natural selection of random mutations. One of the vanguard for the Lamarckian idea was Paul Kammerer whose specialty was the breeding of amphibians that apparently few others could match. He claimed that he could get his toads and salamanders to acquire characteristics that were useful in the new environments in which he raised his specimens. This was touted loudly (in the New York Times for instance) as proof of Lamarckian inheritance and Kammerer was hailed as a ‘new Darwin’. It all ended very badly when one toad specimen was found to be faked (by who remains a mystery), and Kammerer killed himself shortly afterwards (though there may have been more involved than scientific disgrace).

The details of the experiments and controversy can be read online (with various slants) here and here, and a more modern non-replication of one of his experiments is described here. However, the reason I bring this up here is much more related to how the scientific community and Koestler dealt with this scientific maverick and the analogies that has for the climate science and its contrarians.

There are (at least) four points where the analogies with climate science are strong: First, there were clear philosophical motives for supporting Lamarckism (as there are for denying human effects on climate change) (see below). These are strongly articulated in Koestler’s book, and it is obvious that the author feels some sympathy with that argument. Second, there is idealization of the romantic notion of the scientist-as-hero, sacrificing their all (literally in Kammerer’s case) for the pursuit of truth in the teeth of establishment opposition (cf Svensmark). Third, there is the outrage at the apparent dirty tricks, rumours and persecution. Finally, there is the longing for a redemption – a time when the paradigm shift will occur and the hero will be proven right.

Enough time has passed and enough additional scientific evidence has been gathered however to show that Kammerer’s ideas are never going to be accepted into the mainstream. Therefore, we can use this episode to highlight how people’s misunderstanding of scientific process can lead them astray.

So let’s start with the non-scientific reasons why Kammerer’s ideas had resonance. Martin Gardner in Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science (1952) puts it well (p143):

Just as Lamarckianism combines easily with an idealism in which the entire creation is fulfilling God’s vast plan by constant upward striving, so also does it combine easily with political doctrines that emphasize the building of a better world.

The point is that without Lamarckianism, none of the striving and achievement of a parent impacts their progeny’s genetic material. That was a depressing thought for many people (what is the point of striving at all?), and hence there was a clear non-scientific yearning for Lamarckian inheritance to be correct. I use the past tense in referring to these almost 100 year-old arguments, but Koestler’s book and more recent attempts to rehabilitate these ideas tap into these same (misguided) romantic notions. (Odd aside, one of the most positive treatments of this “neo-Lamarckianism” is by Michael Duffy, a frequent climate contrarian Australian journalist). Note that I am distinguishing the classic ‘inheritance of acquired characteristics’ from the much more respectable study of epigenetics.

The scientist-as-hero meme is a very popular narrative device and is widespread in most discussions of progress in science. While it’s clearly true that some breakthroughs have happened through the work of a single person (special relativity is the classic case) and someone has to be the first to make a key observation (e.g. Watson and Crick), the vast majority of scientific progress occurs as the accumulation of small pieces of new information and their synthesis into a whole. While a focus on a single person makes for a good story, it is very rarely the whole or even a big part of the real story. Thus while Koestler can’t be uniquely faulted for thinking that Lamarckianism rose and fell with Kammerer, that perspective leads him to imbue certain events with much more significance than is really warranted.

For instance, one of the more subtle misconceptions in the book though is how Koestler thinks that scientific arguments get settled. He places enormous emphasis on a academic tour that Kammerer made to the UK which included a well-documented talk in Cambridge in which the subsequently-notorious specimen was also in attendance. In fact, Koestler devotes a large number of pages to first-hand recollections of the talk. Koestler also criticises heavily the arch-protagonist in this story (a Dr. Bateson) who did not attend Kammerer’s talk, even though he presumably could have, while continuing to criticise his conclusions. The talk is in fact held up to be the one missed opportunity for some academic mano-a-mano that Koestler presumably thinks would have settled things.

Except that this is not how controversial ideas get either accepted or rejected. Sure, publishing papers, giving talks and attending conferences are all useful in bringing ideas to a wider audience, but they are very rarely the occasion of some dramatic denouement and mass conversion of the skeptical. Instead, ideas get accepted because of the increasing weight of evidence that supports them – and that usually comes in dribs and drabs. A replication here, a theoretical insight there, a validated prediction etc. Only in hindsight does there appear to be a clean sequence of breakthroughs that can be seen to have led inexorably to the new conclusions. At the time, the landscape is far more ambiguous. Thus in focusing on one specific talk, and on its reception by one particularly outspoken opponent, Koestler misses the wider issue – which was that Kammerer’s ideas just didn’t have any independent support. The wider community thus saw his work (as far as I can tell) as a curiosity: possibly his findings were correct, but his interpretation was likely not, and maybe his findings weren’t all that reproducible in any case?

This remains the issue, if Lamarckian evolution were possible, it should have been viewable in hundreds of other systems that were much easier to replicate than Kammerer’s toads (nematodes perhaps?). Absent that replication, no amount of exciting talks will have persuaded scientists. In that, scientists are probably a little different from the public, or at least the public who went to Kammerer’s more public lectures where he was very warmly received.

In these circumstances, it is not surprising that Kammerer’s more vocal opponents would occasionally give vent to their true feelings. Koestler is particular critical of Bateson who, in retrospect, does appear to have gone a little far in his public critiques of Kammerer. However, Koestler perhaps doesn’t realise how common quite scathing criticism is in the halls of academe. This rarely gets written down explicitly, but it is nonetheless there, and forms a big part of how well some people’s ideas are received. If someone is perceived as an exaggerator, or an over-interpreter of their results, even their most careful work will not get a lot of support.

Koestler ends his book with the familiar refrain that since modern science is incomplete, alternative theories must continue to be pursued. He states that since “contemporary genetics has no answers to offer to the problem of the genesis of behaviour”, the replication the key experiments (which he clearly expected to vindicate Kammerer), would very likely make biologists ‘sit up’ and have a long-lasting impact on the field. This notion fails to take into account the vast amount of knowledge that already exists and that makes certain kinds of ‘alternative’ theories very unlikely to be true. The link between this optimistic expectation and discussions of climate change is persuasively demonstrated in this pastiche.

There is one additional characteristic of this story that has some modern resonance, and that’s the idea that once someone starts accepting one class of illogical arguments, that leads them to accept others that aren’t really connected, but share some of the same characteristics. Some people have called this ‘crank magnetism‘. In Kammerer’s case, he was a great believer in the meaningfulness of coincidences and wrote a book trying to elucidate the ‘laws’ that might govern them. Koestler himself became a big proponent of parapsychology. And today there are examples of climate contrarians who are creationists or anti-vaccine campaigners. Though possibly this is just coincidence (or is it….?).

Of course, the true worth of any scientific idea is whether it leads to more successful predictions than other theories. So I’ll finish with a 1923 prediction that Kammerer made while he was on a speaking tour of the US: “Take a very pertinent case. The next generation of Americans will be born without any desire for liquor if the prohibition law is continued and strictly enforced” (NYT, Nov 28).

703 Responses to “Contrarians and consensus: The case of the midwife toad”

  1. 601
    Bhanwara says:

    Hank Roberts (586), I said “saturation” means “energy depletion”, not “molecules are full”. That’s the basic misunderstanding. The molecules are not “full”. The energy (of the type that they can use) is all gone.

  2. 602
    Ray Ladbury says:

    Bhanwara, We’ve pointed out several areas where your arguments are deeply flawed. If that is not sufficient for you to decide that your understanding is incomplete and seek more information, we can’t help you. So, go learn the science or stay ignorant. It’s your choice.

  3. 603
    Andrew says:

    #601 Bhanwara

    The MWP has not been shown to be a globally wide event.
    Current temperatures are much higher and more diverse.

    Also, the recent increases in CO2 are primarily due to human activities. While there are natural process that result in CO2 increases from warming, what we are experiencing is primarily due to land use and industrialzation.

  4. 604
    dhogaza says:

    I am not sure how you could do that, it’s the same carbon that goes from the atmosphere into alive sources, and then back into atmosphere.

    And this guy REALLY THINKS he’s overturned the work of thousands of professional, hard-working scientists?


  5. 605
    Nick Gotts says:

    “I am not sure how you could do that, it’s the same carbon that goes from the atmosphere into alive sources, and then back into atmosphere.” – Bhanwara

    Your combination of ignorance and absolute certainty you are right is, in its way, magnificent. See How do we know that recent CO2 increases are due to human activities? for an explanation of how we know the increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide is due to burning of fossil fuels and forests.

  6. 606
    SecularAnimist says:

    dhogaza wrote: “And this guy REALLY THINKS he’s overturned the work of thousands of professional, hard-working scientists?”

    That’s the identifying characteristic of a particular sort of AGW denialist: The Crank.

    The Crank genuinely believes that he and he alone (or perhaps he and a small group of other Cranks), unencumbered by actual knowledge of actual climate science, has identified the simple and obvious reason that anthropogenic global warming is not occurring, or indeed, cannot possibly occur — a simple and obvious reason that has somehow escaped the attention of thousands of climate scientists who have carefully and diligently studied the matter for decades! Why, once those silly climate scientists learn of The Crank’s discovery of the simple and obvious reason that AGW cannot occur, they’ll all be smacking their foreheads and exclaiming “DOH!” like Homer Simpson.

    That is what distinguishes The Crank from other species of denialist, such as The Ideologue (global warming is a hoax because “liberals” like Al Gore say that it is real) and The Shill (global warming cannot be real because ExxonMobil pays me to say so).

  7. 607
    David B. Benson says:

    Andrew (603) — NO MWP in Patagonia or Antarctica. By inference MWP was a northern hemisphere phenomenon, but with effects as far south as Peru.

  8. 608
    Andrew says:

    #607 Dave Benson

    Peru is far enough south that the warming probably included sufficient ENSO events which in turn raise CO2 levels slightly. Problem is that this natural tendancy is so small that it could easily be lost in the noise of CO2 changes caused by midieval human civilazation.

  9. 609
    Nick C says:

    The history of science has a lot to add to this argument. If the deniers are right, there will be an era of navel gazing in all sciences, (and the media) where the true nature of the scientific method is contemplated (Kuhn etc.) and the lessons applied to future debate.

    The history of science is not studied to a deep theoretical level just so we can more accurately describe events, influences, impacts etc. it is surely a toolkit useful for explaining how ideas are formulated and shaped by humans (Chalmers “What is this thing called ‘science’?”).

    We have all read management books and accept the impact human behaviour has on decision making in general. Groupthink for example has the potential to be very damaging and can be minimised by:

    Create constructive conflict within the group
    Break context to avoid context traps for participants
    Foster the role of devil’s advocate
    Ensure a heterogeneous group
    Limit early influence of a senior leader

    How many scientists do you think consider these techniques redundant due to their involvement in an ‘unambiguious’ persuit where ‘facts’ are most important.

    I am not on either side of the global warming debate, I don’t know, and feel comfortable in that position. I do however think that past examples of where the consensus position was overturned offer lessons. Historical Lamarckian analysis provides lessons for both sides, not against one or the other.

  10. 610
    Nick Gotts says:

    I am not on either side of the global warming debate – Nick C

    The “debate” over whether anthropogenic global warming is happening, and urgently requires action, is over. It is; it does. Presumably, you would like the “debate” over whether the Earth is flat or approximately spherical reopened to avoid the dangers of groupthink?

  11. 611
    dhogaza says:

    Presumably, you would like the “debate” over whether the Earth is flat or approximately spherical reopened to avoid the dangers of groupthink?

    Maybe if a large enough group thought the earth were flat, it would flatten …

    Sometimes I get the impression science denialists think this way …

  12. 612
    Rod B says:

    Just an arcane clarification. “Group Think” does not refer to just anything where nearly everybody agrees, but to a process, usually not deliberate or even conscious, where a assorted analytic group has a tendency to come to a common conclusion with or without total collaborating evidence. You can believe group think is not playing a part in AGW (and there is some evidence supporting that), but that nearly everybody believes the earth is round is not relevant.

  13. 613
    David B. Benson says:

    Rod B (612) — Global warming is about as certain as anything in science. So is the attribution to anthropogenic causes. No ‘group think’ about it.

    And I’ll point out, in passing, that not everybody thinks the earth is round. I don’t. Its more pear shaped, a bit.

  14. 614
    Nick Gotts says:

    “You can believe group think is not playing a part in AGW (and there is some evidence supporting that)” – Rod B.

    I certainly do believe that. The emission of greenhouse gases caused by human activities is responsible for AGW, with smaller contributions from changes in aerosol produciton, black carbon production, etc.; thinking, group or otherwise, does not alter the climate.

  15. 615
    Ray Ladbury says:

    Nick C., I enjoy reading history of science–and indeed, between doing science and reading how past science was done, I think I have a pretty good idea how it works. What is demonstrably unhelpful are social scientists who have never done any science telling scientists how to do science. There is plenty of constructive conflict in climate science “groups”–from the research group to the community as a whole. As to the rest of your suggestions, I’m not sure they apply all that well to the cat-herding exercise that is science. One thing that is missing from your list is an incentive structure that strongly rewards novel, even revolutionary, results. You don’t go far in science by being docile and “going along with the group”.

    The oracle of ReCAPTCHA speaks: poor voters

  16. 616
    Nick Gotts says:

    I must protest! The mere idea that “management books”, to quote Nick C., have anything to do with social or any other sort of science, is preposterous!

  17. 617
    Nick C says:

    David B: Good point, the argument is complex, being certain is not helpful in futhering science.

    Ray: Fair call, I agree it is a stretch, I did get you to admit to ‘cat herding’ how long since you used that phrase?

    Nick Gott: I suppose I refer to it as a crude example pointing out humans are involved in all persuits and humans (scientists included) act in somewhat predictable ways.

    It is interesting, I suppose I am only trying to point out that we all think we act as uninterested, uninfluenced, altruistic actors in this drama. Study of past science shows this is not how science behaves. Its position as a hermetically sealed endeavour free from outside influences has been eroded through analysis of the history of science.

    I sit with a background in the history of science and see it being used to support argument this way and that and am influenced in my own way to point out what the deepest lessons are in that field. I am influenced by a strong personal dislike of ‘certain’ positions in anything. I also witness the emotion this debate engenders and it scares and fascinates me.

    The following link for example points to an enormous unfair onus placed on all actors in this specific anthropogenic debate to be the frontline warriors in a social policy fight. Is it fair that a scientist must work with the a) threat of a ruined planet for his/her children b) threat of carbon reduction on third world, as two simple polar examples. Any scientist claiming they are free from any influence misses the point, usually you won’t be aware. How many of the 600 odd posts are overtly emotional or slightly insulting in tone … is that scientific debate?

    “Thus, one of the curious features of having scientists debate contentious science-policy issues such as climate change is that it is climate-change scientists who are considered to be the most appropriate debaters. It is less common to have a debate between a free-market economist and a social scientist expert on nontechnical barriers to renewable energy technologies and even less common to have citizens without spclist(sp)credentials debating policy options. To narrow the issue to climate change is to make science and scientists into surrogates for wider interest groups and policy issues involving economics, governance, equity and ethics. To have scientists debating science-policy issues is to put an enormous onus on the debaters to deal with policy via science.”

  18. 618
    jcbmack says:

    Ray I tend to agree, but social scientists do science also, albeit with different purposes and with a different artistic application. There are sophisticated statistical analysis carried out by both psychologists and sociologists. Where I agree, however, is that a social scientist cannot tell a physicist how to do a calculation or an engineer how to invent a tool etc… They do offer as social scientists unique perspectives on how a given process undergoes change and is influenced by ideas over time, throughout history.I certainly do not want a psychologist telling me how to make a molar solution.

  19. 619
    dhogaza says:

    To have scientists debating science-policy issues is to put an enormous onus on the debaters to deal with policy via science

    Many of us would welcome this … what’s your alternative, deal with policy while ignoring science?

  20. 620
    Ray Ladbury says:

    Jacob, my fire was directed at sociologists of the Feyerabend school who seem to feel that doing actual science would destroy their objectivity when it comes to critiquing the discipline. You bring up a point that is worth emphasizing, though. Even among different disciplines of science, there is often misunderstanding of methodology. The critique by a physicist of climate science can be every bit as ignorant as that of a plumber or politician.
    Bacon and Galileo would be amazed to see the areas where science has been applied and how. I do think they, unlike some others, would be astute enough to recognize what is being done as science, though.

  21. 621
    Nick C says:

    This is from another RC post “Ozone holes and cosmic rays”

    “As we stated above, the un-exceptional ozone loss this year pretty much undermines the correlations that were at the heart of Lu’s idea. Thus I predict that this is unlikely to be discussed very much more in the literature except as an example of how interesting ideas are generated, discussed, tested and (in this case) found wanting. This indeed is how scientific progress is made.

    But, as has often been noted, the contrarian-sphere is a world on its own. It was inevitable that the headline link between GCR and ozone holes would entice the old-school ozone depletion skeptics and ‘everything-is-solar” proponents out of their burrows…”

    The first paragraph feels like a textbook response to emphasise how uninfluenced the “scientific method” is … then the beginning of the next paragraph reveals an antagonistic, emotional tone. Could a scientist feeling this way really be open to considering and testing new, contrary ideas (not specifically the cosmic ray argument, but even small decisions within their own data) are we not all human and emotionally driven to varying degrees.

    This may or may not have entered the AGW debate, but it could have, and that is what needs to be appreciated. Knowing it is possible can improve the science. Science should not be tied to an agenda or have one forced upon it, it should be science. This is one of the first generations of scientists who have the ability to apply learning from a related field to help improve their science, good science will not just happen, I believe it has to be worked at conscious of how us being human influences everything in some way.

    It has little to do with an outside field poking its nose into what some may define as ‘our’ business. It has more to do with the way a lot of scientists emotionally tie the scientific issue to the broader picture, this is not a scientists job, if you are unable to emotionally detach to a degree (some emotion is perhaps necessary to provide passion, drive etc.) at least try to be cognisant of how your personal feelings may reach a level where they affect your decisions.

  22. 622
    Hank Roberts says:

    Nick, go to the university’s press release, read it, and ask the people at the press office for a followup now that Dr. Lu’s prediction has failed. I tried. No response. Yet that prediction (minus the fact that it failed) is being blogged around the world as though it had in fact come true. That’s the point of that posting.

    There’s nothing “antagonistic” about this, it’s how science is done. Comp up with an experiment (including natural ones where you just wait and watch, like that one) and say that if your notion is correct, one result will occur, and if it’s not, another result will occur, and give an argument why competing explanations for such a result won’t work.

    Now, go to the blogs touting that prediction and see if the “new, contrary ideas” are actually scientific ones capable of being tested.

    Lu had one that was testable. It didn’t work out. On to the next.

    The bloggers you’re talking about never go on to the next. They just repeat the same old stuff as though it’d never been shown to be wrong.

    Read Hrynshyn recently, he’s being vocal about being fed up with these people. He calls them “pseudoskeptics” and the name fits.

    Real skeptics test fairly, evaluate, and get better ideas.

  23. 623
    jcbmack says:

    Ray agreed.

  24. 624
    Ray Ladbury says:

    Nick C., Your post reads as if you have just taken a History and Philosophy of Science class from a sociologist. However, you are operating under several misconceptions.
    First, new ideas don’t come from the denialosphere. They don’t publish. They don’t submit their ideas to peer review. They do not increase understanding. They simply bring up the same tired, exhausted, horse-hamburger arguments over and over and over again (viz. Ken and his magical mystery tour of 30 year-old research).
    Second, science does not presume objectivity among scientists–merely self-interest, ambition and intense curiosity. Put yourself in the place of someone who has devoted their entire life to studying the atmosphere. Now, some contrarian comes up with a promising idea that could explain a huge mystery you’ve always wondered about. No matter how much you dislike the guy, are you going to be able to resist the temptation to test it out–particularly since you know if it works you’ll be famous and get you face on Time, CNN and maybe even Oprah?
    Third, the mysteries of climate science in no way detract from what we do in fact know. We know that CO2 is a greenhouse gas. We know that if you add more to the atmosphere, things will warm unless you have a strong negative feedback. And we know that such a strong negative feedback is contra-indicated by the available evidence.
    The way science actually works is so much more interesting than the rantings of anti-scientists like Feyerabend and Crichton, or in the astounding wisdom of the comic xkcd:

  25. 625
    Rod B says:

    Ray, not to detract from your general point, but you remain too sanguine and optimistic in picturing the scientist really wanting to and accepting ideas contrary to what he may have been espousing the past decade or so. Throw away his long belief and vested interest so he can align with the truth and get on Oprah?!? I think not — not in 99% anyway.

  26. 626
    Hank Roberts says:

    Rod, there’s no “the scientist” — just people, individuals.
    Do you claim you could evaluate 100 working scientists and find 99 of then unable to do science? That’s how it sounds. Show your work.

  27. 627
    Ray Ladbury says:

    Rod, If a new theory came along that explained climate better than the current one and implied CO2 were not a greenhouse gas, I and the vast majority of scientists would accept it in a second. There is no sin in being wrong when the evidence points you in the wrong direction. And there is no advantage to clinging to an inferior theory that gives a wrong or incomplete picture of the world.
    The proponents of that theory would, however, have to demonstrate that it did have greater explanatory power, and until they did, it would be appropriate to be skeptical. It is appropriate to view new ideas with skepticism until they’ve proved themselves–science is inherently conservative that way. What we have here, though is a body of knowledge with a 150 year history. The chances that the science is so drastically wrong to invalidate concern over climate change are nil.
    Science is in a way like evolution–the state of knowledge advances independently of what the individual scientists do. It does so because the majority of scientists are smart enough to perceive their true self interest and act accordingly. When it comes to groups of people, I don’t trust idealism. I do trust self interest.

  28. 628
    jcbmack says:

    I second Ray. This is not the Renaissance where the patron Medici have limited support for their artists or scientists as they fall by the way side to the Pope. Galileo did recant what he knew to be true and had published work that at the time was cutting edge and denied by the “scientific authority,” of the fifteenth century, however, this is a rare occurrence, in modern times. Every so often a genius comes along and adds some insight or nuance that turns the majority of scientists on their heads, but this was more in archaic times in early history. Look at Einstein, he actually was held back because he could not accept and conceptualize quantum mechanics and in the last years of his life he was left out of the mainstream of physics and stopped making new discoveries due to his own stubbornness and holding to older ideas. After Einstein’s great work in general relativity (the important one attributed to the work of Einstein, not so much special relativity) he fell into relative obscurity thinking things out in his room.

    The consensus is based upon the work of many mathematicians, physicists, chemists, and other experts, and yes, a few geniuses in their own right as well. Now, there is often some bias along the the way in any process, including science, but this does not mean that we know nothing, have no facts or that the evidence is somehow less valuable. Matter of fact when so many experiments and observations are so well repeated by so many different groups, there can be so little doubt that warming is occurring and that man’s activities are largely responsible. I enjoyed my philosophy and sociology courses (and taught a few as well) and there is truth to the biases of scientists as human beings, but this does nothing to invalidate long term trends and repeated values from reputable sources. When Mendel was rediscovered it strengthened Darwin’s claims, it did not weaken them. When Watson and Crick stole the structure a revolution began and genes only further supported, with some amendments and updating Darwin; natural and sexual selection. The weather patterns have been shifting and climate has affected wild life and the bodies of water very much accordingly with what the models have been showing and what climatologists have been measuring. We cannot use a unproven hypothesis or over generalization of a truth well known in social science to discredit something one can learn (the basics) in the first two years of college. Why such a strong denial of basic statistics? I question those here who claim to be math teachers and claim such ignorance to basic statistics. Yes it gets nasty and complex, but the basic premises are clear as day and well supported.

  29. 629
    Mark says:

    Anne, #573.

    There is a long train of thought that if the large steam engine had delayed until it could be perfected or a different engine (Stirling I think) had gotten there earlier, the electrical production would not have been had to be done by huge machines that really do require conglomeration of energy production. Instead there would have been smaller production units kept locally and he grid would be only used to pass about the unused energy production.

    With renewables, they do not generally require a lot of real estate to be operable (with the exception of water based energy production) and so you’d have the local power distribution as the main use of the power needs. The grid then relegated to pushing unneeded power around to places that are not producing enough.

    It would be the same with pebble-bed reactors that could be placed inside the large buildings to produce all the energy needs of the building with no transmission loss to speak of.

    The Grid could easily turn out to be an anachronism that only turned up because of the inefficient steam generation of the Victorian/Edwardian era.

  30. 630
    Mark says:

    James, 550. being a cyclist, when it rains the water that is kicked up onto my socks is FILTHY. I really mean that. Grey-black from all the crud that the road and cars put out. And yet, there is no NIMBY argument about putting roads all over the place (though some, quite appropriately, against motorway widening, since the UK driver hates it if you don’t get into the left lane ASAP, so what’s the widening going to do?).

    That poisonous crud affects the groundwater. Affects the ground beside the road.

    So compared to that, what the flipping heck is so wrong about the wind turbine?

    And before you yibber on about how it kills birds, check how many birds are killed in Austin, Texas by flying into bright glass skyscrapers. Gonna remove them?

  31. 631
    Hank Roberts says:

    > Watson and Crick
    Worth a cite. This mentions the papers; you can find them.

    “… in 1954 Watson and Crick clearly stated, in a footnote to another paper, that without the crystallographic data obtained at King’s College the formulation of their DNA model “would have been most unlikely, if not impossible”. This statement strongly contradicts the finishing statement in their most famous 1953 Nature paper, in which Watson and Crick, referring to the X-ray data in the two directly following papers from Wilkins’s and Franklin’s groups, wrote, “We were not aware of the details of the results presented there when we devised our structure…”.

  32. 632
    jcbmack says:

    Yes Hank I have seen these. Their actual paper is only one page regarding the structure of DNA. Bottom line without having been there myself, I say they stole the key data to get to the structure.

  33. 633
    dhogaza says:

    Galileo did recant what he knew to be true and had published work that at the time was cutting edge and denied by the “scientific authority,” of the fifteenth century, however, this is a rare occurrence, in modern times.

    The Bush administration has been doing something very similar to this, however. The attempt to stifle Hansen was big news. Underreported has been the iceberg underneath, scientists from agencies ranging from the EPA, BLM, USFS and USF&W who’ve been stifled. Most recently (and this has been reported) in the Bush administration’s somewhat brazen executive order ending the requirement for independent biological review of projects by the Corps and others that might impact endangered species …

    It’s interesting to watch conservatives play the “galileo card”, insisting that “real scientists” who can prove AGW wrong are “not allowed to publish”, etc (same gambit used by creationists regarding “biologists who prove evolution false have their careers ruined because they can’t publish the truth”).

    While in real life, it’s the conservative side that here in the US, at least, really has been engaged in a war on science …

  34. 634
    Rod B says:

    Ray (627), you’re essentially correct, I agree, but the distinction is that it would be an “Oh! S__t” moment, not an “Oh! Goody!” moment to the scientist. And he/she would not have been the one excitedly and furiously searching for the theory that overturns his/her decades of thought and work. It is far more humanly realistic than idealistically altruistic.

  35. 635
    Rod B says:

    jcbmack (628), well said. But my point was considerably smaller and more mundane. I was merely saying that if a new theory of GW (or anything) showed up tomorrow, the current consensus, as scientists, would be thoroughly pissed, not exuberant, and, for a long while, would fight it tooth and nail. (Which, as a non sequitur to my point, is probably none-the-less a helpful scientific process — a new theory that completely upsets the fruit basket requires extreme justification.)

  36. 636
    Hank Roberts says:

    > would not have been the one

    Productive scientists have graduate students.
    It’s _their_job_ to look for ways to overturn the old work.

    You think people wait for someone _outside_ their lab to do it?

    You’re still posting the ‘scientists have to be lying’ pony exhaust?

  37. 637
    dhogaza says:

    I was merely saying that if a new theory of GW (or anything) showed up tomorrow, the current consensus, as scientists, would be thoroughly pissed, not exuberant, and, for a long while, would fight it tooth and nail.

    Oh, I don’t know, physicists seemed to be laughing quite exuberantly when fighting against the cold fusion claims by Fleischmann and Pons. The fact that one had nobel in chemistry just added to the fun …

    And if the claims had been borne out? Shock and awe is my guess, not “pissed”. Suddenly, a whole new world of exploration, both experimental and theoretical, would’ve opened up. Such a result represents *opportunity*. Fresh hanging fruit just waiting to be harvested by the industrious. Think of the grants … the opportunity for employment in industry …

  38. 638
    Rod B says:

    Mark (629), an interesting idea. Small local (not even regional) power sources designed to handle 10,000 to 50,000 people (I’m just pulling numbers out of the air for discussion) could prove very efficient. They still would require transmission lines, but not much of a “grid” per se. But, you’d still have the availability, storage, ands possibly reliability problem. Wind power would not be very amenable to local or even mid-regional production; solar power might be doable — except for the storage/night time problem. Small fuel-driven generators would have limited impact on the AGW problem (which is the point of the whole thing), which pretty much leaves oodles of micro nuclear generators.


  39. 639
    J.S. McIntyre says:

    635 Rod B. “I was merely saying that if a new theory of GW (or anything) showed up tomorrow, the current consensus, as scientists, would be thoroughly pissed, not exuberant, and, for a long while, would fight it tooth and nail.”

    I mentioned this elsewhere to someone else, but I will repeat it here – you are confusing a byproduct of orthodoxy (think the reaction to Einstein’s theories, or the initial rejection of the idea that the contnents were not fixed – both cases of long-established and accepted ideas being supplanted by new realities) with scientific consensus regarding increasingly supported understanding of available data coming to light.

    If anything, the attempt to subvert and deny the results climatologists are reporting is more in line with what you are arguing.

    You are also inferring, consciously or not, that climate scientists and people accepting the scientific consensus actually want AGW to be true. That is a patently silly supposition when you factor in what the effects of AGW mean for the future of this planet.

    Put plainly, I – and probably most everyone paying attention – would give anything for what climatology is telling us to be wrong!

    But addressing your specific contention, you might consider what physicist Lawrence Krauss remarked during an evolution vs Intelligent Design debate some years back:

    ‘As the question period drew to a close, the ID folks claimed that we wished to suppress the discussion of controversy. Krauss scored points with the audience by emphatically and humorously stating that, on the contrary, we scientists like nothing so much as “to prove another scientist wrong.”‘

    From Ken Miller’s report of the Ohio Evolution Debate, found here:

  40. 640
    Rod B says:

    Hank, are you asserting that the average scientist directs his grad students is to disprove the scientist’s work and long-held beliefs?!? Any cites for this?

  41. 641
    Mark says:

    re 637. remember though that there WAS a lot of work done to replicate and quite a few papers produced that explained what could be causing cold fusion and posited what experiment could show if this is real.

    That it didn’t was as much disappointment as laughable. Most of the laughability was the poor procedure done by the originals in explaining what they did and the consequent contortions when people doing EXACTLY the same experiment got nothing to say how we misunderstood what they said.

    So in many ways a lot different from the AGW denialism in that the proponents of the “new science” made at least an attempt to explain what they did.

    RodB, 638, not really my idea, it was for one of the “hard science” cyberpunk fiction works that may have been caused by some serious papers but could just as easily have been a work based on the Author’s projection of what *could* have been if the davey engine was replaced by a contender. IIRC. It was in an issue of Dragon magazine I don’t have any more.

  42. 642
    Ray Ladbury says:

    Rod B., OK, think about this. Imagine some scientist has spent his entire life supporting a theory against all comers. Now the theory is to be proven wrong. Do I want to be the one who discovers that, so I can say, “We have new information that gives a more complete picture of climate. I was wrong previously and here’s why;” or do I want some young punk finding the theory and telling me why I’m wrong in front of a conference audience?
    Nature is utterly indifferent as to who figures things out, so I can’t afford to be. I have to be the one constantly trying to disprove my own theory or I run the risk of having my head handed to me on a platter. So, I think if I’m a scientist who discovers my previous theory was wrong, my reaction will be “Whew! Glad I found this before somebody else did;” rathe than “Oh sh*t!”

  43. 643
    Hank Roberts says:

    Rod, you’re making the “founder” error here, the same idea about how the world works that crops up over and over by people attacking evolution, thinking some senior figure has to be either right or wrong.

  44. 644
    Hank Roberts says:

    Here, Rod. Read the whole thing. I don’t expect you to believe it.
    But this speech hits the high points of what’s expected:

    “… You might think that ethical problems might be rare occurrences in research, but in fact, ethical problems occur every day. Consider the following scenario, due to Robin Penslar of Indiana University: …”

  45. 645
    Rod B says:

    You all are putting my assertions in different contexts, which are probably true in their own right.

    dhogaza, you’re not talking about physicists who had a long vested interest in the science under question, but about physicists more as spectators. In that context you probably have the correct description of the reaction — well, it was correct.

    J.S., I subtly but clearly said “as scientists“. As POP (Plain Ole People) nobody wants GW to prove itself by destroying humanity, many having honestly stated so here and elsewhere. But as scientists, in a bitter sweet sort of way… if a validated theory (different from dhogaza’s example) that upsets GW shows up tomorrow, come Sunday Hansen, Gavin S., et al, et al are going to be, maybe briefly and privately, PO’d something fierce (though to be honest frustrated, discouraged and depressed are better descriptors). I know I sure would be.

    I can’t comment on the ID vs evolution analogy, though it is a fair one. I support intelligent design but creationists have co-opted and morphed the term. I’m not a creationist so this discussion can go nowhere.

    Ray, of course if they saw it coming they would jump out in front and act like they were leading the parade. I would. But that’s an entirely different context.

    This got bigger than my point, which simply was to dispute Ray’s implication that all of these climate scientists are just salivating over the prospect that someone will come along and disprove their decades long effort.

  46. 646
    jcbmack says:

    dhogaza # 633, 100% agreed… hence why I brought up Galileo. As a Biologist I get arguments from someone against evolution almost everyday! Ray, well said as always on several posts.

  47. 647
    jcbmack says:

    Rod B what you are referring to is more true to archaic and developing periods of basic scientific method and technology. An introductory philosophy of science course does point these issues out, however,it does not apply to something so well verified by legitimate data. You can contrast this with the argument that the Earth revolved around the sun because a religions says so.

  48. 648
    Mark says:

    RodB 645 if they are putting your comments in an unwarranted context, this is no different from what you continually manage to do on this site. If so many people get your “context” wrong, maybe the problem is with your postings not the multiple people who are getting it “wrong”. After all, that only requires one person to have a problem, not a myriad.

    Where is the context that we got wrong with “it could be something else” that you come up with at times and, when asked what it could be, assert that it just has to be “something”? Where is the context that makes that argument cogent?

    And, as jcbmack said, your comparison of dogma from religion which was

    a) only partly believed in the world (a very small part)
    b) not believed in the higher levels of the church anyway
    c) only believed for a very short term and only recently

    is very poor “reasoning”.


    Must do better.

  49. 649
    Mark says:

    PS on 645: well, where did the intelligence come from? Surely that entity must be more complex than the entity it created here on earth, else we would be doing it ding-dong for thousands of years.

    “An alien did it” is no answer, since they must be likewise irreducibly complex and so need an alien to create them (who are complex too and then it’s turtles all the way down).

    “Intelligence doesn’t need a body” is different from “God did it” how?

    And, worst of all, demanding that something be irreducibly complex is anti-science. If you find out how atoms combine into complex molecules and then (because you’re an ancient greek) decide that the atom, being indivisible, has no constituents and so should not be investigated as it is irreducible, where would we be now in our science? Heck, without radioactive decay, where would paleontology be? Solar physics? Astrophysics?


    Because “this cannot be investigated” is anti-science. It kills it off by walling off what is unknown now from being known in the future.

  50. 650
    J.S. McIntyre says:

    re 645 – “J.S., I subtly but clearly said “as scientists“.”

    And you are ignoring the key point – your characterization is based on a presumption that has no real basis in reality and, instead, best describes Denialists and the folks that promote their agenda. Why is that?

    Rod: “I can’t comment on the ID vs evolution analogy, though it is a fair one. I support intelligent design but creationists have co-opted and morphed the term. I’m not a creationist so this discussion can go nowhere.”

    The ‘discussion’ was not about evolution v creationism/I.D. – I was only pulling the comment up from Krauss as it was germaine to the conversation. Thus, your suggestion I was doing something else is somewhat disengenuous.

    Oh, and it is most definitely fair, sir, Particularly given the moving target nature of the tactics of I.D. Creationism parallels what we see in the Denialist tactics – and also given as some of these AGW “Skeptics” support Intelligent Design, thereby given one pause to consider what other faux science these guys are willing to embrace…and why.

    But as you qualified your understanding of I.D., your comment of support for it is curious. Do you support it as science? This is a key distinction. Your statement seems rather clear that you understand that Creationists are involved in the movement. What you don’t seem to understand – or conveniently ignore – is that modern Intelligent Design is simply Creationism retooled in an effort to slip past the Supreme Court’s 1987 Edwards v. Aguillard decision. Prior to that setback, there was no real discussion of I.D., most definitely not to the degree we see now. But if you are sincere and you support I.D. without apparently knowing much about it, I would recommend you read “Creationism’s Trojan Horse” by Forrest and Gross. Better yet, I recommend you to the Memorandum Opinion of Judge Jones’ in Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District et al, in particular, sections E.1-4. “Application of the Endorsement Test to the ID Policy”.

    You can find it at the website, or just google it. I’d link it, but apparently it causes the spam filter to get a little cranky.