As Dawkins notes, admissions of ignorance and temporary mystification are vital to good science. In "The God Delusion," Dawkins writes,
"The following is hypothetical but entirely typical. A creationist speaking: 'The elbow joint of the lesser spotted weasel frog is irreducibly complex. No part of it would do any good at all until the whole was assembled. Bet you can't think of a way in which the weasel frog's elbow could have evolved by slow gradual degrees.' If the scientist fails to give an immediate and comprehensive answer, the creationist draws a default conclusion: 'Right then, the alternative theory, "intelligent design," wins by default.'"In other words, if theory A fails in some particular, they then assume that theory B must be right. Needless to say, the argument is never applied the other way around.
The creationist's ploy undermines the scientist's natural and necessary rejoicing in (temporary) uncertainty. For purely political reasons, today's scientist might hesitate before saying, " Hmm, interesting point. I wonder how the weasel frog's ancestors did evolve the elbow joint. Might make interesting research for a graduate student." The moment the scientist said something like that - and long before the graduate student began the research - the default conclusion would become a headline in a creationist pamphlet: "Weasel frog could only have been designed by God."
The same tactic is used in arguing against climate change. The skeptics ask, "If the world is getting warmer, why then are temperatures actually falling in Wagga Wagga?" ("Wagga Wagga" here being a surrogate from where ever you like). If the scientist can't immediately answer, or if the complex mechanisms of the whole oceanic-atmospheric circulation system are too confusing for the skeptic, theory B ("Al Gore's a blowhard") is assumed by default.
As Andrew Revkin recently (July 29) noted in the New York Times, when science is testing new ideas, the result is often an intellectual argument among competing research teams. When the work touches on issues that worry the public, affect the economy or polarize politics, the news media and advocates of all stripes dive in. Conflicting findings can make news coverage veer from one extreme to another, resulting in a kind of journalistic whiplash for the public. Lately the phenomenon has been glaringly apparent on the issue of global warming.
How are these for Wagga Waggas? Revkin poses the theoretical questions, just how fast is Greenland shedding ice? Did human-caused warming wipe out the lesser spotted weasel frog? Has warming strengthened hurricanes? Have the oceans stopped warming?
These Wagga Wagga questions endure even as the basic theory of a rising human influence on climate has steadily solidified: accumulating greenhouse gases will warm the world, erode ice sheets, raise seas and have big impacts on biology and human affairs.
Scientists see persistent disputes as the normal stuttering journey toward improved understanding of how the world works. But many fear that the herky-jerky trajectory is distracting the public are creating an impression of uncertainty. The rapid-fire publication of unsettled results in highly visible venues creates the impression that the scientific community has no idea what’s going on. Each new paper seems to negate or repudiate something emphatically asserted in a previous paper. The public picks up on this not as the development of objective scientific understanding but as a proliferation of contradictory opinions.
Recent polls in the United States and Britain show that the public remains substantially divided and confused over what is happening and what to do. Some environmentalists blame energy-dependent industries and the news media for stalemates on climate policy, arguing that they perpetuate a false sense of uncertainty about the basic problem.
The news media does sometimes overplay the uncertainty by balancing opposing views in a story without characterizing the overall level of confidence on either side. In the interests of "journalistic impartiality," they assume that they also have to report an opposing viewpoint whenever new research results are released, but the reporters do not have the ability to distinguish the credentials of the researchers with those of the opposite point of view. So the public is left trying to balance a press release from, say, scientists at NASA with the opinions of a certain writer of science fiction, or former stand-up comic now pundit Dennis Miller, or comic magicians Penn and Teller.
One skeptic argument that I frequently hear states that scientists were predicting the onset of an ice age in the '70s. Now it's too much warming! Why should we believe the scientists this time around?
While it is true that there were some predictions of an "imminent ice age" in the 1970s, a comparison of those warnings and today's reveals a huge difference. Today, you have widespread scientific consensus, supported by national academies and all the major scientific institutions, solidly behind the warning that the temperature is rising, anthropogenic CO2 is the primary cause, and it will worsen unless we reduce emissions.
In the 1970s, there was a book in the popular press, a few articles in popular magazines, and a small amount of scientific speculation based on the recently discovered glacial cycles and a slight cooling trend at that time from air pollution blocking the sunlight. There were no daily headlines. There was no avalanche of scientific articles. There were no United Nations treaties or commissions. No G8 summits on the dangers and possible solutions. No institutional pronouncements. You could find broader "consensus" on a coming alien invasion.
I've always suspected that the creationists and the skeptics were fellow travelers, but it wasn't until I considered their underlying (il)logic that I was able to connect the dots.