TCS Daily

'I Want to Demand This Freedom for Future Generations'

By Nick Schulz - February 7, 2007 12:00 AM

In April of 1963 the legendary physicist Richard Feynman gave a series of lectures at the University of Washington in Seattle. The subject of the talks was "the impact of science on man's ideas in other fields." These fields included religion, war and politics.

The focus of Feynman's first lecture was "The Uncertainty of Science" and in it he had useful things to say about the nature of doubt.

"Scientists... are used to dealing with doubt and uncertainty. All scientific knowledge is uncertain. This experience with doubt and uncertainty is important. I believe that it is of very great value, and one that extends beyond the sciences. I believe that to solve any problem that has never been solved before, you have to leave the door to the unknown ajar. You have to permit the possibility that you do not have it exactly right. Otherwise, if you have made up your mind already, you might not solve it."

Feynman's words came to mind after hearing of a recent controversy in science and public policy. The American Enterprise Institute, the Washington think tank, was accused by the Guardian newspaper of the following:

"Scientists offered cash to dispute climate study."

A day-long Drudge Report link helped fuel the interest in the article. Several other major papers picked up the story this week.

The newspaper levels a serious charge - in effect that scientists were offered bribes by AEI. Any time a news organization levels an accusation this grave, it is incumbent upon it that the claims are fair and accurate. But the inaccuracies in this article appear right off that bat.

For starters, the article claims that AEI is a "lobby group." But it is no such thing. It is a research organization that is expressly prohibited by law from lobbying.

The author of the article, Ian Sample takes several quotes out of context. He claims the scientists were "offered... payments for articles that emphasise the shortcomings of a report from the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)." I know many of the folks at AEI and write a column for a magazine they publish and was surprised to hear this charge. So I asked around and received a copy of the letter containing the offer. As it turns out, this claim is wildly off base.

The call for papers by AEI explicitly states that "The purpose of this project is to highlight the strengths and weaknesses of the IPCC process, especially as it bears on potential policy responses to climate change." Nowhere does Sample mention AEI asks participants to speak of the IPCC's strengths.

Sample also writes that AEI sought "essays that 'thoughtfully explore the limitations of climate model outputs.'" That makes it sound like they are offering money to undermine the IPCC's reliance on climate models. But in a letter to one of the scientists interviewed by the Guardian, the call for papers said "In particular, we are looking for an author who can write a well-supported but accessible discussion of which elements of climate modeling have demonstrated predictive value that might make them policy-relevant and which elements of climate modeling have less levels of predictive utility, and hence, less utility in developing climate policy." Sample does not mention the requests also sought to highlight the predictive value of the models. The letters are available online here and readers can assess them for themselves.

Sample rounds out his attack by publishing a quote from a Greenpeace activist who likened AEI to "Cosa Nostra." This characterization follows on the heels of other green groups suggesting those participants in the climate change debate with whom they disagree should face Nuremburg trials.

The now frequent resort to ad hominems - calling people with differing views mobsters and Nazis - is a hallmark of ideological thuggery. 

This latest attack fits into a pattern, one that is part of a creeping climate of hostility to free inquiry over questions of science and public policy. This should be troubling to scientists, journalists and politicians. The attempt is to cut off debate by questioning a person's motives. It's an example of what economist Arnold Kling calls "Type M" as opposed to "Type C" arguments. Type M arguments aren't really arguments at all - they are attacks on a person's alleged motives. Type C arguments are genuine as they wrestle with the consequences of certain policies. At the intersection of science and public policy, we are seeing more instances of people resorting to Type M arguments to cut off questioning and inquiry.

Feynman rounded out his first lecture by reminding students and faculty that "This freedom to doubt is an important matter in the sciences and, I believe, in other fields." Public policy is one of those fields. Feynman went on with words we would do well to keep in mind today:

"[The freedom to doubt] was born of struggle. It was a struggle to be permitted to doubt, to be unsure. And I do not want us to forget the importance of the struggle and, by default, to let the thing fall away. I feel a responsibility as a scientist who knows the great value of a satisfactory philosophy of ignorance, and the progress made possible by such a philosophy, progress which is the fruit of freedom of thought. I feel a responsibility to proclaim the value of this freedom and to teach that doubt is not to be feared, but that it is to be welcomed as the possibility of a new potential for human beings. If you know that you are not sure, you have a chance to improve the situation. I wan to demand this freedom for future generations."

Nick Schulz is a columnist for The American, a magazine published by the American Enterprise Institute.


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