Tuesday, June 05, 2007

The New Scientific Method

Recently I’ve been reading The Chilling Stars. It is about Henrik Svensmark’s and others new theory on climate change. The theory, in extreme brevity:

[Svensmark] saw from compilations of weather satellite data that cloudiness varies according to how many atomic particles are coming in from exploded stars. More cosmic rays, more clouds. The sun’s magnetic field bats away many of the cosmic rays, and its intensification during the 20th century meant fewer cosmic rays, fewer clouds, and a warmer world. On the other hand the Little Ice Age was chilly because the lazy sun let in more cosmic rays, leaving the world cloudier and gloomier.

This theory implies that carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases play a small role (if any) in climate change. His colleagues’ reaction to the new theory was complete rejection. One called it “extremely naïve and irresponsible.” Svensmark was invited to a dinner with other Nordic scientists. He was invited so others could mock him, which they did, and labeled his work as “dangerous.”

The government was reluctant to give him funding, and when he got a grant from the Carlsberg Foundation a government scientist wrote to the foundation urging them to cancel the funding. Svensmark won Danish prizes for his discovery: the Knud Hojgaard Anniversary Research Prize and the Energy-E2 Research Prize, but he was still scandalized in the press.

Apparently the scientific method that I learned is now outdated. Theories don’t have to be proven wrong or invalidated. Hypothoses don’t have to be tested. New theories can simply be derided and have the funding cut if they don’t conform to your priors so you can keep believing whatever you want.


Jacob said...

From the data I've been able to find, It seems like the reason Svensmark is having funding issues is because he didn't follow that very scientific method you mentioned.

I checked out Svensmark's paper, and the theory he proposes is (somewhat) interesting. In laboratory conditions, he managed to coax sulfur dioxide and ozone (smog, basically) into forming sulfuric acid, which is a known cloud nucleation agent. The paper states that ionizing radiation increases ion concentration in the "smog" mixture, which encourages the formation of nucleating compounds.

Regrettably, it's not a terribly strong or convincing paper. Science pretty much already knows that ionizing radiation increases ions, and that ions form nucleation sites. He just happened to demonstrate it. Also, calling their found correlation between cosmic irradiation and cloud cover statistically significant is a pretty hefty stretch.

So what was the part that pissed off his colleagues so much, the part that they're calling naive and irresponsible?

Doing a little more digging, you find out that Svensmark and his group put out a press release more or less saying they had blown the lid off of this whole global warming thing, finding the main factor for cloud formation. Nobel prizes for everyone!

That's the part that's earned him a snubbing by his peers. Instead of doing the prudent thing, following it up with larger-scale, more realistic experiments and better models, he sensationalized it.

Be careful about accepting scientific findings put out in press releases just because they conform to your priors. That's how bad policy begins.

Warren said...

I'm not entirely convinced by Svensmark arguments, I don't know enough about it to have a definite opinion. The fact he was invited to a meeting for the intent of being mocked just seemed absurd to me.

David said...

Notably, many (if not all) global warming studies are publicized via press releases. Not grounds for dismissal, but as you say, grounds for suspicion. Still, Warren is correct. The whole incident speaks of a discipline more interested in public image rather than actual science.

Jacob said...

Oh, yeah, that's inexcusable. The childishness of the mockery really makes all sides of this pretty disappointing.