Science isn’t always right

In February, Secretary of State John Kerry said the climate change debate was over. “The science is unequivocal,” he insisted.

At the Wall Street Journal, two scientists pointed out that not only was Kerry wrong, but that it also used to be a scientific consensus that the earth was flat. Before global warming, there was once a consensus of sorts that the earth was cooling.

Everyone knows that science is vitally important. It has improved human life in countless miraculous ways.

But is it really unfathomable to suggest that science, even widely held scientific consensuses, could possibly be wrong? That scientists, who are fallible human beings, both collectively and individually, could sometimes be mistaken in their conclusions?

John Kerry thundered about climate change, “We should not allow a tiny minority of shoddy scientists and science and extreme ideologues to compete with scientific facts.” Kerry’s point was that science is pure and therefore separate from ideology, politics or opinion.

But has this ever been true?

In the past, when many scientists and experts believed that blacks were inferior to whites, was this pure science? Or did the prevalent racism of those eras play a role?

When the American Psychiatric Association designated homosexuality a “sociopathic personality disturbance” in 1953, or a “sexual deviation” in 1968, or a mental illness as late as 1973—did this say more about scientific fact or popular attitudes concerning homosexuality?

The Food and Drug administration used to recommend that our diets be filled with bread, cereal and rice. In recent years, many of these foods are now considered detrimental to our health. Were these foods ever good for us, or did politics somehow play a role?

For a number of years now, specialty grocery stores like Whole Foods, Trader Joe’s and others have offered their customers organic food on the premise they are healthier than processed or genetically modified foods. But now the “scientific facts” say that genetically modified foods pose no health risk.

john-kerryLike the insistent John Kerry, some even declare that the debate over GMOs is over.

And like Kerry, those on the side of “scientific fact” like to make fun of Whole Foods shoppers, who they now taunt as science-deniers.

Is everyone who shops at Whole Foods a science-hating ignoramus? Are those who question the scientific consensus about climate change pure Neanderthals to cast doubt?

I’m one of those people who chooses organic food whenever I can. It simply makes sense to me that natural food is probably better for me than anything pumped with hormones or sprayed with pesticides. I honestly wouldn’t be surprised if some future study “proves” this. Even today, despite the current prevailing science, professional opinions differ.

Likewise, I’ve always tried to keep an open mind about climate change. But over time, I’ve tended to see validity in the arguments made by skeptics—in large part due to the raving, almost fanatical insistence of people like John Kerry.

When Kerry declared the debate over climate change to be over, Columnist George Will responded:

When a politician on a subject implicating science, hard science, economic science, social science says the debate is over, you may be sure of two things. The debate is raging and he’s losing it.

In Monday’s United Nations warning about the impending threat of rising global temperatures, it is also noted, “The report pulls together the work of hundreds of scientists but skeptics have been emboldened by the fact that temperatures have risen more slowly recently, despite rising emissions.”

Reuter’s adds, “One of the authors, Professor Richard Tol of Sussex University in England, pulled out of the writing team last week, saying he thought the report was too alarmist.”

Kerry says the “science is unequivocal.” Does the fact that at least one scientist involved in the official report found the data equivocal not mean that there is at least room for debate, or even dissent?

Science is an integral and important part of all our lives. So is a healthy skepticism about most things, including scientific consensus.


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