The Heartland Institute: Undermining Science in the Name of the "Scientific Method"

The Heartland Institute: Undermining Science in the Name of the "Scientific Method"
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I must confess, I’m less and less motivated these days to write posts debunking climate change skeptics and deniers. Their minds don’t change, and fighting over climate science may just make us polarized—especially since mounting evidence suggests the climate divide is really more about values than science to begin with, and science is simply the preferred weapon in a clash over different views of how society (and especially the relationship between the government and the market) should be structured.

Sometimes, though, you just can’t resist blasting away. This is one of those times.

The Heartland Institute is having yet another conference to undermine climate science, and this time, they are flying it under this banner: “Restoring the Scientific Method.” It’s like they think they are now Francis Bacon (at left) or something. Here’s how they describe the conference, which will be set in Washington, D.C., at the end of June: 

The theme of the conference, “Restoring the Scientific Method,” acknowledges the fact that claims of scientific certainty and predictions of climate catastrophes are based on “post-normal science,” which substitutes claims of consensus for the scientific method. This choice has had terrible consequences for science and society. Abandoning the scientific method led to the “Climategate” scandal and the errors and abuses of peer review by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

The scientists speaking at this conference, and the hundreds more who are expected to attend, are committed to restoring the scientific method. This means abandoning the failed hypothesis of man-made climate change, and using real science and sound economics to improve our understanding of the planet’s ever-changing climate. 

One hardly knows where to begin with this. Heartland gives no account of what it actually means by the “scientific method”–and defining the scientific method is notoriously difficult anyway, as scholars of science studies know all too well. I also am not really sure what Heartland means by “post-normal science,” but their definition does not seem consistent with what the scholars who came up with the concept actually had in mind.

But these are minor matters, merely the sort of things that academics write books about. Set them aside, because it’s obvious where this is all heading.

Heartland is having a conference to define climate change skepticism as the right “science,” and the work of the IPCC and the National Academy of Sciences as the “wrong” science, or not science at all. The argument is couched as a matter of scientific methodology, but really, it boils down to “my expert is better than your expert”—along with a good dose of “your expert is biased and corrupt.”

But the thing is, we can tell from this mere snippet that Heartland’s “scientific method” is unreliable. It’s screaming from the page.

If the scientific mindset means anything at all, it means trying to control one’s biases by never being too sure of one’s preconceptions. That’s why Bacon, one of the pioneers of modern science, warned us to be wary of the “idols of the mind“–a series of prejudices that sound a lot like what psychologists now recognize as textbook cognitive biases.

Anyone who can call human-caused global warming a “failed hypothesis” isn’t paying very close attention to Baconian warnings. A very very large number of scientists see it as a very serious “hypothesis” indeed, so calling it “failed” sounds awfully hubristic. 

Meanwhile, Heartland also claims these mainstream scientists are making a claim to “scientific certainty” when they aren’t. Scientific certainty is literally an oxymoron, a contradiction in terms. We may try to approach it but we never get there, and the IPCC has never said the science of climate is “certain.”

Heartland is thus misrepresenting its opponents–ironically claiming that they possess “certainty” when really, it’s Heartland that’s willing to blithely to toss aside the idea that humans are causing global warming, despite the weight of expert opinion. If that’s not unwarranted certainty, I don’t know what is.

So yeah, the scientific method is notoriously hard to define–but sometimes we can know it from its absence. If you’re convinced you’re right and the bulk of mainstream scientists, expert bodies, and scientific societies are wrong on climate change…well, you’re not exactly making Francis Bacon proud.

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