It seems strange to think that we are all hurtling through space on this big chunk of rock we call Earth. It’s OK when immersed in a science fiction story and disbelief is suspended, but for real? Weird.
Yet it’s the accepted view of things. Scientists tell us that it is so.
Scientists tell us that the centre of our big chunk of rock is molten iron, hotter than the Sun. And that’s the accepted view, too.
And as if all that were not strange enough, other scientists tell us that the warmth of our Earth’s surface is not dependent on the ferociously hot molten iron in the Earth’s core, but on sunlight, which is trapped at the Earth’s surface by the atmosphere. That, too, is the accepted view.
The accepted view comes a little unstuck after that.
Scientists who are experts on the Sun say it has generally been radiating more energy in recent years, but the activity has fallen off a little recently. That’s why, they say, the Earth’s surface has generally been getting a little warmer in recent times, but it has cooled a little in the last ten years.
But other scientists disagree. Never mind the Sun, they say, look at the carbon dioxide that human activity has been pumping into the atmosphere, making it trap more heat at the Earth’s surface. That’s why the surface temperature has been going up steadily.
(The two groups can’t even agree on the actual temperatures, because they use different sets of thermometers and ways of measuring.)
The latter group, known as ‘warmists’ by their opponents, has been winning the argument for some years. The nickname is supposed to make you think of ‘alarmists’ — terrible people who go around making a fuss just to get attention (and make money).
The former group, known as ‘deniers’ by their opponents, has been gaining ground. The nickname is supposed to make you think of ‘Holocaust deniers’ — terrible people who go around contradicting what every sensible person knows to be true (and make money).
The reason the warmists have been losing ground and the deniers gaining is largely because of the warmists’ general approach to science.
The ‘deniers’ tend to put forward careful, logical arguments. For example, they make it clear that they don’t deny the climate is changing. They just point out that it has always changed, long before humans discovered how to make fire. And they don’t deny that there is more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, they just point out that the activity of the Sun and other things have to be taken into account too.
The ‘warmists’ on the other hand, have tended to make big announcements that have later turned out not to be true. For example, they announced that some glaciers were melting away rapidly, but when people went to look for the evidence, there was none. And they announced that the climate has never been as warm as it is now, when historians have always known about times in history when it was much warmer.
So the ‘deniers’ have been getting a reputation for saying some sensible things, while the ‘warmists’ have been getting a reputation for saying some foolish things. Reputation doesn’t tell you which group will eventually turn out to be right, of course. It could still go either way, though the ‘warmists’ seem to be in big trouble.
One of the foolish things that the ‘warmists’ have done, damaging their cause quite badly, is to corrupt the process of scientific research. This came out in the scandal known as ‘climategate’ at the University of East Anglia, where e-mails exposed the system of peer review for scientific papers as phoney. Peer review has since been nicknamed ‘pal review‘ to reflect the way papers are sometimes only reviewed by carefully selected reviewers, who are known in advance to be supportive of the papers’ conclusions. (Or, on other occasions, by reviewers who are known in advance to be hostile, so as to block publication.)
In the field of mental health, where everyone knows that scientific research is very often corrupt, the climategate e-mails and the existence of pal review caused no surprise at all. Researchers in healthcare need to get grants, drug companies need to make money, politicians need to be seen in a good light, and so on. It’s interesting, if depressing, to see the same kind of things happening in quite different areas of science.
In a moment of boredom I idly took a look at some recently published research in mental health. The first article in the list happened to be about self-help books for anxiety. It’s by some psychologists at the University of Manchester: A transdiagnostic self-help guide for anxiety: two preliminary controlled trials in subclinical student samples
Notice that magic word ‘controlled’ in the title, implying that this is a randomized controlled trial, an RCT. Just from the abstract you can see the brazen disregard for scientific rigour (my emphasis):
Study 1 adopted a minimal guided approach (experimental group: n = 25; waiting-list control group: n = 29) whereas Study 2 adopted a non-guided approach (experimental group: n = 17; waiting-list control group: n = 16).
Those people left on the waiting list are not valid control groups at all. They know they are not being treated. That means the studies were not really controlled, not genuine RCTs. This was known when the research was proposed, known when it received funding, and known when the results were reviewed for publication, yet the research and the publication went ahead anyway under the pal review system.
In the paper itself, there’s worse. In Study 1 (page 4, paid subscription required):
During the treatment period, the experimenter phoned participants…
And in Study 2, where there was meant to be “no therapist contact” (page 8):
Participants were invited to attend three meetings in a private room…
Thus, the experimenters had opportunity to influence the outcomes in both studies. It only takes a casual remark, a tone of voice, or a facial expression to influence people’s perception enough to affect the way they answer a questionnaire in a study like this.
Jonathan Swift wrote, long ago, about the conflict in Liliput between the big-endians (who would eat boiled eggs from the big end) and little-endians (who…you can work it out) — Gulliver’s Travels, Chapter IV:
It is computed that eleven thousand persons have at several times suffered death, rather than submit to break their eggs at the smaller end.
Swift is said to have been satirizing the religious wars of British history. The climate now is very different from that of 1726, when there was a severe winter and the Thames would have frozen over, but human nature still turns arguments that could be very easily settled into long-running power struggles.
The Thames froze for the last time in 1814 and was solid for four days; solid enough to lead an elephant across the ice near Blackfriars Bridge and erect fairground rides. The innovations of the Victorian period, such as the new London Bridge and the Embankment caused the river to become narrower, deeper and faster thus ending London’s life on ice.
Perhaps some present-day innovations can bring an end to pal review and allow science to flow deeper and faster. At present, vested interests and their academic pals walk all over it.