The Only Game in Town

Back in 2003, a few years before Climategate was a thing, a relatively obscure lecturer in mathematics from Columbia University thought he had a good idea for a book. His name was Dr Peter Woit, and his good idea was to draw attention to the fact that string theory had run its course and could no longer claim to be a legitimate scientific theory meeting the important criterion of falsifiability. Consequently, its continued popularity had more to do with academic groupthink than scientific value.

Even though all of this was true, he was not so naïve as to expect a warm response from the scientific community; after all, as far as high energy theoretical physics was concerned, string theory had for many years been the only game in town. No one was going to take lightly a book that hinted at intellectual dishonesty at the heart of theoretical physics. Cambridge University Press, the publishing house to whom Woit submitted his draft, felt the same way. Before they were going to put their name to such a book, they needed to make sure that it was factual and correct, and was making arguments that could be readily defended. Consequently, the manuscript was sent out to referees for careful scrutiny.

Woit had graduated from Harvard and obtained his PhD in particle physics at Princeton University. He then undertook research in theoretical physics at Stony Brook before finally settling into his current role at Columbia. So it is fair to say that he knew his stuff. Although he anticipated that his conclusions would be resisted by string theorists, accusations of technical inaccuracy were the least of his concerns. Nevertheless, and despite favourable reviews having been received from some of the referees, one individual who was identified to Woit only as ‘a well-known string theorist’ dismissed the book as being riddled with errors (only one misquoted example was offered). The report ended:

“I could write a long criticism of the manuscript, but that really shouldn’t be necessary. I think that you would be very hard pressed to find anyone who would say anything positive about this manuscript.”

Being already in possession of a number of critiques that had been positive, Cambridge Press should have taken this review with a pinch of salt – and indeed they did. Nevertheless, the editor had been spooked enough to suggest that the book would need additional positive reviews before he was prepared to publish. Consequently, there was to be a second round of refereeing.

In the second round a very favourable review was provided by an anonymous string theorist, but this was balanced by another review that, whilst also finding no technical fault, strongly expressed the opinion that string theorists were capable of sorting out their own problems. Once again, a referee was recommending against publication. Cambridge Press offered Woit a third round of refereeing but, by this time, he’d had enough. As he put it:

“By now it was clear to me that, even if they couldn’t answer my arguments, string theorists would strongly oppose publication. I would be wasting my time pursuing this further with Cambridge, since they were unlikely to publish something vehemently opposed by leading figures in the field, even if this opposition was not backed up by any scientific argument.”

Not willing to give up entirely, Woit then approached several other university presses only to see his manuscript repeatedly rejected on the grounds of it being sound in content but too controversial. The book was finally published by Jonathan Cape Ltd and is still available at all good bookshops.[1]

The purpose of this story is, of course, to demonstrate that climate scientists are not the only ones who will go to great lengths to thwart the publication of anything that questions a dominant orthodoxy. The story also makes clear that such efforts can be very successful, as many editors can be hugely intimidated by the wrath of an affronted academe. So when it was suggested that, in conspiring to intimidate a journal editor and interfere with the IPCC review process, a scientist at the Climate Research Unit was only engaging in the usual cut and thrust of scientific politicking, no one was saying anything wrong. Where they were wrong, however, was to conclude that this meant there was no cause for concern — the very ordinariness of the CRU scientist’s behaviour was its most damning indictment. But no one in the establishment was going to come down too hard on those concerned because that would be to call into question the good reputation of the scientific community as a whole. It was much better that this good reputation within the public eye should be used to sanctify the CRU scientist’s behaviour. Nothing to see here, it’s all just the rough and tumble that one should expect in a healthily competitive scientific environment.

Except that healthy and competitive it most certainly is not. The ascendancy of a particular scientific thesis has to be seen as being entirely due to inherent merit, and any hint of cancellation rather than falsification is bound to be of concern. Unfortunately, however, when a group has come to dominate a territory, such dominance can be seen as both a vindication and an asset to be protected at all costs. As Woit put it:

“My position in a maths department is such that I have little to worry about in terms of professional retaliation, but many of my correspondents felt very differently, one of them even referring to superstring theorists as a ‘mafia’. This gave a different colour to the ‘only game in town’ characterisation.”

The situation in climate science is not entirely analogous to that within high energy physics, but there are enough parallels to raise similar concerns. Firstly, there is the question of falsifiability, or the lack of it. In the case of string theory, the problem is inherent. When one starts to speculate about what is happening at the Planck scale, experimental confirmation requires a particle accelerator that could encircle a galaxy.[2] It had been hoped that the Large Hadron Collider would reveal some evidence of supersymmetry at relatively low energies and this would at least lend support to the idea of superstrings in the high energy regimes, but alas no such confirmation has been forthcoming.[3]

For climate science, the problem is nowhere near as fundamental. The predictions made by climate models are eminently falsifiable. The only problem is that the predictions that matter to the policy makers are such that one cannot afford to wait long enough to confirm them – by then it could be too late. And so the precautionary principle kicks in to hide the scientists’ blushes.[4] In the meantime, one has to wonder what serves as evidential weight when dealing with competing mathematical models. Solving this problem is indeed a fine art that has a basis in physics but entails a lot of ‘expert opinion’ and some pretty dodgy misuse of probability theory to carry the day.[5] In my view, the situation is far from ideal.

Secondly, as with string theory, there is a sense in which the prevailing ideas within climate science constitute the only game in town. One would hope that this is the natural result of competing theories having fallen by the wayside as they are falsified. However, we have seen that scientific communities are still perfectly capable of forming a consensus in the total absence of falsifiability, and that the mechanisms involved can be far from edifying. My starting point is to trust in the integrity of the climate science consensus, but that trust is eroded every time I hear stories of scientists hounded out of faculties, of dissenting views being discouraged at conferences and journal editors being put under pressure to reject contrarian papers. It is often said that Climategate was overplayed by parties who were already ideologically predisposed to distrust science. I’m not sure here what constitutes an ideological predisposition, but if my understanding that (under the influence of non-falsifiability) even the most talented scientific communities can lose their way qualifies as having an ideological predisposition, then I would have to say mea culpa.

Climategate didn’t unearth a global conspiracy amongst the world’s climate scientists to falsify data in support of their pet theory. Such a revelation would have indeed been shocking, but Climategate still had shock value because it introduced to many just how science often works in practice. Television productions such as The Trick are an attempt to repair the reputational damage done to climate scientists and science as a whole, by portraying the central character sympathetically, by focusing attention on the malpractice of the ‘hackers’, and by suggestng that confirming the integrity of Professor Jones’ temperature datasets was all that mattered.[6] What actually mattered was that Climategate demonstrated just how far a small group of scientists were prepared to go to secure the only game in town. And when the spotlight fell upon their efforts, it was even more revealing just how far the wider scientific community was prepared to go in whitewashing the whole affair. I profess to having been disappointed but not in the least bit surprised, knowing what I do regarding the ‘superstring wars’. Sometimes it just doesn’t do to catch your heroes at work.

Footnotes:

[1] Peter Woit, Not Even Wrong, Vintage Books, 1st June 2006, ISBN 9780099488644.

[2] The Planck Energy is 1.22×1019 GeV. The LHC has so far only achieved a combined beam collision energy of 1.3×104 GeV.

[3] For string theory to be correct, the Standard Model of particle physics has to be shown to emerge as its low energy approximation. If the experimental confirmation of the Standard Model rules out supersymmetry, then it is ruled out for string theory also, and so superstrings are dead. This matters because superstrings are likely to be an essential component of a self-consistent string theory. It’s not falsification but it is a lack of corroboration.

[4] This was certainly the case in the good old days before the IPCC’s Fifth Assessment Report, after which the strategy of predicting future calamity was relegated in favour of claiming apocalypse now.

[5] The inappropriate application of aleatoric methods is rife and does little to bolster confidence in the conclusions drawn by the likes of Professor Friederike Otto and her Detection & Attribution colleagues.

[6] The cleansing of temperature datasets might be an area of concern to some, but not nearly as much as is the violation of clause 77 of the Freedom of Information Act.

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November 22, 2021 at 05:12AM

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