Thursday, March 17, 2011

Global warming as 'cargo cult science'

By James Wanliss, Ph.D.

During World War II, remote Pacific islands like Vanuatu became involved in war efforts when they became part of supply lines. To the natives the arrival of noisy "birds" was almost miraculous, bringing delicious foods and wondrous cargo.

After the war the birds left. Into the uncertain vacuum returned old terrors of hunger and sickness, and an angry Earth. Superstitious natives copied what they had seen. They made model planes and runways. They had the form right – the outward form of religion – but lacked power. As they had seen so they, and their priests, did. But no airplanes landed. Anthropologists call this religion a "cargo cult."

Likewise cargo cult "science" can arise, noted physicist Richard Feynman, when researchers go through the motions of scientific rituals without actually doing science. Experiment first, conclusions later is the basis of scientific inquiry. Cargo cult science predetermines conclusions and reverses the order. This is a conscious perversion of normal scientific practice. It can be called post-normal science because power over other people, not truth, is the goal. Post-normal science is a deformed bloom in which the search to explain our physical world is less significant than the quest to use scientific authority to achieve political goals.

Global-warming federal-scientific partnerships form the basis for several cargo cults. Many billions of dollars are thrown at studying global warming, and recent Climategate scandals reveal prominent scientists failing (or forbidding) to ask critical questions that might challenge cherished beliefs, or threaten gravy trains. Annual federal funding to study global warming is around $4 billion and rising.

Mike Hulme, a professor of climate change and priest in this cargo cult, explains:

"The function of climate change I suggest, is not as a lower-case environmental phenomenon to be solved. … It really is not about stopping climate chaos. Instead, we need to see how we can use the idea of climate change … to rethink how we take forward our political, social, economic and personal projects over the decades to come." ("Why We Disagree about Climate Change")

So global warming is not essentially about science, but essentially about politics. Then science becomes not about seeking to understand our world, but about activism and influencing public opinion.

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After three hard winters with long periods of cold and heavy snowfall, not only in this country but worldwide, anyone with memory might feel dazed and confused. On the one, hand the United Nations and its Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) constantly assure us the pace of global warming is accelerating. On the other hand, these same IPCC scientists assured us only recently that "[m]ilder winter temperatures will decrease heavy snowstorms" and make for "shorter snow accumulation periods" (United Nations IPCC, Climate Change 2001: Working Group II: Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability). And make no mistake, these claims were not made lightly. No ifs, ands, or buts were allowed. You must remember the science was settled, the facts incontrovertible, the debate over. The IPCC even won a Nobel Peace Prize to testify to the truth of these contentions. But … there is the snow and global cooling for over a decade. In the Alice in Wonderland world of the post-normal, global warming means … whatever you like. Global warming means global cooling, if that is politically convenient. Reality is stranger than fiction.

Pagan priests would explain dissonance in terms of inadequate devotion; planes fail to come because we are not living correctly. The global-warming cargo cult is also almost magical in its ability to explain how almost every environmental calamity – too much, or too little, snow – is caused by humanity's insensitivity toward our mother planet.

For Christians, Truth is paramount. My book "Resisting the Green Dragon" explains how for pagans, what matters most is power, not truth. So it was in Vanuatu where pagans worshipped the Serpent as a spirit of evil. They lived in abject terror of his influence and directed all their worship toward pacifying his rage. In cargo cult science, are we unconsciously returning to the dark age of magic, in which truth suffers and people tremble for fear that their smallest actions may offend an "angry" Earth?

James A. Wanliss is associate professor of physics at Presbyterian College, Clinton, S.C., and author of "Resisting the Green Dragon: Dominion, Not Death" (Cornwall Alliance for the Stewardship of Creation, 2010).