NASA astronaut and policy advisor to Heartland Walter Cunningham appeared on MRCTV to discuss his take on climate change and the upcoming 9th International Conference on Climate Change. Cunningham declared the position that climate change is a man-made phenomenon to be “the biggest fraud in the field of science.”
According to Cunningham, the current mainstream opinion concerning anthropogenic climate change is motivated by politics and greed:
“You go out and take a look at it and you find out that a lot of it is pure nonsense and wishful thinking on the part of the alarmists who are looking for more and more money to fall into their hands.”
Cunningham is not convinced by the case for global warming and challenges everyone to look into the data. He admonishes people to learn the science for themselves and not to just take other people’s word for it.
There is certainly value in citizens informing themselves about the basics of science, particularly science that is having a major impact on public policy. When science is high on politicians’ agenda, it has to be high on citizens’ agenda too. That is often difficult in the realm of science, which often requires specialist knowledge and a large amount of time to dedicate to the pursuit. However, there are useful primers readily available and written for public consumption that can serve as a solid basis on which voters can develop learned opinions.
Cunningham’s interview alluded to issues with the way science is conducted in the modern world. It is certainly the case that there are major problems in the process of science. The public media has promoted a conception of the scientific process as being rigorous and unbiased. Yet this is not really the case. While experiments may be conducted rigorously, the basic theoretical premises of the various sciences are often politically protected by those who have made a career defending them. This can make it very difficult for challenges to prevailing understandings to get a fair hearing.
The problem is exacerbated by the peer-review process. Peer review of research is meant to produce up-to-date, rigorous science without bias, but it does not always do so. It can take a long time for a view to gain traction due to push-back from those with a vested interest in the status quo outlook. This problem is examined by many philosophers of science, such as Thomas Kuhn, who discussed the concept of “paradigm shift” in which sciences tend to experience revolutionary change in the wake of mounting opposition to a dominant worldview.
Another problem with the scientific process as it is conducted today is the degree of extreme specialization that scientists undertake. Gone are the days of the savant or tinkerer conducting valuable scientific enquiry from a home laboratory. Science is big business, and has developed so far in complexity that it can only be furthered with the aid of very specialized scientists.
The problem is not so much in the specialization itself (save for the lost romance of the old-timey gentleman scientist, of course) as in how that specialization affects the popular dissemination of science. Because researchers have become so specialized, unification of ideas for public consumption has fallen to other promoters and “popular scientists,” people with potentially far less noble agendas than to simply inform the masses. As the new gatekeepers of scientific research, these figures can wield great power, power that can be used to further ideologically charged aims.
Scientific inquiry conducted through the scientific method has generated the greatest and mostly lasting increase in human welfare in history. It is in many ways the pinnacle accomplishment of our civilization, yet it is a tool only. It is always important to remember that tools may have no ideology or agenda in themselves, but that those who wield or guide them may. It is important that a public that is more and more dependent upon science and technology in their daily lives be aware of what science is really about.