Thomas Huxley, nineteenth century English biologist and President of the prestigious Royal Society, once wrote “The improver of natural knowledge absolutely refuses to acknowledge authority, as such. For him, skepticism is the highest of duties; blind faith the one unpardonable sin.”
Huxley’s point is one all scientists are called to live by: be a skeptic. Why? Because honest skeptical debate ensures that scientific theories, and even ‘scientific laws’, are constantly subject to scrutiny. Unlike many fields of human endeavour, nothing in science is sacred and true scientists must be prepared to adapt and change their points of view as new information and understandings evolve. Only in this way can science continue to contribute to improving the human condition.
Few people realize that Sir Isaac Newton’s Laws of Gravity were originally presented as his theory of gravity. In fact, it remained a theory for over 200 years as other scientists challenged, questioned and tested. Ultimately, the theory withstood the challenges, most importantly by making accurate predictions, and it became accepted as a law. However, even then, scrutiny did not stop. As a result of the work of Einstein, Lorentz and others we came to understand the limitations of Newton’s laws and so science advanced.
Today, Einstein’s Theory of Relativity remains a theory even 101 years after publication. And so it should be. Although some parts of the theory have withstood skeptical challenge other parts remain problematic. The assumption that nothing travels faster than the speed of light is under relentless attack and transition from a theory will advance or regress depending upon the outcome of these challenges.
But imagine if the Royal Society, the “national academy of science of the UK and the Commonwealth”, were to issue public statements attempting to block further scientific challenge to Einstein’s Theory. Scientists, and indeed, the public, would be appalled. Quoting Huxley, mass media would condemn the Society as suppressing the very spirit of true scientific enquiry – ‘science doesn’t work that way’, the press would protest. And they would be right.
And yet this is precisely what the Royal Society is doing with the rapidly evolving and highly politicized science of climate change. For hundreds of years the bastion and defender of open scientific debate, the Society has joined the chorus of global warming advocates and said there is no debate to be had – climate change is a consequence of human activity and anybody who says otherwise is to be dismissed, indeed scorned.
The key point under debate is the role and extent of natural climate change in comparison with that which may be human-induced. The common belief is that carbon dioxide (CO2) is a greenhouse gas that traps heat in the atmosphere and that an increase in CO2 because of human activities, particularly the combustion of fossil fuels, will cause the Earth to warm catastrophically.
Newton, a President of the Royal Society for over 40 years, would have vigorously spoken out against his successors’ attempts to suppress challenges to this theory. He would have understood that you cannot isolate or attribute changes caused by humans unless you understand how climate changes naturally, something we are still far from comprehending. Equally important he and Einstein would have understood that the theory is only as good as its assumptions. Knowing, as we do, that planetary warming was occurring long before humans started adding significant CO2 to the atmosphere, we can’t help but call into question one of the principle assumptions of the theory.
“Nullis in Verba”, the Royal Society’s Latin motto, informs us that scientific inquiry relies “on the words of no one.” Accordingly, the Society has been known for its commitment to gaining knowledge through experimentation rather than citation of authority. But now, in this its 346th year of existence, the Society seems to have shifted to becoming the one tyrannical authority that trumps experimentation. Such bullying by the world’s leading scientific body will intimidate scientists from thinking outside the mainstream and innovation will be crushed before it has even been conceived.
The Royal Society must retract their recent condemnation of climate skeptics. They must also support an expanded and more open debate on the science of climate change before billions more tax payer dollars are diverted from society’s pressing social and environmental concerns. The Society must also salvage their reputation by issuing a public apology regarding this regrettable episode.