The science isn’t settled

There’s a good post on RealClimate about the nature of certainty and uncertainty in science.  The hook for the post is a Wall Street Journal Op-Ed headlined “The Climate Science Isn’t Settled.”  The point of the post is to explain why this phrase is almost always a misleading rhetorical trick:

The phrase "the science is settled" is associated almost 100% with contrarian comments on climate and is usually a paraphrase of what 'some scientists' are supposed to have said. The reality is that it depends very much on what you are talking about and I have never heard any scientist say this in any general context – at a recent meeting I was at, someone claimed that this had been said by the participants and he was roundly shouted down by the assembled experts.

The reason why no scientist has said this is because they know full well that knowledge about science is not binary – science isn't either settled or not settled. This is a false and misleading dichotomy. Instead, we know things with varying degrees of confidence – for instance, conservation of energy is pretty well accepted, as is the theory of gravity (despite continuing interest in what happens at very small scales or very high energies) , while the exact nature of dark matter is still unclear. The forced binary distinction implicit in the phrase is designed to misleadingly relegate anything about which there is still uncertainty to the category of completely unknown. i.e. that since we don't know everything, we know nothing.

Although the author is (naturally) most interested in talking about climate science, the post is really about the nature of science in general, and a lot of what it says applies more broadly.  In particular, creationists and relativity-denialists (who, astonishingly, still exist) talk in very similar ways to those described here.

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Ted Bunn

I am an associate professor of physics at the University of Richmond. In addition to teaching a variety of undergraduate physics courses, I work on a variety of research projects in cosmology, the study of the origin, structure, and evolution of the Universe. University of Richmond undergraduates are involved in all aspects of this research. If you want to know more about my research, ask me!