As I write this, my wife of 46 years is in intensive care fighting to live. She is there partly because of bad medical science and partly because of what had become a widespread syndrome in many scientific disciplines, the demonization of a person or a concept by people who can be wrong.
My wife does not provide the best example of demonization, but it is current, motivational and recent and on my mind. Please excuse me if I become too personal. The important part is not the personal part. It is the insidious danger of demonization.
I am a chemist, with a B.Sc. and part-time honours, chemistry major, from the University of Queensland, Australia. I also did a couple of years of aero engineering before a car crash curtailed further flying in the Air Force. My career covered many aspects of science, some engineering and much politics at the end. In retirement I can draw on a diverse set of experiences, but can also appreciate points of the philosophy of science. Mostly, that only comes with age and experience.
â€œDemonisationâ€ is not my term. Maybe it originated with alcohol, the â€œdemon drinkâ€. It is now in fairly wide and expanding use. It was used a few years ago in climate circles to describe CO2 as a troublesome compound for all people, probably before the facts were complete. More recently, it has been used in a people context, as in the demonization of denialists.
Scientists to whom the demon label is attached can have a harder time than they should. In the case of Colleen, I was demonised by the general physician in charge and by senior nursing staff because I consistently told them that they should look beyond the easy diagnosis they had made. When you know a person for nearly 50 years, you can detect changes that are not so obvious to the casual observer, but then the doctor has the training and his word should be accepted. As it turned out, Colleen had a diagnosis of post-operative constipation following a repair of a broken hip â€“ not an uncommon happening. What had really happened was that she had had an earlier colonoscopy where a cut had been made and marked with methylene blue die in case follow-up was need. This had weakened the bowel wall. Several days of large doses of morphine had dehydrated her and the combination resulted in a blocked and perforated bowel, the hole about an inch in diameter, with a couple of pounds of faecal material mingled with her other abdominal organs.
It was necessary for me to be quite forceful of expression for several days before the correct tests were done and the problem â€“ perhaps then 6 days old â€“ was rectified by lengthy surgery. This demonised me in the eyes of some of the medical profession involved. A lay person cannot diagnose, only a doctor can do that. But, unless I had persisted I would now no longer have a wife. Experience, observation, open mind, thinking about the evidence, reinterpretation, explaining every little observation, insisting on more data â€“ these were the life-saving ingredients.
In my career I have met demonization several times. We inherited a site where lead batteries had been recycled and there was residual lead in the soil. We were told â€œauthoritativelyâ€ that lead poising affects the IQ of young children. A â€œTeamâ€ has worked for years to prove this alarming hypothesis â€“ but they have demonised the authors and the possibility of a simple and strong reverse causation explanation. See
Two comments follow about lead and children. First, in the mid 1980â€™s, when some intensive work was done, published estimates of the weight of daily soil ingestion by children differed by well over an order of magnitude. So the models had uncertainty – as do todayâ€™s global climate models. Second, this question is relevant to climate change because of the discontinuation of leaded petrol and the resultant increase of fuel use by cars and trucks. This affected the so-called GHG load on the atmosphere.
Another case from Australia, again medical, resulted in 2 Nobel Laureates, Barry Marshall and J. Robin Warren. See
Barry Marshall in particular was demonised for his astounding proposition that ulcers were caused by bacteria and could be cured by antibiotics. He even self-administered a dangerous concoction to drive home his point. Personally, I feel that the â€œTeamâ€ opposition to their work should be documented better and spread more widely, so that those who demonise will know that they can be shamed in public when shown wrong.
Getting closer to climate matters, there was widespread demonization of the peaceful use of uranium for large scale electricity generation from the late 1960s onwards. From 1972 I consulted to and then joined the company which had discovered the immense Ranger uranium deposits in 1969. It was soon apparent that there were considerable learning curves for science sub-sets like radioactive decay, assaying, ore resource calculation and particularly radiation health measures. Well, the mines are still operating today and no person appears to have been harmed by them (though we did lose one employee to a crocodile attack).
The second steep learning curve for nuclear was to counter the demonization of radioactivity. You probably know that there are still many people today who have absolute belief that nuclear power generation wastes have to be managed for 250,000 years. This is simple psycobabble as can be shown in a few minutes. Of course, the future of nuclear electricity interacts with fossil fuel use and projections for atmospheric composition of GHG.
Almost by necessity, I lowered my involvement in geochemistry and increasingly went political about late 1980s to counter the anti-nuclear protest. Slowly but surely, the arguments put up in opposition were demolished by demonstration and logic, until no realistic viable case exists to further hold back on nuclear expansion. Demonisation has however resulted in Australia still having no nuclear power generators, despite a large output of mined uranium.
Demonisation has distorted the science, in a way costly to power users and the environment.
Demonisation is resurgent in relation to the Climategate emails and inquiries. Those who have submitted words critical of the science are not all extremists. There is a weight of experience and intelligence in these contra submissions, but those who make them are being ignored or derided. This is not a civil way to act. The inquirers have done shoddy work (with the exception of Graham Stringer MP from Britain; and now the penny is dropping for the Commons Inquiry leader Phil Willis.)
Wherever you look, it is not hard to find evidence of demonization in science. The anti vaccination movement is an example. There is widespread chemophobia, for example in framing where â€œorganicâ€ or â€œnaturalâ€ methods are suddenly trendy, despite the certainty that many people would die of starvation if global organic farming was made compulsory. Ditto for genetic modification of crops, a human extension of a process of Nature. The demonisation of science is an insult to the truly professional scientist. I worked several years in the synthetic fertilizer industry in a very large new plant and mixed with people whose skill and dedication was too prominent to be insulted.
Recently was saw the terrible example of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences publishing lists of names of good people and demons with respect to attitudes, as they interpreted them, towards man-made global warming. This is ugly. . PNAS should take a long look at its charter, purpose and methods.
1. We frequent bloggers need to check if we are falling into the demonization trap ourselves. I am guilty, especially a few times when blogging was new to me.
2. Demonisation is antithetic to good science. Good science equates to open minds.
3. There are more effective ways to make an example than by demonising. Shaming is an acceptable alternative sometimes, but most effective of all is the dispassionate analysis that is done by people like Steve McIntyre and several others whom you know too well to need mentioning here. Lead by example.
4. Emotion and politics interact with science, but in an ideal world they are separate from it. It is harder to set out to do good science when you have made up your mind on the outcome.
5. Try to avoid making a mellow generalisation from data. In a surprising number of cases (well, surprising to me) the solution is in the exception to intuition. Data points that are averaged out of existence often take with little Rosetta stones.
It was the devil in the detail that led to intervention in the case of my wife, at the start of this essay. It was not helpful to be demonised for pointing out that misdiagnosis was possible.
There is more that can be written on this theme, more in the context of climate. Should our host feel that responses below warrant it, I would be honoured to write more.