In legal circles, the words “in good faith” simply mean without an agenda. A person acting in good faith or giving evidence in good faith is assumed to have integrity and to be an honest witness. And quite often, we assume good faith because to do otherwise makes life very difficult. If you thought your doctor was following his own agenda, as it seems Mr Andrew Wakefield was doing in his research on autism and MMR, you might hesitate before popping the pills he was prescribing you.
What happens when the presumption of good faith collapses? There is a technical term for rejecting the idea that anyone acts in good faith – it’s called being paranoid. Conspiracy theories thrive on the idea that the other side have something to hide.
Creationists assume that evolutionary biologists lack good faith because they are following a materialist agenda. Of course, in the case of Richard Dawkins and Jerry Coyne, they are probably right. But the vast majority of biologists are just getting on with the job. Unfortunately, the lack of a presumption of good faith on either side of the creationism debate means that it cannot be resolved by evidence or argument. Nobody trusts their opponents enough for that.
And now the climate change fiasco has caused scientists to lose a vast amount of public goodwill. The scientific arguments are irrelevant because any evidence that climate scientists present will be assumed to be bogus by sceptics. And sceptics now make up half the population of the UK and an even larger proportion in the US. They have good reason to doubt the proclamations of the scientists.
Because climate science fully deserves the opprobrium being heaped upon it. We find researchers in senior positions conspired to hide data from their critics – data that turns out to have been badly flawed (as even the front page of the Guardian alleged this week). We find that the sacrosanct IPCC reports contain conclusions cherry-picked from popular magazines and environmentalists’ campaign material. It is clear that some climate scientists saw themselves as advocates and not as objective researchers.
So what can we do about this? It is bad enough that such an important issue as climate change cannot now be discussed with a presumption of good faith. But if this contagion spreads to other areas of science (and there are enough scandals in medical research for that field to reach tipping point as well) we will all be the poorer. The problem is getting serious.
It seems likely that the answer will involve additional layers of bureaucracy and regulation to police the activities of scientists. As for climate science, it is effectively back at year zero and almost everything ever done on the field will have to be reviewed by panels that include sceptics who are currently outside the mainstream. The careers of several eminent climatologists are now over, but they will need to be publicly defrocked and preferably confess to their sins for public confidence to be restored. And if climate change is the crisis that we were told, we really have had it. The popular and media consensus has evaporated and without it no western government can act.
Luckily, there was an important breakthrough in fusion power this week. Thank goodness for physicists...
Discuss this post at the Quodlibeta Forum