Scientific cause of Global Warming

While I don't know whether it's more offensive than professors who believe in 911 conspiracy theories, I was amused to see that Idaho State University has a tenured professor who believes quite seriously in "Bigfoot." Apparently, though, he pays the price -- which is not being invited for coffee:

"Do I cringe when I see the Discovery Channel and I see Idaho State University, Jeff Meldrum? Yes, I do," Hackworth said. "He believes he's taken up the cause of people who have been shut out by the scientific community. He's lionized there. He's worshipped. He walks on water. It's embarrassing."

John Kijinski, dean of arts and sciences, said there have been "grumblings" about Meldrum's tenure, but no formal request for a review.

"He's a bona fide scientist," Kijinski said. "I think he helps this university. He provides a form of open discussion and dissenting viewpoints that may not be popular with the scientific community, but that's what academics all about."

On campus, Meldrum -- himself a hulking figure, with a mop of brown hair, a bristly silver mustache, and a black T-shirt with a silhouette of a hunchbacked, lurking Bigfoot -- gets funny looks and the silent treatment from other scientists, and is not invited to share coffee with the other science professors.

While not being invited for coffee may sound like harsh treatment, we all know how vicious those academia nuts can be when they get all fired up.

But the coffee snubbing may only be the tip of the melting iceberg. While academicians may be tolerant when it comes to claims by their peers that Bush brought down the Twin Towers (or arguments in favor of advocating elimination of 90% of the world's population by airborne ebola), Professor Meldrum's Bigfoot research crossed the magic line between mere social snubs and protest petitions:

Over the summer, more than 30 professors signed a petition criticizing the university for hosting a Bigfoot symposium where Meldrum was the keynote speaker.

He pays for his research with a $30,000 donation from a Bigfoot believer.

Still, Meldrum has a distinguished supporter in Jane Goodall, the world-famous authority on African chimpanzees. Her blurb on the jacket of Meldrum's new book, "Sasquatch: Legend Meets Science," lauds him for bringing "a much-needed level of scientific analysis" to the Bigfoot debate.

"As a scientist, she's very curious and she keeps an open mind," said Goodall spokeswoman Nona Gandelman. "She's fascinated by it."

Bigfoot is sort of the Loch Ness Monster of the Pacific Northwest. The legend dates back centuries.

Hey, Jane Goodall is no slouch. She's an internationally acclaimed primate researcher. But she seems to be a bit cautious in being too publicly associated with Bigfoot claims, and in 2004 she canceled an appearance at a Bigfoot conference. But I'm reassured to see that she keeps her mind open.

After all, we can't prove there isn't any such thing as Bigfoot, can we? Isn't scientific skepticism part of the scientific method?

The wilder and more ridiculous something is, however, the firmer and more solid the evidence will have to be.

--Isaac Asimov

But how do we define wild and ridiculous? Belief in Bigfoot is such a minority view that to call the critics "skeptical" would be an understatement. "Wild and ridiculous" would seem to be defining characteristics.

But what about the theory that the mercury in my teeth is so dangerous that it should be prohibited, and that I am so toxic that it should be illegal to burn my corpse? Scientific panels had debunked the claims of danger and concluded that the fillings were safe, but under pressure from activists to ban mercury fillings, the FDA pulled the reports and appointed new committees filled with activists determined to issue new reports proving that the fillings might possibly be dangerous.

The more I read about the infinitessimal threat posed by the mercury fillings in my teeth, the more my frustration grew. After two blog posts on the subject, I was still at a loss to understand how anyone calling himself a "scientist" might actually advocate banning the same dental mercury which is already in use in hundreds of millions of teeth based on a total lack of evidence.

What I had not stopped to consider was the existence of a so-called "scientific" principle known as "The Precautionary Principle." Frequently invoked by political hacks (and politically motivated scientists who want to impose restrictions on things they dislike) I hadn't given it much thought. But the more I read, the more I worried what it might do to the basic concept of scientific skepticism.

Just what is the Precautionary Principle? Fortunately, it has been defined. By scientists!

Not only is it said to be scientific, but it is based on common sense

What is the precautionary principle?

A comprehensive definition of the precautionary principle was spelled out in a January 1998 meeting of scientists, lawyers, policy makers and environmentalists at Wingspread, headquarters of the Johnson Foundation in Racine, Wisconsin. The Wingspread Statement on the Precautionary Principle, which is included in full at the end of this fact sheet, summarizes the principle this way:

"When an activity raises threats of harm to the environment or human health, precautionary measures should be taken even if some cause and effect relationships are not fully established scientifically."

Hmmm.... But what is "harm"? Why limit harm so narrowly? Might not economic harm also constitute harm? Don't humans live longer and better lives in developed economies? Or is that not part of common sense?

What worries me about this "Precautionary Principle" is that it might very well be used to as a tool to give legitimacy to non-scientific claims -- even "wild and ridiculous" ones.

If a crackpot group alleges threats of harm, then the Precautionary Principle would dictate that even crackpot claims should be taken seriously.

Because after all, we cannot know to a scientific certainty that there might not be harm.

What this means is that because Bigfoot might exist, and because man might be a serious environmental threat to Bigfoot, the latter should be declared endangered, and should be protected. Perhaps Canada should be declared off limits to development.

Using the Precautionary Principle as a guide, a good case can be made that scientific skepticism itself should be abolished -- as a threat to the environment as well as our collective well being in the non-economic sense.

Nuremburg trials for scientific skeptics might be in the offing.

We need to take Precautions!

UPDATE: Commenter Jon Thompson applies the Precautionary Principle to politics. I think he's onto something!

posted by Eric on 11.06.06 at 09:56 AM


The precautionary principle is probably the best example of why I always shy away from voting Democrat whenever I can stand to do so. The wholesale destruction of economic growth that would result from such a policy is difficult to visualize. Imagine the different worlds we would have, however, if growth were to shift downward by 1 percentage point a year as a result of this kind of thing-and then do the math and see where we would end up in a hundred years (when, I should point out, I might well be alive).

Jon Thompson   ·  November 6, 2006 5:30 PM

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