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Climate change violates one of Newton’s Laws

By William York - posted Monday, 31 December 2007


The claim that the science debate over cimate change is settled violates the most important of Newton’s Laws. This violation is not of the famous Laws of Motion but of a little known set of derived bylaws, Newton’s Laws of Experts, a major contribution to understanding social dynamics.

Newton’s Laws of Motion may be simply stated as:

  • First Law: every object persists in its state of rest or uniform motion unless acted upon by an external force;
  • Second Law: the rate of change of momentum is directly proportional to the applied force; and
  • Third Law: for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.
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The bylaws, Newton’s Laws of Experts, are as follows:

  • First Law: every expert persists in his state of rest or opinion unless acted upon by an external grant;
  • Second Law: the rate of change of opinion is directly proportional to the applied grant; and
  • Third Law: for every expert there is an equal and opposite expert.

The First Law of Experts is well known and can be demonstrated in countless universities, institutes and research bodies. There are two major influences. First, the need to appear relevant to the wants of society means engagement in the great issues of the day. This has been brought on by well intentioned but misguided policy that assumes innovations, financial, technical or other, spring fully developed from academic research and national needs should determine the areas of research interest.

The second and much more worrying influence comes from the coupling of politics to science. The academy has a natural bias towards the left as its business is overthrowing old ideas and generating new interpretations and understanding. If this is coupled to saving the planet and giving rise to a better world then there is a resonance between politics and academia.

At the present time there are three issues that resonate with at least parts of the academy: climate change, genetically modified organisms and nuclear power. In each case, it is arguable that the scientific understanding on the political side is selective, frequently ignorant and often presented in terms that startle the public.

As a result governments, often subject to marginal politics, have created opportunities for endless grant applications for any research perceived as relevant to these issues. As a further result, academia has responded by setting up special institutes or university departments and, with knowledge of the availability of large research grants, has applied for and received funding.

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It is often the case that the envisaged research was not aimed at the target set by the government, but simply represents the dressing-up of a proposal in a way which would attract the grant.

This discussion leads to the Second Law of Experts. There is no doubt that large grants, leading to the establishment of new institutes, departments or divisions, have the effect of moving experts into positions where they will represent these new initiatives. The lifetime of these organisations is subject to the continuous feeding from grants, so there is every incentive to emphasise the importance and relevance of the research, thus providing strong and positive feedback.

The Third Law of Experts is one that is most commonly encountered in the Law. Expert witnesses are frequently called by both sides for explanations. So, rather than experts advising the bench, each side presents the most favourable explanation that helps its own case.

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About the Author

William York likes to find the funny side of life. He used to write for BRW back in the late 1980's.

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