Posts Tagged ‘dissent’

Science, dissent, polarization and ideology

November 9, 2010

Judith Curry has followed up her post about a positive feedback between politics and science, with which I strongly disagreed, with a number of other posts trying to explain where she’s coming from.  The latest, “no ideologues, part III”, makes a lot more sense than her previous “dogma” posts, and sounds a lot less adversarial. This post is based on my comments over at her blog (here and here).

Her thesis is that climate scientists, the UNFCCC and the IPCC seem to adhere to a certain political ideology. In the case of the IPCC that seems a bit of an absurd notion, but in the case of individuals it seems almost self evident that everybody has some sort of political ideology. She writes:

It is fine for people (and scientists) have political ideologies.  The problem comes in when you use politics to defend your science, and you use science to demand policies. This whole thing seems to me to boil down to the traditional clash of values between the greens and the libertarians.

So does this make more sense?  I think a fairly large number of scientists will sign up to believing this ideology, but few will want to be regarded as ideologues.  Are we getting closer her to clarifying this?  I think so (hope so).

I am wondering to what extent her critique would be better described as the overly defensive attitude and ‘circling of the wagons’ strategy of many mainstream scientists and perhaps the community as a whole. She has described it as such before, and to a certain degree I agree.

She gives Michael Mann (who else?) as an example of voicing a political ideology that exemplifies that of the wider community/UNFCCC/IPCC. The headings she provides above citations from Mann give a certain twist to his words though, and provide more fodder to the label ‘political ideology’. Which may give the appearance of wanting to put his words in a certain light. (perhaps for ideological reasons? – just kidding)

E.g. In #2 on the list Mann talks about what can still be done, whereas in her heading Judith characterizes it as what needs to be done.  #5 has a large disconnect between her heading (action is needed) and Mann’s retelling of historical environmental threats.

She is right though that overall, Mann’s words as quoted are not purely in the realm of science, but nor are they intended to I think. It would be helpful if scientists are more clear as to when they’re talking about science and when they’re talking about something else (their personal opinion about the public debate, politics, ethics, etc). Hansen and the late Schneider are good examples of that IMO. Some may respond that those differences are very obvious already: Why spell them out. Which has (more than) a nucleus of truth as well of course.

I wrote about distinguishing these kinds of issues in a conversation I had with Tom Fuller a while ago, about what the next generation questions regarding climate change are:

Let’s distinguish the following main issues:

- To what extent is climate change occurring, and to what extent is it man-made?

- To what extent is that (going to be) a problem?

- What can or should we do about it?

The first questions are strictly scientific; the middle has a judgment value to it (besides being also based on the forever tentative answer to the first question), and the latter is primarily a political/moral judgement (and has more to do with technology and policymaking than with climate science).

We have made much more progress in addressing the first question than in addressing the last one. The limiting factor in addressing the issues relating to climate change is IMO not a lack of knowledge about the exact nature of the changes; rather, it is the unwillingness of society to deal with (the consequences of) this knowledge. Even if, within realistic boundaries of the uncertainty, climate change is less bad than currently expected, we need to dramatically step up our policy response.

Needless to say, that last sentence is a value laden statement, based on my understanding of the science combined with my value system, risk perception and risk aversion. Or perhaps that is not needless to say? (that’s not a rhetorical question btw).

Judith responded by saying that what she has a problem with is when people or institutions use their ideology “to stifle dissent and scientific debate”. Well, who wouldn’t have a problem with that?

That’s the broad brush again. The dissent from the mainstream scientific view takes a lot of different forms. E.g. there are the arguments such as voiced by Bob that AGW is bunk because of the hockeystick and surface temperature issues (my paraphrasing). I hope you’ll excuse me for not taking such criticism all that serious, where a minor detail is blown up as if it falsifies a whole theory, not unlike claiming that gravity doesn’t exist because that bird in the sky disproves it (argumentum ad absurdum; I’m aware that gravity is a better established (though also still not 100% known) topic than climate change).

These kinds of arguments are very common, whereby the conclusion (AGW is wrong) is miles and miles apart from the reasoning that supposedly led the writer to that conclusion. Which leads me to think that maybe, just maybe, they may have been really arguing in the other direction: from their desired conclusion to an narrative that fits with it. Because in the direction as the argument is stated, it doesn’t make sense.

Am I stifling scientific dissent by saying this? I would hope you agree with me that I’m not. I’m arguing against a (to me) nonsensical critique of the science, which IMO isn’t actually a scientific critique at all (though it’s dressed up to look like it). I.e. I’m not stifling anything and the dissent I’m primarily arguing against is hardly scientific (or charitably only partly scientific).

What most mainstream scientists get so worked up about are these nonsensical critiques on the science and the amount of traction they seem to have gotten.

If you have examples of where *scientific* dissent and debate is being *stifled* (no emails please), I’d like to hear about it.

As I stated before, I agree that in this highly polarized environment scientists have sometimes gotten too defensive in their reaction to the various critiques, because of course, some of the criticism does make sense, and even if the conclusion doesn’t, perhaps the premise purportedlyleading up to the conclusion contains some grains of truth. It doesn’t hurt acknowledging that.

Postscript: Simon Donner has an excellent post on the role of the blogosphere in these kinds of climate discussions and how it relates it to the themes of introspection, de-polarization and letting down our defenses. This is the road towards bridge building.

Aikido: The way of harmony. That’s me doing the throwing (in full harmony of course).

Update:

Michael Tobis has a related post, citing an interesting lecture by Mike Mann:

“We have to make it clear that the ice sheets are not Republicans or Democrats – they don’t have a political agenda as they disappear,” said Michael Mann. MT asks: “why the politicization of the non-political parts of the question?” That would be a good question for Judith Curry to ponder.

Chris Colose, who also chimed in over at Curry’s blog, has a post on her ‘dogma’ and ‘ideology’ framing. He finishes by saying:

Finally, we’re going to be endlessly stuck at a cross-roads if discussion is stifled, (…) but a glance into the refereed literature clearly shows this is not the case. (…) We’re also going to be stuck at a cross-road if you perceive the progression toward unanimous [I would have said "broad"] agreement by the informed as a sign of dogma as opposed to robustness of the conclusion. [link added by me]


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