Posts Tagged ‘ideology’

The role of scientific consensus in moving the public debate forward

February 7, 2014

Mike Hulme had an interesting essay at The Conversation, the main message of which was

In the end, the only question that matters [for the public debate about climate change] is, what are we going to do about it?

Hulme correctly argues that the basic science is clear enough so that for society the important issues to discuss are not science related, but policy related. I argued much the same here. He writes:

What matters is not whether the climate is changing (it is); nor whether human actions are to blame (they are, at the very least partly and, quite likely, largely); nor whether future climate change brings additional risks to human or non-human interests (it does).

Let’s leave the minor quibble aside that AR5 puts the anthropogenic contribution at ‘extremely likely’ having caused more than half of the recent global warming.

The part where I disagree with Hulme is where he argues that showing the existence of a scientific consensus on the above (it is warming; it’s due to us; it’s bad news) somehow stands in the way of  getting society to discuss that most important question. I think the opposite is true. It is the continuous doubt about the science, sowed by those who oppose a serious discussion about what to do, that is a stumbleblock. Showing that a consensus amongst experts exists would enable society to more swiftly move on to the important conversation on what to do about it. I agree with Hulme that on this deeply ethical question there is, and ought to be, a multitude of opinions.

As Stephan Lewandowsky and John Cook write in a response to Mike Hulme:

The public’s perception of that scientific consensus is necessary to stimulate political debate about solutions.

Another element that’s missing from this discussion is that scientific and ideological arguments  should be clearly distinguished from each other (“is” vs “ought”).

Unfortunately, ideological arguments are often dressed in a sciency-looking cloak. From that perspective, I appreciate the honesty in Lindzen stating blunty “we’ll all be dead by then”, the obvious implication being: so why care. That’s indeed what a lot comes down to: How do you value the future compared the present?

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).


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]

Climate skepticism comes in many shades of grey

June 26, 2010

It has long puzzled me why so many people don’t accept the science. There is a tremendous difference in opinion about climate change amongst the lay public as compared to in the scientific community. I’m hardly alone in pondering the question of why (see e.g. this insightful post). It’s clearly an important issue if we are to increase the public’s understanding of climate change. Of course it is only to be expected that some people are skeptical: Naturally there is a spectrum of opinions. But that does not explain why that spectrum is so dramatically different between different groups of people (the lay public and the professional scientists in this case). To name a few plausible reasons:

  • Ideology can be a strong driver of how people view the science: Mitigation of climate change is seen as threatening by many libertarians, because they associate mitigation with government intervention, which they oppose.
  • Psychology can also be very powerful: To some it feels good to be the underdog and get celebrated by anonymous fans on the internet and phoned up routinely by newspapers, TV and other media (that counts for the ‘spokespeople’ only). Many people have a psychological predisposition to side with the underdog (that counts for their fans). The mitigation challenge is very great indeed, which means that it is psychologically favorable to downplay the problem (so as not to get depressed or feeling guilty about everything you do and don’t do). Recently I hear more often that people side with skeptics because they are ‘nicer’. A little odd, but if that plays a major role with presidential elections, than it’s only to be expected that it also plays a role in trusting scientists (or not).
  • Still others suffer from what I call professional deformation: Some well educated people from other disciplines view the science through the lenses of their own specialty, which, if they’re unable to take a bit of a helicopter-view of the situation, could skew their vision.
  • And of course some are just confused. With not a little help from the media, who, in an effort to provide ‘balance’, bias the coverage towards the “skeptical” compared to the mainstream view.
  • Then there are organized efforts at muddying the waters, which bear a resemblance to tactics used by e.g. the tobacco lobby. It is based on manufacturing doubt amongst the public regarding science that produces “inconvenient” results. This mainly applies to certain thinktanks and a few handfuls of individuals, but they exert a disproportionate influence on the media and public perception of the issues. The ‘tactics’ used are in more widespread use, whether consciously or not.

“Old skepticism”

This last category, organized denial and anti-science, could perhaps be seen as the “old skepticism”. It has its roots in history, notably the tobacco wars. It then spilled over to denying environmental issues, such as problems associated with DDT, asbestos, CFC’s, and now CO2. Fred Singer is one of the godfathers of this movement. Recognizing this historical context is important in understanding the nature and tactics of the resistance against science. But it also bears a risk.

Too often, anyone who disagrees with the scientific consensus is called an oil shill, or compared with the tobacco apologists. In most cases, these comparisons are totally off base (at least on the individual level) and counterproductive. Even though it is an important context, overusing this categorization for individuals can easily be dismissed as a conspiracy theory. Not everyone who is skeptical of AGW is in the pay of big oil or is consciously mimicking the tobacco strategies. If someone says that I’ve overused it in the past as well: Guilty as charged.

“New skepticism”

In the previous post I discussed a potential new form of skepticism, which according to some resemble “citizen scientists”. They are usually well educated and skilled people, who investigate specific issues of climate science (hockeysticks, anyone?) in more detail, and find them wanting. Nothing wrong with that of course, but it’s getting problematic if they conflate these details with what is known about the bigger picture, or if they started out with a deep suspicion that the science as a whole is faulty (e.g. for reasons such as stated above).

The more contempt they show for science, the more they argue the big picture of what’s known, the more they rage against emission reductions and talk about ‘world communist governments’ and other paranoid ideas like that, the less serious I take their criticism. Because to me, these are not characteristics of sincere skepticism; to the contrary.


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