Science without an Object

In my post at the Nottingham Uni’s Making Science Public blog, I discussed the possibility of an empty consensus:

The consensus referred to by Davey and Nuccitelli, then, is what I call a consensus without an object: the consensus can mean whatever the likes of Davey and Nuccitelli want it to mean. Davey can wave away any criticism of government’s policy simply by invoking the magical proportion, 97%, even though those critics’ arguments would be included in that number. Consensus is invoked in the debate at the expense of nuance. A polarised debate suits political ends, not ‘evidence-based policy’.

Would a debate between two climate scientists, or an interrogation of climate scientists have produced anything more useful? At face value, a scientist seems less likely to make such a vapid appeal to scientific authority. But on the other hand, we often see many scientists in the climate debate doing precisely that –even chief scientific advisors — and equally failing to get a handle on the claims of climate sceptics as Davey himself. Moreover, one thing it would not reveal is the consensus without an object operating in government thinking on climate policy. Evidently, ministers are being briefed about developments in climate science partially, defensively, and strategically.

The consensus without an object is the thing that is wielded in debates about the climate, but which the wielder needs no knowledge of. In the remarkable case of Ed Davey, he was able to shut out data that may even be consistent with ‘the consensus’ — the temperature hiatus, etc — not on the basis of an engagement with the science, but by invoking the consensus. This shifts the debate from the substance of the science, to a battle of received wisdoms.

Some of the defenders of the Cook et al paper have found this idea troubling. To take issue with the consensus without an object is still seemingly to be taking issue with the science. But it isn’t. I think this idea can be extended further…

On the Shelagh Fogarty show on BBC Five Live today, Andrew Montford debated Greenpeace’s John Sauven about the death of a single polar bear. This prompted a discussion about the plight of polar bears across the entire Arctic…

John Sauven: If you look at the recent IUCN polar bear specialist group they said that of the 19 populations of polar bears, 8 are declining, 3 are stable, and one is increasing.
Andrew Montford: OK, well I’ve actually looked at that…
JS: IF you look at their previous study it shows that the rate of decline in terms of the number of polar bear species has increased. And I don’t think Andrew you can deny what is happening in the Arctic is quite dramatic. I mean it’s lost 75% of its volume in…
Shelagh Fogarty: Let’s allow him to reply John,
JS: Quite a radical change that’s happening in the Arctic today.
SF: John Sauven. let him reply, go on..
AM: I have actually read that study on the polar bear numbers. The problem is that it’s not based on counts of polar bears. It’s based on computer models. So where they have counted the polar bears, as I understand it, all but one sub-population of polar bears are increasing. And there’s one in which a small, and as I remember it, statistically insignificant decrease in numbers. Al the rest of it is computer simulations, based on ice-declines therefore the populations must have gone down. Again, this is a hypothesis, it’s not science.
JS: Well, this is what scientists, you can deny these scientific reports, Andrew, but this is scientists who are producing these reports, and they have the same,
AM: You can hypothesise all you like — create computer models that are as sophisticated and wonderful as you like, but they are only hypotheses.
JS: Well…
AM: So they’re, you know, it’s not denying anything; it’s me pointing out that they have come up with nothing more than a hypothesis.
SF: Hang on let John Sauven respond to that. Yeah, I’ll come back to you Andrew Montford.
JS: You know, Andrew can say the world is square and if all the scientists say the world is round, I have to accept the world is round even if Andrew thinks the world is square. I mean the thing is you can pick up every single scientific report there is and start trying to pull it apart. But these are reputable scientists who are saying these things and it’s also logical…
AM: No, I’m not denying they’re reputable… but they are inly hypothesising.
JS: And it’s also fairly logical and rational, even for an ordinary person who isn’t a scientist to understand that if polar bears need sea ice to hunt for seals and that sea ice disappears, then those polar bears are going to be in trouble. And that’s exactly what you are seeing is happening today.
AM: No, you’re not seeing it. That’s what I’m saying. They have hypothesised that this is happening, but we haven’t seen it. Where they count polar bear populations, the polar bear populations are largely going up. We know that a few years ago, there were many many few polar bears, but population, as you said yourself, is up to 25,000.
JS: Andrew I think you need to go away and read that report…

The issue of alleged polar bear population decline has been discussed on this blog before. At the end of 2011, and in the wake of the BBC’s series on the world’s poles had led to similar claims. But as I pointed out, there was no evidence for this decline. There is more data also at

Sauven’s comments to Montford are extremely irritating, not least because he cannot even pronounce the word ‘Arctic’, which becomes ‘Artic’ in his language.

But more significant is his deference to ‘science’. It is, like the consensus without an object, science without an object. Sauven has no idea what the substance of the science that he waves at Montford is.

But science should be about something. It is odd indeed that self-appointed proxies of science can emphasise the authority of science, but when an understanding that science is attempted, it is held by the proxy as a rejection — a denial — of science. The proxies of science are, paradoxically, anti-science. They deny that the scientific method can challenge scientific authority — that the institutions of science have more to say than the process of doing science.

Curiously, Sauven credits the layperson with sufficient capacity to join the dots…

it’s also fairly logical and rational, even for an ordinary person who isn’t a scientist to understand that if polar bears need sea ice to hunt for seals and that sea ice disappears, then those polar bears are going to be in trouble

… but not with sufficient capacity to read and understand the research itself, so as to criticise the claim that it seemingly produces: that polar bear populations are declining. To observe that the estimate of populations isn’t owed to observation, but to presupposition, is to claim that the world is square.

Science without an object dominates debates about climate science and the impacts of climate change. But the fact that so many activists really don’t know what they’re talking about has barely raised an eyebrow. Science is routinely divorced from its context, and turned into glib soundbytes that journalists, politicians and celebrities reproduce, largely to elevate themselves. But to my knowledge this extraordinary phenomenon is not the subject of many science and technology sociologists, nor of those with expertise in the field of ‘science communication’. Their attention is consumed by the conflict between climate scientists and sceptics. Yet the effect of green pseudoscience is arguably much further-reaching.

Even more curiously, many environmentalists have attempted to claim that climate sceptics are ‘anti science’. This needs some unpacking.

Being anti-science ought to mean standing against the scientific method. If climate sceptics were really anti-science, they would not making any claims about the particular evidence or the status of theories that are produced by climate science. They would instead say that recording observations, experiments, and the testing of hypotheses against data are futile. Conversely, being ‘pro-science’ means emphasising the value of the scientific method.

Warren Pearce recently asked ‘Are climate sceptics the real champions of the scientific method?‘, which was met by a colossal, world-wide whinge from climate activists. As Pearce pointed out, ‘sceptics cannot simply be written off as anti-science’.

However, I think the likes of Sauven and Greenpeace can be written off as anti science. The use of science without an object is anti science. Rather than emphasising the scientific method — of understanding the substance of the (seemingly) scientific claims he was making — Sauven instead appealed to the authority of the scientists. This gesture throws reason out of the window. Sauven had closed down any possibility of debate. He had surrendered his own rational faculties to a fantasy version of science. Much less Nuliius in verba than my science is bigger than your science.

Here’s another example of science without an object, this time being worn as an object:

The phenomenon of turning science into gloves is something I (co)wrote about at the time:

Back at Climate Camp, a final irony is that the ‘peer reviewed science’-cum-gloves worn by the protesters as a symbol of their unassailable righteousness wasn’t peer reviewed science at all. It was the front page of a report by the Tyndall Centre at Manchester University that developed policy recommendations for a low carbon future (Bows et al. 2006). Even more ironic, in the light of the fuss made over the corrupting influence of oil money, is that it was commissioned by Friends of the Earth and the Cooperative Bank. But again, don’t expect anyone to worry about such details. Because this isn’t really about science – it’s about climate science. And as the Heathrow protesters, the Royal Society, NASA, journalists and politicians demonstrate, climate science can be anything you want it to be.