Science and Anti-Science. Again.

Michael Mann is denying the debate again, arguing in the New York Times, ‘If You See Something, Say Something‘.

THE overwhelming consensus among climate scientists is that human-caused climate change is happening. Yet a fringe minority of our populace clings to an irrational rejection of well-established science. This virulent strain of anti-science infects the halls of Congress, the pages of leading newspapers and what we see on TV, leading to the appearance of a debate where none should exist.

Judith Curry has responded to the article, and other of Mann’s statements:

Well, I do like the title of Mann’s op-ed. Here is what I see. I see a scientist (Michael Mann) making an accusation against another scientist (me) that I am ‘anti-science,’ with respect to my EPW testimony. This is a serious accusation, particularly since my testimony is part of the Congressional record.
If Mann is a responsible scientist, he will respond to my challenge:
.
JC challenge to MM: Since you have publicly accused my Congressional testimony of being ‘anti-science,’ I expect you to (publicly) document and rebut any statement in my testimony that is factually inaccurate or where my conclusions are not supported by the evidence that I provide.

Scientist and non-scientist alike have, throughout the climate debate, struggled to identify precisely what it is they object to about counter-positions. This, it seems obvious to say, is because of the incoherence of their own proposition.

As I point out, the ‘scientific consensus on climate change’ turns out, in most instances to be a ‘consensus without an object’. Which is to say that most arguments for political action to mitigate climate don’t actually proceed from the science at all, and in many cases make up the content — i.e. ‘object’ — of the consensus to suit the argument. The claim, which Mann himself uses in the NYT, for example, that 97% of scientists agree that ‘climate change is real’ and that ‘we must respond to the dangers of a warming planet’ isn’t borne out by a reading of the survey, which was itself imprecise about its own definitions, and captures the perspectives Mann has himself dismissed as ‘anti-science’: sceptics are part of the putative ’97 per cent’. Few sceptics argue that ‘climate change is not real’.

It follows then, that their own argument being incoherent, the likes of Mann will misconceive challenges to it. Unless, that is, Mann’s rhetoric is strategic: to not let out of the bag the ‘it’s more complicated than it-is-or-it-is-not-happening’ cat. It might well be true that ‘climate change is real’. But it might not be a problem. It might well be a problem, but it might not be a problem, as it is framed, of survival vs apocalypse. It might not even be a problem that necessarily leads even to a single mortality. It might just be a big inconvenience, that drags on for centuries, but which takes nobody by surprise.

The refusal to admit questions of degree into the climate debate is a sure sign that the debate is neither as clearly divided as Mann claims, nor that science can resolve it simply. The division of the debate into binary, opposing categories is strategic, political. He might as well say it divides between goodies and baddies. He fails to accurately describe the debate he is taking a position in. And that is an even more interesting phenomenon than the discussion about who is taking which position with respect to the question ‘is climate change happening’.

Mann divides the debate into ‘science’ and ‘anti-science’. This has been tried many times. But the debate is not so easily characterised. And here’s why.

This is an ‘anti-science’ argument:

Knowledge about the world cannot be achieved through the systematic formulation and testing of hypotheses through observation and experimentation.

Here’s another:

All scientific enquiry is a sin against God.

This argument is wrong, but not anti-science:

There is no such thing as cancer.

The object of the claim is cancer, not the science which determined its existence. Taking issue with the object or finding of a scientific investigation is not the same thing as taking issue with science.

Even if someone were to claim, as Mann seems to believe is being claimed…

There is no such thing as climate change.

… it would not be ‘anti-science’. It’s not a denial of the scientific method, even if it seems to be a denial of what the scientific method has produced. Most sceptic positions in fact attempt to use, not deny, the value of science.

The mis-characterisation of the argument, however, is a denial of the scientific method. Mann believes he can rule out any objection to his argument, not by reference to either his own scientific argument, or to the argument which seemingly contradicts it, but by reference to the weight of opinion that seemingly supports it.

The argument is about authority, not about facts pertaining to the material world. If the argument were about facts about the material world — i.e. objects — the scientific consensus invoked by Mann, would have an object. Mann and his detractors would be divided over a proposition. They aren’t. Many sceptics agree that ‘climate change is real’. And many of them, and other people who have attracted the epithet ‘denier’ are scientists, doing science. Hence, Mann pretends first that the debate divides on the meaningless proposition, ‘climate change is real’, and then that it is a matter of science vs anti science.

What Mann and many others confuse is the difference between science as a process, and science as an institution.

As Curry explained recently, “Skepticism is one of the norms of science”. To deny criticism, and to refuse even to admit to the debate parameters that might let debate occur is to deny the scientific method. Mann, in attacking his detractors not through argument about the science, but by questioning their obedience to the orthodoxy, makes science a religion, like clerics accusing lesser holy men of heresy or infidelity — the claim only has gravity by virtue of science as an institution — the weight of numbers, and their affiliations — not by virtue of the claims and counter-claims having been tested.

Curry calls Mann’s bluff — he should make plain what is the scientific claim which is in dispute, but which shouldn’t be, and which are the claims in general that sceptics seemingly deny.

He won’t ever commit, however, because he can only commit to hollow propositions like ‘climate change is real’.

Countless arguments across the web and in public life fail ever to make it plain what it is they are actually about, precisely because such esteemed scientists as Mann — who want to influence politics — have not made any progress in identifying their own argument, either. More than 20 years of effort have not led to presidents or prime ministers — nor even their climate change ministers — making factually accurate statements about climate change, and especially the link between climate change and extreme weather events. The misrepresentation of the debate continues, repeated by the media, politicians, and scientists, each hiding behind the authority of institutional science.

Away from the debate that only exists in Mann et al’s heads — of one side representing the proposition ‘climate change is real’, and the other side denying it — it seems that there is a widespread view that planet has warmed, slightly. But that warmth is not as much as was expected, and a hunt has begun to find the ‘missing heat’ in the deep oceans. Moreover, attributing that warmth to human society has been harder than was expected. Furthermore, the consequences of that warmth for natural processes have been harder to establish than was expected. Even worse, the effect of those consequences on human society have not been identified at all, in spite of claims to the contrary. And finally, the effectiveness of policies intended to mitigate those non-existent effects has not been established, nor survived a robust cost-benefit analysis, much less won democratic support. Even in this very (over-) simplified view of the climate debate, these are at least five questions of degree, each of which contingent on the magnitude of the previous, but which are routinely waved away by claims that ‘climate change is real’, and that ‘the majority of scientists’ agree with the proposition, and that those who disagree are ‘anti-science’. Anyone invoking the consensus in debates about climate change are thus separated from reality by at least five degrees.

Mann urges us ‘if you see something, say something’. So we say what it is we have seen, and the reply is that what we have seen is the result of being anti-science. But science is about reconciling different perspectives, not excluding those perspectives which do not fit the political agenda that institutional science has attached itself to. If ‘seeing something’ obliges the seer to ‘say something’, it must oblige the seer to discuss it with those who see it differently, not to merely shout louder in an attempt to drown out the other perspective. Any failure to do so reveals that what the seer sees is not the product of science.

What the other perspectives variously urge, either directly or by implication, is a more thorough interrogation of the perspective that Mann et al offer. Mann wants to argue that what he sees is hard, cold, objective fact — a reading of the world as it is, uncontaminated by the fragility of the human perspective. But it’s not enough to say ‘climate change is real’. We have to agree on what climate change is, and what its consequences are. But as this blog argues, ‘climate change ‘ means many different things to many different people.

For some climate change means only some form of socialism can rescue the human race from extinction. For others it means the construction of supranational institutions to monitor and regulate global productive activity. For some it means opportunities for ‘clean tech’ venture capitalists. Whatever the material basis of Mann’s claims is, a look at the human world and the arguments about climate change should demonstrate that there is nothing simple about the ideas about society’s relationship with the natural world that are in currency, and that thus a great deal is expected of science, and is presupposed in scientific investigations of the natural world. Mann is saying more than that we can observe a rise in temperature and attribute it to anthropogenic CO2; like many others, he’s saying that there are consequences for other natural processes and for human society.

A cascade of presuppositions emerges when we try to unpack claims like Mann’s about the urgency of what they have ‘seen’. He resists criticism of those claims by lumping them in with the — uncontested, unquantified — claim that ‘climate change is real’, and by belittling his critics. The presuppositions of the claims he makes need unpacking, and they need debate as much as they need to be taken seriously by science.

By excluding other perspectives, Mann is left only with his own. If science is the process of reconciling different perspectives, such that the fragility of perspective is excluded, then by excluding perspectives, the product of Mann’s science — what the likes of Mann see — is an image of himself, passed off as a picture of the world. An angry, censorious and arrogant scientist reveals much about the prejudices that form the environmental perspective, and just as much about the politics that has invested so much in him.

22 thoughts on “Science and Anti-Science. Again.”

  1. Marvelous piece!

    Scientists such as Mann aren’t content to remain in their labs, quietly & diligently conducting research. They insist on participating in the policy discussion – on stepping into the political sphere.

    They have every right to do so, but the minute they take that step they become just another voice. Their expertise is NOT in policy. Their opinion deserves no more weight than any other citizen.

    Mann regards those who hold alternative opinions as anti-science. He further says that those who challenge his views are ‘attacking scientists’.

    In other words, even though Mann has stepped into the political arena – where he has no expertise – he expects to be treated like the expert he considers himself to be back in the lab.

    He wants special status in the political arena. Even though politics is all about debate and competing views, he thinks his ideas should be shielded from such competition.

    You’re right, Ben, this IS arrogance. It’s also narcissistic.

  2. Ben:

    “What Mann and many others confuse is the difference between science as a process, and science as an institution.”

    Confuse? Fraudulently conflate? Who knows.

    But (forgive me if this has already been said) the deception of the public begins by putting a definite article in front of science. The idiom “the science” was ugly, unnatural and barely English, but they set about repeating it to the point of normalisation and thereby helped people to forget science as a process, and replaced it with the image of a dead, ungrowing object, a hard copy of “what scientists think,” and unless you assent to this Koranic monolith you are agreeing to be called a denier.

    If we were born in the developed world there are few things left in our daily experience which deserve the name “evil,” but the calculated dumbing-down of public scientific understanding is surely one of them. The few of us who understand it are obliged to resist it to the sweet end.

  3. Brad – But (forgive me if this has already been said) the deception of the public begins by putting a definite article in front of science.

    Great point.

    the calculated dumbing-down of public scientific understanding is surely one of them

    I’m not sure how calculated it is. The argument on these pages is that the changing relationship with ‘science’, (or ‘the science’), reflects a shift in politics. In brief: the authority of science is sought as politicians and public institutions lose the ability to make arguments with moral authority. This reduces politics to ‘risk management’.

  4. Also,

    I’m reluctant to bore you with the matter of David Appell—having already inadvertently subjected my twitter followers to an excruciating Marx-Brothers-like volley of Appell’s infantile incomprehensions—but he sedulously refuses to acknowledge that there are rules in science.

    We have watched, in disgust, as clisci after clisci behaves as if there were no rules of science. But Appell’s brain appears to have taken that to its literal, anarchist conclusion.

    When such a vocal paladin of The Science, purporting to be a former scientist himself!, disputes the existence of any constraints at all on scientific practice, and with them any hope of understanding what the scientific method may or may not be, this is surely significant. Is it a harbinger of the ultimate collapse of alarmist science into relativism and anomie, or is Appell just saying what they’ve all been thinking the whole time?

    And if so, why don’t we get this message out—the message that our opponents are (literally) science-rejecting anti-intellectuals?

  5. “I’m not sure how calculated it is.”

    Neither am I.

    Perhaps I should have said knowing—culpable. Because every scientist who picks up the paper must (surely) have seen the unrecognizably infantilized picture of science being offered by cretins like Cook, Lewandowsky and Oreskes—and said nothing. So even if the “leaders” of the retreat of scientific literacy are unburdened by any such literacy themselves, a whole phalanx of cowards is mentally and morally responsible for allowing it to happen.

  6. There are always some scientists who let the whole “genius” thing go to their heads and will never admit they are wrong, ever. This is the ugly side of university life. If you happen to cross one of these egomaniacs they will try to deny you tenure, undermine your funding, etc. Of course, in business such types exist also but when they destroy the business they are running their platform for megalomania is taken away. The climate debate has given such types a platform for not merely being right about mitochondria or cancer or lasers but about the whole world and its economy and social structure and by God you must listen to them because they are never wrong. You annoying idiot skeptics just don’t get it.

  7. This paragraph brilliantly identifies the problems with the endless and frustrating debates about climate change. Congratulations.

    Countless arguments across the web and in public life fail ever to make it plain what it is they are actually about, precisely because such esteemed scientists as Mann — who want to influence politics — have not made any progress in identifying their own argument, either. More than 20 years of effort have not led to presidents or prime ministers — nor even their climate change ministers — making factually accurate statements about climate change, and especially the link between climate change and extreme weather events. The misrepresentation of the debate continues, repeated by the media, politicians, and scientists, each hiding behind the authority of institutional science.

  8. I woke from the concupiscence of my dreams to the blinding light of a bland and British sky. Suddenly, I saw fly a cross the Western Sky a hope – was it a bird, a bat, a pterodactyl – no, it was SuperMann! (A good sobriquet to use in the future!) Always very disappointing.

    Brad Keyes, I like your anger – for they are cretins! People just don’t get it – the difference between science and politics – so much so that their ‘science’ is politics, politics by other means, and, therefore, every scientific ‘product’ they produce is suspect, though we must examine it on it’s merits, the merits of real science, of rational thought. I guess that’s what I miss in Mann et al in their public outings – rational thought, simple logic or ratiocinating. It drives me back to the good old Victorians. Reading The Voyage Of The Beagle is my kind of ‘spiritual bath’!

    But let me repeat what I put on another of Ben’s posts:

    ‘For what is science? Or, better, what is its place? Today, it must assume everything, even talking about ‘the shape of the universe’ being ‘the mind of God’. As if such little people, such ignorant people, those who have not read a word of Plato, Aristotle, Spinoza, Hume or Kant, could talk of such things.Science is a utility, a methodology, a means to certain kinds of knowledge for which very specific questions are asked. The real questions cannot be asked by science. For the real questions are the questions of essence and science is not ‘essential’. The arrogance of modern science is merely our impotence to ask these real questions. What is the ‘good life’? How should we live?’

    Science is not all it’s fetishised up to be!

  9. As always, a great deconstruction of the consensus.

    However I think you credit Mann too much. The goodies / baddies analogy is probably very close to nailing it. But the distinction isn’t between authority and those excluded from authority. It’s simpler than that: it’s about who’s side are you on? The goodies are those who toe the line, regardless of their credentials. The baddies are those who voice any doubt or divergence from the agreed position – again, regardless of their credentials.

    Like so often has occurred in times of conflict. If you say the right thing, you’re in. If not, you’re out. No concern for who you actually are or what you believe. It’s a war, so friend and foe need to be distinguished. The Inquisition and the French Resistance come to mind. As does the recent shopping centre attack in Kenya.

  10. BenM – However I think you credit Mann too much.

    I tried to avoid emphasising Mann’s role by referring to ‘Mann et al’, and ‘the likes of Mann’. I think it is right to resist the temptation to turn the discussion into one of personalities — Mann is a product of his time more than he is an agent of it.

    This is a point reflected throughout this blog, which explains the ascendency of environmentalism not as a consequence of its own power, but of the mediocrity of those who have lifted it.

    This is to explain things as ‘cock up rather than conspiracy’.

  11. It is indeed not a conspiracy, Ben, but rather what is actually historically happening. Who has the eyes to actually see this! Not I, for I just live it and write it. The bad keys on the bad piano.

  12. Lewis, I like that you like my anger:

    Brad Keyes, I like your anger – for they are cretins!

    You let them off far too easily (while denigrating Christians).

    For these saboteurs and saboteuses of science are barbarians, vandals, philistines and Huns and if we allow them to sack the Eternal City, then we deserve another Dark Age.

    Of course, I still fall short of the mark in verbalising the evil of the anti-science horde—but at least I denigrated bearded non-Hellenes, people from Andalusia, Palestinians, Turkic and Urdu speakers along the way!

    Ben:

    I tried to avoid emphasising Mann’s role by referring to ‘Mann et al’, and ‘the likes of Mann’.

    What are you thinking? Isolate! Isolate!

    We’ve been through this. Serengeti Strategy—remember? We did a whole 3-day seminar on this, Ben. If our opponents can understand it, surely it’s not too much to ask our own MVPs to follow it? Isolate, isolate, isolate. As Michael Mann himself says, the only way skeptics can fight a herd mentality is to target the runt, the gimp, the weakling and take it down. What kind of conspiracy are we if we can’t even coordinate an orchestrated gang-up against a specific, dodgiest scientist ever? As the zebra said to the lone lion: where’s your pride?

  13. For Brad – I only just got the joke – shows how slow I am! OED:

    late 18th century: from French crétin, from Swiss French crestin ‘Christian’ (from Latin Christianus), here used to mean ‘human being’, apparently as a reminder that, though deformed, cretins were human and not beasts.

  14. From American Thinker:

    Ross McKitrick, an econometrician at Guelph University in Canada, has a pungent comment on Mann’s op-ed, which was titled “If you see something, say something.”

    “OK, I see a second-rate scientist carrying on like a jackass and making a public nuisance of himself.”

    I have added my own comment as follows: “OK, I want to say something too: I see an ideologue, desperately trying to support a hypothesis that’s been falsified by observations. While the majority of climate alarmists are trying to discover a physical reason that might just save the AGW hypothesis, Mann simply ignores the ‘inconvenient truth’ that the global climate has not warmed significantly for at least the past 15 years — while emissions of greenhouse gases have surged globally.”

    Read more: http://www.americanthinker.com/2014/01/the_inventor_of_the_global_warming_hockey_stick_doubles_down.html#ixzz2rPPyhicx
    Follow us: @AmericanThinker on Twitter | AmericanThinker on Facebook

  15. An interesting thing in this is that Mann is deliberately seeking to harm Dr. Curry in a highly public forum. He is accusing her of something he has every reason to know is false. And she is much less a public figure than he is. She does not do political rallies, for instance. And her reputation is a fundamental part not only of her academic standing, but her commercial enterprise. Yet he calls her ‘anti-science’ from the op-ed pages of the NYT with disregard to the damage he may cause or the lack of truth in his accusation.

  16. If activists like Mann, Schmidt, Hansen et al. had the cojones, they would go into politics and run for office themselves to bring about change – but they don’t, so they won’t.

  17. Re Mann & Curry … “Scientist and non-scientist alike have, throughout the climate debate, struggled to identify precisely what it is they object to about counter-positions. This, it seems obvious to say, is because of the incoherence of their own proposition.”

    Great comment!

    Although is “coherence” the right word?

    If I were to say “there are gnomes in my garden who hide when I go out to look”. My argument can be entirely coherent, as in logically sound and not contradicting any evidence – but it’s hardly rational.

    However, whilst it might not be liked, the argument of most sceptics is very simple: the theory does not work in practice and has never been shown to work in practice. So, whilst we cannot prove “there are no gnomes”, our experience dealing with similar situations in which no gnomes have been found, does strongly suggest that citing gnomes as the cause in this instance is … not helpful.

    However, the reason there is argument is probably very simple. One side are aiming to understand the climate … and thinking they are the best group to understand the climate, they then assume they are the best group to decide what to do about it.

    The other group want to make a decision about what to do on the climate, and therefore look at the evidence available to make that decision and come to the conclusion the evidence does not support action.

    Neither side are “wrong”, in the sense that the only people paid to look at the climate are the academic researchers, and the only people who have the experience to make the decision are those outside … but when they are both arguing on two different ways to interpret the same data each with their own approach and priorities – it does not take a genius to see that it will be difficult for them to agree.

  18. Mike – Although is “coherence” the right word?

    I think so. Your example of an irrational argument (gnomes) is a good starting point. I would contrast it with the arguments put forward (for example) in the discussion under Mike Hulme’s article at The Conversation. My argument there (and on this blog and elsewhere) is that the ‘consensus’ is a ‘consensus without an object’, and the commenters there do much to illustrate the point.

    As I point out, the version of the consensus as “climate change is happening” (or many of its variants) means zero, both as a statement, and in terms of consequences. It could mean slightly different weather, and it could mean the end of all life on Earth, depending on who is wielding it. The ambiguity is such that one moment the ‘consensus’ can stand for something bland, like ‘climate change is happening’, but the next moment stand for something particular, ‘CO2 is a greenhouse gas’, such that ‘deniers’ are contradicting something in particular.

    Notice, equally, the problems that the likes of John Gummer, Ed Davey, President Obama and David Cameron have in establishing the basic facts of the proposition. This, in spite of armies of civil servants and advisers, who ought to be able to provide a *coherent* brief to their masters. Science has not improved the quality of the public debate.

    I think you are a little too generous with the following:

    “the argument of most sceptics is very simple: the theory does not work in practice and has never been shown to work in practice.”

    There is much more at play than a simple dispute over straightforward proposition or theory. There are in fact a constellation of claims.

    I’m not all that troubled by the notion of climate change theory, whether or not it has been shown to work in practice. What interests me, and what seems to have driven the debate are the consequences of the theory. That means we can be agnostic about climate change as such, while asking questions about the arguments that seem to progress from it, and to see what may be behind them.

    For instance, there were several claims made a while ago that ‘climate change would be worse for the poor’, consisting of studies estimating the impact of warming on the prevalence of malaria, malnutrition, and diarrhoea, which would increase by half a million a year to 2030.

    In order to make those claims, one needs to make a range of assumptions, not just about the interactions of disease vectors and the world, but also about human society and its capacities. In the end, however, the mortality rate of malaria has decreased. Human society was made of stronger stuff than the WHO and GHF estimated.

    Climate change theory is inconsequential. It’s what we attach it *to* that counts in arguments about ‘what is to be done’. The debate descends to science because it lacks the language to explore the ideological presuppositions of environmentalism. This allows many political arguments to hide behind ‘science’.

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