Trust and Science

by | Mar 14, 2010

One of the things that often emerge from the climate debate is the problem that few people have a sufficient grasp of any aspect of the climate issue to speak with any authority. As far as some are concerned, the fact that we are not climate scientists hangs over anything we say here on this blog, for instance, even though what we’re really interested in are the moral and political dimensions of the debate. Does every debate about the climate outside of the science academy consist of nothing more than a battle of received wisdoms? Are our views about the climate debate formed from nothing more than what the people we trust say?

That the climate debate is very complicated and seemingly predicated on scientific theory and empirical observation looks like a good reason to exclude non-qualified opinion from the debate. Yet the desire to exclude non-qualified opinion from the debate about what to do may well be the motivation for such an argument. Such elitism is everywhere in this debate. It begins with arguments like George Monbiot’s in Heat…

It [the campaign against climate change] is a campaign not for abundance but for austerity. It is a campaign not for more freedom but for less. Strangest of all, it is a campaign not just against other people, but against ourselves.

… And it ends with undemocratic political institutions such as the UK’s Climate Change Committee and (if it had succeeded) the COP15 treaty.

Climate science was the source of all moral authority in the world. Impeccably well-behaved, selfless and incorruptible scientists laboured tirelessly to understand what Objective Truth Herself said. Meanwhile, evil, self-interested and unqualified parties had been paid by huge corporations vast sums of money to distort the message that had been spoken by Objective Truth to scientists through Science. Then Climategate happened, and messed the whole thing up.

Now, of course, George Monbiot has had to apologise because he invested his trust so heavily in “climate science”. When he felt this trust had been broken, he had to call for Phil Jones’ head. But as we’ve been arguing all along, you didn’t need to see what was going on at CRU – which was probably perfectly normal – to know that the arguments produced by every green poseur between Monbiot and Miliband was unsound. What happens now things aren’t so clear-cut?

Nature (magazine) abhors a (moral) vacuum… In an editorial this week, it said,

Climate scientists are on the defensive, knocked off balance by a re-energized community of global-warming deniers who, by dominating the media agenda, are sowing doubts about the fundamental science.

So, although even Monbiot seems to have been reflective about the failure that Climategate represented, some seem intent on reanimating the cartoonish categories in the debate. Blaming “deniers” for Climategate, and the disarray experienced by climate activists is a very silly move. What caused the argument to topple over and to lose credibility was its own structural weakness, not the efforts of deniers. Too much was expected of climate science.

the onslaught seems to be working: some polls in the United States and abroad suggest that it is eroding public confidence in climate science at a time when the fundamental understanding of the climate system, although far from complete, is stronger than ever. Ecologist Paul Ehrlich at Stanford University in California says that his climate colleagues are at a loss about how to counter the attacks. “Everyone is scared shitless, but they don’t know what to do,” he says.

It’s interesting that Nature chooses an ecologist – and not just any old ecologist – to speak for climate science, and climate scientists. Ehrlich is just about the last person Nature – which claims to be a ‘weekly journal of science’ – ought to turn to for scientific objectivity, or to comment on ‘attacks on science’. For Ehrlich is not simply famous for having had his own predictions spectacularly fail, he speaks as the re-inventor of Malthusianism and as a passionate advocate of controlling population. His failed predictions were used as the basis for a political movement once before. This movement made itself prominent by scaring everyone shitless about the end of the world.

In order to restore the public’s trust, says the Nature editorial…

scientists must acknowledge that they are in a street fight, and that their relationship with the media really matters. Anything strategic that can be done on that front would be useful, be it media training for scientists or building links with credible public-relations firms. In this light, there are lessons to be learned from the current spate of controversies. For example, the IPCC error was originally caught by scientists, not sceptics. Had it been promptly corrected and openly explained to the media, in full context with the underlying science, the story would have lasted days, not weeks. The IPCC must establish a formal process for rapidly investigating and, when necessary, correcting such errors.

It may well have been scientists who found the problem with the 2035 glacier claim. But it was this humble little blog which found the baseless ‘50% of crops in Africa’ claim in IPCC WGII.

What Nature still doesn’t get is that the claims made in IPCC reports – never mind their errors – no matter how forcefully they are presented in their “full context with the underlying science”, are not presented in their full context with the underlying politics.

Ehrlich’s politics preceded the science. And so it is with the arguments the IPCC’s projections towards climate catastrophe. The Malthusian dynamic that Ehrlich reinvented in fact works for species of animals. But humans are different because we can respond to our circumstances. In order to make his theory work for human society, Ehrlich has to rule out the possibility of human agency. This is the premise of so much environmental alarmism, including that which is now pushed in Nature. The editorial later reminds that, “the core science supporting anthropogenic global warming has not changed”. But Nature forgets that something exists prior to “the core science”, and that is the presupposition of impotence.

Nature continue:

Public trust in scientists is based not just on their competence, but also on their perceived objectivity and openness. Researchers would be wise to remember this at all times, even when casually e-mailing colleagues.

.. And perhaps when they are blocking FOI requests…

Public trust in science has little to do with the ascendency of the environmental message. In fact, what has driven the greening of politics is hinted at in the Nature editorial: “polls consistently show that people trust scientists more than almost anybody else to give honest advice”. As public trust in politics has waned, so politicians’ have had to seek new ways of establishing legitimate authority. And so aimless politicians have hidden their hollow political visions behind “science” and crises such as those constructed by Ehrlich. Ehrlich penned his gloomy tome as the incredible post-war economic boom came to a close, and the optimism of the White Heat moment began to flicker and dim. Thanks to Ehrlich’s prophecies, politicians no longer had to make promises about how they were going to make the world a better place, but instead just had to point to the looming ecological crisis to explain why they couldn’t. Science, which had once put people on the moon, is now being used to limit peoples’ expectations.

The only sensible comment from nature is that “Scientists must not be so naive as to assume that the data speak for themselves”. And yet that is precisely what scientists and politicians have done. The claims that “the science is in”, “the science is settled”, “the debate is over”, and the casting of this debate as one between “science” and those who wish to “attack science” all do exactly that. They obscure the fact that a great many presuppositions and prejudices lie behind and hidden by “the science”. The consequence is that, as it is revealed that climate science simply cannot bear the weight of the moral and political claims that are invested in it, trust in science will be eroded. It is those who are passing themselves off as the “defenders of science” who will be responsible.


  1. TDK

    Off topic but given your primary interest is in Philosophy I expected some kind of comment about Jerome Ravetz’ recent posting:

    Jerome’s contribution is interesting in that he can see a problem with climate science but is still wedded to Post Normal Science, which some would say is a cause of the mess in the first place.

  2. Donna Laframboise

    I’ve only recently become aware that Nature is a British journal, owned by a German publishing company, that somehow felt it was appropriate to endorse Barack Obama during the most recent US presidential election.

    Why would the most widely cited scientific journal go there? And what does that tell us about its editorial judgment? Is it aloof, separate, and above politics?

  3. Gregory

    It is surprising to see such a condescending tone in an editorial piece in a science magazine.

    I’m sure there are some rude and obnoxious global-warming deniers out there, and they probably do write to Nature Magazine with some outrageous language and claims. As anyone who works in local government will tell you, there are serial complainers in the community who write three letters a week to the local council. Science magazines have probably never encountered such a phenomena before; and by politicizing and criticizing the general public with such a condescending tone has is demonstrated in the linked article, have attracted their attention and motivated them to write to the magazine.

    But to apply a vocal outrage from a random collection of individuals to be from community who is dominating the media agenda, and being massively funded is just ridiculous to an extreme.

    Ecologist Paul Ehrlich “Everyone is scared shitless, but they don’t know what to do,” he says. A normal person would answer and say, “present your findings, answer the questions and look into the points which other scientists say you did wrong, because you might have”. What is there to be scared of?

    There seems to be a real divide to personality types and how they react to contrary evidence. Nature states the core science is still correct, and it might be, but I wish they’d state which parts are still correct.

  4. Yarmy

    Why on earth does Nature even have an editorial? It’s supposed to be a journal.

  5. Amy

    I’ve only recently become aware that Nature is a British journal, owned by a German publishing company, that somehow felt it was appropriate to endorse Barack Obama during the most recent US presidential election.

    Why would the most widely cited scientific journal go there? And what does that tell us about its editorial judgment? Is it aloof, separate, and above politics?



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