Trust Me, I Speak for Science

by | May 6, 2011

Two recent posts here have been about the role of trust in the environmental debate. Briefly, Mark Lynas and George Monbiot seem to expect everybody to share their trust in scientific authority, yet not so long ago, they were themselves suspicious of it. It was the obedient slave of big business, they said. Now they and anti-nuclear environmentalists are busy calling each other ‘deniers’, while claiming to be speaking ‘for science’. What arguments that make this kind of appeal to scientific authority seem not to understand is that a relationship of trust is a pre-condition of scientific authority. You can’t have any kind of authority without some kind of relationship of trust; it’s like trying to have a party without beer, music, food and friends. So Lynas and Monbiot’s claims to speak for science merely bounce off their anti-nuclear opponents: ‘you’re repeating nuclear industry propaganda’, they claim — exactly the argument Lynas and Monbiot have been using all these years against their own adversaries in institutional science. Those claiming to be speaking for science are too easily identified as speaking for something else.

Elsewhere in the debate, the question ‘in whom do we trust’ rings just as loudly…

Roger Pielke Jr had a funny post recently, about angry liberal science-warrior, Chris Mooney. Here it is in full:

Chris Mooney explains the biological mechanisms that have led experts to be able to protect their minds against the corrosive effects of ideology and politics:

I’m not saying anyone is capable of being 100 percent unbiased but I am saying that scientists evaluate scientific claims, and also claims about expertise, using the norms of their profession, precisely because they have neural circuits for doing so laid down by many years of experience. Which the other groups don’t have.

So when it is revealed that many scientists have partisan and ideological leanings this is not a function of their biases, but rather a reflection of truth. This is quite different than arguing that “Liberals have a reality bias.” You can follow the logic from there.

Pielke gives Mooney’s statement the terse attention it deserves. Nonetheless, Mooney reveals many of the problem with the seemingly science-centric perspective.

The quote is from the discussion underneath an article on the Discover magazine blog in which Mooney continues his defensive manoeuvres against the ‘Rebublican War on Science‘ (i.e. calling those who don’t see the climate debate the way he does ‘contrarians’, i.e. denier-light). The issue there apparently relates to the question of the Bush administration’s interference in science. Mooney cites surveys of scientists, which seem to reveal that most scientists — including a majority of scientists who identify as ‘conservative’ — do believe that the Bush Administration interfered more in science than previous governments had. Leaving aside the questions about whether or not this is true, one way of explaining it if it is true is that science has never been so politicised. And the likes of Mooney only really have themselves to blame for that. After all, it’s Mooney’s desire that what ‘science says’ ought to determine the most far-reaching political reorganisation of the world in its history. The claim that ‘climate change is happening’, and that ‘science says’ so are almost always the prologue to a story about how the world needs a radical reorganisation, to save it from climate change. Seeking legitimacy for political ideas in science is what politicises — ‘interferes with’ — science.

It is in the comments under the article, however, in which Mooney makes his claims about truth-determining biological mechanisms.

… what I don’t accept is the validity of the comparisons between scientists, evangelicals, and Tea Partiers *with respect to* how they think about scientific topics in particular (which are the topics that are of course at issue here). I’m not saying anyone is capable of being 100 percent unbiased but I am saying that scientists evaluate scientific claims, and also claims about expertise, using the norms of their profession, precisely because they have neural circuits for doing so laid down by many years of experience. Which the other groups don’t have.

Leaving aside the stuff about ‘neural circuits’ for a moment, it’s interesting that Mooney pitches Tea-Partiers against scientists. The omission of all those countless non-scientist climate change activists (i.e. loud and angry liberal journalists with an English Major from Yale University) certainly reflects his own prejudices. So in what respect is the Yale graduate in English competent to speak about the development of ‘neural circuits’ amongst his own layperson peers in the Tea Party, and their competence to speak about ‘scientific topics in particular’, versus scientists? Chris Mooney obviously believes himself competent to speak about ‘scientific topics in particular’. He even feels competent to make a claim about other people’s ‘neural circuits’ being insufficiently developed to allow the expression of thoughts about ‘scientific topics in particular’. Is it only people he disagrees with that lack mental hardware?

A commenter on Mark Lynas’s blog — the one discussed in the previous post here — suggests reading another of Mooney’s recent articles which claims to present ‘The Science of Why We Don’t Believe Science‘.

“A MAN WITH A CONVICTION is a hard man to change. Tell him you disagree and he turns away. Show him facts or figures and he questions your sources. Appeal to logic and he fails to see your point.” So wrote the celebrated Stanford University psychologist Leon Festinger(PDF), in a passage that might have been referring to climate change denial—the persistent rejection, on the part of so many Americans today, of what we know about global warming and its human causes. But it was too early for that—this was the 1950s—and Festinger was actually describing a famous case study in psychology.

According to Mooney, ‘our brains fool us on climate, creationism, and the vaccine-autism link’. That is to say that neural circuits develop in the layperson such that he or she is predisposed to seek out facts which confirm existing belief, and to reject those which contradict them. Scientists, of course, seem to have better overcome this legacy of our evolutionary psychology.

Prior-ness is something discussed at length on this blog. The argument here is that much politics is prior to the science in the environmentalist’s argument. In order to believe the arguments that environmentalists in general have made, we have to presuppose that society’s sensitivity to climate is equivalent to the climate system’s sensitivity to CO2. I believe that this must be the case, because the fact of CO2 being a greenhouse gas isn’t something that by itself would cause us any alarm. It is the Nth-order consequences of climate change that tell us what kind of problem climate change is. When we try to work out what those are, I believe, we discover that what determines our sensitivity to climate is not the magnitude of the climatic phenomenon, but rather the extent to which we are able to organise protection for ourselves: wealth. Thus, in order to establish an equivalence of sensitivity of society to climate and sensitivity of climate to CO2, we must presuppose that we are not able to organise ourselves against the elements, changing or not. Climate change may well be a problem, but it may be a trivial one. The environmentalist typically answers with recourse to the precautionary principle, or to wildly exaggerate the magnitude of the problem, rather than to science.

Mooney’s priorness is something different, however. His argument is that something approximate to ‘ideology’ exists prior to the treatment of any new facts — especially scientific facts — that causes some kind of defensiveness, especially in those of a conservative mindset. That is to say that conservatives are ‘ideological’, whereas liberals more often express a tendency towards an ‘objective’ treatment of the evidence.

The short answer to Mooney here is that, if the putative Liberal/Left appears to be less-‘ideologically-driven’ than the Right, it is because it is that much more hollow. This is not a defence of conservatism (I am not a conservative), it’s merely a fact that we can see the disintegration of the Left in general over the course of the C20th. It has sought legitimacy for its ideas not amongst the public, but in the scientific academy. Meanwhile, it seems obvious enough that a more coherent ‘ideology’, and concomitant views on social organisation might mediate the impact of seemingly self-evident ‘facts’. That is to say that a conservative might just be less terrified by climate change than a ‘liberal’ because the conservative puts more emphasis on wealth. The liberal/Left, however, has emphasised wealth less and less as it conceded to capitalism.

Putting the last few paragraphs together then, it is possible that the exhausted liberal/left cannot conceive of a means to produce wealth, and thus descends to a naturalistic/deterministic view of the world in which humans are therefore vulnerable to climate. They make an equivalence of sensitivity of society to climate and sensitivity of climate to CO2. Conservatives, meanwhile, seem to better understand that humans actively produce wealth to improve their circumstances. Thus the order of change we can anticipate is far less of a problem in their perspective. Mooney likes to pretend that the way his fellow liberals see the same scientific argument is objective, and unfiltered by their own ‘ideological’ prejudices. But clearly we can see that seemingly value-free scientific judgements can be interpreted different ways in the cases of the hypothetical conservative and the hypothetical liberal. As pointed out here a lot, liberals such as Mooney just don’t recognise their own perspective as ideological. He believes that he just ‘reads off’ instructions to the world from ‘science’.

A caveat… there is a problem with the schema illustrated here, it borrows Mooney’s categories. I don’t think left and right and conservative and liberal are as rough-and-ready terms as we’d like them to be. Left and right are almost entirely redundant categories, and ‘conservative’ and ‘liberal’ only give nominative identity to contemporary political ideas. There is plenty of conservative thought embedded in environmentalism. And there is plenty of liberal thought amongst many a conservative. One thing we can say, however, is that there is no reason why a scientist wouldn’t be vulnerable to the political, ‘ideological’ presupposition of environmental determinism that the likes of Mooney seem to suffer.

In that case, we can say that it’s not necessarily a problem that Mooney’s scientists start from a political premise before projecting into the future to depict some terrifying Thermageddon. The problem is that he and they forget what they have presupposed, thus their forgotten political premise appears as a conclusion of climate science.

However, Mooney’s story is about more than climate change. He promises to tell us also why ‘our brains fool us on climate, creationism, and the vaccine-autism link’.

As attractive and elegant as evolutionary accounts of why some humans seemingly refuse to believe in concrete fact are, they are at best premature, and preclude the a far more straightforward explanation of different perspectives.

Dealing with the easy one first, the MMR-autism link may be better explained by the issue discussed in the previous posts: trust. Put simply, suspicion of the MMR vaccine thrived in an atmosphere in which modern medicine has not enjoyed the trust invested in it by previous generations. If you want to know why people don’t ‘accept the truth’ of MMR’s safety, read the conspiracy theories that are the background to the phenomenon. That’s not to say that ‘Big Pharma’ has never tried to cover up its mistakes, nor even that it never sought to maximise its profits at the expense of both the ill, and not at all ill. The point being that the MMR scare, much as the climate debate, represents the intersection of a number of phenomena:  suspicion of large companies and their influence, a loss of faith in the benefits of industrial society and in modernity, and the quasi-mystical elevation of the ‘natural’ over the synthetic. The degradation of trust between individuals and the institutions that might have been turned to for guidance happened prior to the emergence of the MMR scare. There is little point, in such an atmosphere, screaming about science: many people simply don’t trust it any more. Many people no longer think that the institution of medicine is about making people better, but merely about exerting control. They believe that potions and herbs can offer more than the latest scientific breakthrough, not because their neural circuits are insufficiently developed, but because the trust that really should exist between doctor and patient often simply doesn’t. The putative authenticity of ‘traditional’ medicine speaks about a broader phenomenon in which scientific, public and official institutions are seen as interested in a given outcome, much as Mooney believes individuals treat ‘facts’ according to the outcome pre-determined by their ideological perspective.

The breakdown of trust is comprehensive. It’s not simply that medicine is held in less esteem now than previously. In previous eras of optimism — even those which belied deep geopolitical conflict — scientific progress was visibly associated with a positive transformation of living standards, and a more rewarding experience of life in general. Again, it’s too easy to paint a picture of a golden era, so the point here is not to hark back to the postwar period, but to point out a transformation in the relationship between politics, science, and the public.  Science these days preaches instead the virtues of austerity where it used to promise abundance. Put crudely, the difference is between a politics founded on promise on the one hand and a threat on the other. “Vote for us and we will…” versus “vote for us or the polar bear drowns”.

There has been a tendency to overstate the Left-Right dimensions in this debate. But, as much as Mooney protests otherwise, there are no straight lines that correspond either to neurology or political theory. This week, for instance Jeremy Grantham — the backer of the Grantham Institute of the LSE, home of Bob May and Nicholas Stern — proclaimed that it is “Time to Wake Up:  Days of Abundant Resources andFalling Prices Are Over Forever“.

The purpose of this, my second (and much longer) piece on resource limitations, is to persuade investors with an interest in the long term to change their whole frame of reference: to recognize that we now live in different, more constrained, world in which prices of raw materials will rise and shortages will be common.

It is intensely irritating when the mega-rich lecture the rest of the world on its oh-so profligate ways. But the real issue here is that when men who command $hundreds of billions of capital express such a lack of confidence in capitalism, the putative political right has a problem. If (some) capitalists have lost faith in capitalism’s ability to produce increasing quantities of produce at decreasing costs, what is capitalism good for, as far as the man-in-the-street concerned? Why should he trust it, if the fabulously wealthy can only see dearth at the end of the tunnel? And why should he trust its institutions: banks, international trade agreements, government departments, contracts… and so on? Many who might identify with the Right may protest that Grantham is no capitalist, yet he is no socialist; his criticism is not of capital as such — he’s not seeking to abolish private property or dismantle capitalism — but an apology for it in an era (so he claims) of increasing scarcity. Reinventing Malthus, Grantham warns that ‘if we mean to avoid increased starvation and international instability, we will need global ingenuity and generosity on a scale hitherto unheard of’, before promising to return to offer ‘shorter-term views on the market and investment recommendations’. The end is nigh, but there’s plenty of opportunity to increase the value of your portfolio.

Grantham’s millennial anxiety reflects the failure of his own imagination. Like the Malthus he reinvents, he can not see what he has brought to the data which apparently tells him that the abundance produced throughout the era spanning the industrial revolution to the present is some kind of gift from nature. Divine providence. Capitalism doesn’t unleash human creative potential on this view; it merely digs stuff out of the ground and shifts it to where it is needed. It is this bleak outlook which is prior to the science. Grantham sees a ‘different, more constrained, world’, but isn’t it him that’s different, and constrained?

Creationism is perhaps a harder beast to understand. The noisy fight between angry atheists and creationists in recent years has been deathly boring. But again, if this is truly a debate between liberals and conservatives, all it reveals is the hollowness of either agenda. It seems obvious that there is a vast excluded middle in the debate, which neither side has been able to rally, much as the climate debate consists — apparently — of eco-warriors on the one hand and deniers on the other, while a great number of people are not really all that interested.

The angry atheists imagine some resurgence of religiousness, but a better account of the apparent rise of politicised religion is, again, a collapse of trust in secular public institutions. It is as if, so to speak, the likes of Richard Dawkins are fighting their own failures. They imagine the rebirth of a kind of medieval Catholicism, but this seems to forget that contemporary creationism expresses itself, not as the literal word of the bible, but in terms of ‘Intelligent Design’ — there is scientific evidence, claim today’s creationists, of God’s role in the development of organisms. Mirroring this concession to science, the evolutionists have invented their own creation myth from which they draw moral authority. The Darwinian account of evolution is for them more than simply an explanation of the Origin of Species, it is an encompassing, universal narrative that even explains why the stupid people who don’t believe the things you tell them stupidly don’t believe the things you tell them. Religious zealots and bigots past explained non-conformist’s disobedience as heresy and sin; those claiming to be the rightful heirs of the enlightenment put such intransigence down to insufficiently developed neural circuits — the legacy of evolutionary psychology, that only the enlightened and anointed have overcome. We might as well call ‘denial’, ‘original sin’, then.

Where the loss of faith in capitalism represents a problem for the putative right, the failure of secular public institutions to sustain, let alone engender, trust in them creates a problem for seemingly progressive liberals. Much of the argument offered by today’s secularists — and even by today’s theists — descends to science. Ethical, moral, political, and economic problems are seemingly answered by appeals to the ‘best available evidence’. Evidence-based policy-making is the order of the day. Thus we see policy-based evidence-making in place of transparent debate: politics reduced to technical process of management of public affairs in which public debate is precluded, and the contest between competing values, principles and objectives — that might have once been brought to bear over decision-making processes — surrendered to bogus spreadsheets weighted to pre-determined outcomes. Progressive movements matched the right’s loss of faith in capitalism with their own loss of faith in their ability to make moral and political arguments that appealed to a public consisting of engaged individuals, competent to understand their own interests. The greater good, it seems, was better served by self-justifying political elites than by the hoi-polloi themselves, after all.

Two things stick out from Mooney’s article. The first is this:

Modern science originated from an attempt to weed out such subjective lapses—what that great 17th century theorist of the scientific method, Francis Bacon, dubbed the “idols of the mind.” Even if individual researchers are prone to falling in love with their own theories, the broader processes of peer review and institutionalized skepticism are designed to ensure that, eventually, the best ideas prevail.

The point Mooney wants to make on Bacon’s behalf is that human faculties are prone to error. I.e. it is a condition of subjectivity that it has only an incomplete picture of the world; i.e. a perspective. Some of this we must agree with. After all, the point emphasised above is that the politics is prior to the science; Grantham, for instance, sees in the data reasons to be cheerless, but they are his own prejudices and failure of imagination looking back at him.

Remarkably, Mooney emphasises not simply the scientific method, but the institutional apparatus of scientific practice as its extension as the means to ruling out the subjective influences that may beset a ‘value-free investigation’. ‘Institutionalized skepticism’ (or ‘institutionalised scepticism’, this side of the Atlantic) serves as the filter of bad ideas, presumably by operating according to the principles that Bacon — and philosophers of science since — have laid down, but not merely those principles. Scientific authority, in other words, comes by virtue of some form of social organisation: institutional science. Mooney’s conception of scientific authority begins to look a lot more political now.

This blog has emphasised that there is a difference between science as a process and institutional science. It’s important to note, again, that creationists, MMR-autism campaigners, climate change ‘deniers’, and all the other objects of Mooney’s criticism, do very little to attack science as such — as a process. Indeed, they can all be found, right or wrong, making appeals to science. Mooney protests that science is under attack, and that the Republican Party, during Bush’s administration, had even launched a ‘war’ against it. But as we can see, there is no war on ‘science’ as a process; so many of the putative anti-scientists make appeals to scientific evidence.

The best sense that can be made of Mooney’s claims that there was a ‘war on science’ and that there is a ‘science’ of ‘why we don’t believe the science’, is that there is a ‘war on institutional science’ and that there’s a ‘science’ of ‘why we don’t believe the institutional science’. This much has been answered above. There is no coincidence that the alleged ‘war on science’ happened during an era in which (institutional) science was so politicised, by, as much as anything, the vacuity of the liberal/progressive movement’s agenda. And Mooney has done more to politicise science than most other people. Second, the scientific method no more obliges people to trust institutional science than the literal word of the bible obliges people to believe that the church itself is incapable of doing wrong. To make the point more explicit: there is a difference between trust in the scientific method and trust in the scientific institution.

Mooney continues:

Our individual responses to the conclusions that science reaches, however, are quite another matter. Ironically, in part because researchers employ so much nuance and strive to disclose all remaining sources of uncertainty, scientific evidence is highly susceptible to selective reading and misinterpretation. Giving ideologues or partisans scientific data that’s relevant to their beliefs is like unleashing them in the motivated-reasoning equivalent of a candy store.

Irony indeed. Fancy letting ideologues and partisans near literature that they don’t understand! They might turn out some cod-science about how the people they have a political disagreement with have insufficiently developed ‘neural circuits’, having failed to overcome their primitive psychology!

The second thing that sticks out from the article is the illustration that seems to reflect Mooney’s perspective:

In this picture, ‘belief’ is depicted as an poor approximation of ‘truth’. That is to say that mental models of the material world are imprecise, and prone to error, reflecting Mooney’s comments that subjectivity is flawed, and that the scientific method — and scientific institutions — aims to ‘weed it out’. The implication of this and Mooney’s concerns about letting ‘ideologues’ near ‘scientific data’ is that ‘truth’ is something which only institutional science has access to, and it that becomes corrupted in the hands of the ‘partisan’. But truth is not a property of the material, ‘objective’ world; it is a judgement about statements, or beliefs. It does not exist ‘out there’.

This metaphysical confusion runs throughout Mooney’s argument. For Mooney, ‘ideology’ is some insidious, toxic force, the antithesis to ‘truth’ itself. The thrust of his argument is that we need particular scientific institutions to ameliorate this intrinsic weakness of human nature. And as such, these institutions deserve elevated status above the reach of those prone to ideology. Otherwise, we would tend towards creationism, to MMR-scares, to climate-change denial. In other words, our flawed minds would create a catastrophe, and it is this possibility of catastrophe that seemingly legitimises the elevated position of scientific institutions. Mooney reinvents Plato’s city state administrated by Philosopher Kings, the main differences being that Mooney conceives of a global polity, and the wisdom of the Guardians only produces the possibility of mere survival, not even a better way of life. To bring this back the matter of trust, Mooney doesn’t trust humans. Their minds are flawed. Their ambitions and ideas are mere fictions. The institutions they create are accordingly founded on false premises, which, instituted and acted upon, will cause disaster. Even when humans are exposed to ‘the truth’, it is, on Mooney’s view, absorbed into the poisonous, ideological programmes of partisans: liars and cheats who distort it. But without a disaster looming, this instance of a politics of fear would collapse.

The desire for a stable climate and a stable relationship between society and the ‘biosphere’ is an unstated desire for a stable society without of the means to build it. It is a politics by other means. Mooney’s cynicism towards his fellow humans forces the business of politics away from the public sphere that he otherwise has no chance of influencing, into some imagined, purely objective realm. But this realm does not exist. His scepticism of ‘ideology’ and ‘partisanship’ and his emphasis on ‘science’ belies a lack of confidence in his own ability to create and share ideals. Hence he turns against overtly political arguments, and hides them behind the putative objectivity of institutional science. The model of society he imagines is not argued for on its own terms, and does not appeal for the assent of those that would be governed by it for authority. He simply can’t make a popular argument for his political idea, and so turns to ‘science’ to identify the necessity of such a programme — i.e. the crisis — and to identify reasons why conventional democratic processes cannot realise it — i.e. insufficiently developed ‘neural circuits’ and evolutionary psychology. Thus he reinvents ancient and medieval theological political theories. This distrust of the lay public’s mental faculties is not owed to scientific discovery, but to a prejudice in turn owed to his own anxieties about a world he has no control over. This is an anxiety that troubles those who already belong to a political class, but who feel its influence ebbing away as faith in it and its institutions diminishes. They mistake their own demise for the end of the world. This is what is prior to ‘science’ in arguments such as Mooney’s. It is ideological. It is partisan, though it is incoherent. And it has nothing at all to do with the quality of ‘neural circuits’.


  1. Luis Dias

    Very long, but rather nice post, encompassing a lot of stuff going on on your head ;).

    I specially enjoyed the multiple parallels. I have two points to point out.

    The first is that while the creotard-evilutionists’ war is indeed boring (one only has to gaze upon PZ Myers’ blog to see how shallow it is), and we can also say that the angry atheists’ movement arose from that, you are forgetting that a) this movement only got their green light after 9 11 (Dawkins was finally green lit his atheist book after it happened, Sam Harris started to write his own book the day after 9 11, etc.), which I think it is what they worry more about (not a ressurgence of medieval christianity but a full blown confrontation with a medieval Islam), and b), You will never be able to say that Christopher Hitchens is “boring”. I won’t allow you to do so!

    The second thing I’d like to point is that I really enjoyed the metaphysical commentary over what I’d state as “naive realism” of these allegedly rational scientists… Even Sokal when he wrote his famous paper precisely about metaphysics (after the Sokal affair) couldn’t help himself but place himself as a half-realist. It’s as if these people never read Nietzsche, as if these atheists never really left their religion, their platonism… their discourse is filled with religious thinking while proudly proclaiming being its exact opposite. They are creating their own religion and completely oblivious to it.

  2. Ben Pile

    Luis — guilty as charged; it’s too long, but it could have been much, much longer. There was even a bit about PZ Meyers and his spat with CM. I took it out. But where to stop…

    I take your point about the phenomenon of angry atheism being relatively recent. But I think a lot of it is owed to the inability of US liberals to mount a robust criticism of Bush, and some kind of anti-American racism here in the UK.

    Dawkins developed his theory of memes in the 1970s, as a kind of post-script to the Selfish Gene. I think the highly deterministic and scientistic ground that characterises the angry atheists was established well before 9/11.

    We should include the Sokal & Bricmont affair in the development of that movement. It’s interesting to see how wrong Dawkins gets their stunt in his review of Intellectual Impostures. He perceives it as a defence against an attack on science, whereas Sokal explains in the Afterward to Transgressing the Boundaries… that

    my main concern isn’t to defend science from the barbarian hordes of lit crit (we’ll survive just fine, thank you). Rather, my concern is explicitly political: to combat a currently fashionable postmodernist/poststructuralist/social-constructivist discourse — and more generally a penchant for subjectivism — which is, I believe, inimical to the values and future of the Left.

    Which continues in the footnote:

    The natural sciences have little to fear, at least in the short run, from postmodernist silliness; it is, above all, history and the social sciences — and leftist politics — that suffer when verbal game-playing displaces the rigorous analysis of social realities.

    Sokal and Dawkins appear to be talking at cross-purposes, and it’s not until later, as you point out, that the ‘attack on science’ stuff comes to the fore, and events bring Dawkins ranty crusade to prominence, rather than it getting their by his own steam.

    Another interesting aside… Sokal’s emphasis is on the effect of postmodernism on the political Left, not on science. Contrast that with Mooney, who claims that it is the Right who attack science. There are some interesting issues to resolve between Mooney, Dawkins and Sokal.

    It’s also curious to see that Sokal emphasises ‘subjectivism’ as the real problem of postmodernism, as it is more easily characterised as a denial of subjectivity, for instance as a construction of bourgeois/capitalist ideology (Althusser — ‘history is a process without a subject’). Sokal either gets it quite badly wrong, or he perhaps confuses the term with ‘relativism’. Either way, the scepticism of subjectivity is carried forward through the scientistic/deterministic narrative from Mooney and the angry atheists. Dawkins, for instance, tragically repeats the misappropriation of scientific terminology by the social theorists with his own determinism.

    I disagree that the angry atheists were not worried about the resurgence of the Conservative Christian Right as much as medieval Islam. They created a picture of religious red-necks with a hotline to the White House, bent on a latter-day crusade to bring about the End Time/Rapture, and all sorts of nonsense.

    The Neo-cons, were of course, meanwhile involved in creating their own mythology about the rise of medieval Islam. Blair calling it a ‘battle of ideas’, and of civilisation. Whereas none of those involved in that war had any conception of civilisation remaining whatsoever. The three groups, I think we can say, were each as hollow as the other, and moreover, need each other, and the absurdities of the War on Terror allowed them each to advance the narratives that had been somewhat redundant.

    Is Hitchens not boring? He’s certainly entertaining. And he’s certainly has an incredible grasp of history. But I felt he’d lowered himself in both the God debate and throwing his lot in with Neo-Cons Hawks and the War on Terror. I wonder if he, like many on the Left, wasn’t simply looking for an edge.

  3. geoffchambers

    The growing mistrust of official science and medicine is something we can all identify in anecdotal terms, and trace back to its cultural roots in a green / hippy worship of nature, the noble savage etc., but its not born out by opinion research. The annual opinion survey on trust in the professions conducted by MORI since 1983
    shows a consistent high regard for doctors, teachers, judges and scientists, and a low esteem for trade unionists, politicians, businessmen and journalists.
    The mistrust you mention, revealed in a fashion for alternative medicine etc., is an epiphenomenon, arising in minority niche markets and popularised by a marketing culture which sticks a “herbal” or “natural” label on the products of our scientific civilisation. It’s not actually there in the survey evidence, just as worry about climate change is not actually there. And of course, the two are linked because the same social groups are involved in the manufacture of both myths.

    I’m the last person to treat opinion poll results as unquestionable objective facts, but if you’re going to make the issue of trust a key concept in your analysis, it’s important to acknowledge what evidence there is.
    What’s happened I think is that the untrusted professions have latched on to this kind of survey evidence in a naive way and tried to appropriate the trust apparently accorded to science and medicine. A more intelligent analysis would look at such questions as our need to trust doctors (our lives may depend on it) which is obviously of a different order from our reliance on journalists and trade unionists.

    You open up an interesting line of socio-historical analysis when you say:
    “The breakdown of trust is comprehensive. It’s not simply that medicine is held in less esteem now than previously. In previous eras of optimism … scientific progress was visibly associated with a positive transformation of living standards, and a more rewarding experience of life in general … the point here is not to hark back to the postwar period, but to point out a transformation in the relationship between politics, science, and the public”.

    Isn’t it the case that – typically in the post-war period – scientific progress was visibly associated with the HOPE of a positive transformation of living standards? Now it’s upon us, and we can afford to mistrust (or affect to mistrust) science, specifically because we’re in a period of absorption of the tremendous advantages which science and technology have heaped on us.

  4. geoffchambers

    Whenever I hear the expression “neural circuits” I reach for my wirecutters.
    Some choose neurology as their preferred ad hominem weapon, others prefer psycho-analysis or philosophy. It’s a statement as to where you stand intellectually with respect to your opponents, and therefore no more relevant to reasoned argument than the banner under which you fight is relevant to the justice of your cause.
    We seem to be hardwired (there I go) to prefer one or another of the social sciences for analysing the motives of our opponents. Conservatives say “follow the money” and are unable to conceive any other than an economic motivation for the opinions of their opponents. Thus the billionaire Gore becomes the archetypal lefty, and his followers, who have no economic interest in environmentalism, become brainwashed idiots. Progressives tend to prefer psychological explanations, but are hindered by the natural unwillingness of democrats to accuse the general public of being stupid, so they too turn to economics for explanations, and seek the hidden hand of Big Oil money.
    Neither side seems interested in historical or sociological explanations. History is just a source of insults to fling (Pol Pot, Lysenko…) and sociology is reduced to opinion research, with the “belief in global warming” timeline joining global temperature and voting intentions as part of the stock of chronologies with which we structure our mental image our limited span on earth.

    Not-as-off-topic-as-it might seem:
    The quiescence of the green movement and the kamikaze attacks on their own supporters by Monbiot and Lynas led me to think that maybe the movement was dying a natural death, but an interesting snippet on the referendum suggests otherwise. Though AV was rejected by more than two to one in the country as a whole, it got a majority in Cambridge, Brighton, and the trendy parts of North and South London. The chattering classes are alive and well and have the geographical (and social) concentration which is the kernel of any living political movement.

  5. George Carty

    Some have argued that fear of nuclear war was a major factor in causing people to mistrust science and scientists, but that doesn’t seem to accord with the timeline. Environmentalism began its rise in the 1970s, which was about the time that détente was greatly reducing the danger of nuclear war.

    The oil shock of 1973 no doubt had something to do with spurring the rise of the energy conservation movement, and I wouldn’t surprised if Big Oil decided to fight back (after oil-fired power stations were largely phased out in the 1970s due to the high price of oil) by bankrolling the anti-nuclear-power movement.

  6. Ben Pile

    Geoff, I think we agree that the anti-vac movement are somewhat narrow — though vocal. Mooney is quite frank about them also belonging more to the ‘liberal’ movement than to the right. And either way, the point we disagree with Mooney about is that it is trust rather than pathology, which is the easiest way to understand the phenomenon of the vaccine scare. I think we’d need to see a much longer series to start looking to see how trust and other relationships between state, science and public have transformed over the era.

    I would also suggest it’s easier to identify in literature than measure empirically. So the horizontal axis, as it were, of our study begins with the moon-landing speech, and ends with “climate change is our moon landing” (Sir David King). An empirical study of the public and its attitudes may well miss the point: it is King’s dysphoria and anxiety that we’re trying to explain; not a phenomenon that affects/afflicts the public.

    The question about hope in the postwar period is also interesting and challenging. I think we can say that there were dramatic transformations in many aspects of life over the era, my view is that it stopped, perhaps coinciding with the end of the boom years.

  7. Ben Pile

    George — Environmentalism began its rise in the 1970s, which was about the time that détente was greatly reducing the danger of nuclear war.

    We could go further back, to Carsen. The Club of Rome published Limits to Growth in ’72. Ehrlich’s Population bomb was published in ’68. Also, the Cold War escalated somewhat under Regan.

    The oil shock and the end of the economic boom I think have much more to do with it. Much as 9-11 seemed to give substance to the claims made by the angry atheists narrative, the gloomy economics of the 1970s gave substance to the claims of the neomalthusians. The interesting thing about environmentalism then is just how politically conservative it is. Ehrlich is a Republican, as is Hardin, a contemporary of Ehrlich, and a big fan of Hayek, and it’s at this time that a small group of UK Tories establish what later became the Green Party. I think it’s probably safe to say that it was the right which produced the environmentalism of the era. Unable to find its way out of economic problems, they were externalised as a problem with the natural world (or our relationship with it) than of a crisis within the human world, i.e. capitalism. Just as contemporary environmentalism is a political phenomenon, so it was in the 1970s.

    The nuclear war stuff is interesting, I think, mainly insofar as it creates a mental space for apocalyptic mythology in the secular narrative. The anti-nuclear left of the era have something to answer for here, I think. The emotional treatment of the possibility of global nuclear war dominated their criticism of the players in the Cold War.

  8. geoffchambers

    I agree entirely that a phenomenon such as trust is easier to identify in literature than measure empirically. I’d always argue for a more “qualitative” approach to analysis of social questions – for the kind of sociology initiated by Durkheim and Weber a century ago, which takes quantified data as its raw material, then applies analysis rooted in a profound humanist appreciation of society. Instead of which, we have pollsters churning out statistics and journalists scavenging through them looking for the titbits. Opinion makers are far too willing to believe any percentages drawn from a study of 50 people rather than trust their judgement of what’s happening in society around them.
    However, the MORI study is there, goes back nearly 30 years (though not for scientists), and cannot be dismissed. What it means is another matter. Most such studies are woolly and uninteresting, but this one has such stark differences that politicians and journalists were bound to take it seriously.
    People were asked who they trust to tell the truth. Over 80% trust doctors and teachers, 70% trust scientists, and 20% or less trust journalists and politicians. The later groups naturally said “I want some of thet trust stuff” and started quoting scientists (but not teachers – I wonder why?) as their authority.
    My own reading is that people tend to trust the people they meet in their lives, but not those who affect them at a distance – which is no bad thing. Also, the question is: “… trust to tell the truth”. It’s perfectly possible to prefer journalists who entertain, or politicians who are good at pushing the interests of their voters.
    A historical difference between people’s experience of scientific progress over the past sixty years which needs exploring is the difference in relevance to their lives. Penicillin and the NHS were nice to have, and worth voting and paying for, but not in the same way as cell phones and the internet. I bet people don’t trust Bill Gates like they trust Alexander Fleming – but that’s just my hunch, not something I have quantitative evidence for.

  9. George Carty

    Ben Pile – We could go further back, to Carsen. The Club of Rome published Limits to Growth in ’72. Ehrlich’s Population bomb was published in ’68. Also, the Cold War escalated somewhat under Reagan.

    I was saying that the rise of environmentalism as a movement began in the ’70s, even if some of its core text were written earlier.

    Another point — is it true to say that if socialism is the ideology of the workers, and capitalism is the ideology of the entrepreneurs, then environmentalism is the ideology of the landowners? That’s another strike against it, given how Blair and Brown (and earlier Thatcher, but not Major) sacrificed Britain’s actual productive economy on the altar of high house prices.

  10. gyptis444

    As far as climate science is oncerned, the discussion here is way to philosophical. Given the findings of the IAC review of IPCC’s procedures etc. why would anybody trust IPCC? The findings included political interference, lack of transparency, biased treatment of genuinely contentious issues, failure to respond to critical reviewer comments, poorly reflecting uncertainty (read exaggeration), vague statements not supported by evidence, lack of any policy to preclude conflict of interest, and use of unpublished and non-peer-reviewed material not flagged as such (a polite way of saying that some IPCC authors wrote their own ‘supporting evidence’ which was then included as an official citation).
    Combine this with the hockeystick, hide the decline, hide my data, non-compliance with FOIA, deletion of emails etc. and is it any wonder there is erosion of trust.
    What it boils down to is that the IPCC’s Fourth Assessment Report is a political advocacy document rather than the robust, comprehensive, objective appraisal of the relevant scientific literature which many assume it to be. For those of us (outside the climate science community) who have had any engagement with real science can recognise a snow job when we see it. Not to put too fine a point on it, ‘Climate science’ has been prostituted in support of the agendas of the sponsor governments, the majority of whom expect to receive major financial rewards as the main outcome of the IPCC process.

  11. Luis Dias

    Just to say that I also enjoyed reading the commentaries and the discussions ;).

    Perhaps you don’t know this Sokal paper, defense for a modest realism,
    , which was the one I was referring to. I take your point about Sokal affair being more about the shutting up of a silly field that was starting to write blatant nonsense mascaraded as something brilliant, that was polluting the “left” he was so pleased about. I also do not think that “angry atheism” has to do with “anti-americanism”. Dawkins doesn’t seem an anti-american, Hitchens even moved to the USA as a reply to the leftist’s anti-americanism, Sam and Dennett do not seem so troubled by their own national identity.

    What I read there is a novel fear of a “novel” irrationality we are not accustumed to, Islam, and sure enough that the rednecks and the fanatical israelites and muslims take the heat too. I think this movement really got kickstarted with Carl Sagan, specially with his book “The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark”, which poised science as the unique light in this dark world filled with superstition.

    Which goes back to the theme of the post. If Science is indeed the only game in town, then it inevitably becomes politics. Whoever is “against” science will be “against” the only light we have in an increasingly dangerous world. Whoever is against those who speak for science is, thus, against mankind as a whole.

    And a new ideology forms. It all begins with the best of intentions, doesn’t it?

  12. Ben Pile

    Gyptis444 – ‘As far as climate science is [c]oncerned…’

    Gyptis, this blog isn’t about climate science — there are plenty of other blogs for that. If we want to argue that politics is prior to the science, it does no good to merely take apart the science, or to complain about failures of process at institutions such as the IPCC. That merely concedes to the idea that the matter can be settled with ‘science’, thus mirroring the mistake that environmentalists have made.

  13. Ben Pile

    Luis. I didn’t mean to say that all of the new atheists were anti-American, but that here in the UK, it was certainly a characteristic of part of it.

    Dawkins certainly knows better. And of course, Hitchens has made the USA his home. But I think I also tried to emphasise that there were no straight lines in the debate, i.e. the peculiar contradictions that emerge between Sokal, Dawkins and Mooney. The new atheists are incoherent, I would suggest.

  14. Luis Dias

    Good article, Ben, thanks. Although I admit I felt myself in the awkward position of standing between the author and Sam’s points though. There is a case to be made that human values, in a globalized village, are too different right now. We pretend they aren’t, we pretend that (often fatal) mysoginy isn’t happening right now, because we’d just go mad if we did. We appear quite vulnerable to the lack of distance to these global problems, psychologically speaking.

    And that’s perhaps what unites what you call (and I agree) this incoherent group of people, who, I’d say, are trying to fasten the creation of a secular globe, mirroring their own hometowns, fearful of what to them is the strange, enraged, barbaric islam. I really believe that it is Islam which is feeding this particular discussion (we are witnessing the rise of far right-wing politics in “traditionally” left-wing paradises, such as Finland and Netherlands – and others – due to islam, israel, etc.).

    About the article itself, I think it is too simplistic to invoke Hume’s law regarding science, since science itself is also predicated unto unprovable assumptions… although the prospect of a commitee judging what kind of morality we should aspire to given the statistical evidence, etc., is obviously dystopian. It easily reminds the soviet union, and this is no coincidence, for the particular communism practiced in it had a good deal of technocratic politics running deeply psychological aspects of soviet societies within it (for example, scientists would predict fashion for the next year, and they would produce accordingly).

    The problem isn’t science outputting morality, I see it as possible. The problem is the subsequent power that this outputting places unto science. And power corrupts ;).

  15. Ben Pile

    Luis – I really believe that it is Islam which is feeding this particular discussion (we are witnessing the rise of far right-wing politics in “traditionally” left-wing paradises, such as Finland and Netherlands – and others – due to islam, israel, etc.).

    You don’t think it’s because Social Democracy is disintegrating?

  16. Luis Dias

    I forgot to add that I found Sam’s confusion for the Alien’s happiness vs Human survival to be hilarious and, obviously, telling. He’s so quick to the gun pointing out that relativists do not recognize the obvious barbarism of other cultures, and then fails the test when it comes to aliens producing a holocaust in humanities.

    Alas, I find it so outrageous silly that, in a second thought, I’ll be immensely skeptical about it until I see an actual (long form!) quote by Sam admitting this comedy (so I’ll have to listen to the debate!)

  17. Luis Dias

    You don’t think it’s because Social Democracy is disintegrating?

    Well, I am trying not to spam your blog! (and failing)

    That is an interesting point, to which I have only two opinions. First, it could be possible to say that “social democracy” is, mostly, done. What remains to do is mathematics, how much social subsidies should we provide, how much investment in schools, how much money to this rather than that, how much taxes, etc. Now, this is simplistic, sure, and many politicians still find political novelties to which debate, but they are clearly marginal. In this case, it wouldn’t be so shameful to say that “politics are dead”. They did their job, now it’s up to others to perfect it. (I’m not discussing stupidity or corruption, sure)

    The second thing is that this reaction did not mainly occur due to the “barbarism” of islam, but to the complete lack of reaction of “Social Democracy” to it, in a rather christian masochistical self-blaming way, in which the problem wasn’t the barbarity displayed in the last years by fanaticals who we should jail in the first second if they ever reached our countries. No, the problem was the West which was “offending” them. First by ideological, economical and finantial arrogance (Chomsky) and now by Cartoons, by jokes, by movies, by our culture.

    This answer to the islam problem, namely that if muslims do not adapt to our lifestyle, if they feel offended by us, if they charge all their problems unto the big oppressor (us), that it is not a problem of lack of vision on their part, that it is evidently our fault, completely backfired on the opinion of the people. I think that AAs are the reply to the amazingly patronizing discourse of their leaders towards muslim ideologies, countries and people, who rather sacrifice our own values that our own people do esteem, so to appease this mass of people who are offended by us.

    It’s a reaction against the sheer surrender of values we’ve witnessed the past two decades in europe. I have no crystal ball, and I really don’t like being along side bullies. So I hope that I don’t have to ever choose between thugs of different colors (the last experience of that didn’t turn out great).

  18. Peter S

    “…a relationship of trust is a pre-condition of scientific authority.”

    Isn’t this idea back-to-front? And if so, how it would it affect the rest of the argument?

    If instead, a relationship of authority is a pre-condition of what is called ‘trust’ – we might wonder if the breakdown of a relationship (say, between scientists and the public) is brought about through the loss of authority rather than the loss of ‘trust’.

    It is impossible, of course, to have any kind for relationship without a prior agreement to include an authority within it – even if the agreement is for a mutual authority. Once negotiated, the relationship – and its authority – is sustained not by trust, but by the suspension of distrust (ie by a capacity for risk)… leaving the space open to be tested for its reliability and usefulness.

    So it could be more helpful to restate the above as “the authority of a relationship is the pre-condition of its reliability”. And in doing so, we can place ‘trust’ – the belief in something in the absence of evidence – somewhere beyond the range of scientific relationships.

    We might be then better equipped to know that when an agreed-to authority is abused, the relationship becomes unreliable and breaks down. This might also explain why climate scientists who have lost their authority as a consequence of abuse feel the urgent need to further exaggerate both their own importance and their findings in an effort to reestablish it. A project that’s doomed to fail – as Chicken Little discovered.

  19. Ben Pile

    Peter – Isn’t this idea back-to-front? And if so, how it would it affect the rest of the argument?

    I’m not convinced that it is back to front. Trust must precede authority in the same way that good faith must be assumed to exist for a contract to hold. So if a relationship of trust exists between an individual and an authority, the individual is in some sense committed to following the authority, of his own volition.

    The closet approximation to what I think you’re getting at is ‘power’: I do what a putative ‘authority’ says, because otherwise I will suffer some forfeit. In many respects, I think such an exercise of power is a loss of authority. The best example of this I have heard is that of a parent and a child. The parent who hits their child loses (or has already lost) their authority, whereas real parental authority needs no such threat of violence; it’s merely enough to say what the child should do — or less: for the child to know what is and isn’t expected of it. (And in case that sounds authoritarian, I should point out that neither the relationship between child and parent nor the relationship between individual and authority is necessarily antagonistic. That’s the point.)

    So it could be more helpful to restate the above as “the authority of a relationship is the pre-condition of its reliability”.

    I can’t see any sense in such a formulation.

    We might be then better equipped to know that when an agreed-to authority.

    But scientific authority doesn’t ask for your assent, just as you’re not really asked to assent to all manner of public institutions. That trust developed over time, culturally — I guess you could call it ‘civilisation’, which is why I’m not buying your idea of a default state of distrust, actively suspended for the purposes of some kind of contract. But you are committed to scientific authority by virtue of trust in i) the scientific method in the case of science as such; and ii) by trust in the execution of the scientific method in the case of institutional science. The point I make in the post is that there is a difference between them, and the things Mooney is worried about such as creationism and MMR-scares are not owed to a distrust of the scientific method/science as such, but a distrust of institutional science. That distrust is not owed, simply, to some abuse/exceeding authority (though that doubtlessly goes on) but of deeper, broader things going on, finding expression in creationism/MMR scares.

    The issue is not ‘when has the relationship of authority been abused’, because that presupposes too much about the purposive, intentional actions of those in authority. The argument I make is that it is perfectly consistent for scientists and science-fans to claim scientific authority if, as they seem to, they hold with highly naturalistic and deterministic views of humanity and of society. It makes perfect sense, if we’re mere machines, and society is itself determined by material forces as anything else in nature is, to say ‘science says…’. But I believe it is a mistake to claim that there is an equivalence of the sensitivity of climate to CO2 and the sensitivity of society to climate.

  20. Peter S

    Ben – your example of parent and child is a good one. A child’s need is to find the authority of its parent, not lose it. Once found, misbehaviour becomes the child’s project of testing the boundaries and consistency of that authority as a pre-condition to agreeing to it… the child has to know what it is agreeing to ‘trust’. In this sense, an authoritarian and violent parent can be far more useful to a child than an inconsistent one (eg, a self-interested or overly liberal adult) – because at least the authority is ‘known’ and can therefore be depended on.

    Variants of this primary model could be applied to all kinds of relationships. We know, for example, what the limits of climate science’s authority should be (where its authority must begin and end in order for it to be reliable and useful to society). And we also know it is the government’s role to use its own authority in upholding and protecting these boundaries. If the relationship between government and climate science breaks down it may be because the government has been too self-interested or too liberal to do its job (ie to survive its authority being tested). As with the primary model, the authority that belongs with the government then passes into the hands of those unable and unequipped to use it. Chaos ensues.

    There is a great deal of talk about the role of those who hold authority in a relationship but very little about the role of those who cede to it. Perhaps that is because it requires a willing surrender – a position we are deeply ambivalent about.

  21. Ben Pile

    Peter – … the child has to know what it is agreeing to ‘trust’. In this sense, an authoritarian and violent parent can be far more useful to a child than an inconsistent one (eg, a self-interested or overly liberal adult) – because at least the authority is ‘known’ and can therefore be depended on.

    But you’re missing the point of the difference between power and authority.

    Of course the overly-liberal parent undermines his own authority, and it is the parent’s authority which is lost rather than the child’s to find. The child doesn’t ‘agree’ to anything: in the case of coherent parental authority, the child simply doesn’t need to test the boundaries or finds it isn’t comfortable doing so for itself; in the the case of parental power, the child is simply afraid of the consequences. Real authority is not needing to exercise power.

    Another example: people don’t obey the law because they are afraid of the consequences of breaking it; people obey the law because the law is (usually) not so arbitrary as to prohibit the expression of normal behaviour. People queue up to pay for things in shops, even when they might easily walk out without paying, because people want to exchange things fairly. Customs and conventions in this sense have authority, whereas the law that punishes shoplifters has power. If such conventions did not exist, likely the law wouldn’t either.

    In the same way people trust in institutions as conventions, and trust in total strangers to observe them (in this sense, trust in fact removes the stranger as such altogether), trust in the scientific method precedes scientific authority and institutional science. You couldn’t have a scientific institution without the scientific method. You couldn’t have shops without a convention that obliged customers exchange their money for products.

    ‘We know, for example, what the limits of climate science’s authority should be…’

    I disagree. The limits of scientific authority are controversial. As I point out, the limits of science’s authority are predicated on how we view the human. If we take the deterministic view, then science’s authority is legitimately far broader than if we take the view of humans as subjective agents. In the first case, humans are objects subject to material forces same as any other object. In the second case, humans are capable of giving assent — tacitly, or explicitly — to things they have considered. Trust is an issue in the second case, but not in the first. That’s why Mooney’s scientism seeks to explain the failure of his political opponents to see things his way in naturalistic/pathological terms, whereas if we credit humans with faculties, we can see why trust is an issue (though you dispute it).

    If the relationship between government and climate science breaks down it may be because the government has been too self-interested or too liberal to do its job (ie to survive its authority being tested).

    I don’t see what the use of this hypothetical case is. There are many ways in which relationships can break down. But in either case — whether the government has been too liberal, or too-self interested — what will result is the collapse of trust; you’re just using the word ‘relationship’ in place of ‘trust’. Try and speak about a breakdown of authority without implying at the same time a breakdown of trust. I suspect you would find it rather hard.

    I don’t know if you’ve read the whole of this article, or the two that discussed ‘trust’ previously, but the point I’ve been trying to emphasise is that the debate ‘descends to science’ because politicians aren’t able to create trust in their own authority. Or in another sense, the likes of Mooney are unable to share their perspective (i.e. to create trust), thus scientific authority, with its privileged access to ‘objectivity’ becomes a means to legitimising authority in lieu of a shared perspective.

    “There is a great deal of talk about the role of those who hold authority in a relationship…”

    I really am struggling to understand you. There is no authority outside of a relationship.

    “… but very little about the role of those who cede to it.”

    Well, there is, and it’s the discussion about trust. And the point is that one doesn’t cede to authority; one cedes to power.

  22. Peter S

    Ben – In the context of this exchange, it seems to me that the words ‘trust’ and ‘belief’ don’t have any significant difference in meaning (and if there is a difference, I’d like to know what it is).

    A relationship of trust is, after all, a relationship using a belief – in the reliability, truth etc of something or someone. If we wonder when those in a relationship might need belief (or to be believed in), we can see that they would turn to it in the absence of something more immediately available to use to sustain the relationship. When an authority within a relationship is unable to demonstrate the qualities for which the relationship was agreed upon, belief is used to fill the gap. If the gap becomes an unmanageably large one, the relationship would need to be ended or renegotiated – if the belief is not to turn into a delusion or collusion.

    Ironically, the statement “…a relationship of trust is a pre-condition of scientific authority” might be a more accurate one if expressed as “…a relationship of belief is a pre-condition of scientific authority absenting itself”. Or, “…a relationship of belief is a pre-condition of political authority absenting itself”. And an absent authority, of course, might simply be one that has been substituted for something else in a relationship – something with a more manipulative intent.

    The statement that “the debate ‘descends to science’ because politicians aren’t able to create trust in their own authority” can be thought about in the same way. ‘Creating belief’ is a skill we would more readily associate with an illusionist than a politician. A created belief in an authority would only be necessary if the authority itself was an illusory one – here, the belief would be a pre-condition… for pulling off tricks. The statement then, could be read as a complaint that politicians have had to turn to science for their magic, because the modern public know how the old political routines are done… with the implied demand being for politicians to find better political tricks if their illusory authority is to be re-created and believed in.

    If we decide to neither trust nor distrust an authority, what else might we do with it? Or, in other words, it we decide that the best way to exploit a relationship is to withhold both belief and disbelief in the authority it contains, how else might we respond to it? Giving someone ‘the benefit of the doubt’ suggests an exchange in which doubting is mutually advantageous – and the advantage might be that it keeps a relationship from sliding to the conclusions that either trust or distrust would cause it to suffer – and steering it forward instead, under the original terms of its contract.

    It could therefore be that the political exchange has ‘descended to science’ because it is no longer able to find, or create, doubt in political authority. The consensus leaves no room for doubt. That is – it leaves no room for an active, positive scepticism which is the real pre-condition of relationships existing, surviving and being of benefit.

  23. Ben Pile

    Peter – Ben – In the context of this exchange, it seems to me that the words ‘trust’ and ‘belief’ don’t have any significant difference in meaning (and if there is a difference, I’d like to know what it is).

    The difference is explained in the post:

    the scientific method no more obliges people to trust institutional science than the literal word of the bible obliges people to believe that the church itself is incapable of doing wrong.

    A commitment to an idea — a belief — is not a commitment to trust in the institution which claims to best represent it.

    A relationship of trust is, after all, a relationship using a belief…

    The possibility that belief is a condition of trust does not make trust and belief equivalent. Water isn’t swimming, but it is a condition of swimming.



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