Science without an Object

by | Aug 8, 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


  1. Jack Hughes

    Odd that no-one ever mentioned a total population figure for polar bears.

    The only figures I have ever seen are 20-25,000 now compared with 5-6000 in the 60s. There is something dishonest in the way that activists start off with “this sub-group is down – this other sub-group is up, etc”. This dishonest use of figures is a common theme – Ben you highlighted the pie charts in the IPCC report.

    You need to be extra clever to spot this subterfuge. If you had a blank canvas and were discussing the best statistic or graph to show something it would be easier. But instead, the activisits and dishonest scientists have chosen a measure or a graph or other artifact that misleads. The scientific version of a weasel word.

    This is one of the problems with fighting on their terrain like Andrew M had to.

  2. artwest

    This reminds me of seeing Dan Cruickshank’s Adventures in Architecture programme on the BBC. Unusually he was in the frozen North looking at igloos and came across a local hunter transporting a dead polar bear on a sledge.
    The conversation went :

    Dan Cruickshank: “Are there many polar bears around here?” Hunter speaks in his own language. DC translates as “A Lot?” Hunter “Yes, many.” DC: “Many?” Hunter: “Yes”

    DC turns to camera looking mournful: and says something like (this bit is from memory) “It’s sad to think that soon we may not be able to see one of these beautiful creatures alive.”
    Lingering close up of dead bear. Fade out.

    Incidentally, the Guardian TV reviewer described the exchange as “Are there many polar bears around here?” he asks politely. Not now there aren’t, that was the last one…”

  3. geoff Chambers

    Interesting. Of course, “object” has two distinct meanings: 1) = “thing under consideration”, as in “the object being studied”, and 2) = “purpose” as in “the object of the exercise”.
    Computer models of polar bear populations are a good example of science with an object, in the second sense.

  4. Lewis Deane

    Ben, can you point us toward a transcript of the R5 contretemp – it was impossible for me to wade patiently through all the rubbish of that day to listen to it. Summer, politicaly, has become are rather unhealthy time in UK, like Death in Venice!

  5. Fay Tuncay

    Objects of Mrs Thatcher’s 1980s Strategy

    Very funny video Ben. I see The Kindred of the Kibbo Kift made it to the Climate Camp!

    If anything the Climate Campers are the objects of Mrs Thatcher’s 1980s strategy to defeat striking coal miners.

    By using science in the service of politics Thatcher sought to demonise CO2 in order to get the environmentalist to hate coal and fall in love with nuclear.

    Judging by the number waving the report by the Tyndall Centre 30 years later this hate coal strategy has been a success.

    However, because Thatcher didn’t really understand the nature of the conflict between environmentalism – which is the political expression of the old rent seeking land-based oliogarchy Vs the newer industrial oligarchy – things haven’t quite gone to plan.

    Thatcher couldn’t have foreseen that the land-based oliogarchy would find their own land-based solution – windfarms – with major rent-seeking opportunities, which also have the added benefit of propagating their ideological victory via their imposing presence in the landscape.

  6. Lewis Deane

    I, often, try to think that these unrepresentative ‘protests’ will blow over – there’s a nice article on Spiked – – by Rossa Minogue, who actually spoke to the people of Balcombe as well as the ‘Dreadnoughts’ – frightening people! – after all, it’s the stupid season, as I’ve said. But, more and more, I fear this irrationality is hear to stay. I say ‘irrationality’ but it is an irrationality of a very specific, small clique of the metropolitan so-called ‘elite’ – with a spineless, will-o-the-whisp goverment and Prime minister, whose only beliefs are those of the latest hysteria, such a ‘protest’ might well have affect and, therefore, long term damage. A pity but there you are.

  7. Lewis Deane

    By the way, if they don’t want drilling for oil in the Garden of the Privileged we are desperate for it in the North!

  8. Lewis Deane

    Thanks Alex!

  9. Lewis Deane

    What a sad and brief exchange!

  10. Robert Jason

    Echors of Voltaire’s ‘Knowledge for the sake of knowledge is worthless’.

  11. Harry Powell

    What interests me about the consensus problem is what are the sociologists of science saying about it? These ought to be their halcyon days; once they were a mild joke, but now that consensus is being offered as a token for irrefrangible fact they could be leading the discussion on what we mean by “consensus” or “precaution” and the social construction of reality in general. So where is it? The one significant book on the subject I’ve come across (and I haven’t looked exhaustively, so please enlighten me if there is more out there) The Social Construction of Climate Change: Power Knowledge Norms Discourses, ME Pettenger really deals only with the question of how climate change advocacy fails to capture the policy agenda. It looks like it will be up to the non-academic laity to apply the concepts of sociology to climate science.

  12. geoff Chambers

    Harry Powell
    Very good question. There’s a sociologist called Reiner Grundmann at Aston University who had a paper on climategate discussed at Klimazwiebel, in which he made the key point that scientific method demands that both sides of a socially contentious subject need to be discussed impartially – a basic principle of scientific method which has escaped the Nuticcellis and Lewandowskys.
    There’s a couple of French guys, Locher and Fressoz, one of them at Imperial College, historians of science, who have some fascinating stuff about man-made climate change in the 19th century which was discussed at

  13. Karl Kuhn

    What is most striking to me is that Sauven stresses all the time the alleged consensus position and authority of science. But in the case of Genetically Modified Crops, Greenpeace has never given a single dime on what science had to say on the issue. Montford should also have pressed him on that.

  14. stefanthedenier

    G’day fellas. Consensus is that there isn’t any consensus, nature doesn’t agree

  15. Steven Earl Salmony

    If human population dynamics is essentially common to the propulation dynamics of other species and, consequently, if food supply is the independent not the dependent variable in the relationship between food and population, then a lot of what has been reported could be distractions that serve to dismiss rather than disclose vital but unwelcome science of what could somehow be real regarding the human population and, more importantly, why our behavior is so utterly destructive of everything we claim to be protecting and preserving. May I make a request? Could we focus now, here, on whether or not human exceptionalism applies to its population dynamics alone or is the dynamics of all species, including human beings, similar? Whatever your response, please make reference to scientific research that supports your point of view.

    It seems to me that if we keep engaging in and hotly pursuing worldwide overproduction, overconsumption and overpopulation activities, distinctly human activities that cannot be sustained much longer on a planet with size, compostion and ecology of Earth, then the human species is a clear and present danger on our watch to future human well being, life as we know it, and environmental health. If we can see ourselves to be ‘the problem’, then it is incumbent upon us to bring forward the best available evidence from science, especially when that evidence happens to relate directly to why we are pursuing a soon to become, patently unsustainable (superhigh)way of life. A tip of the hat is due Rachel Carson for making me aware of the superhighway. Should humankind emerge from ‘the bottleneck’ E.O. Wilson imagines for us in the future and somehow escape the precipitation of our near-term extinction, how are those survivors to organize life sustainably and not repeat the mistakes we are making now… and have been making for a long time? Without knowledge of why we are doing what we are doing, every one of us is forever trapped in an eternal recurrence of unsustainable life cycles, I suppose.

    Sincerely yours,

    Steve Salmony

    PS: Rachel Carson’s quote,

    We stand now where two roads diverge. But unlike the roads in Robert Frost’s familiar poem, they are not equally fair. The road we have long been traveling is deceptively easy, a smooth superhighway on which we progress with great speed, but at its end lies disaster. The other fork of the road—the one “less traveled by”—offers our last, our only chance to reach a destination that assures the preservation of the earth.
    Rachel Carson (1907 – 1964)

  16. Ben Pile

    Steven, your comment is off-topic. If you’re going to post your miserable population-environmentalism spam, at least do it under an appropriate story — it’s discussed at length on this blog.



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