What is Science?

by | Nov 6, 2013

The previous post here made the point that the IPCC serves much less to inform debate than as a vehicle for any number of political ambitions or prejudices, few of which can be justified on the basis of the IPCC’s reports — assessments of what ‘science says’.

The publication of the IPCC’s reports is a ritual. Its report’s are like ceremonial talismans, which bestow whoever wields them with divine (aka ‘scientific’) right. Unless the IPCC can robustly and quickly respond to the torrent of self-serving hyperbole that is uttered by it’s self-appointed proxies, it will remain merely a cult of weird monks, who are wheeled out for ceremonial purposes, but who are otherwise ignored.

This is a hard point to explain to people who are convinced by the usual arguments about locating the best evidence, and then hoping that policymakers/politicians will make the best of it. Some recent events create an opportunity to further demonstrate the problems with the fashionable emphasis on science.

There is probably some kind of law, somewhere, which states that as a comedian’s product becomes less funny, the more likely he or she will be to attempt some kind of political posturing. NB: I do not mean political satire here. I mean comedians, seemingly eschewing comedy, to use their profile to instead tell the world how it ought to be. The previous post mentioned two such comedians — Stewart Lee and Robin Ince (who is discussed again shortly) — who were perhaps funny in the 1990s, but have been reduced to grumpy old men, ranting at the world about how stupid it is. Ince and Lee follow in the wake of two other has-been stand-ups that have chosen to save the planet rather than make people laugh: Marcus Brigstoke and Rob Newman.

Here’s Brigstocke, from 2007.

And here’s Rob Newman from the same year.

And let’s not forget David Mitchell… (Who was only ever funny in Peep Show, which someone else wrote).

There are enough of these tired one-time funny men, who have re-branded themselves as environmental Saviours, to say that this is a phenomenon rather than a coincidence. Green is the colour of re-invention, after all. Or is it the colour of an insidious mould? Nearly seven years on, and Brigstocke’s global warming continues in its stalling mode and Newman’s peak oil theory has been busted by oceans of new hydrocarbon discoveries. Neither has prompted much reflection.

The latest to join the ranks of these jokers is Russell Brand, who has been appointed guest editor of the New Statesman. This appointment, and his discussion with Jeremy Paxman has been causing a fair bit of discussion…

“Who are you to edit a political magazine”, asks Paxman.

“Well I suppose like a person who’s been politely asked by an attractive woman”, explains Brand. And it doesn’t get much deeper than that. As has been widely pointed out, Brand’s flowery vocabulary — his trademark — belies a bland and incoherent vision of a ‘revolution’. There are a couple of references to the environment — as we might expect. But I’ll leave these for the moment, and may return to them in a later post.

Brand has been appointed as guest editor of the New Statesmen to attempt to revive the publication whose circulation is fewer than 25,000. The hope, of course, is that someone with the profile of Brand might add to these figures, which, Guido points out, seem to imply that the magazine loses a whopping £1.35 a copy. In a similar stunt last year, the dissident Chinese artist, Ai Weiwei took the chair now filled by Brand. “We chose him because of his prominence, his art, his global significance and his activism and bravery”, explained NS features editor Sophie Elmhirst. The choice of Brand, who shot to fame after presenting one of the Big Brother reality TV show franchises suggests that prominence is perhaps the most important factor in the selection process. Bravery, it would seem, is too fickle a concept, if the magazine’s statements on on climate change are anything to go by:

Denying climate change is worse than spreading the usual kind of conspiracy theory: it costs lives“, wrote former Political Editor, Mehdi Hasan, whose lefty-liberal street-credentials enjoyed a short lived boost last month when he layed into Daily Mail Editor Paul Dacre on BBC TV. But Hasan’s stock plummeted shortly after, when it was revealed that just a few years ago he had written a letter to Dacre asking for a job, which had praised the newspaper’s social conservatism. Green cant is enduring: newspapers are pariahs… when they wont give you a job. And ‘bravery’ only consists of reproducing — rather than challenging — orthodox thinking.

“What I don’t want, or need, is balance between those who argue climate change is a problem, and those who argue it isn’t”, wrote staff writer, Alex Hern. The New Statesman’s editorial policy is clear. Climate change deniers are not welcome. But any old tosh from Bob Ward is.

As has been pointed out on this blog before, it seems that publications that face an existential crisis tends to perceive that crisis as something external to itself. The New Statesman, like the Independent and the Guardian have haemorrhaged readership over the years — more so than most dead tree media. Might environmental alarmism be a response to a weakened grip on the public sphere? In other words, it seems obvious that as an organisation’s (or individual’s) ability to make sense of the world diminishes, so the consequences are that fewer people will turn to it as an authority on the world, and that the search for ways to explain the world will grow ever more desperate. This naturally manifests as alarmism and as contempt for people who don’t share the increasingly shrill view of the world.

The growing hostility of many public institutions — not just the press — to the wider public is most visible in their preference for supranational politics: the EU, the UN, and of course the IPCC/UNFCCC. This in turn reflect’s the political establishment’s similar preferences for elite forms of politics. The only reason environmental correspondents at the Guardian will find to criticise politicians or the government, for instance, is because environmental policies haven’t progressed fast enough towards goals set by international agreements. Barely a word is uttered about those policies or political institutions that seemingly mandated them lacking democratic legitimacy. And public opinion matters on the view that such writers offer only to the extent that it is an opportunity to blame climate change deniers for the lack of progress. Pesky democracy! Pesky public!

Whether ‘climate change is happening’ or not, it has become an opportunity for individuals and organisations who are past their sell-by date, and who struggle to sustain an understanding of the world, to sustain their leverage in the public sphere. Every dying movement, every atrophying public institution, every vapid political party, and every hollow-headed hack has closed ranks on the issue of climate change, to form a rearguard action against their own decline.

However, Brand has not joined the ranks of Lee, Ince, Newman and Brigstocke, to become an incoherent, shouty doom-sayer as someone whose product no longer sells. Brand’s brand is still current, as his millions of twitter followers are testament to. But those followers want reality TV, goofy pop trivia, and naughty phone pranks, not a manifesto. Brand is editor of the current edition of the New Statesman to revive it, rather than himself. The spectacle is absurd.

Here’s brand introducing the line-up of stale public intellectuals in his edition…

‘The revolution’, a poet once claimed, ‘will not be televised’. But it seems the revolution does need a TV celebrity to sell its magazine.

‘Naomi Klein, she’s a journalist or summink… What’s really required is a revolution in consciousness…’ Hmmm.

Naomi Klein’s piece in the New Statesman is called “How science is telling us all to revolt“, in which she argues,

Is our relentless quest for economic growth killing the planet? Climate scientists have seen the data – and they are coming to some incendiary conclusions.

It’s in Klein’s words that I think we find the nub of the problem.

Put simply — and perhaps too simply — critics of capitalism in the past were concerned in the main with its social consequences — that it pitched classes against each other. Change was sought by engaging those who seemed to lose out in the status quo, to mobilise them as a political force, to seek a more equitable arrangement. But the doyens of today’s ‘global left’ such as Klein express their ideas very differently.

First, there is the growth scepticism: ‘our relentless quest for economic growth’. Why should people who claim to be interested in ‘social justice’ be so hostile to ‘growth’? We should contrast Klein with, for example, the words of the late Marshall Berman, whose obituary in an edition of last month’s Guardian contained the following passage:

In his last book, On the Town, Berman described the awe and excitement he felt in Times Square, as a committed socialist bathing in the pulsating neon light of pure, concentrated capitalist advertisement. He saw in the way people used the space, gathering, wandering, gazing, and the way in which the lights and signs danced around them, as glimpses of a playful future that would always be constrained by capitalism. Socialism, he argues, will mean more – more neon, more cities, more skyscrapers, more people, more production, this time controlled and used consciously, rather than for the enrichment of a small group. It is a vision we would do well to remember.

It’s a shame that the Guardian doesn’t more reflect the view of the author of Berman’s obit — Owen Hatherley — than it reflects Klein’s asceticism. The ‘relentless quest for economic growth’ is a bedtime story, which belies reality, and is hostile to the interests of its would-be beneficiaries. You don’t need to be either a socialist or a capitalist to realise that growth, in just the last decades, has not merely transformed lives, but made them possible. Klein instead prefers the story that there is sufficient wealth, but that evil robber barons keep it from those who need it — a childish ‘zero sum game’ view of wealth and inequality.

But worse, Klein’s story is that the problem with robber barons is that they’re ‘killing the planet’. And this represents a departure from the view that people’s own understanding of their own interests should motivate them to organise change. Instead, Klein defers to ‘science’: ‘climate scientists have seen the data’ and have determined that ‘our relentless quest for economic growth’ is ‘killing the planet’. We don’t get to choose what to do, ‘science is telling us all to revolt’. The masses cannot think for themselves. Even worse, Klein doesn’t really have anything better to offer them.

Klein’s story starts:

In December 2012, a pink-haired complex systems researcher named Brad Werner made his way through the throng of 24,000 earth and space scientists at the Fall Meeting of the American Geophysical Union, held annually in San Francisco.

Scene set…

But it was Werner’s own session that was attracting much of the buzz. It was titled “Is Earth F**ked?” (full title: “Is Earth F**ked? Dynamical Futility of Global Environmental Management and Possibilities for Sustainability via Direct Action Activism”).

Standing at the front of the conference room, the geophysicist from the University of California, San Diego walked the crowd through the advanced computer model he was using to answer that question. He talked about system boundaries, perturbations, dissipation, attractors, bifurcations and a whole bunch of other stuff largely incomprehensible to those of us uninitiated in complex systems theory. But the bottom line was clear enough: global capitalism has made the depletion of resources so rapid, convenient and barrier-free that “earth-human systems” are becoming dangerously unstable in response. When pressed by a journalist for a clear answer on the “are we f**ked” question, Werner set the jargon aside and replied, “More or less.”

In essence, then, Klein knows that ‘the earth is fucked’ because a man with pink hair told her so at a conference in San Francisco. She doesn’t understand why, but it’s good enough for her that someone claiming expertise in ‘complexity theory’ tells her that capitalism is wrong.

There’s so much wrong with this.

First, and aside from the fact that somebody with pink hair isn’t asking to be taken seriously as an authority on global matters… This is one scientist, in a novel field of questionable quality, with one unpublished, un-peer-reviewed, argument. It’s not ‘science’ telling us anything. It’s not even a scientific institution. Werner’s argument should, at the least have been published before Klein took it to mean so much.

Second, science has no business — indeed it cannot — saying that capitalism is wrong. One cannot work out from basic physics, chemistry or biology, an argument that capitalism or its alternatives are better or worse than each other. Many have tried. All have failed. And all attempts to bully people about politics by recourse to science such as this should be rejected. Yet it is science alone that seems to justify Klein’s call for a ‘revolution’:

There was one dynamic in the model, however, that offered some hope. Werner termed it “resistance” – movements of “people or groups of people” who “adopt a certain set of dynamics that does not fit within the capitalist culture”. According to the abstract for his presentation, this includes “environmental direct action, resistance taken from outside the dominant culture, as in protests, blockades and sabotage by indigenous peoples, workers, anarchists and other activist groups”.

Are computer simulations of direction action better or worse than climate models, or models of the interactions between CO2 and the cryosphere? I argue that they cannot be, that they must necessarily be worse. And given the dismal history of such computer-based prognostications about society’s future, it seems obvious that Werner’s models are likely the weakest ever produced.

A great deal of ideology hides behind ‘complexity’ at the best of times. My favourite example being quantum physics as the fig leaf for all sorts of silly supernatural ideas, such as telepathy, ghosts, healing and homoeopathy. That’s not to rule out quantum mechanics for the woo-woo that hides behind it, of course. But ‘complexity theory’, as it is represented by Werner, is making the kind of grand claims that were made, for instance, by cybernetics in the 1970s: the promise that humanity’s relationships with the natural world could be understood through a systems perspective, and a date for the Apocalypse printed off by a daisywheel printer, watched by team of global doom-sayers. All of them dressed appropriately, in white coats. Then, as now, they were led by a showman, Paul Ehrlich.

But rather than producing insight, the field of cybernetics had more utility to politics. Over the course of the grim 1970s and the cold war, the promise of science unleashing potential to liberate mankind gave way to mere promises to save us from certain destruction. Klein continues:

Serious scientific gatherings don’t usually feature calls for mass political resistance, much less direct action and sabotage. But then again, Werner wasn’t exactly calling for those things. He was merely observing that mass uprisings of people – along the lines of the abolition movement, the civil rights movement or Occupy Wall Street – represent the likeliest source of “friction” to slow down an economic machine that is careening out of control. We know that past social movements have “had tremendous influence on . . . how the dominant culture evolved”, he pointed out. So it stands to reason that, “if we’re thinking about the future of the earth, and the future of our coupling to the environment, we have to include resistance as part of that dynamics”. And that, Werner argued, is not a matter of opinion, but “really a geophysics problem”.

There is, of course, no possibility of a comparison between occupy and the abolition movement. The abolition movement states its intention from the outset — abolition. The occupy movement, however, was characterised not just by an inability to set out its manifesto, but a refusal to. The other thing that characterised occupy — like many contemporary green protest ‘movements’ — was its failure to be a movement at all. Few people are interested, because the ‘movement’ — such as it is — fails to articulate anything to share. Klein flatters herself — and the occupy movement — with such comparisons. Whatever… the point was not the rights and wrongs of Occupying, but of modelling occupy. Let’s put it simply. Occupy’s effect on the course of the climate is zero — a very easy thing to model.

Plenty of scientists have been moved by their research findings to take action in the streets. Physicists, astronomers, medical doctors and biologists have been at the forefront of movements against nuclear weapons, nuclear power, war, chemical contamination and creationism. And in November 2012, Nature published a commentary by the financier and environmental philanthropist Jeremy Grantham urging scientists to join this tradition and “be arrested if necessary”, because climate change “is not only the crisis of your lives – it is also the crisis of our species’ existence”.

Klein, who is, let’s remember, constructing an argument that ‘science says’ capitalism is wrong, begins by saying that ‘scientists have been moved by their research…’ does not summon up the name of a scientist who has led at the ‘forefront of movements’. She instead chooses a capitalist, of all kinds of people, to make her point that ‘this is the crisis of our species’. And not just any old capitalist, either… Klein, in her argument against capitalism chooses to use the words of a multi-multi-multi millionaire! Albeit a green millionaire. The irony is surely lost on Klein.

Klein goes on to refer to James Hansen, ‘the godfather of modern climate science’. But the godfather himself has a bad religion. Hansen’s predictions of doom have not manifested. And worse for Klein’s apparent appeal to scientific authority, Hansen’s remaining projections are further away from the scientific consensus on climate change than many deniers’. So much for science, then.

Klein’s argument gets no better. Indeed it gets worse. As much as I would enjoy a line-by-line dissection, I don’t have the time, and it would be a distraction from the point I’m trying to make.

Away from Klein, and from Brand and the New Statesman, a video popped up on Youtube this week from a debate in April.

Geoff Whelan is joined by Jeff Forshaw, Helen Czerski, Robin Ince and Brendan O’Neill to debate the question “Is Science the New Religion?” at this particularly lively session from QED 2013.

Ince, you will remember, is discussed above, and in the previous post. And it is Ince who is determined to prevent discussion throughout the event, by throwing childish tantrums at O’Neill, who suggests that the relationship between science and politics is complex. Ince is reduced to shouting at O’Neill throughout, seemingly to defend science, but missing O’Neill’s argument entirely.

Ince’s rage needs some explanation, further to what is offered above. It’s hard to understand, firstly because O’Neill is alone in the room in criticising the existing relationship between science and the state (and the arguments for its expansion), and two far more qualified individuals sit to his left. Yet Ince is apoplectic throughout the discussion, as though O’Neill himself was the only thing in the world holding back the progress he wanted to see. This demonstrates in microcosm the problem: the Angry Ince won’t even let the scientists — to whom he is asking us to defer — speak. Thus making one of O’Neill’s points for him: that debates about public matters that science might seemingly be able to shed some light on are nonetheless drenched in politics. O’Neill:

That relationship is one where politicians frequently call on science to justify an agenda or policy they want to push forward. Scientists have been sucked into that over a long period of time. … Scientists should wriggle free from those expectations… [Interruption] They should cut loose those relationships with politicians. I think they should refuse to go along with that.

Jeff Forshaw isn’t that much better than Ince:

They’re quite hard to read those papers sometimes. You’re saying that scientists should produce their peer-reviewed papers and then not talk to any politicians to explain the content of them?

The question is also a statement that the relationship between science and the state consists of no more than scientists and politicians talking to each other, perhaps as they passed each other in the street occasionally. It’s as if the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change had not been summoned into existence by a political need for a scientific consensus, the substance of which had already been determined. It’s as if research funding protocols did not put emphasis on the relevance of research to policy. It’s as if university departments had not been established to inform particular policy agendas. If Forshaw’s answer is sincere, it is hopelessly naive.

But worse than simple nativity about the substance of relations between institutional science and the state, Forshaw is ignorant about what it is that scientific institutions are tasked with under the compact which self-evidently exists, and which is qualitatively different to relationships between science and the state in the past. Some insight into this is unwittingly given by Ince a moment or so later.

This world we currently live in is built on technology and science. The Western world at the moment… If you look out that window there and look at the swirling fucking madness there… all of these things… So we can’t just go there’s politics and there’s science, because within politics… In the same way… I’m sorry… It just… This thing where… The world… When you talk about the Ancient Greeks… The world now is incredibly complex. The level of understanding… No one… Many scientists have said this before… You can… If you’re lucky you can maybe be an expert on one tiny thing. We can’t have these wonderful polymath politicians who’ll be able to understand everything. And we certainly aren’t [???] them now.

Ince, — a man whose stock-in-trade is words and their delivery — seems to be struggling to set out his manifesto. It’s as if he’d never had to think about what he is asking for, and wants to convince people of. And yet he is asking for a particular form of political organisation, which you, I, and everyone must be subject to.

His argument is that the world is complex. Thus it needs technical expertise to serve as managers of public life. He criticises O’Neill for a historical perspective that encompassed Ancient Greece, but has forgotten Plato’s Philosopher Kings — the administrators not even of a ‘swirling fucking madness’, the Western World, but merely a city state.

Far away from Plato’s Republic, in Manchester and in San Francisco, Ince and Werner invoke, not love of knowledge, but ‘complexity’ as a basis for their political treatises. But all that is revealed by invoking something so nebulous is that Ince is an inarticulate oaf, Werner is a pseud with a pseudo science, and Klein is a fool. It should be obvious that anyone appealing to ‘complexity’ in this way is admitting their own inability to understand the world. Klein and Ince admit it. Klein defers to the charlatan, who claims to be able to make sense of it by recourse to deterministic models of soap-dodging activists, and Ince merely to ‘science’.

But ‘complexity’ too needs unpacking further. What does it mean to say ‘the world is complex’? What index of complexity exists, to say that the 21st century is so much more complicated than the 20th, 19th… such that it requires a radically new form of political organisation?

Is the world really more complex? There are fewer wars. People live longer lives, and they are healthier and wealthier than at any point in history. There are more sciences, specialisms and industries, which would seem to make things more complex. But these in general make life easier. The increased complexity of contemporary life doesn’t seem to be a problem. Indeed, it seems to be a solution to our problems.

Let’s call this Ince’s Paradox. On the one hand, Ince claims that the world is complex because of the possibilities that science has created. But this complexity is a problem that conventional forms of democratic government cannot cope with. Only scientists can deal with the mess — ‘the swirling fucking madness’ — they seem to have created.

We’ve seen this before.

‘Giving society cheap abundant energy is like giving an idiot child a machine gun’ — Paul Ehrlich.

Similarly, the former president of the Royal Society, Martin Rees has, since his presidency traded on the notion that the 21st Century may well be humanity’s last. Here he is, explaining to Stewart Brand, his prediction that by the year 2020, either ‘bio error or bio-terror’ will have caused the deaths of over a million people.

The paradox deepens. Advocates of science are in fact terrified of it. It unleashes such power that in the wrong hands that might either accidentally or deliberately kill us all. Progress is terminal. It inexorably increases risk. It turns every random nut-job into a potential Hitler. And the implication is twofold: it seems that access to science must be restricted, and that risks it creates can only be mitigated by a transformation of politics.

Sounds familiar.

Risk, of course, is the predominant political concept. The prevailing ‘ideology’ is the notion that the mitigation of risk is the first order of government. Although ‘defence of the realm’ and ‘law and order’ have always been at the top of official priorities — for better or worse — the government’s role as protector has expanded in two respects. First, whereas defence and policing deal with tangible threats (albeit ones which historically have been and are overstated for political ends), the state now seeks us to protect us from a constellation of merely theoretical risks, many of which we expose ourselves to as ‘lifestyle choices’. As pointed out before on this blog, even our private, emotional lives are not beyond the reach of the state, which has grown attached to the ‘happiness agenda’ — the idea that a government’s performance is better measured by a measurement of ‘subjective sense of well-being’ rather than economic indices such as GDP. (Give me the money instead, thanks very much.) Unhappiness being a risk factor, of course. In other words, the state has identified ourselves as a risk factor to ourselves. With no ‘clear and present danger’ across our borders, the vapid state’s resources are directed against its own population.

Second, from such important things as telling us what to (and what not to) eat, drink, smoke, and when, and how much exercise to have, how to be happy and find fulfilling relationships, how to behave in public, how much time to spend online, when to go for a walk near some trees, (and the rest), there are the broader theoretical risks that governments now seek to protect us from, but which we cannot understand (complexity again): environmental change of so many kinds, and terrorism being the two most prominent. At the domestic level, this has created a new role for public institutions intended to deliver protection from risk. And of course, at the international level, this has created similar organisations, even further away from democratic oversight, in accordance with the maxim ‘global problems {i.e. ‘risks’) need global solutions’. Both of these, of course, are technocracies, and populated by or informed by putative experts in their respective fields, who are invariably drawn from academic science.

Rees, Ince, and the rest won’t admit it, but risk is a highly politically-loaded concept. There is a desire to see risk at face value. But what belies the emphasis on risk is much less extant threats than a distrust of people — a loss of faith in the idea that people can manage their own risks to themselves, to others, and can made decisions about how they are governed. The ‘swirling fucking madness’ that bothers Ince is just a mass of people he does not trust. Science — “Science” — is thus not, in Ince’s hands, a way of discovering the material world; it is a way of regulating the human world according to Ince’s own prejudices.

Putative fans of science often wax lyrical about the wonders it can reveal. But not so far behind this wide-eyed poetry is a desire to turn it from discovery into a petty-minded bureaucracy. Science reveals the mechanisms of our bodies functioning — amazing stuff. But then it seemingly says we must eat so many portions of this or that kind of food a day, and regulate fizzy drinks and burgers. Science identifies the mechanisms of our planet, but then is employed to enforce the optimum and most efficient ways of managing public affairs, in spite of people’s wants and needs, rather than overcoming what appear as boundaries and limits. Worse still, it seems that the scientists didn’t even realise that the notion of optimums, efficiencies, boundaries and limits are not scientific discoveries, but ideological prejudices they bought to their investigation.

So what is science? A point made here a lot is that there is a routine confusion between science as a process (the scientific method), and science as an institution. Ince, Klein, and the rest aren’t merely seeking authority for their arguments in science, i.e. as a source of some kind of unimpeachable objective truth or facts. They are seeking authority in a very real sense, for the sake of having an authority. It’s not a search to explain the world, but to create order within it.

Science as an institution is as mutable as any of those other institutions in this story: the press, political parties, radical movements, public organisations, and even stand up comedy, which each seem to have undergone their own, troubled transformations. Radical left organisations no longer have theoretical foundations, which inspire popular movements, but are instead led by celebrities and followed by almost nobody. Even those nominated as the left’s ‘public intellectuals’ uncritically defer to scientists… with pink hair… and multi-millionaires. And comedians themselves, who used to be middle-aged white working class men, were replaced by young Oxbridge graduates. But they grew up to be the bigots they had disparaged and displaced. They shouted at the stupid, stupid world, which refused to conform to their wishes. They penned angry rants in newspapers, which in turn struggled to connect with a readership. The newspaper, once an important part of public life, now struggles to identify its role, and is bloated by its attempts to find new audiences, and to survive in the shadow of the Internet. And political parties and politicians, like journalists, comedians and seemingly radical intellectuals, seem to be no better at making sense of the ‘swirling fucking madness’ than the next man.

It would be a mistake to say that science (or scientific institutions) was ever one thing, which is its proper function, which has been corrupted. Robin Zubrin’s Merchants of Dispair, for instance, describes a long history of science being used to legitimise some of the most appalling acts in history. Is it a history that Ince and Klein have forgotten? No doubt that they would rightly point to the ‘ideology’ behind the ‘science’ of racial hygiene, but they would forget the fact of the contemporaneous scientific consensus failing to observe it as pseudo-science. At the time, much as Malthusianism before (and again, after it), race was the encompassing framework, that could explain all of society’s moral, political and economic problems, from crime, through drunkenness, war, poverty, to recession. Now we see the same with climate. But the role that science plays, evidently does change. For example, as ‘risk’ has become the dominant political idea, and as global institutions have been established to identify and mitigate them, so we see scientific research reflecting those priorities, whereas in the past, scientific political arguments emphasised the ethno-nationalism that dominated political ideas post-Darwin.

Science doesn’t have a way of seeing the way it is itself used, or its relationship with society changes. When its champions — angry comedians — are confronted with accounts of its function, they typically respond, at high volume and high pitch about ‘ideology’ or politics as some kind of arbitrary, irrational thing. When it is suggested that science does have a relationship with politics, ‘I don’t understand. This is why I never go on fucking Question Time’, says Ince. But without the perspective that scientism seems to eschew, it’s not possible to see ideology reflected in science. It’s not possible to see it being put to political or ideological ends. Moreover, it’s not possible to interrogate that ideology, much less propose ways that science can be put to use to do real good in the world.

Notice that the climate debate descends to science — it is not elevated by it. Venture criticism of the proposal that a global scientific panel should determine the parameters of domestic energy, climate, and economic policies, and rather than being offered a defence of such a form of political organisation, you will be accused of ‘denying the science’, and you will have scientific papers waved in your face. You will be accused of being ‘ideologically-motivated’, as though the design of this form of politics was not itself every bit as ideological as eugenics, as Malthus, or less alarmingly, the promises of jet-packs, flying cars and ‘energy too cheap to meter’. ‘Climate change is happening’, you will be told. ‘Science says so’. But science has done a poor job of identifying environmental alarmism. Global scientific institutions have done zero to stop world leaders and global NGOs talking nonsense about the looming apocalypse. Even in this era, in which politics is suffering widespread cynicism and science is celebrated, scientists have not been effective in challenging the amplification of minute, theoretical risks becoming the basis of intrusive and often far-reaching policies, transforming the relationship between the state and individuals. Many scientists and their institutions have been complicit. Perhaps science isn’t so great, after all.


  1. Craig Loehle

    When an actual scientist (James Hansen) follows the logic of their concern about climate and concludes that we need nuclear energy, he is ignored, because the conclusions of science are only utilized if they fit the narrative. Science and engineering have clearly stated that wind power and solar can not be used as a basis for society’s electricity needs due to the need for backup power and the problem of destabilizing the grid, but again that did not fit the narrative. When the desire for social change leads to a narrative that only involves asserting that some group (e.g., bankers) are evil, the narrative only causes discord, but when the narrative insists that the power grid can run on pixie dust then eventually a crash will occur–look at Germany and England right now for example. England is getting close to blackouts as they close their coal plants. The need of the activist to have a narrative leads to a much more dangerous outcome than when ideology was concerned about other things (imperialism or manifest destiny or the civil rights movement, for example) and the building of roads and power systems was left to the engineers.

  2. tlitb1

    Excellent piece. The discussion of the QED 2013 video is especially good from my point of view. I found it fascinating and awful at the time and couldn’t put it into words. I think Ben says it best here, it is a kind of microcosm of the interaction of the scientists and their fans with external reasoned criticism. I have watched it all the way through and found it hard going but I recommend people watch it throughout and observe everyone on that panel. Compare the demeanor of absolutely everyone in the room against O’Neill.

    I remember much tweeting and blogging by all the serious thinkers involved displaying a consensus that O’Neill was awful and Ince had been justified in his reaction. I was curious about the reticence in showing the video and on seeing it now (it apparently required no editing or work at all) I think I know why they buried it away on youtube 6 months later with no fanfare ;)

  3. hunter

    Brilliant insight on whythe “progressives” cling to enviro-apocalypse so tightly.
    They will not see that their ideas have failed and that market capitalism wins. Unless they game it or corrupt it. Climate/enviro extremism gives them a new rationalization to claim power, and putting a sciencey veneer on their rationaliztion gives their claims an authoritative look, unless is willing to scratch the surface of their claims, so to speak.

  4. Lachlan O'Dea

    These posts are brilliant. Ben Pile is one of he best writers on environmentalism in the world.

  5. sab

    I think we are all indebted to you as someone who can maintain coherence (and a lengthy train of thought) in the face of intense provocation. Myself, I tend to just splutter and go red in the face when I hear what those buffoons of the ilk of Brand, Klein & Ince come out with.

    Part of the problem is science itself – not just the institution, but the method. Examination of it as an activity tends to either focus on just why it is so great and wonderful (eg the falsifiability stakes) or its social characteristics (eminently Kuhn, of whose ‘Structure of Scientific Revolutions’ I have my own battered original, incidentally). Does anyone really look at science’s intrinsic flaws and shortcomings? – it does tend to be regarded implicitly as the best method for the discovery of truth(s). Scientists will, if they are wise, make the usual comments about the provisionality of all scientifically discovered truth, but I reckon it’s sometimes a bit of a ritual admission and there are plenty who have their fingers crossed behind their backs while saying this.

    Just because science is great, doesn’t mean it can’t be improved on – after all, its present form is the result of continuous and at times radical improvement. For instance, one of the real current problems with science, which you have touched on many times, is that it systematically buries its failures, with the result that they can’t be effectively learned from. You mention the usual candidates, all of which attracted non-scientific admirers in their day. In my own one-time area of experimental psychology there are theories which failed, but in the process of doing so attracted adherents who used them to justify moral imperatives, and paradoxically left behind them a counter-factual aura of almost-success and moral (if not actual) truthfulness. Mathematical learning theory made claims to potentially predict human behaviour, which during the Cold War years I believe attracted some government funding before it collapsed into incoherence and ignominy (if I recall correctly, but please correct me someone). There are others in my own home-ground which scientists in other areas would never have been aware of. I reckon everyone from a tribologist to an ethologist has their own such secluded historical scandals. The point is, by balkanising modern science into a myriad of specialisms, very few practitioners are aware of, particularly, the fallibility of science outside their own sub-discipline. For general science background, they may be reliant on the exact same broadcast ‘edu-tainment’ that we all have to put up with. And they will be just as susceptible to wishful or lazy thinking as the rest of us.

    Watching Professor Brian Cox, I am troubled by a bizarre resemblance to George Formby. I am always vaguely disappointed that no banjo appears. Has anyone else experienced similar problems with concentrating on what these people are actually saying?

  6. sab

    Oops: for ‘banjo’ read ‘ukelele’, no wonder I was disappointed.

    And Mr Brand could perhaps audition for ‘Padres of the Caribbean’?

    Sorry about this, I just wish there were more like Josh who could squeeze some real humour from such jokers.

  7. Brian H

    The Council of Experts must, inevitably, be self-qualified and self-selected. Who else could be trusted with the job? Certainly not voters! This effort to self-select has a few historical precedents, none inspirational, however.

    For the sake of US (and Cdn?) readers, you might pull a few e.g.s from across the Pond. Check out the election (by dubious means) of Al Franken, retiring comedian, to the Senate (ensuring a Dem. majority!), for one. (Your UK examples mean nothing to readers abroad, I assure you.)

  8. hunter

    Brian H,
    You make a good point on the self-selected elites and their need for corrupting elections.
    Franken, Washington State’s very dubious senator and Governor elections, are great examples.
    This week’s election in Virginia, where democrats paid a faux libertarian to run and who siphoned off eneough votes to put the democrat in office is fesh and raw.
    The lies told about voter ID, and who pushes the lie that ID is somehow discreminatory is interesting as well.

  9. sab

    Just came across this ref to recent Economist article ‘Trouble at the lab’ from (h/t) Number Watch forum at:


    [ article itself at:



    I think the thrust of it is that science is becoming not only less reliable, but also less aware of its own shortcomings, for a variety of reasons. Am I reading this quite lengthy article correctly?

  10. DanV

    Absolutely brilliant article – articulated a lot of the arguments I’ve tried (much less successfully) to get across to friends and acquaintances I end up arguing with. Keep up the great work.

  11. geoff Chambers

    Brilliant article (as we’ve come to expect). Couldn’t you split it up into several though, so that more people get to appreciate your insights?
    (Much as I enjoyed it, it was really sab’s suggestion that Brand audition for Padres of the Caribbean that made my day).

  12. mike fowle

    Very thoughtful and well constructed essay, as so often from you. A lot of food for thought which I won’t insult by a superficial comment, except to say that to sit through Marcus Brigstock and the other “comedians” takes more patience and love of humanity than I possess.

  13. Dagfinn

    I was especially struck by this from Klein: “Physicists, astronomers, medical doctors and biologists have been at the forefront of movements against nuclear weapons, nuclear power, war, chemical contamination and creationism.”

    Read that list again. Nuclear weapons, nuclear power, war, chemical contamination and creationism. Isn’t it amazing that there are scientists who dislike war? War as a social phenomenon has little to do with science and a lot to do with destruction. Creationism, on the other hand, has a lot to do with science, but little to do with destruction. I’ve been asking myself, will it have any practical impact on the world if 90 per cent of the population believes in creationism? I assume there are some, like geneticists, who would be unable to do their job properly without at least understanding the theory of evolution. But they would fit comfortably inside the 10 per cent.

  14. Ben Pile

    Brian H – For the sake of US (and Cdn?) readers, you might pull a few e.g.s from across the Pond.

    Alas, I don’t know many of them, except Louis CK, after a trip to New York. The other problem being one needs to have seen comedians in their time to see how they have changed over the years. Please do post some links to before/after clips, though, as a trans-Atlantic comparison might be interesting.

    Some more background might be useful. In the 1970s and early ’80s, British comedy in the mainstream seemed to be dominated by working class men, whose product was somewhat earthy. In the 1980s, mainstream TV began to feature much more more middle class and left-of-centre ‘alternative’ comedians, who rejected the implicit (and often explicit) chauvinism of their counterparts.

    One such alternative comedian, Ben Elton, wrote a novel in the late ’80s, called Stark, the plot of of which involved a conspiracy amongst the world’s richest people to destroy the planet through pollution, before escaping to space, where they would live until the bulk of humanity had been wiped out.

    What I think is interesting is first, that the change in mores resulted in the (rightful) kicking the racist, sexist and homophobic old bores out of the mainstream, but that the culture that developed then turned the players involved in that change into very similar bigots. Brigstocke, for instance, makes working class (‘blue collar’, in America) people an object of ridicule, reflecting the political establishment’s own prejudices in exactly the way his predecessors did, decades earlier.

    Another interesting thing is the view that seems prevalent amongst these comedians, especially Stewart Lee, is the motion that stand up comedy is normative — that it establishes social mores, values and so on. Hence, he sets himself up against individuals and institutions — e.g. Melanie Phillips, Jeremy Clarkson, the Daily Mail, etc — who he seems to think somehow instruct people’s worldviews. I’ve never been comfortable with the idea that people go out and hit other people, or marginalise them simply because somebody or a newspaper disparaged some part of the population based on their ethnicity, orientation, or whatever. This seems to be an unsafe premise of ‘political correctness’. The dynamics of social mores and their changes are surely more subtle than Lee imagines. Moreover, it raises questions about his own bashing of religious, common, and poor people — especially those who didn’t grow up with the privilege the private school-educated Oxford graduate enjoyed. It suggests Lee sees himself as more than being in the business of making people laugh, and is involved instead in social engineering. What should be obvious is that he has failed. He better reflects the prevailing attitudes of the political establishment than of broader society.

  15. Ben Pile

    Geoff — “Couldn’t you split it up into several though, so that more people get to appreciate your insights?”

    I like to think of it as Troll Control. Having learned the hard way in comment discussions in the past, if you don’t completely set out your stall, the nit-pickers will descend on any omission, as I re-discovered on Judith Curry’s blog, where a ‘Joshua’ decided only to read what was quoted, and then claimed that the terms used had not been sufficiently defined. Plus, they can’t read anything longer than 1,000 words.

    I also intended it to be read on Sunday afternoon. I don’t normally expect people to read so many words in the week. But I didn’t finish it in time.

  16. Mooloo

    Ah, Joshua Halpern. He trolls Pielke Jnr’s blog quite frequently. As you say, his stock in trade is picking over definitions, in order to derail the argument.

    I like the long posts. It’s a nice change from “the world is fucked”, but we’re only going to give you a tiny slice of the “evidence” in case you disagree.

  17. Eric J

    I think all of this can be distilled to a simple phrase: Confirmation Bias. No matter how much evidence is present, it will always fall on deaf ears or be discounted as irrelevant, erroneous or selective if it does not match the prejudices of the commentator.

  18. GSW

    Was that Richard Dawkins at the end of the “is Science the New Religion” piece? (at about 52mins+), certainly sounded like him. I’m sure Evan Harris will be pleased to know he’s got his vote.

    It is hard to get the point across and Brendan did try valiantly to do so. I think he struggled with his argument of morality vs science, i.e. questions are not always entirely about the science, there are other dimensions, and it’s probably true, but not that relevant to “Science as the New Religion”.

    The simplest parallel to draw is unchallengable authority; “the Word of God” (aka the Bible) has been replaced by “Scientists say” (New Scientist and Nature magazine), if you question either your a Heretic! or worse, a Denier!

    Brendan’s on the right track though, in times gone by you had to convince people that God was on your side, “A sign from the Heavens” would suffice, now you just need to know the right people to get it thru peer review.

  19. Robert of Ottawa

    Science dictated by politics is not science, it is Lysenkoism.

  20. Lewis Deane

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

  21. Lewis Deane

    Or, to quote, Heidegger, why should things be rather than not be?

  22. Lewis Deane

    Don’t think Ben is ‘praising Capitalism’, or thinking uncritically about it or this particular history. He is not for Capitalism or, perhaps, any other ism. One can be ‘against’ Capitalism, without being an idiot.

  23. Lewis Deane

    Ben, what we call the ‘working class’ in US idiom it is, ironically enough, the ‘middle class’ . Middle because they are above the ‘lupenprolitariate’ but bellow the ‘;rich’.

  24. Lewis Deane

    By the way, the ‘Peep show’ was a deeply inimical, misanthropic view of a ‘world’ – it despised ‘us’, as well as itself. Very telling! Give me the alleged ‘chauvinism’ of Morecambe and Wise any day. From the beginning, I knew Ben Elton was a fraud. Though a clever one. I forgive the little squirt everything for ‘The Young Ones’.

  25. Lewis Deane

    Love, which blames the game it has made,
    Love, which sings to itself,
    Love, which bitterness cannot alter,
    Love, like the early morn, the rose as red as your first loves lips,
    Love, cankerous flower, as blighted as your birth,
    Love, a smile, a forgiveness.

  26. sab

    @Lewis Deane, vis a vis The Young Ones.

    I don’t think that series could be made or shown today – it holds up to ridicule the things that are now being hidden.

  27. sab

    Clarification: just meant that the characters in that show are now running things in government, media and the green industries. Just like the 60’s radicals in the US who miraculously ended up in Wall Street and other such revolutionary bodies (!).

  28. Lewis Deane

    Sab, understood

  29. Lewis Deane

    My sadness is so radical, I think it goes beyond Bens. Ben is to young to know Death in it’s radical, ineradicable nature and thank God. (I say God only as a putative demonstration of a metaphysics that could, perhaps should exist? The talk, as Nietzsche has said, of a decadent). Ben, for instance, hasn’t read Trotsky’s military commentaries – he thought, Trotsky, they would be a monument more outlasting bronze than Ceasers Bellico. But they just showed that he was a brutal and abnormal man. And my dad still believes in the ‘Permanent Revolution’!. Violence is easy. It’s on my street. If I want a revolution I just say to the next guy “You know, your stupid.” Do we still believe in a future? With two black eyes, it’s hard to see it. But if I squint right, at the corner of my eye, when the light isn’t so blinding, I see children dancing and singing, I see freedom vermilion, changing all the time. At that moment I love mankind, rather than hate them,

  30. Lewis Deane

    The sea of sadness, that I swim upon,
    Or, should I say drown in, is not quite as large
    As I imagined. Always disappointing. For instance, like God.
    A wreck, a blinding, a sudden awareness. But when
    I was aware: My Lord, I knew you were a liar. For
    Help is given by the Devil or its office, the Samaritans.
    How they smile at you or enjoy your death.
    All ‘charity’ is death. I’m beaten about by an old Angel,
    He knows what he is doing, he knows what he is saying.

  31. Lewis Deane

    The stolid soul, like a peace of earth,
    a piece of turth, kicked out, a stump of a silver tree,
    burnt at the roots and dug up, pulled out, dragged out
    and put on a truck and taken away.
    Slagged on a slagg heap, if you looked carefully
    enough, there was a kind of smile knotted in the wood.
    You missed it? So did I.

  32. Lewis Deane

    Supersoul, like Superman, or overman,
    Overcoming-man, man that has mastered and overcome himself.
    Or Super Id, beyond any negotiation, thrashing every joy
    And every person it sees. Our joys last as far as the early morning
    Can wake us. A slight blueishnes in the sky and we’re alive –
    To how to forget what last night we remembered.
    The gull blown against the sea and you sat just watching.

  33. Lewis Deane

    I apologize, Ben.

    Beginning with and again? The steady stroll on the streets
    And, almost, you saw yourself dancing, until
    Sneaking out of those, a grimace at your aloness.
    Shabby to the left and to the right, almost as if
    Every window did not see the sun like you do.
    Every smile not minding your search and the scowls
    Having never wanted it. A walk, a Patterson, a new
    Beginning, ‘A’ wanting more than we have ever failed at.
    No one is alive to hear this song. Pound and Zukofsky
    And Eliot gone. Poor merriman. All failures.
    Songs you sang yourself to sleep with. All dead.

  34. Lewis Deane

    But, more to the point, I was trying to read a post by Tim Ball, on Watt’s site, which, unfortunately, I couldn’t to the end (there are certain irrationalities even I can’t take) but he did point to an interesting phenomena – for it is not a fetishm of ‘Expertise’ we have to examine but a fetishm of specialized expertise. Time was, when the ‘amateur’, the ‘dilettante’ was not an insult but a commendation. If we are all ‘specialized’ we are all dilettantes. And if to be a dilettante is not be enfranchised then we are all disenfranchised.

    To have an ‘overview’ means, also, having the courage not to be ‘specialized’. Also, therefore, not to know ‘too much’. For one can know ‘too much’. Further, a ‘citizen’ (we are ‘subjects’, remember) is someone whose knowledge is not assumed, only his or her good sense and judgement – hence, the jury system. To give trust to your fellow citizen, that he/she will decide with his/her good sense – well, is that not democracy? There is no such thing as a ‘specialized’ citizen – or ‘subject’, for that matter.

  35. Lewis Deane

    Ben, could you either combine or eliminate my spurious posts. I apologize for being such an idiot. But I think my latter post is to the ‘point’ and the rest weakens it. Your blog is not mine and don’t allow me to use it as such. Especially when you make you have made such a good post as above!

  36. Peter S

    Lewis – ‘Knowing too much’ is an interesting thought.

    If eating too much is an attempt at self-curing one’s hunger, knowing too much might be an attempt to cure oneself of doubt. A climate expert (for example) claiming to have all the answers may be insisting he’s found a cure for questions. If this is the case, any further enquiry becomes not the symptom of curiosity, but is diagnosed as the irrational ‘denial’ of its cure.

    Questions, of course – like appetites – are constant reminders, ever-present saboteurs, of who we might otherwise wish ourselves to be. Losing either might seem like a logical solution to a person who finds their demands intolerable – just as legislating for their loss (in guises such as environmentalism) might promise a permanence. If we suspect there is a madness in all of this, C. K. Chesterton might identify its location in a reflection from his book ‘Orthodoxy’ – “The madman is not the man who has lost his reason. The madman is the man who has lost everything except his reason”.

    Perhaps, in our newly secular age, we need to redefine what science is. Science may not be so much the finding of answers – but the search for far better questions to ask. Knowledge, simply a valuable byproduct along the way.

  37. Peter S

    Sorry Lewis – my first effort was unclear in places. Here it is again with a few bits polished up. Perhaps our host would be kind enough to delete the original?

    ‘Knowing too much’ is an interesting thought.

    If eating too much is an attempt at self-curing one’s hunger, knowing too much might be an attempt to cure oneself of doubt. A climate expert (for example) claiming to hold all the answers may be insisting he’s found a cure for questions. If so, all further enquiry would not be seen as a symptom of curiosity, but angrily diagnosed as the irrational ‘denial’ of its cure.

    Questions, of course – like appetites – can be unwanted reminders of who we are… the ever-present saboteurs of who we might otherwise wish ourselves to be. Losing either could seem like a logical progression to a person who finds their demands intolerable… just as legislating for their elimination – in guises such as Environmentalism – might hold out the promise of a more permanent solution. If we suspect there is a “swirling fucking madness” somewhere in all this, G. K. Chesterton might identify its location in his book ‘Orthodoxy’ – “The madman is not the man who has lost his reason. The madman is the man who has lost everything except his reason”.

    Perhaps, in our newly secular age, we do need to redefine (or re-remind ourselves of) what science is. Science may not be so much the finding of answers – but the search for ever-better questions to ask. Knowledge, simply a valuable byproduct along the way.

  38. geoff Chambers

    No, don’t delete anything.
    There are people here (I can think offhand of four or five) I encounter nowhere else (or seldom).
    Ben, I imagine, would define himself as a logical sort of person, a practitioner of rational thought. Not everybody’s like that. Not everybody needs to be like that. Different strokes for different folks, and all that. And not all false strokes should be erased. Use the rubber sparingly, says my art teacher.

  39. Lewis Deane

    Thanks, Geoff. And, PeterS, you put it well. You always make me think. The ‘anxiety’ of not ‘knowing’ is quite a modern problem. The idea that their are thoughts and ideas out there we know not of. Hence, the appeal to and the need of ‘Authority’. The ‘Twat (after Cameron’s joke – you know that PM, at the moment, blowing every ‘member’ of the Chinese Central Committee! Quell histoire! ‘To many tweets makes a…’) of Expertise’ syndrome or TOE for short. Only joking!

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