Michael Mann is denying the debate again, arguing in the New York Times, ‘If You See Something, Say Something‘.
THE overwhelming consensus among climate scientists is that human-caused climate change is happening. Yet a fringe minority of our populace clings to an irrational rejection of well-established science. This virulent strain of anti-science infects the halls of Congress, the pages of leading newspapers and what we see on TV, leading to the appearance of a debate where none should exist.
Judith Curry has responded to the article, and other of Mann’s statements:
Well, I do like the title of Mann’s op-ed. Here is what I see. I see a scientist (Michael Mann) making an accusation against another scientist (me) that I am ‘anti-science,’ with respect to my EPW testimony. This is a serious accusation, particularly since my testimony is part of the Congressional record.
If Mann is a responsible scientist, he will respond to my challenge:
JC challenge to MM: Since you have publicly accused my Congressional testimony of being ‘anti-science,’ I expect you to (publicly) document and rebut any statement in my testimony that is factually inaccurate or where my conclusions are not supported by the evidence that I provide.
Scientist and non-scientist alike have, throughout the climate debate, struggled to identify precisely what it is they object to about counter-positions. This, it seems obvious to say, is because of the incoherence of their own proposition.
As I point out, the ‘scientific consensus on climate change’ turns out, in most instances to be a ‘consensus without an object’. Which is to say that most arguments for political action to mitigate climate don’t actually proceed from the science at all, and in many cases make up the content — i.e. ‘object’ — of the consensus to suit the argument. The claim, which Mann himself uses in the NYT, for example, that 97% of scientists agree that ‘climate change is real’ and that ‘we must respond to the dangers of a warming planet’ isn’t borne out by a reading of the survey, which was itself imprecise about its own definitions, and captures the perspectives Mann has himself dismissed as ‘anti-science’: sceptics are part of the putative ’97 per cent’. Few sceptics argue that ‘climate change is not real’.
It follows then, that their own argument being incoherent, the likes of Mann will misconceive challenges to it. Unless, that is, Mann’s rhetoric is strategic: to not let out of the bag the ‘it’s more complicated than it-is-or-it-is-not-happening’ cat. It might well be true that ‘climate change is real’. But it might not be a problem. It might well be a problem, but it might not be a problem, as it is framed, of survival vs apocalypse. It might not even be a problem that necessarily leads even to a single mortality. It might just be a big inconvenience, that drags on for centuries, but which takes nobody by surprise.
The refusal to admit questions of degree into the climate debate is a sure sign that the debate is neither as clearly divided as Mann claims, nor that science can resolve it simply. The division of the debate into binary, opposing categories is strategic, political. He might as well say it divides between goodies and baddies. He fails to accurately describe the debate he is taking a position in. And that is an even more interesting phenomenon than the discussion about who is taking which position with respect to the question ‘is climate change happening’.
Mann divides the debate into ‘science’ and ‘anti-science’. This has been tried many times. But the debate is not so easily characterised. And here’s why.
This is an ‘anti-science’ argument:
Knowledge about the world cannot be achieved through the systematic formulation and testing of hypotheses through observation and experimentation.
All scientific enquiry is a sin against God.
This argument is wrong, but not anti-science:
There is no such thing as cancer.
The object of the claim is cancer, not the science which determined its existence. Taking issue with the object or finding of a scientific investigation is not the same thing as taking issue with science.
Even if someone were to claim, as Mann seems to believe is being claimed…
There is no such thing as climate change.
… it would not be ‘anti-science’. It’s not a denial of the scientific method, even if it seems to be a denial of what the scientific method has produced. Most sceptic positions in fact attempt to use, not deny, the value of science.
The mis-characterisation of the argument, however, is a denial of the scientific method. Mann believes he can rule out any objection to his argument, not by reference to either his own scientific argument, or to the argument which seemingly contradicts it, but by reference to the weight of opinion that seemingly supports it.
The argument is about authority, not about facts pertaining to the material world. If the argument were about facts about the material world — i.e. objects — the scientific consensus invoked by Mann, would have an object. Mann and his detractors would be divided over a proposition. They aren’t. Many sceptics agree that ‘climate change is real’. And many of them, and other people who have attracted the epithet ‘denier’ are scientists, doing science. Hence, Mann pretends first that the debate divides on the meaningless proposition, ‘climate change is real’, and then that it is a matter of science vs anti science.
What Mann and many others confuse is the difference between science as a process, and science as an institution.
As Curry explained recently, “Skepticism is one of the norms of science”. To deny criticism, and to refuse even to admit to the debate parameters that might let debate occur is to deny the scientific method. Mann, in attacking his detractors not through argument about the science, but by questioning their obedience to the orthodoxy, makes science a religion, like clerics accusing lesser holy men of heresy or infidelity — the claim only has gravity by virtue of science as an institution — the weight of numbers, and their affiliations — not by virtue of the claims and counter-claims having been tested.
Curry calls Mann’s bluff — he should make plain what is the scientific claim which is in dispute, but which shouldn’t be, and which are the claims in general that sceptics seemingly deny.
He won’t ever commit, however, because he can only commit to hollow propositions like ‘climate change is real’.
Countless arguments across the web and in public life fail ever to make it plain what it is they are actually about, precisely because such esteemed scientists as Mann — who want to influence politics — have not made any progress in identifying their own argument, either. More than 20 years of effort have not led to presidents or prime ministers — nor even their climate change ministers — making factually accurate statements about climate change, and especially the link between climate change and extreme weather events. The misrepresentation of the debate continues, repeated by the media, politicians, and scientists, each hiding behind the authority of institutional science.
Away from the debate that only exists in Mann et al’s heads — of one side representing the proposition ‘climate change is real’, and the other side denying it — it seems that there is a widespread view that planet has warmed, slightly. But that warmth is not as much as was expected, and a hunt has begun to find the ‘missing heat’ in the deep oceans. Moreover, attributing that warmth to human society has been harder than was expected. Furthermore, the consequences of that warmth for natural processes have been harder to establish than was expected. Even worse, the effect of those consequences on human society have not been identified at all, in spite of claims to the contrary. And finally, the effectiveness of policies intended to mitigate those non-existent effects has not been established, nor survived a robust cost-benefit analysis, much less won democratic support. Even in this very (over-) simplified view of the climate debate, these are at least five questions of degree, each of which contingent on the magnitude of the previous, but which are routinely waved away by claims that ‘climate change is real’, and that ‘the majority of scientists’ agree with the proposition, and that those who disagree are ‘anti-science’. Anyone invoking the consensus in debates about climate change are thus separated from reality by at least five degrees.
Mann urges us ‘if you see something, say something’. So we say what it is we have seen, and the reply is that what we have seen is the result of being anti-science. But science is about reconciling different perspectives, not excluding those perspectives which do not fit the political agenda that institutional science has attached itself to. If ‘seeing something’ obliges the seer to ‘say something’, it must oblige the seer to discuss it with those who see it differently, not to merely shout louder in an attempt to drown out the other perspective. Any failure to do so reveals that what the seer sees is not the product of science.
What the other perspectives variously urge, either directly or by implication, is a more thorough interrogation of the perspective that Mann et al offer. Mann wants to argue that what he sees is hard, cold, objective fact — a reading of the world as it is, uncontaminated by the fragility of the human perspective. But it’s not enough to say ‘climate change is real’. We have to agree on what climate change is, and what its consequences are. But as this blog argues, ‘climate change ‘ means many different things to many different people.
For some climate change means only some form of socialism can rescue the human race from extinction. For others it means the construction of supranational institutions to monitor and regulate global productive activity. For some it means opportunities for ‘clean tech’ venture capitalists. Whatever the material basis of Mann’s claims is, a look at the human world and the arguments about climate change should demonstrate that there is nothing simple about the ideas about society’s relationship with the natural world that are in currency, and that thus a great deal is expected of science, and is presupposed in scientific investigations of the natural world. Mann is saying more than that we can observe a rise in temperature and attribute it to anthropogenic CO2; like many others, he’s saying that there are consequences for other natural processes and for human society.
A cascade of presuppositions emerges when we try to unpack claims like Mann’s about the urgency of what they have ‘seen’. He resists criticism of those claims by lumping them in with the — uncontested, unquantified — claim that ‘climate change is real’, and by belittling his critics. The presuppositions of the claims he makes need unpacking, and they need debate as much as they need to be taken seriously by science.
By excluding other perspectives, Mann is left only with his own. If science is the process of reconciling different perspectives, such that the fragility of perspective is excluded, then by excluding perspectives, the product of Mann’s science — what the likes of Mann see — is an image of himself, passed off as a picture of the world. An angry, censorious and arrogant scientist reveals much about the prejudices that form the environmental perspective, and just as much about the politics that has invested so much in him.