The Guardian has quoted Royal Society President, Paul Nurse’s outburst:
He urged researchers to forge relationships with politicians, lobbyists, religious figures and leaders of organisations in the hope that they might feel ashamed to misuse scientific evidence.
But if that approach failed, Nurse urged researchers to call offenders out in the media and challenge them in the strongest way possible. “When they are serial offenders they should be crushed and buried,” Nurse said.
A lot has been written about Paul Nurse and his predecessors on these pages. And there’s even a video. Like many of his fellows in what we could call the ‘climate change establishment’ (also called the ‘Mediocracy’ here), there is a peculiar problem with his rhetoric.
For all his talk of the importance of science and scientific evidence, Paul Nurse never actually takes issue with those he now demands should be ‘crushed and buried’. The problem isn’t as simple as this physician not knowing anything about climate science; Paul Nurse is a moral coward as much as he is an ignoramus.
Strong words, perhaps. But look at his injunction to scientists again:
Nurse urged researchers to call offenders out in the media and challenge them in the strongest way possible.
It is an instruction that he cannot follow himself. He does not ‘call out offenders’, to ‘challenge them’. He merely shouts about them, where he ought to be bringing the putative weight of scientific evidence down on them. Like chair of the UK’s Committee on Climate Change, John Selwyn Gummer, AKA ‘Lord Deben’, Nurse does not:
1. Identify the sceptics/deniers/dismissers/delayers
2. Identify the problems with the arguments made by sceptics/deniers/dismissers/delayers
3. Provide a better argument to counter the arguments made by sceptics/deniers/dismissers/delayers
(Tim Worstall notes that Nurse injunction doesn’t seem to apply to members of the RS.)
Instead, the likes of Nurse (and Gummer) hide behind the ‘scientific consensus’, rather than use the substance of scientific consensus to shed light on debates about the climate.
Regular readers here will know that this is a symptom of what I call a ‘consensus without an object’. It doesn’t matter what your criticism of climate science or climate policy is, to take issue with any claim made in pursuit of climate policy, or about climate science is to ‘deny the consensus’. So Nurse does not have to understand, or to share his understanding of climate science, he just has to shout about ‘denial’, and to attack the character of his counterparts. The consensus without an object allows its bearer to use the authority of science, rather than its explanatory power.
So. Much. For. Science. Then.
Equally confused about what science is, yet seemingly standing for its virtues, Professor Brian Cox this week took a break from producing wide-eyed cosmic-stupor documentary films, to pronounce on climate sceptics. The Guardian — again — reports,
He said scientists could say with total confidence that climate science was uncontroversial and the current predictions for warming were the best advice available.
What does it mean to say ‘climate science is uncontroversial’? A science that had no controversy would be a strange science indeed. Even physics has controversies. Science is not, as the Guardian article seems to have it, a process of gradually assembling a picture of the truth, but proceeds often messily, producing conflicting accounts of phenomena. Without different perspectives to reconcile, science would make no progress; it would either be unnecessary or beyond our abilities.
But the claim that there is no controversy belongs more to the journalist quoting him, Karl Mathiesen, who is a ‘freelance journalist with a background in wildlife conservation’, than it belongs to Cox. On Twitter, and responding to Alice Bell, Cox complained,
— Brian Cox (@ProfBrianCox) September 5, 2014
Here is the part of Cox’s preferred account of his talk, in which he discusses climate science:
He also said that scientists need to be more absolute in communicating the likelihood that they are wrong when discussing huge issues such as climate change. “We can sometimes create a false sense of debate that suggests there is a lot of uncertainty, and that sounds dangerous. I almost want to say we should be less scientific, but in a very specific way that says ‘you can’t do better than this’. You can be absolute – you can say that science is absolutely the best evidence we have, and this is absolutely the best advice.”
The problem with Cox’s argument here is that it allows the value of ‘absolutely the best advice’ to be amplified to unassailable truth. He ‘almost wants to say we should be less scientific‘, when presenting the evidence to the public and to politicians.
In a debate as complex as the one about climate change, elevating ‘absolutely the best advice’ precludes nuance. The consequence of the consensus without an object is that the debate is presented as one between ‘scientists’ and ‘deniers’, attached to the claims ‘climate change is happening’ and ‘climate change is not happening’ respectively. For Cox to go into any depth about the arguments at play, he would have to admit nuance that upsets that view of the debate. Cox’s willingness to be ‘less scientific’ is the result of a necessary trade-off, in other words, between certainty and precision. The authority of climate science cannot be sustained while being precise, so Cox writes it a sick note. Of the myriad of claims made in the climate debate, Cox thinks it is sufficient to answer even the IPCC’s own statement that ‘Uncertainties about future vulnerability, exposure, and responses of interlinked human and natural systems are large’ with the mantra, ‘climate change is happening’, which means precisely nothing.
Cox’s proposal has a number of implications. He openly argues for science to have more sway in public debates and on policy, and this creates its own problem, because, as the climate debate is testament to, institutional science’s priorities are not necessarily shared by the hoi polloi. Cox might answer that the voting public, not possessing scientific knowledge, might not be aware of what their best interests are. However, institutional science, once it becomes a political force or simply posses political power, needs to legitimise itself and the exercise of that power. And there is simply no positive, or progressive way for science to engage itself in the public sphere: it can only ground itself in the language of risk, rather than progress. For example, of the claims ‘science can save your children from death’ and ‘science can give you faster transport’, only one of them carries any political consequences, there being no first-order consequences for political organisation of the promise of faster cars, trains or planes. A reason needs to be found to take political power away from democratic institutions — from the public — and given to scientific institutions. The presupposition of elevating science in policy-making is an increasingly dangerous world, in need of management by experts. Not even the scientific method provides oversight of this form of politics, because the power subsists in scientific institutions, which certainly do not welcome climate sceptics, rather than in the scientific process.
This manufacture of legitimacy is predicated on a particular understanding of risk. It is no surprise that Nurse and Cox’s scripts share much with Nicholas Stern’s writing on the same issues.
Policy-making is usually about risk management. Thus, the handling of uncertainty in science is central to its support of sound policy-making. There is value in scientists engaging in a deep conversation with policy-makers and others, not merely ‘delivering’ results or analyses and then playing no further role. Communicating the policy relevance of different varieties of uncertainty, including imprecision, ambiguity, intractability and indeterminism, is an important part of this conversation. Uncertainty is handled better when scientists engage with policy-makers.
Stern and Smith go on…
Even when technically coherent, failing to lay the limits of today’s insights in plain view, as with the presentation of ‘temperature anomalies’ in summaries for policy-makers , hinders communication of large systematic model errors in today’s models, and hence the relevant level of ambiguity. The eventual realization that such figures show weaker evidence than originally thought can be blown dangerously out of proportion by the anti-science lobby, making the use of science in support of policy-making more difficult than it need be. Again, greater engagement of scientists in the policy process, openly explaining the insights of today’s science and limitations of today’s models, is a significant benefit. This may prove especially true in situations where decisions are based upon feelings as much as upon numbers.
Climate science’s failures have produced ground, which is now aggressively defended against the sceptics by the physician, the physicist and the economist. And it is worth thinking about how wrong many of the claims made in the debate are.
The Guardian piece, which Cox says badly paraphrases him, for example, attributed to Cox the view that ‘scientists could say with total confidence that climate science was uncontroversial and the current predictions for warming were the best advice available’. If this is accurate, it demonstrates that Cox does not understand that few climate scientists believe that i) model outputs agree or are uncontroversial — the IPCC no longer uses them to produce a ‘best estimate’ of likely warming; ii) that model outputs count as ‘predictions’, rather than ‘projections’, for precisely the fact that climate science is not yet a predictive science; iii) of all the aspects of climate science, models are acknowledged as exactly ‘controversial’, and according to Richard Betts, are not as important to policy-making as is claimed — see discussion at Bishop Hill, here and here, for example.
If the claim is not accurate, meanwhile, it means that Cox’s words were easily mangled. Whereas he was saying that the public are too vulnerable to be exposed to discussions about uncertainty in scientific debates with implications for policy, the Guardian journalist — as is Guardian journalists’ want — read it as a message that there was no uncertainty or controversy in climate science. The point being here that the bigger problem than sceptics descending on uncertainty is in fact the over-statement of certainty by, not just journalists, but also policy makers and scientists. No over-statement of certainty, no ground given to us evil sceptics. But was it not scientists, with their words printed in the Guardian, repeated by policy-makers, which warned of ‘Arctic death spirals’; ‘ice-free Arctic summers’; the proliferation of disease; worsening, intensifying and increasing frequency of storms, flood, drought and fire; dramatic decreases in agricultural productivity in Africa; increased warming between 2009-14; the immanent demise of Himalayan glaciers and the consequent denial of water to over a billion people; The deaths of 150,000 and then 300,000 people in the developing world each year; and so on? Each of those claims was at best, controversial, if not complete bunk. It was those dismissed as ‘sceptics’, variously, who pointed out the problems with these claims and using them as the basis for policy, who subsequently found themselves accused of taking issue with certain science, but who have been vindicated.
Stern, at least, conceded that ‘weaker evidence than originally thought’ gives ground to sceptics, right or wrong. Cox’s answer is to sweep it under the carpet. Nurse’s opinion is to bury and crush the sceptics. Stern says that scientists should be more up front about uncertainty. But none of them recognise alarmism as the dynamic that sceptics respond to. Cox, if not Stern and Nurse, should see his mangled words, and call the Guardian out. Nurse and Stern should be taking issue with environmentalists, policy-makers and scientists who over-egg the climate pudding, but to do so would be to reveal that there are many controversies, that science cannot produce unequivocal advice about the state of the planet much less what to do about it, and that the perspectives offered up by many seemingly scientific researchers are in fact contaminated by environmental ideology.
Science, however… Institutional science, that is… has failed to confront the alarmist tendencies in its own ranks. It has not dampened the claims made by Hansen, Mann, et al. It has been slow to respond to the excesses of bloated departments that have capitalised on governments’ climate priorities — especially climate change psychologists.
In seeking to confront sceptics and reverse their capture of ground conceded to them by the failure of institutional science to regulate its own output, Nurse (and Cox) merely give us more ground. Talk of ‘crushing and burying’ does not confront anti science with real science. And to advocate being ‘less scientific’ when scientists speak to each other in front of mere peasants, lest they start to understand the science, means revealing that the issue is not one of science at all, but of authority.
There is more to this story. In his Twitter Profile, Brian Cox describes himself as,
Ultra-naïve positivist-ish, although science can’t explain the existence of antipositivists
Positivism is the belief that the world can be explained only through the scientific method — that any understanding of it not produced in this way does not count as knowledge. This has the implication that only institutional science has access to the ‘truth’. Hence, his contempt for the public, in spite of his fame as a popular science film maker. Positivism’s aim is not as much on the material world, but on the human world, hence his emphasis on ‘the best available advice’ prevailing in policy-making.
Curiously, given Cox’s emphasis on material science, positivism’s origins are not in the material sciences as such, but in sociology. The founder of sociologie and positivism, Auguste Comte believed in the early 1800s that there could be a ‘social physics’, to explain (and perhaps engineer) the social world — that it functioned according to principles that are as physically-determined as the world observed by classical physicists. Hence Cox’s quip that ‘science can’t explain the existence of antipositivists’. While it may be premature to say that this view is wrong, it was certainly premature then and is now, to say that this view yields any practical insight. Sociological perspectives that proceed from such deterministic premises do more to force people in real life into the narrow understanding of them, by such sociologists, than they shed light on why people function in certain ways. For the time being, at least, the positivist notion of individuals as automata, driven by forces, is a fiction that serves a particular ideological preoccupation.
In other words, Cox is not merely arguing that climate science is the ‘best available advice’. He is simultaneously making a claim about the best way of producing that advice, and how society should be organised to follow that advice. That is what it means to be a ‘naive positivist’. It is an ideological — a political — belief, that says much more about how society should be organised than it says about the way stars form and develop. (Readers may also be interested to see how positivism was criticised by Popper — in particular the emphasis he placed on falsifiability.)
One of the problems of positivism is that it cannot recognise the context of its own perspective — in this case, the emphasis on risk expounded by Stern, and implied by Nurse and Cox. It seems obvious to Stern and Smith that policy making should be about risk management. And it seems obvious to those who would elevate science as a political institution that science’s priorities should be about ‘risk management’ rather than the normal business of science: finding the mechanisms of disease and their cures, understanding the natural world, and improving our productive capacities, and the such like which need no political authority. The question ‘when and why did policy-making become mainly about risk management’ makes no sense to the positivist because any alternative understanding of politics as such cannot be quantified under the framework of their understanding. This is not to say that empirical science was never recruited by politics to identify and ameliorate risk, but that a transformation has occurred, in which risk has become an organising principle, and the scientific academy has been elevated in this process, at the expense of notions of autonomous moral agents — i.e. the public, or demos, with the consequence, of course, of the de-emphasis of democratic forms of governance.
Some of these metaphysical points and their implications for democratic society and for science were raised by Brendan O’Neill in the Telegraph.
It’s genuinely concerning to hear a scientist – who is meant to keep himself always open to the process of falsifiabilty – describe his position as absolutist, a word more commonly associated with intolerant religious leaders. But then comes Mr Cox’s real blow against full-on debate. “It’s clearly a bad thing, for knowledge to be controversial”, he says. This is shocking, and the opposite of the truth. For pretty much the entire Enlightenment, the reasoned believed that actually it was good – essential, in fact – for knowledge to be treated as controversial and open to the most stinging questioning.
Controversy, said O’Neill, is essential for society and for science. This caused the ire of Bob Ward, who tweeted,
— Bob Ward (@ret_ward) September 5, 2014
Alice Bell then joined in, correcting Ward on his characterisation of O’Neill’s position, but holding her nose.
@ret_ward it is very rare that I say this, but I agree with some of Mr O'Neill's points here (tho I also think it's classic doubt-mongering)
— Alice Bell (@alicebell) September 5, 2014
O’Neill’s Classic doubt-mongering? Or yet more moral and intellectual cowardice from Alice Bell, in the fashion of Paul Nurse?
Cox then distanced himself from the Guardian article, as discussed above, and has today issued a clarification of his statements.
Finally got fed up, so I've written down what I actually think about the communication of uncertainty in science http://t.co/GmRK9xkmtl
— Brian Cox (@ProfBrianCox) September 6, 2014
Cox’s new article comes at the end of what has been written above. So apologies for going over some of it again. Cox begins,
The point I made during the discussion at the Society of Biology was as follows. One has to be careful when communicating uncertainty in science, especially in politicized areas such as climate science. The reason is that uncertainty is often misunderstood and occasionally misused by self-styled “on-line magazine editors” or opinion formers “who are always right” – you know the sort.
Cox’s reference to “on-line magazine editors” is a reference to Brendan O’Neill, and ‘opinion formers “who are always right”’ is a reference to James Delingpole. (Delingpole wrote this fun commentary on Cox’s arrogance, which is worth a read). It is telling that Cox cannot bring himself to mention their names, much less address their arguments directly. It is the same moral and intellectual cowardice, again, as Alice Bell’s, and Paul Nurses, John Gummer’s and Nick Stern’s refusal to identify sceptics, identify their arguments, and to take issue with them directly. It is childish, narcissistic, in fact, to be unable to respond to criticism of arguments you have made in the public sphere. Cox’s headline is that ‘Science is “too important not to be part of popular culture”‘… He wants popular culture to modified on his own terms. But if you want to influence the public sphere, it is (or should be) axiomatic that you should take criticism of your ideas in good faith, presupposing that they have been issued in good faith. It is not enough to say that O’Neill and Dellingpole misunderstand or misuse ‘uncertainty’; as we can see the issue around risk speaks to the very heart of the matter: not just what the ‘facts’ of the climate are, but how those facts are produced, the institutions that produce them are privileged in the political sphere and the historical context of that ascendency, and how public institutions and the public relate. He has no right to ‘feel fed up’ that his argument has yielded criticism. Rather than engaging his critics, Cox merely restates his position:
The consensus scientific view is the best we can do at any given time, given the available data and our understanding of it. It is not legitimate and certainly of no scientific value (although there may be political value) to attack a prediction because you don’t like the consequences, or you don’t like the sort of people who are happy with the prediction, or you don’t like the people who made the prediction, or you don’t like the sort of policy responses that prediction might suggest or encourage, or even if you simply see yourself as a challenger of consensus views in the name of some ideal or other. It is only appropriate to criticize a prediction or theory based on specific criticisms of the data, methodology or the underlying theoretical framework. It is content-less to criticize a scientific prediction because you don’t like it. There are a (very) few ‘climate skeptics’ who criticize and question specific methodologies, assumptions or conclusions within the IPCC reports in a well-structured and precise way, and they are not to be criticized.
Again, we are left wondering, who are the critics who ‘appropriately’ and ‘inappropriately’ criticise the IPCC, and what is their criticism? Cox does not explain, again refusing to identify the critics, their arguments, and the ‘appropriate’ response. Cox is a fine one to talk about ‘criticising’ arguments merely because you don’t like the implication, and that ‘inappropriate criticism’ is content-free. Cox’s only clue as to who he is talking about is this:
They shouldn’t really be called ‘climate skeptics’ – they should be called scientists.
But what he means here is not the likes of Anthony Watts, Andrew Montford or the individuals who have produced reports for the GWPF, even though they, as he instructs, ‘criticize a prediction or theory based on specific criticisms of the data, methodology or the underlying theoretical framework’. He means, of course, scientists working inside the consensus, within research institutions.
Yet he reveals here a basic misunderstanding of the IPCC and its reports.
The IPCC do not issue ‘predictions’. As Kenvin Trenberth — no climate change denier, he — famously explained in 2007,
In fact there are no predictions by IPCC at all. And there never have been. The IPCC instead proffers “what if” projections of future climate that correspond to certain emissions scenarios. There are a number of assumptions that go into these emissions scenarios. They are intended to cover a range of possible self consistent “story lines” that then provide decision makers with information about which paths might be more desirable. But they do not consider many things like the recovery of the ozone layer, for instance, or observed trends in forcing agents. There is no estimate, even probabilistically, as to the likelihood of any emissions scenario and no best guess.
And the best estimate of likely future warming has disappeared from the IPCC’s reports. As Judith Curry explains:
It is significant that the AR5 does not cite a best estimate, whereas the AR4 cites a best estimate of 3oC. The stated reason for not including a best estimate in the AR5 is the substantial discrepancy between observation-based estimates of ECS (lower), versus estimates from climate models (higher). Figure 1 of Box 12.2 in the AR5 WG1 report shows that 11 out of 19 observational-based studies of ECS show values below 1.5oC in their ranges of ECS probability distribution. Hence the AR5 reflects greater uncertainty and a tendency towards lower values of the ECS than the AR4.
The problem facing Cox is that his positivism does like — in fact it needs and thrives on — theoretical risk, or uncertainty. He continues,
The scientific consensus can and does change, but it changes because of new science, not because of the amateur histrionics of on-line “opinion formers”.
The reference to Brendan O’Neill, here is misplaced. Brendan O’Neill was not challenging the IPCC, but Cox’s argument about the elevation of science in the political sphere. Cox imagines himself to be the same as the IPCC, such that criticism of him is criticism of the IPCC. Such is the power of the consensus, it wraps itself around everything anyone who claims to speak on its behalf. This should demonstrate that there is a problem with the scientific consensus, and Cox, if he wants to emphasise the value of science, should realise that the ‘consensus’ is not his plaything.
These people are part of the entertainment industry, generating hits for websites to increase advertising revenue. They are not in general clear thinkers capable of making a genuine contribution to knowledge. It follows that any appeal to Mill’s statement that ‘controversy is the lifeblood of knowledge’ must be tempered: Controversy where? Within the scientific community, or within the entertainment industry? Controversy within the entertainment industry is the lifeblood of inaction and confusion, not knowledge. Policy decisions must be made now – doing nothing is a policy decision.
It is rich of Cox, who, like Nurse, refuses to name critics of the IPCC, and who confuses his critics with critics of the IPCC, and who refuses to identify the arguments of the IPCC’s critics, to demand from Brendan O’Neill that he explains ‘controversy where’. Cox, if he understood the debate, should understand that it is not easy to draw lines to divide camps in the climate debate, and that it is not easy to divide sceptics from their apparently scientific counterparts. As Roger Pielke Jr. tweets today:
How lies are made: I have 100+ peer-reviewd papers Skeptical Science labels me a "climate skeptic" Then there's this: http://t.co/eXxd2xELZR
— Roger Pielke Jr. (@RogerPielkeJr) September 4, 2014
The IPCC’s critics are too quickly dismissed as ‘sceptics’, and the areas of controversy that exist too quickly overlooked by the likes of Cox, who thinks that the ‘debate’ consists of no more than the claim and counter-claim that ‘climate change is happening’ and ‘climate change is not happening’.
Cox knows less about the criticisms of the IPCC than he knows about the actual substance of the IPCC’s reports he now urges that people read:
The only logical way to make a decision is to base it on the best science available at the time because there is no other way. So read the most recent IPCC document for policy makers, which is the best summary of the science we have at the present time. Make decisions based on that.
Cox is wrong. The IPCC’s critics have identified deep problems with the IPCC itself, and much of the research that goes into its reports. In particular: i) the emphasis on reconstructions of historical temperature records; ii) the over-sensitivity of climate models; iii) the exaggeration of positive feedback mechanisms and the opposite with respect to negative feedbacks; iv) the over-statement of second and Nth-order effects of warming on natural processes and society as ‘impacts’; v) the IPCC reports are not written exclusively by scientists, but in the case of WGII and WGIII especially, are, as has been discovered — by sceptics — written by academics from other disciplines, often without any remarkable expertise, and by activists, with particular agendas. Sceptics’ work has directly and indirectly resulted in more reflection, by scientists, within and without the IPCC process on issues such as detection and attribution, and estimation of impacts.
It is worth expanding on O’Neill’s point here. What Cox is really afraid of is, paradoxically, science.
Cox has not read — or at least not understood — the IPCC’s reports. That much is obvious. And he has spent even less time reading criticism of the IPCC. If he had read the debate, he would understand that the problem he is now speaking to is not sceptics pouncing on ‘uncertainty’, but institutional science’s failure to check its own members’ over-estimation of risk, and its own and their own political preferences being smuggled into ‘science’. He would know that the debate is not binary, does not divide neatly into two camps, but that at the very least, the excesses of climate alarmists within and without the IPCC, which are further from the ‘consensus’ and greater in consequence than anything uttered by climate change ‘deniers’. And he would realise that enforcing the polarised view of the debate lumps him in with some very weird ideas indeed, which are not only out-of-kilter with the science, but also deeply anti-human and anti-science in fact and in origin. Hence, ‘crushing and burying’ sceptics in the way that Nurse and Cox attempt to, merely damages the reputation of science.
Cox’s insistence that climate science can only proceed within the IPCC, or other institutional apparatus, is an argument to protect the institutional power that science enjoys. If it was revealed that sceptics have successfully challenged the IPCC, and forced climate science to produce better research — not to mention revises its estimates — the positivist’s claim that only ‘appropriate’ criticism (i.e. from within the academy) should be permitted would be shown to be false. Here we have the empirical proof that the positivist should welcome: institutional science is evidentially more easily influenced by politics than are an array of independent researchers, whether or not they are scientifically trained, because they are free to speak out of turn without fear; institutional science cannot check itself for political prejudice and deviation from scientific consensus; climate sceptics can and do successfully challenge institutional science; the problems of the climate debate are problems caused absolutely and entirely by the excesses of institutional science and its proximity to political agendas.
Cox’s position is categorically political. But none of this is to say that Cox understands his position is political, though it is doubtlessly intellectually dishonest. The problem with arguments with radical empiricists and environmentalists is that they do not see their positions as political. The prior knowledge of positivism manifests as something like ‘common sense’, but does not encourage interrogation of its presuppositions. In fact it seems to generate anger when it is challenged.
If the climate debate was as easy to explain and fix as Cox believes, by privileging science and excluding dissent, how come, then, it is not possible for him to explain the basic arguments of climate science and its controversies as it was for him to explain how it is possible to measure the power output of the sun using only a tin can, some water, a thermometer and an umbrella?
Brian Cox loves physics. But his love of physics is not enough to convince us that physics is all that is going on in Brian Cox’s head. Cox wants to use physics to do more than merely form an understanding of the material universe. He wants to use physics to say how the human world should be organised. But this is beyond physics’s power. What remains after science is subtracted from Cox’s vision of the world is a great deal more than he would admit, and it is entirely ‘ideological’, the same as with any other, ordinary lay person. Except lay people don’t get to hide their preferences behind “Science”.