Guest essay: The Missing Key

This is a guest essay from Peter Miesler, who writes the blog Citizen’s Challenge.

The Missing Key to Stephen Gould’s
“Nonoverlapping Magisteria”

“… missing was a much more fundamental division crying out for recognition. Specifically,
the magisteria of Physical Reality vs the magisteria of our Human Mindscape. …”

The increasingly shrill and disconnected from physical reality attacks on science by faith-based organizations and individuals has me thinking about an essay evolutionary biologist and historian of science Stephen J. Gould wrote some twenty years ago in an attempt to address the tension between scientific truths and religious truths.

His solution was the notion of “Non-overlapping Magisteria” which delineated two teaching “authorities” (magisterium), the “magisteria of science” and the “magisteria of religion.” It wasn’t his original idea, rather a continuation of a centuries old dialogue between scientists and the Catholic Church that I don’t have the space to get into.

In any event, Gould concluded there should be no conflict because each realm has its’ own domain of “teaching authority.” Since these “magisteria” do not overlap, they cannot contradict each other and should be able to exist in mutual respect.

When it first came out, I loved the idea because of my own struggling intellectual spiritual journey which was embedded within gathering and learning from sober scientific knowledge about this Earth, while dealing with the spiritual aspect of ‘touching Earth’ and having experienced ‘God’s breath’ against my back, so to speak.

Gould’s idea was interesting and it gained a lot of attention and lively discussion, but in the end seems to have offered little to either side. For myself, the criticisms made sense and my enthusiasm diminished. Still, the conflict kept echoing like an unresolved challenge as I increasingly engaged faith-shackled contrarians towards science.

In the years since I’ve kept learning more about Earth’s amazing evolution and geophysics and also the scientific process itself. A process that’s basically a set of rules for gathering and assessing our observations in an honest, open and disciplined manner that all who’ve learned to understand science can access and trust.

Recently it occurred to me that what Stephen Gould was missing was a much more fundamental divide that is crying out for recognition.

Specifically, the Magisteria of Physical Reality vs the Magisteria of our Human Mindscape.

In this perspective we acknowledge that Earth and her physical processes and the pageant of evolution are the fundamental timeless touchstones of reality. Part of Earth’s physical reality is that we humans were created by Earth out of her processes.

Science shows us that we belong to the mammalian branch of Earth’s animal kingdom. Yet, it’s undeniable that something quite unique happened some six million years ago when certain apes took a wild improbable evolutionary turn.

By and by besides the marvel of our two hands, we developed two feet and legs that could stand tall or run for hours and a brain that learned rapidly. During that evolutionary process something extraordinary fantastical was born, the Human Mindscape.

On the outside hominids learned to make tools, hunt, fish, and select plants, plus they mastered fire for cooking and better living.

On the inside our brains were benefiting from the new super nourishment while human curiosity and adventures started filling and stretching our mindscapes with experiences and knowledge beyond anything the “natural” physical Earth ever knew.

While the human mind and spirit are ineffable mysteries, they are also of tremendous consequence and real-world physical power. They drove our growing ability to study and manipulate our world, to communicate and record our experiences and to formulate explanations for a world full of mysteries, threats and wonders. People learned to think and gossip and paint pictures upon the canvas of cave walls, or even better, upon the canvas of each other’s imaginations. We’ve been adding to our brain’s awareness and complexity ever since.

Of course, while all this was going on the human mind was also wondering about the ‘Why’ of the world it observed and the difficult, fragile, short lives we were allotted. In seeking answers to unknowable questions it seems inevitable that Gods would inhabit our mindscape. I suspect inspired by buried memories of being coddled within mom’s protective loving bosom those first couple years of life.

No doubt these “Gods” enabled further successes, though not through super-natural interventions, but rather through their ability to form, conform, reform and transform the mindscapes of the masses of people beginning to congregate. Thus, combining pragmatic civil societal needs with universally felt, but keenly personal questions, fears, and dreams.

After the middle ages tribal stories, accepted ancient doctrines and religious “truths” were no longer enough to satisfy our mindscape’s growing desire for ever more understanding and power over the Earth. The human brain took another tremendous leap forward in awareness with the Intellectual Enlightenment and the birth of serious disciplined scientific study.

Science’s success was dazzling in its ability to learn about, control and manipulate Earth’s physical resources and to transform entire environments. Science was so successful that today most people believe we are the masters of our world and most have fallen into the hubristic trap of believing our ever fertile mindscape is reality. Which brings me back to Gould’s magisterium and his missing key.

The missing key is appreciating the fundamental “Magisteria of Physical Reality,” and recognizing both science and religion are products of the “Magisteria of Our Mindscape.”

Science seeks to objectively learn about our physical world, but we should still recognize all our understanding is embedded within and constrained by our mindscape.

Religion is all about the human mindscape itself, with its wonderful struggles, fears, spiritual undercurrents, needs and stories we create to give our live’s meaning and make it worth living, or at least bearable.

What’s the point?

Religions, God, heaven, hell, political beliefs, even science, they are all products of the human mindscape, generations of imaginings built upon previous generations of imaginings, all the way down.

Here we are, 2018, sober assessment of physical facts is out of fashion and fantasy thinking in the service of ruthless avarice is in.

Now it literally threatening to topple USA’s government Of The People, By The People, and For The People, in favor of a Me First, profits are more important than people, oligarch run machine.

Well, unless an awful lot of sideliners start getting engaged in our democratic process.

All the while the actual physical creation outside of our conceited little minds keeps on unfolding, following well understood geophysical rules regardless.

Ignore at our own peril.

Posted in advocacy, Climate change, Global warming, Personal, Science, The scientific method | Tagged , , , , | 3 Comments

Fact mongering

I thought I would highlight an essay that some of my regulars might find of interest. It’s by Adam Briggle in Issues in Science and Technology and is about Fear mongering and fact mongering. The article is essentially about responsible research conduct. We typically regard research misconduct as being falsification, fraud or plagiarism. The article suggests that we should expand our sense of research ethics to include responsible research and innovation. The idea being that researchers should be conscious of the potential impact of their research and should do the right thing.

The article then focuses on responsible rhetoric of research. Researchers can engage in fact-mongering, where they present information that is factually correct, but that leads people to draw conclusions that are not really consistent with all the available evidence. In some sense, the suggestion is that researchers should be aware of how the manner in which they present information might influence how people interpret the significance of that information. On the other hand, some could engage in this type of rhetoric intentionally so as to encourage a conclusion that suits their narrative, even if it isn’t actually consistent with our best understanding. The examples provided might be of interest to regular readers of this blog.

Although I think that this is indeed an issue, I can’t see any way in which we could, in most cases, objectively determine if someone has engaged in irresponsible rhetoric. I also think that this runs the risk of challenging aspects of academia, such as academic freedom, that we regard as extremely important. I think we probably just have to accept that there will be cases where we disagree with the manner in which some people choose to engage publicly.

I do think, however, that the author is slightly too generous to some of those he uses as examples. The suggestion is that although they might be engaging in irresponsible rhetoric, their thesis is logically, or empirically, flawless. I don’t think this is true. I think there are many fundamental problems with the arguments of those highlighted. However, the topic is sufficiently complicated that this isn’t always obvious.

I think the problem is simpler than some engaging in irresponsible rhetoric; I think there are some who simply present flawed arguments that suit some preferred narrative. The real problem is how one deals with this, and I don’t think there is a simple way. If there are critiques from the scientific community, then there are accusations of bullying, consensus enforcement, and/or there being some kind of science police. If you ignore it, then people can get away with making potentially convincing, but flawed, arguments. Even though I’ve been writing about this kind of thing on this blog for quite some time, I don’t really have any good suggestions. Even I’ve found myself getting tired of dealing with this kind of thing.

You might think that this would be something that social science could help with, and the article I’m discussing is clearly an attempt to do that. However, I also think that many social scientists regard this as simply illustrating a diversity of views and that it is an indication of a vibrant social discourse. It’s hard to see how we can develop ways to deal with something if there isn’t even really agreement that it’s a problem worth addressing. I may be wrong about this impression, so happy to be corrected if I am.

As usual, I’ve gone on way too long. I do think that the article highlights something that is a real issue, but I don’t really see any simple way to deal with this. Although I agree that we should expect/encourage responsible research rhetoric, I don’t see any way in which we could introduce some kind of formal procedure that would censure those who are assessed as having engaged in fact-mongering.

Letters responding to the Briggle article (some of which might, again, be of interest to regular readers of this blog. Kate Marvel’s is particularly good).
Criticising the critics – an older post of mine about this kind of issue.
The Science Police.
Watt about climate models running way too hot – post highlighting one of Bjorn Lomborg’s slip-ups.
Bjorn Lomborg, just a scientist with a different opinin – Realclimate post highlighting some more of Bjorn Lomborg’s blunders.
Lukewarmers – a follow up – a post about some discussion of Lukewarmers.

Posted in Climate change, ClimateBall, Philosophy for Bloggers, Pseudoscience, Research, Sound Science (tm), The philosophy of science, The scientific method | Tagged , , , , , | 464 Comments

We have 12 years

Patrick Brown has a recent blog post about whether, or not, the IPCC claims that we have 12 years to avoid catastrophic global warming. As his post highlights, there are a number of problems with this claim. Firstly, the IPCC says nothing about catastrophe; it simply presents a synthesis of our current understanding and describes the various possible impacts of different levels of warming. Describing something as catastrophic is a judgement that the IPCC has never made.

Another issue is that the 12 years is simply based on how much longer we can keep emitting at the current rate until we’ve used up the estimated carbon budget that would give us a reasonable chance of keeping warming below 1.5oC. If we fail to keep below this carbon budget, then we will have largely guaranteed more than 1.5oC of warming, but this doesn’t mean that catastrophe will suddenly ensue. Some people are probably already experiencing things that they would regard as catastrophic, and the impacts of warming beyond 1.5oC will almost certainly be more severe than if we stay below 1.5oC. However, there isn’t some kind of hard boundary between everything being fine, and catastrophe.

So, stating that the IPCC claims that we have 12 years to avoid catastrophe is clearly not true. However, there is something that bothers me about this. As a scientist, I think it would be wonderful if all you needed to do to get the public, and policy makers, to recognise that there is some issue that might need addressing is to provide them with information. However, it’s well known that doesn’t work; simply filling a knowledge deficit is not an effective way to get people to accept the need for some kind of policy.

Getting the public to actually engage with some issue requires more sophisticated communication strategies, one of which might involve coming up with some catchy phrase that sticks in people’s minds. Such a phrase will, by definition, be a simplification that will almost certainly be wrong in some sense. How does one decide if it’s wrong in some acceptable way, or wrong in some unacceptable way? Should we judge things on the basis of the goal of the communication, or is that not a valid way to judge some rhetoric? What role should scientists/researchers play in determining whether or not some phrase is acceptable?

To be clear, I don’t know the answers to any of the above, and I’m not suggesting that the 12 year framing is acceptable. In fact, I think the claim is both not true and potentially sends the wrong message (it could lead people to conclude that it will be too late if we don’t do something within 12 years, which is not correct). However, I do think that this is a complex issue and that it’s worth recognising that communication strategies are sometimes being used to get people’s attention and may do so in ways that scientists may not always feel comfortable with. I don’t think that this means that scientists should never criticise a communication strategy, but I do think we should be aware of the fact that simply communicating information is not – by itself – an effective communication strategy.

Although I agree with much of Patrick Brown’s post, I don’t agree with the final paragraph, which says

In my experience, the primary reason that people skeptical of climate science come to their skepticism is that they believe climate scientists are acting as advocates rather than dispassionate evaluators of evidence.

It may be true that many who are openly “skeptical” claim that this is the reason, but – in my view – this is mostly a convenient excuse. As far as I can tell, even if all scientists behaved absolutely impeccable, those who are “skeptical” would simply find some other reason to justify their “skepticism”. This isn’t to suggest that scientists shouldn’t be conscious of how their public behaviour might be percieved, it’s simply a suggestion that it isn’t really all that big a factor when it comes to why some people are “skeptical”.

Posted in advocacy, Climate change, Philosophy for Bloggers, Policy, Scientists, The philosophy of science | Tagged , , , , , , | 31 Comments

What bothers, and confuses, me about climate change

Since this blog is mainly a place for me to express my views, I thought I would try explain something that bothers, and confuses, me about the whole climate change issue. Maybe others feel the same as I do, maybe some can help to clarify my thinking, or explain where I’m going wrong, or – as is maybe most likely – I’ll remain bothered and confused.

So, what do I think is the most likely outcome? I expect that – for various reasons – we will avoid a high emissions pathway. We probably won’t stay below 1.5oC, or even 2oC, but may stay below 3oC, or close. I think that those in the developed world, in particular the wealthy, will find ways to adapt, and deal with this. However, I do expect that some regions, and the people in these regions, will suffer, potentially quite substantially. This will probably mostly be in regions that contributed least to anthropogenically-driven climate change. I also think that there will be quite a lot of ecological damage (ocean acidification, for example). I should stress that this is what I think is likely; it could be much worse or, potentially, somewhat better (although I do think the latter is less likely than the former).

What I expect we will do is to normalise this outcome in some way. In fact, some economic models suggest that warming of around 3oC is the optimal pathway. This is what bothers me; I think we will simply accept, and normalise, substantial harm to some people in the world because many people were simply not willing to make sacrifices of their own in order to avoid this. I find this morally repugnant.

So, you might say that we should simply do more, but this is where I get confused. If we really want to do enough to keep warming at close to 2oC, rather than around 3oC, how do we do so in ways that don’t end up adversely affecting those who might be most significantly impacted by climate change anyway? How do we do so without imposing constraints on those least able to manage these changes? Essentially, how do we do so without doing more harm than good?

I’m sure there must be ways to address climate change in ways that are both effective and take into account how doing so might affect those who are least able to deal with the changes (both economic and climatic). I’m also aware that many people do indeed think about exactly this. Maybe there are straightforward, and politically feasible, ways to both address climate change and avoid negatively impacting those who are least able to cope, but I don’t have a good sense of what these are.

Maybe I’ve mostly demonstrated my ignorance, but it certainly bothers me that I think we’re heading towards an outcome that will be severely negative for a large number of people and we don’t seem to be willing to do much to avoid this. However, I’m also confused about how we deal with this in ways that don’t also negatively impact those who are less able to cope with what is required to avoid this outcome. You might think that after writing about this topic for almost 6 years I’d have a better grasp of this, but – embarassingly, maybe – I don’t. I’ll stop here. If anyone has any thoughts, I’d be happy to hear them.

Posted in advocacy, Carbon tax, Climate change, Environmental change, Personal, Philosophy for Bloggers, Policy | Tagged , , , , | 271 Comments

Kenneth Smith

Since today is the 100th anniversary of the Iolaire disaster, I thought I would reblog this post that I wrote a few years ago and that mentions it. If you want to read more about the sinking of the Iolaire, there is a a Guardian article and one in the Scotsman.

...and Then There's Physics

Today is the 100th anniversary of the start of the first World War. In one of the articles I was reading, there was a comment that it was an event that probably touched most of our families in one way or another. In light of that, I thought I might share a story that I encountered when investigating my own family’s history.

My mother’s father’s family were crofters and fishermen on the Isle of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides. They lived in an area called Lochs, which is so named because it has many lochs. My mother’s great-great-great-grandfather was a man called Kenneth Smith, who lived in a village called Leurbost. Born in about 1794, there is some evidence to suggest that he may have actually been descended from the Earls of Seaforth, but I can’t really prove that, and it’s not really part of this story.

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2018: A year in review

Well, it’s the end of another year, so I should probably do a round-up of what’s happened on the blog. The blog seems to be ticking along quite well, but I still don’t really know what I’m doing; I just write stuff. I feel as though the general tenor of the public climate debate is improving; there’s less outright denial and the media seems to be doing a better job of covering the topic. Still don’t seem to be achieving much in terms of actually addressing climate change, but it feels as though we’re moving in the right direction, if a little slowly.

Below is my rather rushed attempt to summarise the blog for 2018.

January saw a guest post by Mark Richardson on a new measurement of climate sensitivity and a discussion about being wicked (a suggestion that I typically find quite irritating).

February had a discussion of about determining the ECS using a modified energy balance approach and a challenge for my readers (which was to find examples of typical contrarian arguments).

March involved a discussion of extreme events and anthropogenic emissions (suggesting that we don’t really need to do formal attribution studies), a post about talking solutions and motivating action, and also one about observing the earliest stages of star and planet formation (discussing some of my own work).

April included a post about our response to Hermann Harde’s flawed paper, a post highlighting the 20th anniversary of the hockey stick (which turned out to be more controversial than I’d expected), a post about criticising the critics (suggesting that defending oneself against criticism is, often, itself simply a tactic), and another discussion of Nic Lewis and Judith Curry’s work.

May involved a post about initial values problems versus boundary value problems, one about the rather contentious issue of RCP8.5 (some people seem to think it’s impossible and shouldn’t be considered, while also arguing that emission reductions are going to be virtually impossible too), one about carbon budgets and the impacts of climate change, and one about the rather pretentious intellectual dark web (Jordan Peterson et al.).

The most active post in June was about James Hansen’s projections not being wrong (which seems to have led to me being blocked on Twitter by one of those who had suggested that it was). There was also a discussion of low-probability, high-impact outcomes (we should consider these, IMO).

July saw a discussion about Skeptical Sciences Climate Misinformers site (which has now changed it’s name), and a post about zero emissions or, more correctly, the common misconception about committed warming.

August was quite quiet, but included a post about the “Hothouse” Earth paper, and a post about why you only need 60 stations to produce a global surface temperature anomaly dataset. It also included a post about one of my papers that discusses estimating eta-Earth (the frequency of Earth-like exoplanets).

The main posts in September were probably my reviews of Roger Pielke Jr’s recent book, the response to which has led me to conclude that there isn’t really much to be gained from engaging with anything Roger says.

October included a post about Richard Lindzen’s lecture to the GWPF (highlighting that the GWPF really does struggle to get credible speakers), a post about John McLean’s PhD (which should be an embarassment to the university that awarded it), and a discussion about an article suggesting that we focus too much on public mobilization and exposing denial (which, in my view, falls into the standard trap of criticising those who present credible information for not doing better, rather than criticising those who present misinformation).

November also seemed quite quiet, but a post arguing that there are benefits to acting now, rather than later was quite active, as was a post about limits to growth. I also wrote a post about an STS perspective, something I still don’t really understand, despite having read quite a lot about STS (Science and Technology Studies, in case that isn’t obvious).

December again discussed the plausibility of RCP8.5 (yes, it is), Tame and Wicked problems, and a rather active one about between conflation and denial, where the author of the paper demonstrated their annoyance with my post in the comments (which wasn’t really a surprise). The month ended with a post about one of my papers that characterised the three exoplanets around GJ 9827.

So, that’s it. Some posts that I think are quite interesting, some I’m quite proud of, and some that ended up somewhat contentious/controversial (or, in some cases, all three). I hope others have found them interesting and useful, and I hope everyone has a good New Year.

Stoat: The lyf so short, the craft so longe to lerne.

Posted in Climate sensitivity, ClimateBall, Environmental change, Personal | Tagged , , , | 11 Comments