## STS as science or politics?

I came across a paper by Harry Collins, Robert Evans, and Martin Weinel called STS as science or politics? For those who don’t know, STS stands for Science and Technology Studies and I have written about it before. I haven’t always been all that complimentary, but I should probably acknowledge that this may reflect more on my ignorance than on anything else.

The reason I found the paper by Harry Collins and colleagues interesting is that it seems (if I’m reading it right) that I’m not alone in my confusion and in some of my critiques. An impression I have is that the STS narrative is essentially that science is inherently value-laden and that scientists should be more aware of the societal/political implications of their research (and also the societal/political influences on their research). A consequence of this is a perception that there is no objective reality and also that expertise somehow depends on societal, and political, values (I may not have this quite right, but I think this is roughly it). Some have argued that this means that STS bears some responsibility for the post-truth world in which we now live (for example, Shawn Otto suggests this in his book The War on Science).

Others, however, suggest that STS bears no responsibility and that debates about the nature of expertise are irrelevant. Harry Collins, and colleagues, disagree, saying

In contrast, we argue that whether or not STS had a causal influence on the emergence of post-truth politics, there is a clear resonance between the two positions and that the current political climate makes empirically informed and scientific analyses of expertise and the form of life of science more important than ever.

and

[the] claim is that STS is not to blame for post-truth because the arguments never pointed in that direction. Thus the ‘science warriors’ must have been mistaken because STS had never threatened scientific truth.

This highlights an aspect of STS that has always bothered me. Certainly the narrative that I have got from STS is that science is somehow value-laden and that scientists should not ignore the societal/political relevance of their research and how their research might be (is) influenced by society/politics. However, they seem to ignore this when it comes to STS itself; it’s as if they think STS can produce “emergent truths” despite their own research suggesting that this is somehow not possible in other research areas (this may not be fair, but is my impression). If “science warriors” regarded STS as threatening scientific “truths” then, by STS’s own arguments, surely this is a valid conclusion, even if it wasn’t explicitly what STS was actually suggesting?

Part of my confusion about STS is that I think I initially thought that it was more about how society could identify scientific knowledge (and expertise) than about the scientific knowledge/experts themselves. However, in their paper Harry Collins and colleagues, seem to actually suggest that this should be one of the key roles for STS research. For example

understanding who can legitimately contribute to expert debate requires social scientists to use their special understanding of the formation of knowledge to reject the misuse of expertise by certain elite experts and give credit to the work of low status, experience-based experts.

and

[e]xpert knowledge, and particularly the substance and degree of consensus between experts, needs to be properly understood so that it can be, and will be, fairly and accurately presented to public and policy-makers.

It’s interesting that the above comes from researchers in the same discipline as those arguing that we should move beyond climate consensus.

Okay, this post is getting rather long, so I’ll just quote some parts from the conclusion of the Collins et al. paper.

Hard questions for STS were posed long ago but were largely ignored in the relatively politically benign years before the recent terrifying outburst of populism. Sismondo argues that these questions are based on a misunderstanding of what STS claimed and that…… This would be right if STS was a political movement for promoting democracy but it is not. STS is an academic/scientific discipline aimed at understanding the nature of knowledge.

….. Unless we want to engage in post-truth activities ourselves we should not be pretending that our major contribution to this new understanding of knowledge – recognising the role of social and cultural factors in the creation of scientific knowledge – does not have the potential to give comfort to post-truth politicians and their supporters. We need to face up to the fact that it does, and find new ways to justify a choice between the knowledge-claims competing to inform public opinion and policy. It is ironic that the one place this is not recognised is in the heartlands of STS.

My own view is (unsurprisingly) very similar to that of Harry Collins and colleagues; it is important to understand the nature of knowledge, but those who do so should be careful of providing ammunition for those who are promoting misinformation for their (and their supporters) benefit. This is especially ironic if those doing so are those who argue that people should be very conscious of the societal/political implications of their research.

STS as science or politics? which is really worth reading in case I’ve misinterpreted some of what was presented.
STS vs Physics.
Eli on Post modern views of science.

## Science; it’s complicated

I mentioned, a while ago, that I’d been at a meeting and had an idea for a post. Well, this is my attempt to articulate what I thought at that meeting. A good deal of my own research involves trying to understand discs around very young stars, in particular discs that are quite massive, relative to the mass of the central protostar.

Spiral density waves in a disc around a young protostar.

For example, consider a young Sun with a disc that extends to just beyond where the edge of Solar System is today and that has a mass greater than 10% that of the central young Sun. Such a disc is likely to be susceptible to the growth of a gravitational instability, which can manifest itself as spiral density waves, as illustrated by the figure on right.

One reason why this is interesting is that it might provide a mechanism for transporting mass through the disc onto the central protostar. The waves grow and are then damped, which essentially acts to heat the disc by converting kinetic/rotational energy into thermal energy. In doing so, this must transport angular momentum, which has to go outwards, allowing mass to flow inwards. In fact, this might be the primary way in which mass is transported onto stars during the earliest stages of star formation.

A circumstellar disc undergoing fragmentation.

Now, there is another possible outcome; if the disc becomes very unstable, it might undergo what we call fragmentation. The spiral density waves start to form clumps that ultimately contract to form bound objects (see the Figure on the left). For a while this was regarded as a possible mechanism for the formation of gas giant planets, like Jupiter and Saturn.

Although I wasn’t the first, I was amongst one of the first to try to quantify the conditions under which a disc would fragment. Essentially, it would need to be susceptible to the growth of the gravitational instability and it would need to be able to cool rapidly. If it didn’t cool rapidly, the dense regions would heat up, and they would be unable to contract to form bound clumps.

Much of this work was done using numerical simulations. About 6 years ago, another group pointed out that if you ran some of these simulations at much higher resolution than we could have done, fragmentation occurred even when the discs cooled slowly. You might think that the immediate response would be to change our general view of this process. However, there had been a lot of other work to try to understand this process. People had shown that the wave amplitudes would depend on how fast the disc cools; if it cools slowly, the waves have a small amplitude. If the amplitude of the waves are small, how can they then form dense regions that clump to form bound objects? People had looked at the power spectra and shown that most of the energy was at scales that were well-resolved by the original simulations. If we were originally resolving these scales, why didn’t we see the fragmentation that was later seen in higher resolution simulations?

Also, if this process was easy, we’d expect to find many giant planets on wide orbits around stars, and we don’t. They do exist, but they are relatively rare. I also published a paper suggesting that if fragmentation were common, we’d expect to see some of the planets that form this way contaminating the known exoplanet population, and – again – we don’t see much evidence for this. So, there was immediately some suspicion, and most of the subsequent work has suggested that there is a numerical issue with some of the simulations, rather than it being likely that fragmentation can happen even if the discs cool slowly.

This isn’t definitive, but the general view – despite some uncertainty – is that if you want to form clumps in discs around young stars, you need a disc that is gravitationally unstable and one that is able to cool rapidly. Consequently, this process is unlikely to play a dominant role in the formation of giant planets.

The point I’m getting at is that science (research, really) can be complicated. It may be that some things challenge our understanding and so we have to consider the weight of the evidence and also whether or not there are reasons why there might be issues with this new evidence. Some amount of expert judgement is often required. There may be cases where the challenge is so convincing that you modify your understanding, and others where it appears that there are problems with the challenge, even if it’s not completely clear what it is.

Of course, it is always possible that our current understanding will change and we should be open to that as a possibility. However, we also shouldn’t change our views the instant someone comes along with some kind of challenge. Often, our current understanding builds up over time and is based on many lines of evidence. Challenging this is, of course, a key part of science, but it also requires that these challenges themselves stand the test of time. In fact, even if these challenges don’t overthrow the current paradigm, they still act to strengthen our understanding, because they force us to look more closely at all the lines of evidence.

The bottom line, though, is that if there appears to be some challenge to a scientific consensus that seems to be being ignored by the scientific community, it’s probably because they’ve looked at all of the evidence and concluded that, despite this challenge, the mainstream view is still probably broadly correct. It can be complicated, in other words.

## A brief roundup: the BBC and OMICS

I guess the big news yesterday was the BBC Radio 4 Today show interviews with Al Gore and Nigel Lawson. If you want to listen, the broadcast is here. Al Gore is on at about 1h10m and Nigel Lawson is on at 2h33m. Al Gore was on to promote his new movie (an inconvenient sequel) which focuses on climate change and why it’s an issue worth addressing. For some reason, the BBC thought that balance required having someone who disputed mainstream climate science and doesn’t think it’s something worth addressing. If they really wanted someone to comment on the accuracy of what Gore said, they could have invited a climate scientist.

If you want to know more about what Lawson got wrong, you can read this Carbon Brief factcheck. The main criticism I’ve seen about what Gore said was that he said extreme weather events had become more numerous and destructive. Technically this is true – there has been an increase in the intensity and frequency of events like heatwaves and extreme precipitation events. It is, however, a complex topic and there isn’t evidence for an increase in the intensity and frequency of all extreme events. My preference would be that people make this clear. However, I also appreciate that this can be difficult when you only have a short amount of time.

On a different note, I discovered (via Russell) that OMICS are not happy with my blog post suggesting that they’ll publish anything, which referred to a paper claiming to overthrow the climate greenhouse theory. The Editor of Environmental Pollution and Climate Change has published a note on contemporary publication ethics, claiming that he and the journal came under vicious attack.

If he thinks my post is a vicious attack, then he has a pretty thin skin. Also, claiming that he was attacked is a little odd, as I didn’t actually mention him at all. I also did not criticise the fees as if they were unique and/or excessive, and my comment about publication timescale was partly based on my own experiences and was partly a suggestion that one might take more care if a paper is claiming to overthrow a well-established paradigm. So, his criticism of my post seems rather inaccurate. Of course, given what they seem willing to publish in the first place, accuracy probably isn’t one of their strengths.

Anyway, that’s a brief roundup of some of the recent news. Some relevant links below.

Posted in Climate change, ClimateBall, Global warming, Science | | 67 Comments

## Kevin Anderson: how numbers reveal another reality

I’ve finally watched the video of Kevin Anderson’s talk (posted in a comment that I currently can’t find) which was part of the Cambridge Climate Lecture Series. I found it quite uncomfortable. He addressed things that we typically avoid. The possibility that we will have to make substantial changes to our lifestyles and that achieving the 1.5 – 2oC target is incompatible with economic growth. I realise that such arguments are unlikely to succeed in today’s socio-political environment, but I am genuinely concerned that we will do so little now, that we will be being forced to do things, in the future, that – today – we regard as unacceptable.

He addressed how the Integrated Assessment Models (IAMs) were providing carbon budgets that are too optimistic – and, hence, motivating delay – by relying on technology (negative emissions) that is yet unproven. He suggests that 4oC is incompatible with organised global community and should be avoided at all costs (discount rate is irrelevant). He also argued that climate scientists, and other academics, should be setting some kind of example by reducing their own carbon emissions (and also that of their institutions). I’ve always been a bit anti this argument because I don’t think it is their role to do so, but I am starting to come around to it. We are amongst the highest emitters, and we’re also aware of the potential consequences.

Whatever you might think of the above, I still think his talk is worth watching. I couldn’t see anything wrong with the numbers he presented and they don’t paint a particularly optimistic picture. That’s not to say that we can’t do something (I certainly think we can) but it seems increasingly likely that we’ll have to start seriously considering doing things that we’d really rather not do.

Posted in advocacy, Climate change, Policy, Politics, Research, Scientists | | 115 Comments

## No, pressure alone does not define surface temperatures!

Eli’s already covered this but I thought I would present a slightly different argument. The topic is a recent paper by Ned Nikolov and Karl Zeller called new insights on the physical nature of the atmospheric greenhouse effect deduced from an empirical planetary temperature model, an earlier version of which was retracted because they had published under pseudonyms (reversing the letters in their names).

The basic argument is that surface pressure sets surface temperatures. The idea being that for a planet like the Earth, we can get the pressure from the weight of the atmosphere and the surface area of the Earth, and that this then sets the surface temperature. This is patently nonsense, and a fairly simple way to see this is via the ideal gas law. The ideal gas law is that the pressure, $P$, is given by

$PV = NkT,$

where $V$ is the volume being considered, $N$ is the number of molecules in that volume, $k$ is Boltzmann’s constant, and $T$ is the temperature of the gas. If the gas has mass $m$ and the mean mass per molecule is $\mu m_u$ ($m_u$ being some reference mass, and $\mu$ a constant) then $N = m/(\mu m_u)$ and we can write

$P V = \dfrac{m}{\mu m_u} k T \Rightarrow P = \dfrac{m}{\mu m_u V} k T \Rightarrow P = \dfrac{\rho}{\mu m_u} k T,$

where $\rho$ is now the mass density.

As should be obvious from the above, the pressure alone cannot tell you what the temperature should be; it depends also on the density. For a given pressure, we could have a hot surface with a low density, or a cool surface with a higher density.

Update (09/08): As per Tom’s comment, their model does include a dependence on solar insolation and albedo and then indicates that the enhanced temperature depends on surface pressure. So, their model is not simply pressure, but it is still the case that surface pressure alone does not determine how the surface temperature is enhanced.

So, what actually sets the temperature?

Let’s imagine we have the Earth, but without an atmosphere (or with an atmosphere that is completely transparent). In such a scenario, the surface must radiate back into space – on average – as much energy as it recieves from the Sun. If it didn’t, it would either heat up, or cool down, until it did so.

If we assume this imaginary Earth has the same albedo as today’s Earth, and orbits today’s Sun, then it would reflect 30% of the incoming sunlight, and would absorb – on average – 240 W m-2. It would also, therefore, radiate 240 Wm-2 and would have an effective surface temperature of 255K. The exact distribution of temperatures on the surface, however, would depend on its rotation and the heat capacity of the surface (as discussed in this paper by Arthur Smith) but, in the absence of an atmospheric greenhouse effect, the surface has to have the same effective temperature as a blackbody that radiates – on average – 240 Wm-2.

Okay, so what about the actual Earth. Well, the surface of the Earth radiates almost 400 Wm-2. This is considerably more than the energy that we receive from the Sun. In the absence of an atmospheric greenhouse effect, the surface would be cooling rapidly, but it obviously does not.

How does this work? Well, there are many ways to explain this, but let’s go back to our imaginary Earth that does not have an atmospheric greenhouse effect. Now add an atmosphere with radiatively active gases. The surface would no longer be able to radiate directly to space. The atmosphere would act to block some of the outgoing longwavelength radiation coming from the surface. The atmosphere would then emit some of this energy back into space and some back down to the surface. However, initially, the amount escaping to space would be less than the amount being received from the Sun. The surface would then warm and emit more energy back into the atmosphere. The atmosphere would also warm, and emit more energy into space, and transfer more down to the surface. This would continue until the system (surface and atmosphere) had warmed until the amount of energy being radiated into space matched the amount of energy being received from the Sun.

A key point is that the amount of energy – on average – being radiated into space has to match the amount of energy being received from the Sun. In the absence of an atmospheric greenhouse effect, this comes directly from the surface. In the presence of an atmospheric greenhouse effect, this comes mostly from within the atmosphere and requires that the surface be warmer than it would be in the absence of the atmospheric greenhouse effect.

So, we can be very confident that Nikolov and Zeller’s argument that planetary surface temperature is set by pressure alone is wrong. Not only does pressure alone not define temperature, in the absence of a planetary greenhouse effect the surface should radiate as much energy as it receives from the Sun, which is clearly not the case for the Earth. The only way to explain why the surface radiates more energy than it gets from the Sun is because of the atmospheric greenhouse effect (to be clear, the surface radiates more than it gets from the Sun, but the planet radiates – into space – the same, on average, as it gets from the Sun). Also, if we add additional greenhouse gases to the atmosphere – as we are currently doing – then we’ll cause the surface to warm even more, as is currently happening.

Attribution – a post that tries to explain the energy balance.

Posted in Climate change, Greenhouse effect, Research, Science | | 63 Comments

## Manichean paranoia

Some have encouraged me to watch Roger Pielke Jr’s presentation on Climate politics as a manichean paranoia, and I have now done so (slides here, and I’ll post the video at the end of the post.). Manichean paranoia refers to the idea that both sides regard the other as evil, that the end justifies the means, and implies a lack of willingness to engage in substantive debate. Roger’s suggestion is that there are ways to break out of this pattern, and he provides 5 basic suggestions (which I’ll discuss briefly after a few general comments).

Ideally, I’m all in favour of trying to improve the climate debate, whether that’s about climate science, or about climate policy. Attempts to do so should probably be applauded. However, Roger’s basic suggestion seems rather naive; a form of deficit model thinking, essentially. The problem isn’t that people don’t know how to engage in a reasonable debate about climate, it’s more that they either don’t want to (they’re happy for it to be adversarial), or it would require accepting things that they’re unwilling to accept.

Additionally, this was a talk hosted by the Global Warming Policy Foundation, an organisation well known for promoting misinformation. There’s, of course, nothing wrong with associating with such an organisation, or being hosted by them. However, you can’t expect to not be judged in some way for doing so and if you don’t at least try to acknowledge that you understand their pedigree (or lack thereof) then that would suggest that either you endorse their misinformation, don’t have a problem with promoting misinformation, or don’t realise that they do so, which might then suggest that your understanding of the topic is somewhat lacking.

Also, if you think that the two sides of the debate are represented by James Inhofe, on one side, and Michael Mann on the other, then your sense of where the reasonable middle lies is wildly different to where most would regard it. Similarly, if you think it can be largely described as alarmists versus skeptics, then – again – you have an odd sense of where the middle should lie. Thinking we should act on climate does not make one an alarmist. Disputing mainstream climate science does not make one a sceptic. This ignores that Roger managed to use a somewhat pejorative term (alarmist) to describe one side, and quite a positive one to describe the other (skeptic).

Okay, what about Roger’s actual suggestions?

Engage with those with whom you disagree:
A reasonable suggestion, and one I’m happy to attempt, right up until the point at which it becomes abusive, which is – sadly – a common outcome. Also, Roger is known for being quite a prolific blocker on Twitter. Nothing wrong with this at all. However, if one does regularly block people on Twitter, one might be slightly circumspect about suggesting that others endeavour to engage with those with whom they disagree.

Maintain the integrity of science assessments:
Okay, I guess there is a suggestion is that we haven’t been (which I would largely dispute) but let’s at least agree that we should be willing to think about how to ensure that we do maintain their integrity.

Understand the Eff-U principle:
The suggestion here is that we should avoid saying things that are essentially interpreted as telling others to eff-off. Fair enough, makes sense. However, the key example is consensus messaging (97%). I realise that this is a controversial topic and that there may well be arguments for using it carefully, but it is essentially true (there is a very strong consensus about the basics). I simply have no problem with people highlighting truths and do have an issue with suggestions that this should be avoided.

Other examples of eff-U issues, were highlighting the so-called “pause” and claiming that climate change is a hoax. So Roger’s main examples of things we should avoid because they effectively tell another group to eff-off is something that is true (consensus), something quite nuanced (the so-called “pause”), and something completely false (hoax). Hmmmm.

Discuss policy proposals in terms of first-year benefits:
Okay, I do think we have to be careful of letting the perfect be the enemy of the good; we should be trying to develop policy that is actually achievable, rather than aiming for something that will almost certainly fail. However, the idea that we can only really develop policy that has some kind of short-term (first-year) benefit, or only a very small short-term discomfort, is somewhat concerning. Putting climate to one side, there must be occasions where it would be worth enacting some policy that will have some medium, or long-term, benefit, but no obvious/clear short-term benefit, and maybe even some short-term discomfort. You would like to think that policy experts would be thinking of ways to develop such policy, rather than claiming that there is some kind of iron law that means that it is virtually impossible. In fact, Brexit currently feels like a counter-example to this supposed iron-law.

Debate policy through causal pathways:
This doesn’t seem like an unreasonable suggestion, but what it seemed to miss was that you should also be willing to discuss the outcome of your causal pathway. Saying we can do this, and then this, and then this is certainly useful, but if we do have some idea of a carbon budget, then it would also be useful to know whether or not such a pathway might stay within that budget. This has certainly been a criticism of some policy ideas, such as ecomodernism, which seems to promote all sorts of optimistic, futuristic pathways, but doesn’t seem to really provide any kind of carbon budget.

Okay, I do think that trying to improve the climate debate is commendable, so kudos to Roger for at least trying. I should also add that if I have misunderstood some of his suggestions, feel free to point that out in the comments. My own view, for what it’s worth, is that the only behaviour you can really influence is your own. So, if you have some idea of how to improve the debate, you should really start with yourself and hope that others follow suit. Telling others how they should behave in order to improve the debate is probably going to be unsuccessful, especially if you do so at an event hosted by an organisation that is regarded by many as a key player in making sensible discussion more difficult. What I will say, though, is that Roger’s talk made me think, which is always – in my view – a good thing.

Anyway, a video of Roger’s talk is below.

## The Linear Model for Richies

Not long ago, Richie contended that sticking to presenting true information and letting otters decide what to do, given that information, was “the neatest little summary of the linear model.” This short note should suffice to show that this claim is far from being true and that a whole fleet of Gremlins may have infiltrated communication channels between Richie and AT.

First, let’s point at this:

Then let’s point at this:

Spot the outlier:

[RG1] I’ll stick to presenting true information and letting otters decide what to do.

[LM1] Doing basic research will turn into applications that will in turn benefit society.

[LM2] Achieving agreement on scientific knowledge is a prerequisite for a political consensus to be reached and then policy action to occur.

[LM3] Specific knowledge or facts compel certain policy responses.

It’d be hard to reconcile RG1 with LM3 or even LM2.

So I see three versions of the misnomered linear model (the label was already taken and sequentiality ain’t linearity), not two. Since our Honest Broker claims there’s a stronger version, let’s assume they belong to a hierarchy of versions, even if the progression is far from being obvious. This assumption doesn’t matter much, as the only version that matters here is LM2, as the word “consensus” indicates.

All version (especially the second one) should imply something that ClimateBall ™ players now know as the deficit model, i.e. the idea that people would make better decisions with better information. This idea is as old as Plato, and as young as how Scott Adams would like to be:

[W]hen my knowledge of proper eating reached a good-enough level I dropped ten pounds without using any extra willpower whatsoever. Now I eat as much as I want, of anything I want, all day long, and I don’t gain a pound. The secret was learning how to manage my cravings. I can eat anything I want because I no longer want unhealthy foods. Knowledge replaced my need for willpower. For example, I now understand that eating simple carbs for lunch kills my energy for the rest of the day. It doesn’t take any willpower to resist doing something I know will make me feel like hell in an hour. But before I knew simple carbs were the culprit, I assumed eating in general was the problem, and I couldn’t avoid eating during the day. Knowledge solved a problem that willpower could not.

That’s crap, of course. Willpower is a bit more complex than that. Every non-hyperrational human being has his own stock of examples as to why we don’t act according to our best judgment, starting with chain smokers. This knowledge is so old there’s even a Greek name for it: Akrasia.

As one can read in that Stanford entry, our ClimateBall quandary already divided platonists and aristotelians. At least insofar as we like staging debates, because it’s easy to find some common ground between the two stances. Both positions still require that we value knowledge, truth, and rationality. Otherwise both positions would become caricatures of themselves.

Truth, truthfulness, and trust should matter to everyone, or at least to the ATs and the Richies of this world.

* * *

How to build truth, truthfulness, and trust looks like a more interesting question than Richie’s Gremlins. To that effect, the discussion sparked by Doug McNeal over the tweeter may be worthwhile to mention, in particular that clarification:

Everyone should at least agree that declarative knowledge is less actionable than procedural knowledge: that egg shells can break is less useful than to know how to make an omelet. The vividness of the second kind of knowledge lies in the storytelling: being told that scientists agree over AGW should be less powerful than to see scientists explaining us how they reached their conclusions.

There are many other ways to cut our knowledge into kinds. You already know that beyond the what and the how, there’s the why, i.e. explanations. But I’d like to finish this note by mentioning the who question: who will be telling people how some scientific knowledge has been reached?

That question matters here because by appealing to an unidentified group of scientists, consensus messaging, whatever that means, may fail to make us see scientists in action. Perhaps this is why the 97 hours of consensus reached millions. To be able to identify with whom’s talking is crucial to build trust.

As a ninja, I ought to know. My play style needs to adapt to the distrust my character brings. As someone who likes to read citations, when I see an Honest Broker talk about unidentified “scholars,” my ninja senses tingle. As a fan of Kurt Vonnegut Jr, I also ought to know that the mirror image to the Pure and Noble Scientist is a disinterested and disembodied freak who builds Ice Nine remorselessly. As a fan of Kate Marvel, I finally ought to know that there are marvelously likable climate scientists.