This is a guest post by Richard Erskine, who is a regular commenter here and also writes EssaysConcerning. As should be clear, it’s a comment on a recent paper by Amelia Sharman and Candice Howarth that considers why climate scientists and “sceptical” voices participate in the climate debate. Richard’s post starts now.
Guest post: Can we end the antagonistic ‘climate debate’?
Amelia Sharman and Candice Howarth have published a paper “Climate stories: Why do climate scientists and sceptical voices participate in the climate debate?” (Public Understanding of Science, 1-17, 2016; DOI: 10.1177/0963662516632453). This post is an initial reaction to the paper, which I hope is suitably self-reflexive. Note that the paper uses the designations CS (Climate Scientist) and SV (Sceptical Voice)
I have to say that any attempt to try to bring peace and goodwill, whether to Palestine or to the ‘debate’ on Anthropogenic Global Warming (AGW) should on the face of it command our admiration, even if it runs the risk of being caught in the cross-fire. So please excuse this possibly rash reaction to the paper, and Issues I have with it (see Issues #1 to #3 below).
The paper starts with a rather laboured introduction that tries to characterise scientists …
“… this reflects a desire to uphold the pre-eminence of the positivist scientific tradition as a basis for evidence-based decision making”
and then goes on to observe that:
“… individuals are more likely to pay attention to evidence that supports their own viewpoint (and dismiss the validity of evidence that doesn’t)”
implying this is a tendency of all ‘actors’ in the debate. This all smacked of an underlying viewpoint that the authors did not explicitly declare: relativism.
David Wootton in his recent book “The Invention of Science” is highly critical of philosophers of science such as Shapin and Schaffer, who he quotes from (from their book “Leviathan and the Air-pump”):
“As we come to recognize the conventional and artificial status of our forms of knowing, we put ourselves in a position to realise that it is ourselves and not reality that is responsible for what we know. Knowledge as much as the state is a product of human actions.”
Wootton contradicts this extreme form of relativism:
“My argument has been that responsibility for what we know lies both with ourselves and reality. Science is not like the state, which is entirely of our making … Columbus was not ‘responsible’ for the existence of America, nor Galileo for the moons of Jupiter … Reality has its part to play.”
So, at a trivial level, the paper is implying that all opinions are of equal value and we just need to find common ground, like at marriage counselling.
Issue #1 – This ubiquitous form of relativism is an unstated assumption that undermines the paper.
Nevertheless, the paper does note that the debate on the science is often a ‘surrogate’ debate, and the important one should be in the realm of policies and actions, where values play a bigger role (and where an analysis of feelings and attitudes is more applicable). But its conclusions are rather simplistic, with the graphic showing a not so surprising correlation between those who recognise that AGW is real and those that see policy and action as important!
Let’s not forget what Gavin Schmidt said in his excellent 2013 AGU Stephen Schneider Lecture “What should a climate scientist advocate for?”. He clearly laid out the separation between the “Is” (the Science) and the “Ought” (our values) and the “Should” (the advocacy that arises from applying our values to the science).
He said that as long as the scientist is clear about their values, and does not let these pollute their science, then there is no problem them moving from the laboratory into the council chamber to advocate for actions. As Sherwood Rowland said: “What’s the use of having developed a science well enough to make predictions if, in the end, all we’re willing to do is stand around and wait for them to come true?”.
And if people then don’t listen, or won’t listen, what then? Who is going to do the (informed) advocacy that the politicians require? Why exactly did President Lincoln set up the National Academy of Sciences?
Hiding in an ivory tower hoping that the translation of base science into policy will happen without any help from the scientists best able to articulate and qualify the science, is a dangerous illusion on the part of some scientists.
There are many examples of how complex science and policy can be dealt with in a sane and sensible fashion respecting these separations.
The sadly departed, wise and wonderful, Lisa Jardine, when head of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA), led a highly successful public consultation on Mitochondrial Replacement Therapy, intended for use on rare disorders.
The consultation process was designed to clearly separate the science from values. There is a need to ensure everyone understands what the facts are that will underpin their decisions, even while recognising that their values will lead to different conclusions on the policy and ethical questions.
It is perfectly right and valid for a clergyman to express concerns about the ethical implications of such therapies. What is not permissible is to distort the science to misinform people by using “3 parent babies” headlines, to suggest things that are untrue.
In the paper, this line between knowledge and values is blurred to an unhelpful extent.
They also use the designation ‘Climate Scientist’ (CS). I ask, what is a CS? Does it include every discipline known: Meteorlogy; Geology; Marine biology; Climate physics; Paleoclimatology? Atmospheric chemistry; Glaciology; … ?
These all provide pieces in the jigsaw that demonstrate AGW? By effectively treating the goal as some agreement on a notional single question “Is AGW real?”, the authors create a problem, because it is oh so easy to find something to question in any of these disciplines. So what’s the issue?
Issue #2: Failing to distinguish between the areas that are clearly established ‘text-book’ science within each discipline from areas where there is consensus but on-going research, and finally, from leading edge areas that have significant uncertainties remaining.
This is how a Matt Ridley can outrageously ignore the effect of water vapour in the Equilibrium Climate Sensitivity (ECS) despite this being as text book as almost any science one can think of (See Note 5 here ).
If I want to get knowledge on how Greenland might react to a 2C warming I might try to corner Professor Richard Alley who has spent a life-time studying the behaviour of large lumps of ice on this planet of ours. Why would I expect some equivalence of knowledge from someone with superficial knowledge garnered from Google searches and blog comment threads, but has a social network persona as a “SV”?
But the final and most egregious of issues is with the use of the word “Sceptic”.
Scientists by their very nature are sceptics. Why is it that the work of Fourier (1827), Tyndall (1861), Arrhenius (1896), and so it went on, took so long to reach the point where the scientific consensus was formed that AGW was both real and serious.
Indeed in the first 50 years of the 20th Century, work by Angstrom and others helped propagate the belief that there would be a saturation of the greenhouse effect from CO2, and that H2O would swamp the effect of CO2, and also that the Oceans could soak up any increase in atmospheric concentrations of CO2.
Our better understanding of radiative physics and of the carbonate chemistry in the oceans revealed that these beliefs were just that: beliefs not reality.
And when the ice cores confirmed what theory would lead us to expect, as revealed in the record of the ice ages, it became clear that we really did have something to worry about …
“Broeker was foremost in taking the disagreeable news to the public. In 1987 he wrote that we had been treating the greenhouse effect as a ‘cocktail hour curiosity’, but now ‘we must view it as a threat to human beings and wildlife.’ The climate system, was a capricious beats, he said, and we were poking it with a sharp stick.” (From “The Discovery of Global Warming”, Spencer Weart).
Far from rushing to judgment, you could say that scientists were almost glacial in recognising the reality of AGW. But that is unfair. They were displaying the care and scepticism that characterises good science.
But whereas the various disciplines have been developing the details that must be explored (e.g. the nature of that imponderable lump of ice, Antarctica, and how it is responding to warming), they have moved on from the revelation of the 1980s, whereas the so-called ‘SVs’ are scientifically, for the most part, stuck somewhere in the 1920s if not earlier.
Issue #3: SVs are not sceptics for the most part, displaying an obdurate ignorance of text-book science, and a failure to engage in normal scientific processes to truly explore scientific questions (and hence their tendency to question the motives of scientists, their establishments or even the scientific method itself).
A debate about mitochondrial replacement therapy or action on global warming requires in both cases an agreed basis of science to inform both public debate and policy development. Many policy outcomes are possible based on different values applied to the shared scientific basis.
By conflating evidence, values and policy outcomes, it makes it much harder to reach any kind of positive way forward. This paper does not provide much help in de-conflating these.
The SVs have questioned what is text-book science (e.g. radiative transfer) as a surrogate for their dislike of the implied policy responses.
Instead of engaging on areas of the science where there is indeed a need for further research (isn’t there always?), they continually revisit well established areas. The “CSs” have patiently explained the text book science on many occasions, and there is ample material for those with a genuine desire to learn: this is a space for questioning as a student does (“please explain why saturation is not an issue?”) but not for an arrogant attempt to simply tear up the text books.
The fact that this learning process has failed to happen amongst those who identify themselves as SVs can only put into question their good faith in the so-called debate on global warming.
Thankfully, true scepticism lives on in the scientific community, as part of their day to day work.
Until the so-called SVs demonstrate a desire to acquire the knowledge they need to participate in the real debate we should be having – on how we decarbonise our economy etc. – they will be be increasingly marginalised as bad faith actors in this debate.
CSs might decide not to play, but they can be forgiven for not letting pseudo scientific ‘blog science’ pollute the blogosphere, and have every right to point out errors. No one would be happier than them to be moving on to the “Should”: to the actions we require to address the global warming that is upon us.