Science Has Always Been Political

The following tweet states a fact many historians of science attest:

Scientists were not all pleased. Tweetstorms rained. One involved me and MT. He argued that the bunny slogan was unhelpful – even if true, its interpretation could be damaging to the civilization. The exchange covered various aspects of human enquiry – reality, knowledge, meaning, the usual roundabout. I fired a multitude of points in disagreement.  Instead of collating them here, I can afford to explicate my position.

Let’s start in classic dissertation style. “Science has always been political” invokes two concepts: Science and Politics. Politics can be characterized as the process of making decisions that apply to members of a group. Science, minimally at least, refers to the stuff scientists do, and scientists are those we consider so. Good enough for a stoopid slogan, and unnecessary for what follows.

As an aside, I recurse the same way for philosophy – it’s what philosophers do. Hard to say more: imagine you were in Kant’s time and had to define philosophy to comprise analytic philosophy, phenomenology, critical theory, experimental philosophy, gender studies. non-Western philosophy, neurophilosophy, substructural logics, all exotic fields unheard of in Königsberg back then but common nowadays. Philosophy changed even since I studied it, including Kant’s reception. By the same token, we have no idea what Science will look like in the near future. Many dispute its unity. Better to simply see it as a disciplined extension of (and not a replacement for) our common sense.

One could argue that the slogan’s truth depends upon its intended meaning. I contend that it matters little. Getting where Audra comes from is obvious enough – she studies the great scientific expansion during the Cold War. Many historians of science confirmed her take. A plethora of examples could be provided, ranging from Archimedes to Boyle. Maxwell’s discovery does not emerge from a political vacuum, but from many connections, circumstances, and institutions favored by the heydays of Victorian hegemony.

These historical considerations do not imply that scientific production targets something other than reality. It would be absurd to believe that science always has been political means atoms are. The POMO squirrel has no bite at all. In effect, the only way I see to reject the bunny sign would be to restrict science to a bag of equations or to a ménagerie of facts without their book or zoo keepers. Choosing between a myth that excludes everything political from science and a historical truth shouldn’t be that hard.

What seems harder is to recognize the merits of embracing the politics of science. Let’s turn to strategy first. Raising concerns about science slogans is a fool’s errand. There are many academics around the world. They occupy most of the conceptual niches. Coercing circular firing squads should be left to the Contrarian Matrix. Moreover, that specific slogan could be used to “normalize” political processes that have epistemic validity: deliberations.

Which leads to this tactical point. If we want to promote the idea that science is our best tool to dig reality, we need to get real over science politics. The Pure and Noble Scientist imagery only reinforces the High Expectation Father mode for scientific practices. Ted’s hammering of how ideology subduces climate science presumes the very myth that science should be value-free. The tobacco industry used the image of scientists in whitecoats in their ad campaigns:

Those who profit the most from the myth of Pure Science are technocrats. Nothing will avoid the attacks from Freedom Fighters, including Ted’s following.

There is too much crappiness going around to lose time defending purity. If science self-corrects, then there has been, actually is, and will be mistakes. We all have biases, interests, and imperfections. Science works despite of all this. Owning the political aspect of science goes hand in hand with making scientists look more humane. It’s a good thing in the long run, and more than prudent in the short run.

Raising concerns against “Science is political” leads to the following trap: (1) one recognizes that “science is political” is a truth from history of science; (2) one refuses to acknowledge it by opportunism; (3) no INTEGRITY ™. Prefering expediency to truth may not be the best way to defend science.  Whatever you say in the ClimateBall court can and will be used against you. Absolute clarity won’t save you, neither will the purest of intent.

Finally, criticizing “science is political” involves recycling the unwanted framing. Teh Donald exploits the media’s megaphones by inducing them to amplify his untruths and his brand. George Lakoff suggests that we counter that kind of crap with a truth sandwich. First, what is held as true, then the crap, followed by some fact checking. Suppose you think that science is consilience, consistency, coherence, and conciseness, as Eli is wont to say, a slogan I rather like as far as general claims on Science-with-a-big-S is concerned. This frame contrains how you’ll criticize the Science is Political slogan. So much in fact it may not even make sense to criticize it in the first place.


There always has been great political pressure to minimize AGW. The power of the economic establishment is intensive. The MSM and the think tanks of the anglosphere constantly undermine its importance. Yet AGW persists. We have an international agreement. The IPCC will release its Sixth Assessment Report. There’s still lots of AGW research. AGW endorsement increases even among conservatives. Contrarian blogs wane. Here we are, contemplating ClimateBall. Progress has been made. New technologies are hitting the market every week. And so on. There is too much work ahead to lose hope.

A more deliberative democracy would be a Good Thing. Coincidentally, there are deliberative mechanisms in science. The IPCC has some. The validation of science’s findings operates by an intersubjective process that should be similar to any other (rational) deliberation. A deliberative democracy without an open science may not be possible. Considering that the US of A might be an oligarchy, we may need to work on the democracy part in the first place. Perhaps there’s no real democracy without deliberation too.

In any event, not only science has always been political, it may need to become more political than ever. Think about it: just like women are operating a sea change in politics this year, why not wish for more scientists? Hopefully, more scientists would mean science-based policies.

Posted in ClimateBall, Philosophy for Bloggers, Politics, Science, Scientists, Sound Science (tm), The philosophy of science | Tagged , | 200 Comments

Scientists need to….

There was a recent article by Roger Highfield called Scientists need to ditch tribalism and stop shouting down outsiders. It was mostly an interesting interview with Hannah Fry who said

I think that scientists and science supporters often close ranks on people when they present an opinion that goes against accepted theory. It can get a bit tribal, I’ve seen ‘outsiders’ shouted down and belittled, and I don’t think it helps the situation.

I think there is some truth to this and I have a lot of respect for those who are able to remain civil even when discussing a contentious topic. It’s something I strive for, but don’t always achieve.

However, I also wanted to highlight a twitter thread from Andrew Dessler that provides – in my view – some context. It starts with:

and ends with:

I think many scientists who engage on social media would very much like to be able to politely discuss science with others who are interested. However, many have experienced things that have influenced the manner in which they engage. Maybe it would be good if many could remain civil despite this, but scientists are human too and there’s only so much that some can take.

I’m actually not really sure what conclusions I’m trying to draw here. I would be very pleased if it were possible to discuss contentious scientific topics without it getting tribal and without the discussions becoming unpleasant. However, I don’t think that the reason this isn’t always achieved is simply because scientists, and science supporters, have a tendency to be tribal and to shout down outsiders. If there is such a tendency, I think it is also a consequence of the manner in which some choose to engage with scientists on social media.

Do I have any suggestions as to how to improve this? No, I don’t. My own plan is simply to do the best that I can and to avoid telling others how I think they should behave.

Posted in ClimateBall, Personal, Pseudoscience, Scientists | Tagged , , , , , | 107 Comments

The CO2 World Cup

Glen Peters found a nifty way to plug in CO2 emissions per person during the World Cup:

France, with 5.3 tons per person, won the final over Croatia, with 4.4 tons per person. I will abstract away the units for the rest of this post. Also, I won’t discuss Glen’s unit choice. You can find others on Global Carbon Atlas. While a list of all the teams along with a statistical analysis would be nice, let’s focus on a few charts showing 10 of the top 16 teams. Excluding duplicate information omits a few teams; I will simply list them at the end. Feel free to add tweets in the comments for other matches you find noteworthy.

Belgium (8.9) finished third. It bested Brazil (2.3) in the quarter finals:


England (5.9) lost both to Croatia (4.4) and Belgium (8.9), but won 2-0 against Sweden (4.6) in the quarter finals:


The first CO2 offset we encounter, starting with the final game, is England’s loss to Croatia. There were many offsets, if only because the Australian behemoth (16.5) was present. Russia (11.4) is no small CO2-potato either. Here’s the graph for its shootout win against Spain (5.6):


Uruguay (2.1) won an impressive game against Portugal (4.9), and then lost to the World Cup’s winner, France (5.3):


So we have France, Croatia, Belgium, England, Sweden, Uruguay, Brasil, Russia, Portugal, and Spain. The six other teams in the top 16 are Argentina (4.8), Japan (9.5), Switzerland (4.5), Columbia (1.7), Mexico (3.6), and Denmark (6.6).

The heat wave prevents me from sweating a conclusion. One I like:

AT’s away. Consider it a vacation post. Go all in with the most frivolous hypothesis if you please. Mine would be to envision a Mad Max world where countries a being rewarded by CO2 emissions bonuses by winning at the CO2 World Cup. Soccer would then finally make sense.

Have fun!

Posted in ethics, GRRRROWTH, Politics | Tagged , , , , , | 57 Comments

zero emissions

There’s a recent paper on carbon cycle uncertainties and the Paris agreement (Holden et al. 2018). It considers two mitigation pathways, one that keeps end of century warming to below ~2oC, and the other that keeps end of century warming to below ~1.5oC. The interesting thing about the paper is that it uses a climate-carbon-cycle model (i.e., it considers emissions, rather than concentrations) and it also considers scenarios that don’t include negative emissions. The reason I wanted to highlight the paper is that it says something that I think is worth repeating.

A widely held misconception is that given the approximately 1 °C warming to date, and considering the committed warming (warming that will inevitably happen) concealed by ocean thermal inertia, the 1.5 °C target of the Paris Agreement is already impossible. However, it is cumulative emissions that define peak warming. When carbon emissions cease, terrestrial and marine sinks are projected to draw down atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2), approximately cancelling the lagging warming. Although the sign of this ‘zero emissions commitment’ is uncertain, its contribution can be neglected for low-CO2 scenarios. Therefore, at least when considering CO2 emissions in isolation, keeping below 1.5 °C of warming will remain physically achievable until the point that it is reached.

Essentially, it’s never actually impossible to keep warming below some level, until we’ve actually crossed that threshold. Of course, it’s not going to be possible – in reality – to immediately get emissions to zero, but I do think it’s worth recognising that our warming committment depends largely on how much we emit in future, and that the ocean thermal inertia does not mean that there is warming that we cannot avoid.

A couple of other interesting results in the paper. One was that the carbon cycle uncertainties contribute quite a lot to the peak warming uncertainty. The other is that in these rapid decarbonisation scenarios, decadal variability can dominate over the mean response in some critical regions. Something that I should probably make clear, though, is that even though it is never technically too late to avoid further warming, even this paper indicates that having a good chance of limiting warming to levels below about 2oC (relative to 1870) without negative emissions will require emitting no more – since 2017 – than about 300-400 gigatonnes of carbon. That’s about 30-40 years at current emissions. It might be possible, but it’s not going to be easy.

There is some criticism in the comments because I said “30-40 years at current emissions”. For clarity, I wasn’t suggesting that we simply carry on as we are for 30-40 years, and then instantaneously stop. I was simply trying to put the carbon budget into some kind of context. To limit warming to ~2oC is going to require (without negative emissions) that we emit from now (in total) no more than what we would emit were we to continue emitting at current levels for about 30-40 years. To do this will almost certainly require steep emission reductions starting very soon.


A bit more about committed warming (a post with some more details about our committed warming).
Emission reductions, negative emissions, and overshoots (a post about emission pathways that would satisfy the Paris goals).

Posted in Climate change, Policy | Tagged , , , | 104 Comments

Rethinking climate policy

Roger Pielke Jr has been promoting his new paper in Issues in Science and Technology. The paper is called opening up the climate policy envelope and Roger has been suggesting that people should read it. I’ve read it a couple of times and there are some things I agree with, and some things that seem somewhat confused. The overall suggestion, however, seems reasonable (consider a broader range of policy options) but – unless I’m missing something – I’m not really seeing anything specific, or anything particularly insightful.

The paper criticises the use of BECCS and negative emission technologies in many of the scenarios. I think this is a perfectly fair criticism. We haven’t even really developed these technologies yet and have no real idea if they could be implemented at scale. There’s a section about how the rate at which we’re currently decarbonising is well below what would be needed if we wished to achieve some of the targets. Again, seems quite correct. Then there’s the obligatory complaints about the use of RCP8.5, which we discussed in this this post, and a dig at Kerry Emanuel. I think he misses the mark here, and one should bear in mind that Kerry Emanuel was the one who wrote a response to Roger’s 538 article.

So, some of the criticisms seem quite valid. However, one of the things I found a bit confused was the claim that

[t]he restricted policy envelope that results from the scenarios of the IPCC — typically formalized in the form of so-called integrated assessment models — is the result of two reinforcing sets of assumptions. One is that the costs of inaction will be high due to projected large changes in climate resulting from a massive increase in future emissions and resulting negative impacts on societies. The second is that necessary incremental actions to reduce and ultimately eliminate emissions will be technologically feasible at low cost, or even at no net cost at all—that such actions are economic and political no-brainers.

This doesn’t seem quite right to me, but then I’m not an expert at integrated assessment models. I thought some of these results at least emerged from integrated assessement models, rather than them being assumptions.

Another thing that seemed confused was that

[a]t the center of the current approach is a target and a timetable. The target is to stabilize concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere at a low level. In the past this level was commonly expressed as 450 parts per million carbon dioxide equivalents, and more recently has been expressed as a temperature target such as 2 degrees Celsius (2°C).

Well, stablising temperatures is not really the same as stabilising concentrations. The common target is to stabilise temperatures by getting net emissions to ~ zero. If you want to know more about this, see this comment.

The paper ends with a set of suggestions as to how we could expand the policy envelope. The responses to some of these seem quite obvious. If we didn’t include BECCS in the scenarios, then it would seem much more difficult to get net emissions to ~zero. If we abandon the 2oC target, then we’d probably make it even more certain that we’d miss this target. If we focussed less on worst case scenarios, then everything would seem more positive. However, I think it is well worth considering how we expand carbon-free energy, how we substantilly reduce our use of fossil fuels, and how we scale up new technologies.

A couple of things did surprise me about the article. There was no real discussion of how those who dispute the need for climate policy influence our ability to implement it. We’re not developing climate policy in some kind of vacuum. It’s not as if all we need to do is find the optimal policy and it will be implemented; there are many who dispute the need to do so. In some sense, there’s a whiff of deficit model thinking. Also, I didn’t see any mention of a carbon tax, which I had thought was one of the preferred policy instruments. I think the idea of us trying to expand our policy options is well worth considering. It’s just not clear in what way this article helps us to do so. Maybe I’m missing something, though, so if others have seen things that I’ve missed, feel free to point them out.

Posted in advocacy, Carbon tax, IPCC, Policy, Roger Pielke Jr | Tagged , , , , | 290 Comments

Climate misinformers

There’s been a rather lengthy debate on Twitter about Skeptical Science’s Climate Misinformers page. The discussion involved, amongst others, Richard Betts, Peter Jacobs, Steven Mosher, Gavin Cawley, and – briefly – myself. Before I start, I should acknowledge an association with Skeptical Science and should mention that I have published some papers with people associated with Skeptical Science. I also think it’s mostly an excellent resource and that it is quite remarkable what has been achieved, without any funding, by a group of, mostly, amateurs.

I do, however, have some sympathy with the criticism. The list does appear to label the individual, rather than labelling the behaviour. Some of the entries don’t have much in the way of evidence. Some of those included (Richard Muller, for example) have ultimately changed their views and have since made a positive contribution (Berkeley Earth). The list also only includes people whose misinformation aids arguments against climate action; it doesn’t include any who exaggerate in order to promote stronger climate action. It also has the potential to make the site appear political, which can make it – in some circumstances – difficult to use as a resource.

However, few of the criticisms involve arguing that some of those included do not deserve to be on the list (in the sense that there is no reasonable argument one could make for inclusion). In my experience, those included either do it intentionally, don’t do it intentionally but should know better, or regularly say things that are then highlighted by those who oppose climate action. This is essentially why I find it hard to get too bothered about Skeptical Science having a Climate Misinformers page; all of those included seem deserving of such a characterisation. Would it be better if Skeptical Science had focussed on the science and left this kind of thing to deSmogBlog? Maybe, but that ship has essentially sailed.

They could simply delete their Climate Misinformers page, but many who use this to criticise Skeptical Science, would probably then simply find something else to criticise. I also think there is some value in knowing about those who are associated with promoting misinformation. We should applaud any who recognise their errors and change their views, but I don’t think we should necessarily forget their less positive contributions.

What about it being political? I suspect those associated with Skeptical Science do have a bias. Like me, they probably think we should be doing more about climate change, rather than less. Being aware of this can itself be useful. One should also bear in mind that trying to remain politically neutral can also be criticised. This is a very complex communication environment and, in my experience, it is extremely difficult to engage in a way that satisifies everyone and that can’t be criticised by some.

Whatever one thinks of their Climate Misinformer page, Skeptical Science provides some extremely useful resources on their site and they’ve done a remarkably good job of carefully representing our scientific understanding. Given that it’s an almost entirely volunteer effort, I find this quite impressive. Others are welcome to disagree.

Posted in Climate change, ClimateBall, Pseudoscience, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , | 204 Comments

S S Sagaing

I’m on the train back from a meeting in Leicester, so have a bit of free time to write a post. I thought I might write about something a bit different to my normal posts. My father contacted me a few days ago to highlight that the Sri Lankan navy have just raised the wreck of a ship sunk during World War II. The ship was the S S Sagaing and it sank on the 9th of April 1942 while at anchor in Trincomalee harbour after being bombed by the Japanese.

The S S Sagaing burning in Trincomalee harbour, Sri Lanka, after being bombed by the Japanese; 9 April 1942. (Credit: Captain K. I. Macleod)

The reason for my interest is that my grandfather, Kenneth Macleod, was the second mate at the time. After abandoning ship, a suitcase floated past their lifeboat. After recovering it they discovered a camera and took the photographs on the right, showing the ship burning in the background.

This wasn’t the first time that my grandfather was on a ship that sank. He was also the third mate on the Kemmendine which was sunk by the German auxiliary cruiser Atlantis on the 13th of July 1940. The passengers and crew were picked up by the Atlantis and then transferred to other ships. My grandfather ended up on a Yugoslavian ship called the Durmitor which grounded near Mogadishu, Somalia.

The prisoners ended up in an Italian prisoner of war camp just south of Mogadishu. They were liberated in February 1941 by South African soldiers. The Royal Navy then asked them to crew some captured merhant ships back to the United Kingdom. I believe that my grandfather was one who did so, although he may have crewed one from Durban, rather than from Somalia (I shall have to check with my Mother). Less than a year later he’d signed on to the S S Sagaing, which a couple of months later was bombed and sank in Trincomalee harbour.

I think I managed to find the wreck on Google Maps. As mentioned in some of the reports, it was moved after being bombed and then sunk again to be used as a pier. If you compare the Google maps image with the image on the bottom left (from this article) you can see the red roofs of the buildings and also what look like some naval ships that are also in the lower corner of the Google maps satellite image. I’ve also included a larger satellite image showing where it is in Trincamolee harbour (or, used to be).

Posted in Personal | Tagged , , , , , , | 28 Comments