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Samizdata, derived from Samizdat /n. - a system of clandestine publication of banned literature in the USSR [Russ.,= self-publishing house]

Made in Critical Land

Joe Kaplinsky, who is a biophysicist just completing his PhD at Imperial College, gave a talk on the state of the climate issue at Christian Michel’s salon the other evening. His main point was that there has been a shift in the debate between the 1990s, when the environmentalists were down on the supposed uncertainties of science, and today, when their refrain is “the science is settled”.

Correspondingly it is the sceptics/deniers/denialists/contrarians who now harp on the theme of the uncertainties of science. Joe wants to damn both their houses, but I was not very clear why from his talk, and I think the same went for most of his listeners. I got a better idea of what he thinks when I found a review of his book, which I mention below.

Joe quoted from a wide range of writers. There was one amusing episode that I had not known about. Frank Luntz, an adviser to Bush, was reported as saying that:

“the scientific debate is closing against us.” His advice, however, is to emphasize that the evidence is not complete. “Should the public come to believe that the scientific issues are settled,” he writes, “their views about global warming will change accordingly. Therefore, you need to continue to make the lack of scientific certainty a primary issue.”

Bruno Latour, distinguished Gallic “theorist of science”, was disconcerted. He had been arguing all this time that the notion of science as an objective and impartial process of discovery is bogus, and now that self-same thesis was being used by a hated Bushist to draw entirely the ‘wrong’ conclusions. “Was I wrong?” he asked himself. I have dug up his self-flagellation – in an article called “Why has critique run out of steam?” This is rather a long quote, but it is too good to miss:

Do you see why I am worried? I myself have spent sometimes in the past trying to show the “lack of scientific certainty” inherent in the construction of facts. I too made it a “primary issue.” But I did not exactly aim at fooling the public by obscuring the certainty of a closed argument–or did I? After all, I have been accused of just that sin. Still, I’d like to believe that, on the contrary, I intended to emancipate the public from a prematurely naturalized objectified fact. Was I foolishly mistaken? Have things changed so fast?

… entire Ph.D programs are still running to make sure that good American kids are learning the hard way that facts are made up, that there is no such thing as natural, unmediated, unbiased access to truth, that we are always the prisoner of language, that we always speak from one standpoint, and so on, while dangerous extremists are using the very same argument of social construction to destroy hard-won evidence that could save our lives. Was I wrong to participate in the invention of this field known as science studies? Is it enough to say that we did not really mean what we meant? Why does it burn my tongue to say that global warming is a fact whether you like it or not?

… Maybe I am taking conspiracy theories too seriously, but I am worried to detect, in those mad mixtures of knee-jerk disbelief, punctilious demands for proofs, and free use of powerful explanation from the social neverland, many of the weapons of social critique. Of course conspiracy theories are an absurd deformation of our own arguments, but, like weapons smuggled through a fuzzy border to the wrong party, these are our weapons nonetheless. In spite of all the deformations, it is easy to recognize, still burnt in the steel, our trade mark: MADE IN CRITICALLAND.

Hilarious. But, I am sorry to say, Joe countenanced this stuff, while not actually endorsing it. He came across as surprisingly pomo-sounding for a practising scientist. As you can imagine, he got plenty of opposition from the more vocal members of the gathering (though there was one audience member – there is always one – who dragged in Kuhn, and the Uncertainty Principle forsooth, in support of the claim that the objectivity of science is an outmoded notion). I said that all my Enlightenment instincts were brought out by some of the things in Joe’s talk. And I found myself siding with remarks made by, of all people, Lord Robert May, former Chief Scientific Adviser, emphasizing that scientists pose options, others decide policy.

Joe’s suspicious of scientists “framing the debate” in this way. I said that provided there were economists there to expand the scientists’ perspective, having them lay out the options was pretty much the way things should be. I do not believe in the “democratization” of science… I believe in the scientists living up to their own well established standards.

But though I found what Joe said radically ambiguous, he is gratifyingly pro-consumerist, pro-technological-progress, pro-energy-consumptionist. With James Woudhuysen he co-authored a book called Energise!: A Future for Energy Innovation, about the problems of providing the energy we need to bring the world average standard of living up to that of the average Californian – and beyond. I actually understood more about his position when I found this account of the book by Ian Abley on Audacity.org. I recommend Abley’s rhapsody – it will inspire you to read the book itself.

Kaplinsky and Woudhuysen, as paraphrased by Abley, claim that neither the environmentalist nor the sceptic…

…argues for the need for an industrially productive transformation of every country and every region on Earth.

Unfair to a lot of us sceptics, but you can see that their hearts are in the right place.

The voice in the debate that Joe most likes is Freeman Dyson, who apparently does not think that civilization should be rebuilt for the sake of modern notions about distantly possible risks. Good.

I do not think that talk of the construction of science, or of “prematurely naturalized objectified fact” helps anybody; what does help is a clear sense of the good old Enlightenment distinction between the “is” that climate science strives towards and the “ought” of policy. And while I am open to the adaptationist, geo-engineering thrust of Kaplinsky and Woudhuysen, I do not want to sidestep the question of the truth or otherwise of global warming. I am still going to keep on harping on the uncertainty of the science – not to perpetually throw contrarian spanners in the works but because the science at this moment is lousy, and can only be improved when the scientists get their house in order.

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10 comments to Made in Critical Land

  • People often seem reluctant to just say, “I want this outcome”. They like much better describing a general principle and claiming that the desired outcome flows from it. Or, equivalently, describing a general principle and claiming that a hated outcome absolutely DOES NOT flow from it.

    So often the truth is that the conclusion came first and the principle was chosen to fit it.

    I see the example you cited, of the Bush adviser becoming a convert to uncertainty about science – and of the dismay of the guy who played a role in making everyone so uncertain when he sees this happening – as examples of conclusion first, argument follows.

    Hilarious indeed.

  • Gareth

    Joe Kaplinsky, who is a biophysicist just completing his PhD at Imperial College, gave a talk on the state of the climate issue at Christian Michel’s salon the other evening. His main point was that there has been a shift in the debate between the 1990s, when the environmentalists were down on the supposed uncertainties of science, and today, when their refrain is “the science is settled”.

    Environmentalists in the 90s – Stop what you are doing because we don’t know if it is damaging the planet.

    Environmentalists in the 00s – Stop what you are doing because we think it is damaging the planet.

    Sceptics in the 90s – Justify your insistence that everybody should change.

    Sceptics in the 00s – Justify your insistence that everybody should change.

    Neither side has changed.

    And I found myself siding with remarks made by, of all people, Lord Robert May, former Chief Scientific Adviser, emphasizing that scientists pose options, others decide policy.

    What Lord May outlines is not enough. Scientists must take far greater interest in how people (especially politicians and the media) interpret and leverage the science that gets produced. We saw in the aftermath of the University of East Anglia email escape that some of the big hitters in climate science suddenly became content to point out the uncertainties of the science – because they had been found to be discussing the uncertainties amongst themselves. Phil Jones for one was asked some pointed questions by the BBC (by Roger Harrabin IIRC) Why didn’t the media bother to ask these questions ages ago?

    What has been preventing scientists from being openly sceptical? I think part of it is that they have become convinced a grand conspiracy lurks in the shadows, well funded and with a vested interest in raping the planet of its resources. It isn’t like that as far as I can see. By far the best funded, most influential groups are environmental lobbby groups with the ears (and pockets) of Governments and of state supported science. The discourse has been polarised by conspiracy theories on both sides. Some sceptics view the eco-movement as a secret communist movement intent on global governance and the utmost control on economies and lives. Some warmists firmly believe that anyone who points out holes in their argument *must* be in the pay of an oil company.

    The Office of National Statistics is prepared to make noises when they believe MPs and newspapers take data out of context. Perhaps more scientists ought to be more prepared to do the same even if the direction a discussion is going in is one they agree with.(or at the very least will bring them more funding…)

  • veryretired

    Petards are made for hoisting.

  • Slartibartfarst

    @veryretired: Did you intentionally misspell “Retard”?

  • Johnathan Pearce

    Gareth, good points. The issue for me is that a lot of scientists have been corrupted both by the financial aspect – “if we can alarm folk then we’ll keep getting the funds” – and the religious aspect of Greenery.

  • Laird

    “Some sceptics view the eco-movement as a secret communist movement intent on global governance and the utmost control on economies and lives.”

    Is there really any question about this? The only quibble I have with the statement is the word “secret”.

  • hovis

    “What has been preventing scientists from being openly sceptical?”

    Are you serious? science is evolutionary not revolutionary and is open to mass group think and peer pressure. Not only is the pressure financial, but also social and personal. Who would undermine all their output so far and jeapardise their career and funding built up thus far?

    The idea of objectivity and truth dont get a look in. Who controls the peer reviewed journals whether it be climate, medicine or any other field of scientific activity. Scientrists do not like to admit they dont’t know or accept that findings in a restricted domain are extrapolated far beyond what they science says.

  • veryretired

    Slarti—no, I don’t use that term.

  • John Sabotta

    “Scientists are whores, who can be bought and sold” – Me

    And the highest bidder must always be the State, which has everyone else’s resources to use if necessary.

  • lucklucky

    “Sovietology failed because it operated in an environment that encouraged failure. Sovietologists of all political stripes were given strong incentives to ignore certain facts and focus their interest in other areas. I don’t mean to suggest that there was a giant conspiracy at work; there wasn’t. It was just that there were no careers to be had in questioning the conventional wisdom…”