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Truthy science

In what amounts to a shocking admission that the “science” supporting anthropogogenic global warming is anything but settled and supported by data, we find that post-modernist thinking has been drafted into the service of stopping climate change.

It turns out that AGW is what is called “post-normal science“, meaning that old-fashioned ideas like data and testable hypotheses have to be left on the wayside as we march in lockstep toward the Greater Truth demanded by The Times We Live In.

In other words, its our old friend Fake but Accurate, hanging out with the usual crowd. Don’t look at the man behind the curtain, and all that.

48 comments to Truthy science

  • Charles

    I wake up this morning and find they have already declared this the warmest winter on record. It’s nice to know that they can get these performance statistics out earlier than usual.

  • Phil A

    and don’t you just really love the way Aunty Beeb plugs the old “Man Made Global Warming” at every conceivable opportunity, especially around News 24’s weather.

    …and completely adjacent to the point, I found this e petition asking for a knighthood for Terry Pratchett , something else for Tony to ignore no doubt…

  • Phil A

    Well that link didn’t work. Let’s try again…

    I found this e-petition asking for a knighthood for Terry Pratchett , something else for Tony to ignore no doubt…

  • Johnathan Pearce

    The weather is fabulous right now, one of the loveliest springs in England I can recall. The daffodils are out, the blossom is beginning to come out, the ladies are putting their nice dresses on. I am sporting a nice shirt and light trousers. I am off for a glass of wine at a bar next to my office.

    To all those drivers of SUVs, sports cars, and users of airlines, I salute you. Global Warming – what’s not to like?

    More seriously, read Stephen Hicks'(Link) on Post-Modernism. He basically blames Immanuel Kant.

  • Was just about to email you all to suggest that you post that piece. Great!

  • This is difficult, isn’t it.

    That there’s a warming isn’t in doubt. If it’s caused by human activity, or if human activity has a significant contribution is a technical question best left to experts. Then, how much we wish to take a hit now to ameliorate the effects later is a political/social question.

    Why is any of this a left/right issue? The physical seating arrangements in the French revolutionary assemby shouldn’t constrain your thinking now.

    Yes, it’s hotting up; no, you’re not capable of understanding the raw research without spending 3-5 years study so the best research must be mediated.

    You can’t design your climate, however much you revel in early daffodils (although, being Welsh and with St David’s day being the first of March, I was well used to seeing daffs on parade 1st March 30 years ago).

    Why gleefully post news of every anti-anthropogenic piece of research and no pro-anthropogenic research here?

    It’s almost as if you don’t really want to know.

  • Nick M

    Immanuel Kant was a real pissant who was very rarely stable…

  • knirirr

    I looked at those links on “post-normal science” and was horrified. But, as I am a mere “normal” scientist, I evidently lack the proper values to understand it.

  • Chris Harper

    And we thought that Lysenkoism would be a derangement peculiar to totalitarian regimes.

    Scientific conclusions dictated for their political acceptability.

    Crippled as Soviet agriculture was by being socialised, Lysenko ensured that it was kicked while it was down. It wasn’t until the 60’s that genetics and rationality were reestablished.

    Here we go again.

  • RAB

    That is just utterly bloody ridiculous!!!
    It rather gives the game away though doesn’t it!
    “Reality is what WE say it is”
    I saw this bit of graffiti on a bog wall once.

    Reality is just a mescalin deficiency

    Our green friends must be sprinkling handfuls
    of the stuff on their corn flakes every morning.

  • Nep NL

    From either “brass eye” or “the day-to-day”:

    “It is not science, but it’s scientific fact”

    I think that sums it up, really… 🙄

  • Nick M

    I think this is bullshit. I read the entire article and I absolutely fail to recall anything in Kuhn’s SSR which would suggest that he approved of anything like that course of action. “post-modern” or “post-normal” science is just faux-sophistry intended to cover guess-work. Worse than that, it’s utterly disingenuous. The “post-normal” science chart of importance vs certainty is utter bollocks.

    Let’s have an example. The US military were happy with the Manhatten project following a single test. If I were to prepare my epic monograph on the geographical variations in markings of Siberian Arctic Terns and had looked at a single bird then I would be ridiculed and my career in zoology would be mercifully short. Compare and contrast the importance of these two studies. Unless you’re Bill Oddie then clearly the creation of epoch-defining, World-War ending weaponry is rather more important than anything about how bird markings vary from Murmansk to Vladivostok yet the standard of proof is in a very important way lesser for the more important piece of science.

    Which brings us quite neatly onto the second failed assumption of these “scientists”. Yes, of course AGW is a really important issue. Of course we need to work out whether it’s happening and if it is we really ought to do something about it. This cuts both ways though. These folk are right that it’s an important question but what they fail to appreciate is that making the wrong decision in either direction would be a very bad thing. Governmental attempts to reverse AGW would constitute theft on a grand scale for us Samizdatistas. For many Africans it could be nothing short of murder.

    The tone of the article reminds me of the Green’s “precautionary principle” and the idea that everything has to be rigourously proved safe before it’s allowed to be done. I suspect that some of the more scientifically-savvy Greens appreciate that this is basically a full-stop to GMO and lots of other things they hate from the depths of their neo-primitavist bowels. Some of them must appreciate that and are therefore being deeply disingenous in hiding behind what seems to many people to be a fair and common-sense proposition. Of course it isn’t and we’re just bloody lucky that the ‘elf and safety lot didn’t raid a certain bike shop in Ohio in 1902. Can you prove it is 100% safe Mr Wright? They certainly would have had a fit if they’d visited a certain former squash-court at the University of Chicago in 1943. You’re going to do what Mr Fermi?

    This is what I hate about the Greens. They are so atavisitic. They take the view that technology has caused “this mess” and technology absolutely shouldn’t be allowed to even try and fix it (assuming that is there is anything to fix) and that we should all just tighten our belts and use less and do less. The answer, is of course, technology. Why do none of the Greens talk about pebble bed reactors or a Severn tidal barrage? Why don’t they talk-up the massive advances being made in solar power and why do they never mention the fact that the US civil aviation industry tripled revenue passenger miles per gallon between 1971 and 2001.

    The reason they’ve produced this anti-scientific guff (passed directly from the sweet sphincter of their Goreifice) is because they hate science. They were undoubtedly those kids in class at school who just never “got” Ohm’s law and couldn’t hack trig and that math they do with letters rather than numbers and got resentful about it. They’ve now decided to take it out on the rest of us in an orgy of hatred.

    Well, I got a message for you Rev Green. I do understand math with letters and not just Roman or even Greek letters, I also do the really weird transfinite shit in Hebrew.

    I am so going to build a Tesla Coil. And it’s not going to be powered by a fucking windmill. Mid will have to wait a bit for his fusion drive.

  • Post-Normal Science

    Sounds like trying to rationalise the irrational.

    If one engages in active opposition, one probably dies of starvation through lack of income from gainful employment.

    If one engages in support (passive or active), one could well die in penury, through some daft scheme wrecking part of the economy.

    Passive opposition continues until one falls asleep or goes home.

    It’s a sort of trollism.

    Best regards

  • I think the Guardian article is very good. It recognises that climate change is really a political question not a scientific one. We cannot practically separate our estimates of the probability of various climate outcomes from our estimates of their costs, and of the best ways of dealing with them.

    Our criticisms of the “climate change” mainstream should be that (1) they overstate the reliability of their predictions and attempt to stifle dissent, and that (2) they have an overly panicky view of the consequences of what they predict, together with a pessimistic view of how effectively we could respond. The reason for both these errors is an affinity for authoritarian preventative measures.

    If we claim that the mainstream (i.e. not Gore-ish) projections are definitely wrong then we commit the same “error 1” – our fear of authoritarian preventative measures is leading us to overestimate the reliability of our predictions. In the face of great uncertainty as to the science, our attitudes are driven by our politics, as are those of our opponents.

  • Why gleefully post news of every anti-anthropogenic piece of research and no pro-anthropogenic research here? It’s almost as if you don’t really want to know.

    I concluded long go that it is not about science but rather about finding another way for all manner of people to exert power over others… therefore at this stage I really do not really care about the science (as science) any more. I have seen enough of the science to know that anyone who says it is a ‘done deal’ is trying to sell something (or more correctly, take something) and pretending otherwise is pointless… and so anything that undercuts the people using this for further their agenda is all right by me (and as I have said before, the whole preposterous Green things is not a conspiracy, just a confluence of interests). No green is arguing this in good faith: it is a political struggle, nothing more.

  • Dishman

    Why is any of this a left/right issue?

    “Post-Normal Science” essentially takes the arguement out of the realm of science and into the realm of politics. That is to say, it is no longer something that can be tested, but rather is based on narratives, anecdotes and how people feel. The former is science, while the latter is political.

    “Post-Normal Science” asks us to abandon science and accept whatever is “politically correct”.

    It’s every bit as valid as trying to legislate pi as 22/7.

  • Matt Swartz

    I doubt this “post-normal science” will even prove suitable for mocking fundamentalists.

    And there’s just no way it will push us ahead technologically.

  • Why does it matter whether climate is man-driven or sun-driven, or whatever? We are smart enough to cope, no matter what. In a while, we will have the next ice age, and that will be another challenge. Just life, that’s all….

  • There really is a good case for stopping global warming but I have yet to hear any of the really interesting questions answered.

    1. What is the optimum temperature (or temperature curve, zone, range, whatever you like) of the planet?

    2. Are we currently at optimum?

    3. How much is our divergence from optimum costing us?

    4. How much would it cost to get us to optimum?

    Whether you believe in AGW or not, whether you think the science is settled or not, these questions deserve to be answered and they are not being answered by the IPCC and the AGW brigade. Until those questions do get answered, we’re going to be making public policy blindly.

  • Midwesterner

    TM Lutas,

    I don’t think that (economically) it is a question of optimal temperature so much as optimal fluxuation/deviation of geographic distributions. Like bird dog says, we’ll adapt. The question is how quickly and how often. Agriculture is the big investment but also real estate. For better or worse, real estate mortgages drive the economy. You can’t lend against value that you can’t predict.

    I am still quite strongly in the camp that thinks the consequences of efforts to deliberately manipulate the global climate are well beyond our understanding. While we may be able to effect the global average temperature, we may do it in a way that plays havoc with rain fall distributions.

  • RAB

    29,000 years ago there lived a person, found in the Paviland cave on the Gower peninsula in south Wales.
    It was called the “Red Lady” because the 19th century amateurs who found it were not expert enough to know what they were looking at.
    It was a man, and a sophisticated one at that.
    Ten thousand years later, nobody lived in the Gower, or for that matter 3/4 of the UK or the USA because they were covered with Ice Fields 2 miles thick.
    Until someone tells me convincingly WHY the ice ages happened, with no human interaction and dissapeared ten thousand years later , again with no human interaction, then I will take my own sensible precautions against cyclic planetary warming and cooling.
    And woe betide any prod nozed government official who wishes to tell me what to do. Else they may find the smouldering remains of the inexplicable fire that breaks out in their offices and destroys their records and livelyhoods when they come in next morning.

  • Brad

    I’m still trying to get the logic – these folks are superior to us because of their deeper insight, they are Scientists after all, and yet science sometimes needs to set aside when the data is slow in manifesting itself and the stakes just too high. So just how are they now superior? If the very circumstance that makes their opinions matter more is set aside, doesn’t that put them and the layman on an even level?

    It seems a subset of scientists are appointing themselves the Priests of Science. “While this is all guess work, our guess is better than yours, well, because we’re scientists. So just do as you’re told buddy boy and we’ll get along just fine.”

  • Johnathan Pearce

    Why gleefully post news of every anti-anthropogenic piece of research and no pro-anthropogenic research here?

    I think the “glee” comes from hoping that by pointing out the flaws, we may save ourselves from an oppressive battery of coercive measures, David. It is not exactly a mystery.

    Of course, I think that a pro-market liberal could accept some aspects of Man-made GW, believe that some of the conseqences are bad, and therefore be interested in doing something about it. There are some technical fixes that might work: carbon capture, projecting stuff into the atmsophere to make the heat bounce back out into space, etc. If sea levels rise, and some properties are overwhelmed, then the impact on property prices etc may generate a market for trying to sort out the problem.

    But as I said in my article below, when folk ask us to make sacrifices for a very long-term payoff, it is asking a huge amount. Unless human life-extension tech. happens very soon, it is hard to see how the present generation should give up on cheap flights, nice cars and the rest for a payoff that is uncertain at best.

    The Greens have to tackle this issue. They need to lecture and bully a little less, and do more to show how some tangible benefits will come through from their efforts. That is a constructive point that needs to be made.

  • Pa Annoyed


    The difference between science and scientists is like the difference between capitalism and capitalists. The market finds efficient solutions to problems, and it is best to trust capitalism for the most rapid progress, but that doesn’t mean you should listen to the capitalist businessmen. They may sound very glib, but you must understand that capitalism finds the most efficient solutions by bankrupting all the capitalists that got it wrong. Sometimes it takes a while to do so, as in the case of bubbles (“Wanna buy a dot com company? They’re the future!”), but it always gets there in the end.

    Science is the same. Trust science; don’t trust scientists. If you see what I mean.

  • veryretired

    This is another step in a long process of removing meaning from language in order to make ideas themselves indeterminate and meaningless.

    As mentioned in one of the comments at Belmont, post-normal science is science devoid of empirical facts, because incomplete knowledge might lead to doubt, and questioning, and what is needed is certainty.

    Thus, science becomes belief bereft of knowledge.

    Similarly, with deconstruction, literature becomes language without art, painting becomes colors without form, sculpture becomes construction without a physical reference, philosophy becomes a series of assertions without structure, and, in academia, diversity becomes a room full of people who look different but all think exactly alike.

    At one point in Atlas, Rand talks about the assault on the intellect by a disfunctional educational system which teaches random facts and disconnected assertions as if that was all there was to knowledge.

    The term used was “fluid”, as in formless, always shifting, never firmed up or meaning any specific thing, but always in motion, sliding from one half formed idea to another partial perception, with no context, no order of cause and effect, no rhyme or reason, only the capricious juxtaposition of argumentative necessity and political expediency.

    What do we see around us?

    Politics without principle, economics without any theory of value, education devoid of critical thought or insight, art devoid of artistry, literature without literary merit, philosophy which rejects rational thought, laws filled with vague demands and open-ended requirements, subject to “novel” interpretations and capricious decisions, and, now, science divorced from facts, for which evidence is a complication to be avoided, in the pursuit of a belief which somehow “fits” the needs of the moment.

    Who benefits from such a world?

    The man who wants to earn an honest living and raise his family in peace and freedom? The woman who desires knowledge to fulfill her dreams, and wishes to pass on the fruits of that accomplishment to her children? The youngster fueled by the dreams and zeal of youth, who would study and strive to make something good happen in the world, a new product, a medicine, a better process, a classroom filled with children who had learned competently?

    The engineer who must design a bridge, or a building, to last for decades of reliable strength and service?

    The businessman who must plan for this year, and the next, and the next, and who, in pursuing his dream of success and productivity, must rely on the contracts and agreements made with dozens of others to do as they have mutually agreed to do?

    The small businesswoman who started her shop for her own reasons, but now has several employees and their families dependent on her continued success?

    No. Those are the people who need words to mean something solid, who require ideas and promises to mean the same tomorrow as they meant today, who demand facts in order to decide correctly, for their own futures as well as that of those they hold dear.

    It is not people who wish to live and love and thrive on this earth that yearn to swim in a fluid universe, in which A might be A today, but B tomorrow, in which facts are inconvenient, beliefs are impervious to reality, cause is divorced from effect, and ideas float, disjointed from one another, in a murky soup of rhetoric and disingenuous obfuscation, nothing ever meaning what it seems to mean, a world in which reality is just a matter of opinion.

    The willing inhabitants of this realm are more, or less, than the “men without chests”. They are the brains without minds, the hearts without souls, the lives without life—the living who have already died inside.

    If nothing means anything, then your life, and mine, means nothing also—life without value, existence without form or definition.

    Suitable for ameoba, but not for humans.

    It may be called post normal, but what it really is is pre-human.

  • This stinks, and its odour is an old one. Its been hanging around the human race ever since the oldest man in the tribe said that it rained because he was handed a new virgin every week. This is where science has been going for some time. Arthur C. Clarke said it best: “Any technology which is sufficiently advanced, will seem like magic to those who don’t understand it.” or something along those lines. These ‘post-normal scientists’ (read magicians) are using the fact that most people don’t really understand the technology they use every day to build a religion. Like the old man saying “I can commune with the spirits on your behalf and make the rains come but only if you feed me, oh and keep sending the virgins.” This is hokum, bunk and flim-flam of the worst kind. At least Barnum was entertaining, these guys are just sinister.
    Say goodbye to that old time religion, and welcome the new one.

  • Pa, I like the way you put it – very true.

  • joel

    Speaking of fabulous springs.

    Here in sunny Baltimore (About same latitude as North Africa) we are having a snowstorm/ice storm right now.

    One of my colleagues is upset. She just got some mail order plants to put around her new house but can’t plant them because the the weather is way too cold, and snowy.

    So, I guess we are seeing local warming, not global warming, in Europe.

    Something to do with the jetstream. I don’t know about you, but I experience weather. Climate is just a statistical abstraction.

  • Bill

    The book “Higher Superstitions” gives insights into the two cultures war in universities— Science vs. Humanities.

  • Prospect magazine this month has invited 100 “thinkers” to say what will follow left vs right as the great intellectual divide of the 21st century. That assumes that ideas have their time and then we move on. In reality, we’re always fighting the same battle, whether you want to call it right vs left, rational vs irrational, cerebral vs emotional, head vs gut, modernism vs postmodernism, rule- vs act-utilitarianism, liberalism vs authoritarianism, individualism vs statism, laissez-faire vs interventionism, Republic vs Empire, cooperation vs compulsion, evolution vs revolution, they all come down to the same thing – working with or against the fallibility of human nature. Rather like the climate, there are long and short cycles where one or the other is in the ascendant (though I don’t mean that in a determinist sense). The late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth century was the peak of the long upswing that started around the tenth century for us rationalists. Since the mid-nineteenth century, the trend has been against us, though we have had the occasional short-cycle upswing, such as the 1980s. That Hicks book you pointed out, Johnathan, looks like an excellent analysis of that trend.

    The rise of bogus, “post-modern” philosophies, like post-normal science (PNS) and ecological economics, is a sign of that decline, and the growing ascendancy of the irrationalists. This isn’t just a few cranks – as that Guardian article shows, it has infected the mainstream of public debate on the environment. And when you look for other “postisms”, you find them everywhere – see the link to the postism page towards the end of the post linked above.

    PNS is relatively sane compared to some of the ideas out there. I listed a few of them in the post linked above, but for the most absurd example, have a look at what the “post-scientists” (not to be confused with “post-normal scientists”) have been saying on Charles N. Steele’s excellent Unforeseen Contingencies site (have a look at the Comments to some of his recent posts). There is a language issue for which one ought to allow, but all the same, it seems to me that Dr Lee and his colleagues are incapable of stringing a coherent thought together. And yet they dress up their ramblings as an all-encompassing philosophy, and are awarded doctorates from prestigious institutions like MIT (if this isn’t just a wind-up – it’s that absurd and unintentionally funny, it makes you wonder whether it can really be serious). I can’t do justice to its incoherence and absurd grandiosity with a few quotes here, so give yourself a laugh and have a look at Charles’s site.

    The editors of Prospect magazine noted that the dominant theme of the 100 thinkers was deep pessimism about our future. You can see why.

  • guy herbert

    Phil A,

    I found this e-petition asking for a knighthood for Terry Pratchett , something else for Tony to ignore no doubt…

    To wrench that one back, more or less, on topic, if they’d suggested it should be for services to the British nuclear power industry as a PRO, then the PM would grant it like a shot.

  • Pa Annoyed wrote:

    Trust science; don’t trust scientists. If you see what I mean.

    But what is science but the proper sum of the output of all scientists, good and bad? [Perhaps likewise our political system.]

    And who puts right the mistakes of scientists? Surely scientists: other ones; even the same ones occasionally.

    And are scientists, as a class, seriously less trustworthy than say medical doctors? Or engineers? They are perhaps even slightly more trustworthy, as a group, than the whole people (not least owning to the inclusion therein of politicians and journalists).

    And are the problems we currently have on global warming down to the scientist in the person, or down to the politician in the person, or down to the wage-earner in the person, or down to the ambition of the person, or, or, or?

    If you want to say “don’t trust scientists”, I want to respond that better advice is “don’t trust people”.

    This lumping together of the sins of some, into a taint on a whole group, is surely not rational.

    Best regards

  • guy herbert


    No green is arguing this in good faith: it is a political struggle, nothing more.

    There I differ with you. Having had a lot of contact with greens, I think that most – an overwhelming majority, in fact – are in good faith, but that “faith” is the operative word. They have a moral fervour for their sub-political beliefs that leads them to interpret the world in particular ways, and all evidence is seen as confirmatory of the pre-determined policies, and the (often vague) structure of resentment at modernity is held to be coherent and logically necessary.

    Long before “post normal science” greenery was scientistic. This is why Lomborg in particular has inspired such hatred: he agrees with lots of the express values, but questions the policies, whereas the point of the green faith is to proceed from policies in which many traditional ultra-left conceptions of the good society are embedded.

    I had problems as a Green for similar reasons. Ecological problems seemed to me real and worthy of tackling politically. Some of them still do. But pragmatic identification and handling of real-world problems was not the concern of my colleagues. Even many of those concerned to sell the party properly really did believe that (for example) having a leader was a temporary compromise of sound principle for the greater good, rather than an engagement with how the world really works.

    It may be hard to comprehend, but they are no less honest in their beliefs than the religious types who hold that the world is/ought to be ruled in accordance with the personal will of supernatural beings. That the beliefs take political form doesn’t make them any less sincere.

  • Guy, Well said. The hardest position of all to take nowadays is a free-marketeer who nevertheless retains an open mind about the possibility of AGW, resource-depletion and other environmental issues. The world seems to be divided into those who believe the science and want a socialist solution, and those who don’t want a socialist solution and don’t believe the science.

    It’s strange, because if you really believe the science, why would you want to rely on the failed collectivist approach to deal with it? Surely you should be desperate for the most effective solution, and that has been shown time and again to be the market. As you say, it’s sincere but blind faith. Their willingness to put their political beliefs ahead of a real solution to the problem which they genuinely fear threatens cataclysm is the nub of truth in what Perry said.

    Conversely, if you believe in the market, why would you want to determine the price of risk (of AGW, for instance) by calculation (e.g. “it’s zero because it’s unlikely there’s a problem or that we can do much about it”) rather than discovery? I believe that my house is very unlikely to burn down, and that if it does burn down, there’s not much I can do about it. But I still insure against fire.

  • Pa Annoyed


    In my attempt to get something pithier than my usual screeds, I may have oversimplified. I don’t mean you should count your fingers after shaking hands with them.

    Follow the analogy. Do you “trust” the captains of industry when they tell you to invest in their latest grand idea? On the whole, successful businessmen are probably worth listening to, as they have to have been pretty good to get where they are, but they’re not infallible, even when there is a “consensus”. What I meant was that you shouldn’t trust them absolutely. But that doesn’t mean you should dismiss capitalist free markets because of the people who implement them sometimes getting it wrong.

    What some scientists are doing is to borrow the mantle of science itself, and claim its virtues as their own. But science works because when scientists get it wrong, which they do, all the other scientists are free to generate better science which corrects it.
    But the fact that scientists often get it wrong is no reason to give into the anti-science post-modern pre-enlightenment romanticism. Scientists should not be allowed to become high priests, but having faith in science is still justified.

    I could have used the other professions you cite just as well, but I thought free markets was more in keeping with Samizdata. Engineering is better than Feng Shui, but you bridges and buildings can still collapse. If a bunch of guys start shouting she’s got her calculations wrong, don’t dismiss it because she’s an engineer. You can trust engineering to be the best you can get, but not necessarily engineers. Doctors can also get it wrong, but conventional medicine is still a better option than homeopathy. Trust medicine and medical practice, not doctors.

    People want certainty, and so there are people who will sell it to them. I agree with the critics that scientists’ personal views are sometimes too highly respected, but don’t agree when they use that to dismiss science in favour of their own snake-oil products.

    It wasn’t mean to be a controversial view. 🙂

  • It may be hard to comprehend, but they are no less honest in their beliefs than the religious types who hold that the world is/ought to be ruled in accordance with the personal will of supernatural beings.

    I think we have a different definition of ‘good faith’.

  • Nick M

    It may be hard to comprehend, but they are no less honest in their beliefs than the religious types who hold that the world is/ought to be ruled in accordance with the personal will of supernatural beings.

    The AGW rabble-rousers may fervently believe that they’re right as much as a priest fervently believes sex outside of marriage is a sin but, by and large, the priest is more honest in that he doesn’t pretend to be basing this on “science”. The revealed word of God is one thing and a scientific or psuedo-scientific argument is quite something else. Their has been much ink and some blood spilled over tiffs between science and religion or pseudo-science and faux-religion*. When the blood really hits the ceiling though is when somebody manages to concoct a brew made up of pseudo-science and faux-religion. The Nazi’s did it. The Commies did it. Scientologists do it. Muslims who claim parts of the Koran predict modern cosmological theories do it. Creation “science” does it. This sort of thing happens all the time. It happens because having an essentially faith-based position which you feel is scientifically demonstrable is a very powerful position to put oneself into. I mean, how the hell can you be wrong: you’ve got the certainty of faith and not just that you can prove it. Because of this power it’s a very dangerous phenomenon.

    Lots of people think science is hard. I’ve done enough of it to agree with them. What lots of people don’t appreciate is that science can be hard for a variety of different reasons. Zoology is hard for different reasons from the difficulty presented by particle physics. Zoology involves understanding really complicated systems whereas I could write out on a sheet of A-4 the basic system of the Standard Model. Understanding the behaviour of a cat and understanding the Schroedinger cat paradox are different kinds of hard.

    Throughout our history and especially in the last 150-200 years pseudo-science has attached itself to the complex-hard rather than the conceptual-hard. Through Marxism it has attached itself to economics, through the AGW hysteria it has attached itself to climatology and through Nazisism it has attached itself to racist theories of intelligence. These are all bloody complicated fields. The last is probably the most complicated. How do you define intelligence? Does it even make any sense to treat it as a single variable? How do you compare the smarts of a skilled linguist with a monolingual theoretical physicist? How do you compare Shakespeare with Darwin or Maxwell or Smith or Stephenson or Tesla?

    I am very sceptical of people attempting quick-fix solutions to complex problems. I learned my physics in the 90s and chaos and complexity theories were very hot subjects at the time. There is a very deep human need to trace complex things back to simple roots. Unfortunately I suspect that complex things just have a tendancy to be complex and do not allow for simple answers. This of course hasn’t stopped assorted people going for a quick-fix. The Nazis thought the world would be an ideal one without Jews and assorted other untermensch, the Greens think it would be ideal without CO2. Both have fixated upon a temptingly easy solution to a truly complex issue.

    I hate junk-science.

  • ian

    Guy’s sensible contribution apart, there seems almost enough hot air above to start global warming on its own.

    To me the key point made is in that first Wikipedia extract:

    The typical case is when “facts are uncertain, values in dispute, stakes high and decisions urgent”. In such circumstances, we have an inversion of the traditional distinction between hard, objective scientific facts, and soft subjective values. Now we have value-driven policy decisions that are ‘hard’ in various ways, for which the scientific inputs are irremediably ‘soft’.

    I don’t think we can deny that there are cases like that described. In essence though this seems as good a description as any of a ‘wicked problem(Link)

    Quoting from the Wikipedia article we find:

    1. There is no definitive formulation of a wicked problem
    2. Wicked problems have no stopping rule
    3. Solutions to wicked problems are not true-or-false, but good-or-bad
    4. There is no immediate and no ultimate test of a solution to a wicked problem
    5. Every solution to a wicked problem is a “one-shot operation”; because there is no opportunity to learn by trial-and-error, every attempt counts significantly
    6. Wicked problems do not have an enumerable (or an exhaustively describable) set of potential solutions, nor is there a well-described set of permissible operations that may be incorporated into the plan
    7. Every wicked problem is essentially unique
    8. Every wicked problem can be considered to be a symptom of another problem
    9. The existence of a discrepancy representing a wicked problem can be explained in numerous ways. The choice of explanation determines the nature of the problem’s resolution
    10. The planner has no right to be wrong (Planners are liable for the consequences of the actions they generate)

    Life is messy. We cannot pretend – or perhaps even hope – that Science will have all the answers. We need some way to cope with that gap. Charles Lindblom’s response was what he called the Science of Muddling Thorough(Link)
    [Text here (Link)if you have academic access]

    In essence though, Lindblom’s approach is surely one with which libertarians can be happy, namely that the best way forward in such circumstances is not great Plans but small incremental steps, adjusting and reviewing all the time.

  • In essence though, Lindblom’s approach is surely one with which libertarians can be happy, namely that the best way forward in such circumstances is not great Plans but small incremental steps, adjusting and reviewing all the time.

    Others may disagree but my position is this:

    1) as the ‘facts’ (i.e. the THEORIES being advanced as the prevailing orthodoxy) are clearly not beyond dispute, it is pointless to argue in good faith with the outraged green hordes who claim otherwise. They are either fools or liars and either way discussing ‘the way forward’ with them it is pointless.

    2) the overwhelming majority of the green movement is just the old red movement seeking a new means of legitimisation for their control based view of the world (this it the ‘confluence of interests’ I keep mentioning).

    Having come to these conclusions, I am not all that interested in deciding the way forward so much as working towards smashing the aspirations of my enemies any way I can. It is really that simple.

  • Midwesterner

    Just read this this morning. It seems appropriate.

    Scientists try to eliminate their false theories, they try to let them die in their own stead. The believer – whether animal or man – perishes with his false beliefs.

    – Karl Popper, Knowledge: Subjective versus Objective (1977); iv Language, Criticism, and World 3; the very last line

  • In the AGW debate, there is more dispute about causation and future predictions that there is about past “facts”, though these are not totally without dispute.

    As far as I can see, the average over the 20th century is that, each year, the average surface temperature has increased by 0.006 degrees Celsius and sea levels have risen by 1.7mm.

    Having looked at the graphs of each with time, I personally find it difficult to see any firm change of gradient, so expect the same approximate rates to continue, until they change (through whatever is the underlying physical cause).

    Given this, what is the justification for labelling our circumstances, as in Ian’s quote from Wikipeadia, as

    stakes high and decisions urgent

    Best regards

  • joel

    Think: Right now it is -100 F in Northern Canada and +100F at the equator. The temperature here in the “temperate” zone depends mainly on the wind, north or south. So, the first person who can predict which way the wind is going to blow will be able to predict the climate for our temperate zone. A new ice age could start, for example, if the winds blew continuously from the North.

    Can anybody predict what the prevailing winds will be like in the next 50 years?

  • In essence though, Lindblom’s approach is surely one with which libertarians can be happy, namely that the best way forward in such circumstances is not great Plans but small incremental steps, adjusting and reviewing all the time.

    It’s not the size of the plans, but who is making them for whom. Government can balls things up micro-managing lots of little plans as much as it can imposing grand plans. The essence of classical liberalism is that we all make plans for those things that are our personal responsibility, and progress is (and profits are) made by discovering which plans are better than others. It doesn’t have to be incremental – sometimes a complete overhaul of prevailing orthodoxy is right, and sometimes we do need to take draconian action. It just wants not to be imposed from above, other than in a limited number of extreme circumstances (e.g. war).

    The problem with post-normal science and, from the sound of it, the notion of “wicked problems” (don’t you sometimes get a feel from just the name that an idea is going to be bullshit?), is that they are designed to assist central-planning – managing by majority opinion. It doesn’t matter how you dress it up, this is not libertarian, nor (from a libertarian perspective) sensible or even moral.

  • Paul Marks

    David Gordon (of the Ludwig Von Mises Institute) has it about right (on this – perhaps not on other things, such as America always being in the wrong in its wars, which is a Murry Rothbard line not a Ludwig Von Mises line).

    The socialists faced the refutation of their hopes, in theory by the work of Mises, Hayek and others, and in practice by the economic failure of the Soviet Union, Mao’s China (and so on).

    So, rationally, the socialists should have rejected socialism – but they had one other choice. Reject rationality – reject reason.

    So the left got a hold on “post modern” ideas denying objective truth. That is why people like Richard Rorty are now popular.

    Now it seems that some of these socialists have put on green clothing. But the demand for a controlled economy (really a controlled society) is the same.

    However, that does not mean that such things as man made C02 emissions are not a problem – it is a seperate argument.

    Just because a lot of evil (the word is not too stong) people are using “man made globel warming” as an excuse for their old evil demands, does not mean that there is no such thing.

    Of course if there is such a problem government planning (prices set by some “public authority” or whatever) will only make it worse.

    What would need to be done is an end to government road building schemes (both in the “developed” and the “under developed” world – expecially Brazil) and and end to regulations (including pro union statutes) on such things as railroads. And and end to all regulations on nuclear power (it is not in the interests of a power company to kill people and it would be sued to bits if it did, and the regualtions do not improve “health and safty” quite the reverse), also such things as capital gains tax should be abolished – in order that their be more profitable investment in such things as new technology solar cells, and hydrodgen fuel cell technology.

    Or whatever else the minds of human beings come up with.

    However, I doubt a policy of getting rid of regulations and taxes will be popular among the “Greens” – which is a pity as it is the only policy that would work.

  • Paul, I know you and I have had an argument or two since I started posting on here, but can I just say that I agree entirely with your post. That’s an interesting explanation I hadn’t heard before, about why such obviously dumb ideas as the various “postisms” have gained traction.

    My bet is that photovoltaics and nuclear won’t be the answers, but I wouldn’t want to put any obstacle in the way of my being proved wrong, and I agree that the current obstacles are irrational and counterproductive. We are most likely to come up with decent solutions if people have the right incentives (rational carbon pricing) and the freedom to pursue their own ideas on how best to respond to those incentives.

    Do you think you might have to keep some element of capital-gains tax? A major imbalance between income tax and CGT provides an obvious route for the cynical to circumvent income tax. Would it be better for both to be as low as possible but not too big a discrepancy between them, than to do away with one completely?

  • John Gray

    I’d agree with Guy’s post above – I think there are a great number of people who believe that there’s a problem and “something must be done”. The problem with a situation that seems to be global is that they want a global solution; the presumption is that this can ony be delivered by same sort of coercion.

    The political challenge for the individualist liberal is: If AGW were real (a perfectly sane hypothesis even if not proven to everyone’s satisfaction) what is an appropriate response? On one level, it is the “technical” answer – reduce CO2 emissions by x% or somesuch… on another level it is informed by what is politically possible or morally acceptable. See it is as risk analysis – the point about home insurance is well made – what level of expenditure or sacrifice is appropriate as insurance in case AGW is real?

    Obviously if you can gently persuade everyone to take appropriate action then coercion is not necessary, but I share this climate system with others – and if their behaviour causes long term problems, what action do I take?

  • R C Dean

    However, that does not mean that such things as man made C02 emissions are not a problem – it is a separate argument.

    True enough. However, it is extremely difficult to tell whether and if so to what degree the current warming trend is affected by human activity, as so much of the science is warped, and so much of the communication is polluted, by the swarms of politically motivated parasites only too eager to latch onto “global warming” as a pretext for their age-old demands for control and abnegation.

  • Uain

    AGW is religion for the non-religious. However, it is a hateful and intolerant religion, much like islam, where the non-believer is held in comtempt and worthy only of death (or losing their job).