Wednesday, February 3, 2010

The tragic dangers of a new science

A recent paper establishing that there was no scientific consensus behind the “global cooling” scare of the 1970s says something much more important in the first sentence of its abstract:
Climate science as we know it today did not exist in the 1960s and 1970s.
When people say “climate scientists agree that …” they are referring to a category of scientist that is effectively a few decades old.

A Melbourne scientist, in his analysis of the CRUtape letters (aka "Climategate"), makes the very pertinent observation about problems with climate science being so new:
Instead of seeing large collaborations of meticulous, careful, critical scientists, we instead see a small team of incompetent cowboys, abusing almost every aspect of the framework of science to build a fortress around their “old boys’ club”, to prevent real scientists from seeing the shambles of their “research”. Most people are aghast that this could have happened; and it is only because “climate science” exploded from a relatively tiny corner of academia into a hugely funded industry in a matter of mere years that the perpetrators were able to get away with it for so long.
For there is a history to new sciences and public policy, and it is a history of great tragedy.

The problem with new sciences is many levelled. First, precisely because it is new, the wider society, and especially the wider scientific community, has not built up experience in judging a new science’s claims and processes. This seems to have been, from what the CRUtape letters reveal, a real problem in the new area of climate science (pdf):
The Climategate emails show that these self-regulating mechanisms simply failed to work in the case of climate science—perhaps because “climate science” is itself an aggregation of many different and disparate scientific disciplines. …
It is at this “stitching together” layer of science—one could call it a “meta-discipline”—that the principles of the scientific method have broken down. …
Instead of embracing this diversity of knowledge—thanking them for their experience (no one knows everything about everything) and using that knowledge to improve their own calculations—these power-brokers of climate science instead ignore, fob off, ridicule, threaten, and ultimately black-ball those who dare to question the methods that they—the power-brokers, the leaders—have used. And do not be confused: I am here talking about those scientists within their own camps, not the “skeptics” which they dismiss out of hand.
This is not “climate science”, it is climate ideology; it is the Church of Climatology.
It is this betrayal of the principles of science—in what is arguably the most important public application of science in our lifetime—that most distresses scientists.
Just how inimical who what is revealed in the CRUtape letters is to effective science is shown by considering recent research on how science operates in practice: in particular, how effective scientific practice overcomes the natural cognitive bias to defending existing theories and dismiss awkward anomalies. The crucial feature is situations that trigger cognitive openness: particularly, situations of open debate involving other perspectives. Acting to enforce conformity (both conformity to our prior expectations and conformity to group norms) is a natural human inclination that science, to be effective, must challenge—not randomly or blindly, but challenge nevertheless. The power and problem of “climate science” catastrophism is precisely that it panders so strongly to the will to believe on the part of a range of folk. What it does not do is encourage any sense of the cognitive dangers of conformity and the need to engage outsiders: on the contrary.

As scandals with the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change multiply—from the ludicrous comedy of errors in the false glacier claims and snow, to dubious claims about rainforests, to advocacy being based off as science—it is well to note that people had been complaining for years about the IPCC processes being deeply flawed. Concerns now thoroughly vindicated but had previously been treated with a contempt that now itself seems utterly contemptible, and was certainly thoroughly inimical to the cognitive openness required for science to operate properly.

Second, there is the blush of “new discovery”. A new science can convey an intoxicating sense of vast new vistas of understanding previously denied to humanity. There is a natural inclination to demonstrate the utility of that new understanding by providing warnings of perils to be avoided or to otherwise pander to existing preconceptions: all the more because the new science itself has not built up experience about its own areas of weakness and risk.

It is notable how prominent scion of climate science, Steven Schneider, moved straight from global cooling climate catastrophism to global warming climate catastrophism without dallying in that large excluded middle of no-human-catastrophism. But any form of catastrophism made such work terribly, terribly important. [Hansen did some computer work [[that was used by]] a then advocate of global cooling: he may not have actually supported such predictions and was not a co-author of the Rasool-Schneider paper: this post has been amended accordingly.]

Third, because the new science offers the benefit of demonstrating how “with it” one is scientifically: that one is “up” with the “cutting edge” of human understanding. That what one is doing, or what one understands, is so very important.
We have been here before
Two examples demonstrate just what capacity for tragedy there is in the intersection of public policy and “new science”. The first is the appallingly inadequate response of the incoming Liberal Government in the UK to the Irish potato famine. There was a range of factors involved—the ham-fisted nature of the initial attempt to help by the preceding Peel Government; that, as a result of the Act of Union, Ireland was now far more governed from London than Dublin; the connection with the debate over the corn laws; the effect of the pre-existing failures of British administration in Ireland; the continuing strength of anti-Catholic (and specifically anti-Irish) sentiment.

But part of the problem was how the issues were framed as a result of the “latest science”. Because the new science of classical economics was held to warn against the dangers/pointlessness of “interfering” with the “iron laws” of supply and demand. This was complete bollocks: if the same response as that of Dublin Castle to the 1800-01 famine had been followed (offering a bounty to imported grain), then the famine could have been greatly ameliorated. But the “new science” of economics provided a framing that pandered to all sorts of existing prejudices, and nothing effective was done. About one million people starved to death or died of disease. Another million migrated from Ireland. It was an appalling failure of public policy: but one that the “new science” of classical economics provided aid and support to.

We, of course, now know how bad the pre-existing incentives structures were in Ireland and there were things that could have been done (indeed, had previously been done). But a learning process has taken place: economics, as an organised discipline, was only a few decades old at the time.

The second case of the disastrous conjunction of new science and public policy is provided by eugenics. Charles Darwin and Alfred Wallace’s identification of the process of natural selection followed by Mendelian genetics provided—particularly in conjunction with some of Darwin’s rhetoric but even more the advocacy of his brilliant but rather misanthropic scientist-cousin Sir Francis Galton—the basis for a looming “threat”: that of genetic collapse due to the “poor genetic stock” of the lower classes breeding far more than the “good genetic stock” of the upper classes.

Now, again, this was pandering to all sorts of existing prejudices. But it was taken to be based on “the latest science”. Eugenics was something that the great and good, across the political spectrum, took seriously and endorsed.

After the Nazi “genetic purification” slaughters, eugenics lost respectability. We are also aware of small matters such as genetic drift that has rather increased our understanding of how genetics does (and does not) work. But we simply do not understand the actual historical context if we do not grasp how morally and scientifically respectable eugenics was.

Which brings us to “climate science”, a discipline a few decades old. One whose climate catastrophism appeals to all sorts of existing prejudices and interests. The utility of scares to generate research grants and sell newspapers: in particular, to turn the weather into a coherent media narrative with heroes and villains. Its utility to a multi-million dollar industry of environmental advocacy: in particular, its substitute as a critique of Western capitalism for those leaving the failed vehicle of socialism. The way environmentalism is fairly clearly a religion-substitute, fitting into the Christianity-shaped hole in Western culture: with Gaia and Gaia-concern substituting for Christ and Christian compassion; its own sets of sins, taboos and marks of virtue; with associated denunciation of heresy, heretics and other maleficent non-believers. Financial interests willing to make money in carbon-trading or using environmentalism as an excuse for protectionism against competitors and rivals. And so on.

All helped by that special arrogance which claims that the patterns of history do not happen to, or apply to, “people like us”.

As to the “settled science”, I simply direct attention to this post from stalwarts of the “climate science” community about the way CO2 lags temperature in ice core data. In particular, how their take on the lag is such an ad hoc way to treat data and, if both upward and downward turning temperature points lead CO2 increases, that indicates clear negative feedbacks in how the atmosphere works (there needs to be significant positive feedbacks to make the catastrophist case work).

What the CRUtape letters show is that the “argument from authority” which has been resorted to so much—particularly “climate scientists agree” and “in the peer-reviewed literature”—is simply not something to give credence to. Science is not about arguments from authority. It is precisely the (abuse) of the authority science had built up from the triumph of Newtonian mechanics in particular that allowed classical economics and eugenics to parlay that authority into disastrous influences over public policy. “Climate science” must not be allowed to replicate that pattern any further than it already has.

The media-and-other ubiquity of the message of looming climate catastrophe is also not an argument from authority, even though it gives the catastrophist case a powerful-but-spurious authority. For so much of that ubiquity is clearly based on the notion that climate-concern shows you are a “good person”. Once you are in the “good people believe X” game, the resulting cognitive blockages (since any evidence that X is not true becomes an attack on “morality”, “concern”, “settled science” etc and people’s sense of their own moral status) screw up the evidence base for public policy and public debate. This is made worse by the way environmentalism explicitly discounts human wants, so any human experience or concerns that contradicts X gets thoroughly discounted too. It is very like the way Christian belief affected public policy in pre-Enlightenment Europe; both in its discounts of inconvenient human experience and concerns but also in the way the “message” became so ubiquitous that in itself is held to “establish” its truth.

Climate “denialism” has become, after all, a modern version of heresy. With the patterns of medieval heresy: including the attribution of maleficent motivation, since only wilful failure could explain how any could dissent from “obvious” (and morally urgent) truth.

Which takes us back to environmentalism as religion-substitute. After all, one of the fundamental functions of religion is to separate the righteous from the unrighteous: to establish and police group membership, and to do so on a moral basis, including a whole set of morally-charged truth claims.

As I have noted previously, with the decline of the radical Enlightenment (the notion that reason can transform human nature and thus human society), opposition to the sceptical Enlightenment (with its presumption that human nature is a given, so we apply reason within that constraint) has become more and more based on the Counter-Enlightenment (with its concern for authenticity, identity, commitment, celebration of nature, etc). The celebration of “organic food” and concern for “food miles” both come out of late C19th and early C20th blood-and-soil mysticism, for example. But concern for “food miles” also turns ordinary human effort into the mark of perdition, so that those who make their living from the “grubby” movement and creation of stuff are inherently less virtuous than those who make their living from electronic zapping of symbols or other, more intangible, ideas-based human services. Environmentalism is hardly innocent of very familiar social status games: with the moral middle class turning out to be inherently more “virtuous” than vulgar workers or nasty Gaia-damaging stuff-creating-and-selling business folk. (Who can, nevertheless, “purchase” the right moral indulgences by showing how “environmentally concerned” they are.)

Mark Twain famously observed that:
History doesn't repeat itself, but it does rhyme.
Climate catastrophism is far too convenient for far too many people based on an area of science that is far too new and far too narrow. We really have been here before and need to step back and remember just how new “climate science” is and just how dangerous buying into the absolute reliability of a “new science”, particularly a socially convenient new science, can be.

Because such failures are not mere intellectual failures: they can end up killing by the millions. That we do know, because they have.

We particularly need to remember that the advocates of “laissez faire” and of “eugenics” were often highly educated, well-read, scientifically sophisticated and morally concerned. They were “people like us”.


  1. Hi. I hope you don't find it disagreeable when people comment on older posts. I just discovered your site a week ago and have read maybe half of it...

    Anyway, regarding the topic of this post, it seems to me that the climate-apocalypse promoters are only getting more and more hysterical in light of the recent revelations. There doesn't seem to have been much response to "climate gate" from prominent media outlets, the educational establishment, or goverment regulatory authorities. It is as if they are all trying to pretend the issue just doesn't exist.

    Do you think they realize that the economic dislocations they are advocating will literally mean death for millions of people in marginal economies (i.e., the "third world")? Isn't it fairly clearly established that impairments to first world economic activity have totally catastrophic effects on people in poorer countries? Or am I overestimating the extent to which that is empirically demonstrable? I'm no economist, so I could be a little misguided here.

    I just find it hard to believe that the proponents of the climate "religion" are really so depraved that they can blithely advocate mass starvation in the third world on account of mere aesthetic preferences. Perhaps someone needs to find a way to better inform the public about the likely impact of "greening" our economies - maybe a small dent in the standard of living in the West, but untold suffering and misery in many other places.

  2. It is absolutely fine for people to comment on old posts: especially as I have changed my blog I can now spot they have done so.

    Yes, the reaction is very much one of denial, bordering at times on hysteria. Shouting louder will not "fix" the problems, but they seem to think it will. Dealing with the capacity for "their side" to be seriously wrong, and that "the enemy" have at least some good points which need to be dealt with, appears to be too much for their worldview to cope with.

    On the potential effects, that works both ways, since the catastrophists think that "deniers" are being blase about looming human misery and disaster. If the full agenda of carbon control was implemented, the effects for the poor would be grim, but that seems most unlikely to happen. Though the effect of "biofuels" on world food prices are already pretty bad.

  3. Full disclosure: I accept what NASA and global scientific community is telling us.


    A recent paper establishing that there was no scientific consensus behind the “global cooling” scare of the 1970s

    So you accept that this particular zombie PRATT point is officially dead and buried, right?
    Or do you want to revive it and set it walking again?
    Climate denier PRATT's exist.
    They haunt the internet.
    Remind you of anything?

    They come up again and again and again and again and again and again and again and again and again and again and again and again and again again and again and again and again and again and and again ad nauseum....

    (And every time, climate deniers claim that they are being ignored by mainstream science!)

    Are you, in your own opinion, convinced that the "scientific consensus believed in a coming Ice Age in the 70's" PRATT is rubbish?

  4. You seemed to be getting very worked up by claims I did not make. You may notice I did not claim there was a scientific consensus on global cooling in the 1970s: on the contrary, I started by accepting that and linking to a paper which set out that very point. That Hansen and Schneider were, however, both involved in the global cooling scare is a matter of historical fact.

    Creationism has no scientific credibility, and Intelligent Design hardly much more. (Though it is sociologically interesting that creationism should seek to garner the authority of science in such a way.) There is rather more scientific dissent on the point of catastrophic anthropogenic global warming.

    It strikes me as clear that we are in a warming phase and likely that there is some human element in that. Beyond that is much less well established. (Which would put my reaction to climate science about the same as turned out to be appropriate for economics and genetics.) The appropriate policy response is murkier still. There is a lot of premature certainty around. Premature certainty which handled persuading doubts badly (because they were dismissed so absolutely and so early) and has now created rods for their own back.

    The historical parallels with laissez faire economics and eugenics is obvious. Including the avid, even frantic, claims of moral authority.