OK Getting Serious Again

Let’s think about the nature of evil in the context of science some more.

Specifically, an Augustinean perfectability impulse confronted by a malicious, anti-progressive Manichean enemy, an active agent which wants to replace the best available understanding with something less: Lysenkoists, creationists, climate change denialists. What does it look like when they succeed?

It depends. In a totalitarian state, of course, the official doctrine dominates the scientific one wherever they diverge. We saw this in the Nazi discounting of Einstein’s work and in the Stalinist’s corruption of evolutionary theory with Lysenkoism.

In a democracy, the goals of malicious pseudo-science are different. The sowing of doubt about important results that people are otherwise already predisposed to disbelieve is the goal. In that case, the objective is not to replace science, but simply to present an appearance of a scientific alternative.

Let’s revisit the graphic I came up with, illustrating some aspects of the state of debate in climate science, and see if we can spot the stigmata of malice. Here we are factoring out policy (“business as usual”, meaning the only constraints on carbon use are supply and demand, and that therefore fossil fuels will remain in use for a long time) and simplifying impact to a qualitative measure of good, indifferent, and various stripes of bad.

The curve is a probability density; the population is “informed opinion”, by which we mean something like “people with Ph.D.’s who have spent more than 6 months full time equivalent on the subject”, so the vertical axis is reasonably well defined. I admit that the horizontal axis is mathematically problematic; you can’t call it a linear scale but it’s obviously not logarithmic either. So the graphic can only be qualitiative in nature.

My original scanned sketch is here; a more presentable version has kindly been put together by Stephen Ban, a graduate student at James Cook University in Australia and a new sustainabilty science blogger. (Welcome to the fray, Stephen!) Here is Stephen’s much improved rendition:


(As always on Blogger, you can click the image for a cleaner view of it.)

Now the image is purely a schematic. It isn’t social science, and though I imagine it could be put to the test in a formal study it might be difficult to refine the design enough to really identify the two populations. In short this isn’t a formal claim, it is a schematic. Still I think it captures something of how the situation is structured and at least part of why the public’s position is so extremely out of tune with that of the expert community.

So what does this two hump structure mean? If there were no malice involved, a two-humped opinion spectrum would mean there is an alternative theory, either ascendant or in decline, to the mainstream. There would be, in such a case, no consensus. But in the present case, we discover to our astonishment that the much broader mainstream hump has a much more coherent set of beliefs about how the system works. It is the narrower, smaller hump thaty contains a vast plethora of competing hypotheses. That is to say, the smaller hump doesn;t represent a position, but simply the union of a very large array of positions agreed on only one thing.

“Not the IPCC. Very not the IPCC.”

By creating this debate they keep the increasingly shallow and lazy press occupied whenever they wander onto this turf, which is rarely enough. Consequently, the real risk spectrum remains invisible to the public.

This article isn’t the place to discuss all the debating tricks and so on used to prop up the left hump and its prominence in the public debate. What I propose to say here is that when you actually look at this, it become too much to attribute the peculiar hump to pure chance acting on people acting in good faith. This sort of evil requires some sort of agency, if only an implicit and half-conscious conspiracy.

Steve Easterbrook is a very nice man, and he has tried to convince me that there need be no malice whatsoever involved. And I;m sure we can find other scientific questions where the relevant population is clustered rather than continuous. The trouble is that it works out all too conveniently. If it were merely denial, it wouldn;t have well-funded conferences.

This is not to say that everyone or even most of the people in the left hump have malign intent (and pleasant social skills, as often they do). Very few conscious agents are required given that the truths of the right hump are indeed somewhat inconvenient. I just question whether the left hump could exist in the absence of evil.

The trouble is the masquerade. By approaching as reasonable colleagues, the bad guys appeal to our fundamental strength/weakness. Our interest in challenging ourselves in pursuit of truth is wasted on people whose challenge is not dedicated to us but to the peanut gallery; whose acceptance of our challenges is likewise. We find ourselves wasting enormous amounts of time on pretend science.

This leaves us with two very big questions.

How can we protect science from this sort of attack? That is a very big question indeed, but it is trivial compared to the second one.

How can we protect society from this sort of scientific charade? That’s the gigantic, crucial one. Without reliable communication channels between science and society, any modern society has a very poor prognosis.


Update/Clarification:

One key message in this oft-misinterpreted article is that the vast majority of professional opinion concurs with the highly coherent conceptual framework presented by IPCC WGI, even though that represents a wide spectrum of impact assessment.

The bulk of the opposition is concentrated in a narrow spectrum of impact assessment (specifically, so near zero for CO2 emissions as to require no policy change), but they lack a coherent conceptual framework and tend to just snipe from various angles.

Therefore it is legitimate to conclude that a consensus exists, not on impacts, but on the underlying physical phenomenology. It is to this physics-based understanding with which the thirteen leading national academies, the AAAS, the AGU, the American Meteorological Society, the APS, the ACS, the EGU, etc. etc. have expressed concurrence.

If that’s not a consensus then I am pretty baffled as to what is.