Chasing the Norm

Australian academic and blogger on politics, international relations, and culture

The Ignorance of Certainty: Science’s failure to sell Global Warming

Today marks 360 years since the death of Rene Descartes. Descartes is the first of the modern philosophers in that he represents the emergence of the scientific and thus modern mindset. Indeed that the man on the street largely sees himself in terms of mind and body is due to this philosopher. Descartes sought to bring certainty to knowledge, and sitting in an oven one day (he tells us it was cold) he realised the only thing he could be certain of was that he was a thinking thing. This is the origin of the famous cogito ergo sum, “I think therefore I am”. Which has entranced & dismayed philosophers and undergraduates everywhere for hundreds of years. Yet while the quest for certainty is admirable, it is also deeply misleading and ultimately damaging. Both in what little benefit results from certainty and more practically in misleading us about the worth of knowledge we already have. Descartes project philosophically ended soon after his death, but in misunderstanding the value of knowledge, much of the scientific community is risking our very lives.

The love of certainty over the shifting and transitory is as old as philosophy itself. Plato’s entire project involved the repudiation of the empirical and political in favour of establishing certainty. Many philosophers have invoked God as a crutch to guarantee that the phenomena of life (colours, sounds, movement etc) is more than just sensory data within our own minds, but represents exactly something which is “out there”. It is the holy grail of all knowledge, that something is absolutely certain, and yet no 2nd step has ever been added to Descartes cogito (indeed many even doubt that). Even if Descartes is entirely correct, his knowledge gives us absolutely nothing of value (beyond entertainment). We may be thinking things but in vats manipulated by chemicals, we may even be thinking things in human form in a world identical to our perception of it, and yet we still hunger, thirst, lust, and sweat identically even with this knowledge. This is not to renounce the project of knowledge itself, but whether Descartes cogito ergo sum is certain knowledge or just knowledge makes no practical difference.

The far more malicious side of the quest for certainty is the way it shapes the worth we apply to knowledge we already have. Science in modern times has been deeply affected by this, for both its practitioners and in its image in the public mind. While science is not like religion, it shares a faith like belief in its own ability to deliver certainty, not through revealed truth, but through a method. The results may change, but the method is what proves the wisdom of the course. When attacked in our modern and increasingly partisan public sphere, science and its boosters have tended to retreat towards this comfort of certainty, allowing public knowledge to be subverted by those opposed. Nothing illustrates this better than the question of Global Warming. In many ways the evidence is simply overwhelming that the planet is heating, that its causes can be reasonably identified, and that man has had some significant effect on this situation. Yet in the last decade the scientific community has been left almost dumbstruck that so many politicians and people resisted accepting their viewpoint in the first place, and once it was largely accepted that a rising chorus of voices has been able to reverse the tide and in some cases (like Australia) reverse government legislation addressing it.

Like Plato, or religious fundamentalists, Scientists when attacked or hurt by society tended to retreat to their more pure and certain quest for knowledge as a way of insulating and protecting themselves. When critics of Global warming attack, the response inevitably is that the attackers themselves have no credibility because they don’t have peer-reviewed papers, they haven’t degrees in the field, they don’t know and havn’t used the scientific method in determining their views of global warming, and so therefore are automatically invalid. But the truth of the claims of global warming skeptics has no relation whatso ever to how often or little they have been published, what their degree is, or their motives. Science only has a way of assessing the likely truth of each claim through its method, not ownership of the entire field of what is true. This is an important distinction oftern forgotten by scientists and especially their boosters. This may be career threatening when involving a dispute within the field (ie the shift in various paradigms in physics or astronomy), however it is threatening to the authority of the entire discipline and perhaps even the well being of the species, an area it has formerly dominated (Capitalism may make us wealthier, but it is scientific advancement which has allowed us to live longer/better).

This treatment of scientific knowledge as quantitatively different from other forms of knowledge has also severely impeded the ability of the scientific community to communicate with the general public. It sets them up for nit-picking where it is assumed by the public that they ought to be infallible (such as the back down over the melting Himalayan glaciers, and perhaps some claims about ice levels), and discourages many scientists from seeking out either professional communicators to push their views, or entering the arena directly themselves. Like Plato 2400 years before them, to publicly advocate what is the latest scientific knowledge is all too often seen as a dirty, compromising, and pointless endeavour. And to do so arguing against people without even scientific degrees or who have never been published in the field… well!

Yet for the good of the scientific community, many many more scientists need to get over this absurd concern for purity and decend into the political arena. Politics and communication are not a dirty words, and it is only through an understanding if not mastery of the political sphere (and here i mean social, cultural relations as well as partisan debates) that the scientific community will be able to ensure the best reception and understanding of their work. People like Richard Dawkins and Tim Flannery are doing good work, but both suffer from an absolute arrogance of tone and only reasonable communication skills. Dawkins in particular could learn a lot from his friend Christopher Hitchens. Who is usually polite, and yet strident, willing to debate almost anyone at any time or location. It’s a rather thankless job, but it is needed. It is a job that takes knowledge as an abstract thing (number of particles in an atom, colours of a mexican flying beetle, function of white cells in the body) and makes it practical by educating, and inserting that knowledge into the culture and social environment.

We are firmly ensconsed in a hyper-partisan world. It may have always been thus, but many still have not caught up. Science can’t expect to be able to dictate claims about truth to the world without shedding its claimed authority as the nearest thing to certainty (which makes it more vunerable, not less publicly), and unless it is willing to engage the public sphere on its own terms and according to its own rules. Descartes for all his glory, is not the model the scientist currently operating needs to look up to. Instead, scientists should see themselves as more like explorers, venturing forth to obtain and then bring back pieces to the public. The dissemination and education of reality needs to be seen as just as important as the discovery, yet this is an aspect that has been scorned for far too long, due to pretensions to certainty and disdain for the impurity of public life and political participation. But that needs to change, not only for the well-being of the scientific discipline itself, but perhaps humanity as well. Global warming might make things uncomfortable, doubting whether a asteroid really is headed for earth might just kill us.

9 ResponsesLeave one →

  1. Matt C

     /  February 1, 2010

    Very insightful Andrew. You might be interested in Michael Oakeshott’s essay “Rationalism in Politics”, which I think, still, explains much of the conservative opposition to the science of global warming.

  2. Thanks Matt. Having read Andrew Sullivans blog for a number of years I’ve been meaning to read Oakshott, will have to make good on it.


  3. Fhakk

     /  February 2, 2010

    Hard to think that they’re struggling with a British Lord, whose latest claim is that a sophisticated satellite, that would have measured atmospheric
    carbon emissions, was deliberately crashed into the sea because the UN doesn’t want the truth about climate change getting out.

    Yet, the scientists are struggling against this loony, and many others like him.

    Good article

  4. Alex

     /  February 2, 2010

    “When critics of Global warming attack, the response inevitably is that the attackers themselves have no credibility because they don’t have peer-reviewed papers, they haven’t degrees in the field, they don’t know and havn’t used the scientific method in determining their views of global warming, and so therefore are automatically invalid. But the truth of the claims of global warming skeptics has no relation whatso ever to how often or little they have been published, what their degree is, or their motives.”

    Maybe it’s my ignorance of main stream media, but I don’t see this happening. In most of the cases I am aware of the non-scientific views are not considered automatically invalid and discarded, instead they demonstrated to be wrong with reference to the current research on the issue. Yes they will point out that, say, Ian Pilmer is only qualified as a geologist and blatantly misinterpreting the evidence, but this is an entirely valid point.
    I agree, the truth of the “global warming skeptics” claims does not rest on their degree or motives, it rests on whether there is any evidence to support their claims. The problem is that these people are generally ignorant of, or misinterpret (or in the case of Pilmer, lie about), the evidence. The debate gets nowhere if you are forever repeating the basics to people who aren’t interested in learning, and it just gives the malicious an opening to sow lies. The problem is that the people with the most power to address these problems are the ones who are lying or not interested in learning.

    “This treatment of scientific knowledge as quantitatively different from other forms of knowledge has also severely impeded the ability of the scientific community to communicate with the general public.”
    However treating scientific knowledge the same just results in post-modern solipsism, and that is even less useful.

    This all seems to be about the classic communication of science issue, and there doesn’t seem to be a clear solution. Saying that scientists have to get involved in communicating to the public ignores the issue that there is a fundamentally different culture of communication between the two areas. The media and politics value simple accounts, with clear non-technical conclusions. Scientific communication is the opposite, very detailed with murky conclusions. Look at the poll results they were reporting earlier today: 2 party preferred, labour 40% liberals 41%. In a scientific publication this would be: two party preferred labour 40±x, liberals 41±y (p>0.1). The scientific approach packs more information in and provides a better picture of what happened; it is also harder to interpret and the conclusions aren’t as black and white. Learning how to use both takes extra time, and once you have learnt the scientific approach the mass media one looks wrong.
    Personally that is the reason why I would avoid having anything to do with the mass media; they prize sensationalism over accuracy and don’t give sufficient space for detailed explanations.
    To change science to match the publics’ discourse would be to discard the valuable parts of science. Why would you want to match the climate change denialists, anti-vaccionationilists and creationists? It seems like the old adage of arguing with an idiot; they will drag you down to their level and beat you with experience.

  5. Alex

     /  February 2, 2010

    @Fhakk: how should you argue with someone who calmly ignores reality, lies, and spews garbage without giving a chance for the opponent to rebut?
    To have a productive dialogue with someone requires both parties to listen and treat each other with respect. Lord Monckton and his ilk have shown no intention to do this.

  6. Benny

     /  February 2, 2010

    Good shit Andrew. Ohh can I swear here?

  7. Hi Alex

    I think your comment helps prove my point, but as much as it sucks its something that the scientific community has to get better at. If the knowledge they have is worthwhile then its no good leaving it tucked away, nor of letting people like Monckton, bolt & co denigrate the entire discipline simply because its seen as degrading to argue with them.

    I also take a much more optimistic view that people can be educated. Take the issue of opinion polling as you raise. There is substantially more awareness in the press and large sections of the public of issues such as margin of error, and rogue polls (as i suspect this newspoll is. Their 2nd in recent months). That is because of bloggers and academics who’ve ceaselessly argued and explained about this issues to the political class, press, friends and colleagues. It doesn’t fix all the errors, but a better debate is resulting.

    The alternative is to simply let the uneducated and the fraudsters take over, with massive environmental and social damage to come. That’s not something I’m morally comfortable with, and nor should you be.(Be it on Global Warming or any issue where science and society interact)

  8. Alex

     /  February 4, 2010

    The public have to want to learn, and on so many of these issues they seem to show little interest.
    Maybe I’m just pessimistic, but the more I see these people lying, and those with power listening to them, the less hope I have.

  9. Alex

     /  February 18, 2010

    This seems revelent, at least to me:

    It’s on the topic of debating denialists.

    This could be talking about Mockton: “He bends and wilfully mistranslates reliable sources; he deliberately suppresses evidence which runs counter to his argument; he skews evidence and misquotes by omitting vital parts of documents and by mistranslating other parts which he does cite; he takes accurate and reliable sources and shapes and bends it to suit his purposes by including speculation and pure invention which is in no way warranted by the documentary record; he misrepresents data by presenting unreliable sources as reliable when they serve his argument;”