Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Climate people

Recently, we had a discussion here on klimazwiebel about Al Gore's new article,  including Anthony Watts' critique etc. One reader  commented:  "The difference between Watts and Gore is that Watts is a meteorologist and Gore, well, isn't." I still have to think about this statement. How come that we obviously understand what it means?  I think we all agree that our commentator wanted to say with this argument: Watts is right, and Gore is not.
I don't want to discuss here again Gore and Watts; I just want to discuss the very nature of this statement. Let's put it as neutral as possible: "He's a scientist, and, well,  she is not". I ask myself, what is this difference about? The difference between a (natural) scientist and somebody who is not a natural scientist. This differentiation is an argument which more or less unconsciously structures many of our discussions on klimazwiebel. We should share some thoughts about it.

The argument goes: The natural scientist knows how the real world works. The others have only opinions about the world, they perceive the world through a fog of feelings, opinions, interests, traditions,  or simply "culture".  On the one side, there is the objective, real world, and on the other is the psychological, philosophical, cultural world.

Strangely enough, the natural scientist's world is empty. Into this empty world, humans are added as an additional problem for calculation. Those humans normally are not "living" individuals. The closest  humans can get is when at least their "perceptions", their "culture" is added as a crucial (and disturbing) factor in models, scenarios,  planning etc.

But what happens when we turn things upside down? Let's assume - just for a moment -  that the inhabited world is the real world, with natural sciences being (only)  a part of it. Science now does not define reality in opposition to non-scientists; instead, science adds knowledge to a shared and lived reality. Science now serves as a tool to sharpen our senses, to refine our perceptions, to deepen our feelings, to better shape our opinions, to improve the design of our environment etc. It does not replace other forms of experience and knowledge; instead, it adds something to them. In this perspective, humans (or: non-scientists) are no longer aliens in a real world defined (or designed) by natural scientists; science is now part of the world we seek to understand.

This would make a difference. The above statement: "He is a scientist, and she is, well, not" - well, this were just a statement, not an argument. I would prefer this; we wouldn't have to waste so much time anymore to draw the line between nature and culture, science and laypeople, objective and subjective, truth and ideology, and so on and on and on.... As the climate debate shows more often than not, these differentiations are not very productive. Quite the contrary, combatants stay caught in a vicious circle, with the uncertainty monster grinning behind every corner.

Can we even imagine how climate change would look like without this destructive rhetorical mechanism? If it were not only defined by science and misconceived by people, but accepted as a common problem we have to deal with - even though we don't fully understand it? We shouldn't overburden science. What is needed are alternative conceptions of climate change.
Suggestions are welcome!


Hector M. said...

That A is a scientist and B is not has been often used as an argument from authority. For instance, a usual argument about climate change is that many scientists agree on it, while a majority of "deniers" are not scientists.
This kind of argument is, of course, fallacious. One non-scientist can be right while many scientists are not. Argument from authority does not work in scientific matters.
On the other hand, if you are discussing the minutiae of some scientific field (let us say, the net feedback effect of clouds on climate sensitivity), and assuming we do not have as yet a definite scientific conclusion on the issue, the expert opinions of specialized scientists may have more weight than the non-expert opinions of lay people, just as the opinion of a heart-surgeon is more important than the opinion of a hospital janitor on the probable success of a heart surgical intervention (but be reminded of the crucial role a former hospital janitor that had become lab assistant played in the development of the first open-heart surgical procedures).

Apart from serving as an informal quip, the quote about Watts and Gore is no valid argument, just as no valid argument can be based on the fact that climate scientists support climate projections based on climate models of their own designing, which are beyond the cognitive powers of political activists against carbon taxes.

The actual debate about climate is not about the statement that greenhouse gases warm the atmosphere, and that more greenhouse gases would warm it further. The actual debates are of a much more sophisticated kind, and happen mostly among scientists (even citizen self-taught scientists in some cases). It revolves about the properties of bristlecone pine tree-rings as temperature proxies, the algorithm for selecting or discarding specific tree-ring chronologies in a calibration exercise, the precise influence of station siting on the trends of measured temperatures since 1880, the signal-noise ratio in ENSO trends for past decades and centuries, and so on.
Political activists of every stripe in climate policy matters, from Al Gore to, say, Lord Monckton, have full freedom of speech, but the above questions are better debated in a more sedate atmosphere, by experts armed with solid physical theory and solid empirical facts rather than with invective, and be evaluated on the basis of scientific rather than rhetorical criteria.

Mathis Hampel said...

"Argument from authority does not work in scientific matters."

I m not sure. Why do I believe some over other scientists' statements? Why do scientists believe some over other results/calculations/models... prefer some over other standards? Maybe the question to ask is why some scientists and their results/calculations/models, are deemed authoritative while others are not. Is it image, rhetoric, ideology...didn't a "retired engineer" recently challenge a lead author of the IPCC because of the latter's affiliation to Greenpeace?


Hector M. said...

authority arguments are surely used, but they have no scientific value. The example about the Greenpeace affiliation of an IPCC author is not an appellation to authority, but an argument about compliance with the mandate of the IPCC to convey the state of the science without advocating specific policies: therefore, it was probably a warning about possible biases of the concerned author (whom I know nothing about) and not about his/her scientific authority.

The problem about the trust or confidence that lay people should put on the words of scientists is quite a different matter, and not confined to science. Trust or confidence is a necessary ingredient of social exchange, not only in science but also in politics, commerce, marriage and many other spheres of life (you entrust your child to a day care centre, or your health to a surgeon, or your money to a bank, in the belief that they are knowledgeable and honest, whatever basis --or lack thereof-- you may have to trust them). Trust as a social phenomenon is usually based on custom, norms, external signs, reputation, past experience and other similar reasons.

And of course trust can be betrayed from time to time. People may also try to hide facts about their betrayal of trust. All of us should be vigilant in this regard, but all this has no bearing on the scientific validity of any claim made by the person you trust or distrust.

In matters climatological, trust in climate scientists has been shaken by several episodes, most notably lack of transparency in the internal IPCC process (as evaluated by the Inter-Academy Council under request from the UN Secretary General) and also the perceived reluctance on the part of some climate scientists to archive or disclose their data, methods, algorithms and procedures. Also by the evident allegiance of some scientists to some specific policy advocacy. Just as tobacco industry insiders should not be included in a WHO committee about the dangers of smoking, windmill industry insiders should not be involved in a UN body evaluating the convenience of adopting windmills for energy generation, nor should oil industry insiders been included in the UN assessment of the effects of fossil fuels upon climate.

This is not equivalent to say that they would be automatically wrong in their advice: they might be honest even if they have worked for some particular industry or lobby. It is more a matter of being above suspicion: as the old saying goes, the wife of Caesar must be honest, but must also look honest.

Thus climate scientists in the IPCC should not only be honest but be clearly perceived as honest. They should not all be of one opinion, they should put their own pet hypotheses on the table for open discussion, they should not impede participation of other scientists with different opinions, they should not be charged with assessing their own work or the work of their close associates, and so on. Everybody would benefit.

Mathis Hampel said...

I agree with you that trust is a condition for social exchange such as knowledge. Also I agree with your last paragraph.

The point about the IPCC author(ity) - I read this story on Watts' blog - is that (image, rhetoric, ideology etc.) shall be kept at bay when doing science, or, at least as much as possible. This is why norms like transparency and openess become institutionalised. Since I dont think that these are entirely new norms I m a bit skeptical about the need for their institutionalisation. But, to be sure, the IPCC has had to react to regain trust.

Now if the IPCC is vulnerable to individual authors' (mis)behaviour - whatever that means - so is its authority - people start asking 'inconvenient' questions when authority is not authentic (a pleonasm?)
Whether the science is better I cannot judge, I m not a scientist but I believe that the science is generally sound and people are doing a good job. Still, the question where the IPCC draws its authority from is worth asking - the UN, the WMO?. I do not evoke a conspiracy but suspect that (image, rhetoric, ideology etc.) matter.

So authority arguments may have no scientific value (some who would challenge that) but when it comes to who we should believe, like Gore or Watts as Werner asked, they matter a great deal.
Venture capitalists also bet on the jockey and not on the horse.

Hector M. said...

mostly agree with your comments.
"The science is generally sound", but the devil is in the details. Few scientists doubt that CO2 causes warming, but the questions are more precise: how much? in which time frame? is it unprecedented? which impacts will it have? And this revolves around arcane issues of dendroclimatology, high-level statistical analysis, and so on.
The question of trust or misbehaviour do not arise because some scientist holds a theory that other scientists dispute: that would be normal and unremarkable. But the allegations refer to lack of transparency, tinkering with journal peer-review, splicing and cherry picking data, etc. And most importantly, almost all of it has been done in oder to "enhance" the urgency of the climate problem, apparently with the purpose of advancing certain policy options concerning control of CO2 emissions.
I do not know, personally, whether those allegations are right. Some of them seem to have rather solid grounds (for instance, the debate whether recent warming is large and unprecedented was greatly fostered by the hockey stick reconstruction of past temperatures, but the methods used for the reconstruction and the manoeuvres to keep the actual data and procedures out of the scrutiny of other scientists look highly suspicious to say the least (I would recommend reading A.W.Montford's book, The Hockey Stick Illusion, for a succinct and telling history of that episode).

Understatement of the uncertainties surrounding several claims in IPCC reports has been another salient issue: Dr Judith Curry's blog, Climate Etc. has extensively dealth with this issue over recent months. The general gist of the story is that there was a sustained tendency to present the conclusions as more certain or less uncertain than they actually were.

Use of grey literature produced by advocacy groups (such as Greenpeace) to give apparent scientific grounds to extraordinary claims, such as the disappearance of Himalayan glaciers by 2035 or the rapidly upcoming disappearance of most of the Amazon forest, have been other issues surrounding the decline in trust on the IPCC, not just on the part of activists or the public at large, but of many scientists who have been closely observing the issues. The Inter Academy Council, which looked at IPCC transparency and procedures, recommended profound changes (not yet implemented, and probably not to be implemented in time to influence the upcoming AR5 report due by 2013/14).
I do not doubt that fossil fuel emissions increase atmospheric greenhouse gases (especially CO2) and that increase GHG mean the subsequent equilibrium temperature would be warmer. This is not very much disputed in scientific circles. What is disputed is in the details, and also how the IPCC core team kept those disputes out of the IPCC reports, especially out of the Summary for Policymakers.

I sincerely hope the IPCC gets back the confidence of the people who have lost trust in its independence. For that to happen, I guess, the IPCC should undertake a profound reform of its internal mechanisms and procedures. I do not know how and when that may happen, especially if the Fifth Assessment Report is produced by an unreconstructed IPCC as it seemingly will be. In that case, the reforms will be noticeable only at the Sixth Report, which may be expected for about 2018. And that would be probably too long, in term of the importance of the issues at hand.

Werner Krauss said...

Hector and Mathis, I agree in general with your assessment of trust and the IPCC. But my post went one step further: what about the farmer who has to make a decision when facing another drought? Give up the farm and go to the city? Go to church and pray? Change the structure of his farm? And who's to blame: God? Bad behavior? The liberals? Bio-fuel? Fossil fuel? El Nino? Climate change? All of it? (It would take a new William Faulkner or even a Thomas Pynchon to tell the whole messy story).

The both of you discuss climate change as an issue in the narrow confines of science. But climate (change) happens out there, in the inhabited world, too. As does weather, including extreme weather.

Nobody lives in average weather. Weather and climate are always "in context", inside of a narrative; they are connected in manifold ways to everyday practices, to local politics, rural lifestyles, to global markets, and to many other things between heaven and earth.

I hope you get my idea: it is one thing to discuss theoretically whether an extreme weather event can be attributed to a change in climate or not; it is another thing to experience several droughts as a farmer who has to sustain a family and has to take decisions.

How are these different climates - the scientific and the "real" one - connected or linked? How can they inform each other in productive ways?

Both of you seem to agree that global warming is real. Consequently, the next step is to embrace climate communication as a two-way street. Or a ten-way street. Climate has to be rooted in society; to do so, science has to be rooted in society, too. Currently, climate science is opposed to society: "He is a scientist, and, well, he is not".

Pielke jr. many years ago wrote an article with the title "Bringing society back into the climate debate". I would add that we also have to bring climate science back into society. The IPCC is only one part of this endeavor.

I agree with both of you that trust is indispensable. But it's not all. Climate change is a challenge to situate science in new ways in society. This will have consequences for the research agenda, for example. Or for the understanding of the relation between climate, science and politics. What about a having a political climatology, instead of having to purify permanently science from politics? The latter is the current state of the IPCC, as far as I can see. The dogma of separation distracts a lot of energies and only creates new "scandals" resulting from exactly the forced separation. Thus, many of our current climate discussions drifted far away from relevance; they are indeed caught in the vicious circle I mentioned above.
Political climatology - how would both climate science and climate change look like from this perspective?

Hector M. said...

the farmer is preoccupied with prospects in the weather, rather than climate (which is a matter of long term average weather). Seasonal and yearly oscillations of weather are far wider than the slight secular trend towards warming; existing natural variability in natural phenomena is far wider than the slight (if any) tendency towards such phenomena being more frequent or intense. In fact, it is through short-term adaptations to changing weather that farmers go about adapting their practices to the existing natural conditions, some of them getting it right and others erring on one side or another due to imperfect information and uncertainty about the future.

Short term meteorology is far advanced these days, and (though still imperfect) is able to tell the farmer much more than folk knowledge or earlier meteorology was able to tell in the past. A farmer in Prussia or Zambia does not need the IPCC to forecast excessive or defective rainfall this coming season.

Of course the climate debate is an issue for society: measures to take, long-term policies to adopt. In these matters the IPCC advice should be invaluable and necessary, and it was originally created for precisely that purpose. The (self-inflicted) destruction of trust in the impartiality of such body would be a disgrace if not corrected.

Mathis Hampel said...

A tentative answer to the farmer: trust whatever (knowledge) authority you want to accept! If you think that your knowledge or the knowledge your community holds is better than eg professional meteorology, ie suits your needs then make a robust decision according to the sources you trust (which can include more than one though they might be in conflict). This can also be "activist trust" since knowledge is a key to emancipation. I would argue that whether weather is due to AGW or not does not matter when making such decisions.
"Political climatology" sounds great, finally a label I would wear;)

Hector M. said...

Farmers have their ways, of course, but I have some qualifications to the remark on "activist trust". Knowledge is a key the emancipation (whatever "emancipation" means) as long as it is really knowledge (as opposed to superstition or propaganda).
Of course it is completely true that short term decisions about weather are independent of such weather being related or not to AGW. That was my principal argument in my previous comment.

Mathis Hampel said...

ad activist trust see eg (behind paywall)

Werner Krauss said...

@Mathis #8 and #10 and Hector:
Thanks for thoughtful comments! I still want to get one step further; as far as I understand, you do not yet discuss the role of the climate scientist (or the expert, in contrast to the laymen, who presumably cannot see the light through all his opinions, feelings, ideologies etc)

What about a tentative answer to the climate scientist (instead of to the farmer)? Climate experts are so used to educate the farmer; they automatically speak from above to those who are not educated. The "farmer" always stands corrected (as Hector does automatically with the anthropologist: Werner, remember, climate is the statistics of weather!).

My post intended to question the position where the expert speaks from. Are there more "dialogic", democratic positions imaginable (instead of top-down, for example)?

"Activist trust" - isn't this a two-way street, Mathis? Would you dare to make an argument for the activist climate scientist, too? I think this would be a worthwhile effort!

Mathis Hampel said...

Werner, t
there is nothing wrong per se with scientists being activists. Though they should be aware that they cannot speak with an unquestionable authority of science ("science never demands anything, it is always people who demand"), since as Popper, hero of most scientists knew that "science has no authority". (this of course needs some qualification)

A clear cut distinction between climate scientist vs lay man or amateur is itself problematic (as has already been discussed on the zwiebel). We draw ever new boundaries thereby negotiating whose embodied, institutionalsed, situated authority we want to accept, the same goes for local and scientific knowlegde. We shall look for whatever works in a particular situation. Localising climate change yet still savours of "top-down".

I have recently listened to a fascinating talk by David Kind, an amateur weather watcher who among tousands of "proxies" uses the moon to estbalish seasonal forecasts. He seemed trustworthy and has been doing this for decades with a forecast accuracy of 80-90%. I dont know whether to believe him, he didn t have a PhD...

So what makes scientists speak from above? Where is this above (the university, the Met Office, the NOAA)? and why are they authoritative?

Hector M. said...

A kind of bamboo called "totora" grows in the waters of Titicaca Lake, high in the Andes (3700 m above sea level). There is this bird in the area that builds its nest perched on the bamboo sticks, a little above water level. Some years these birds build their nests a bit higher in the bamboo stick, at a longer distance from the water, and local peasants fancy that this is a portent of the lake waters being expected (by the birds!) to grow more than usual later in the year as a result of more rain. The birds, apparently, can forecast the rainfall of the next season.

Up to now, AFAIK, no scientific study has been carried out about the truth of these allegations. With due respect for the Indians around the lake, until that study is done their claims are only "folk beliefs" on a par with astrology, worship of the Sun, or other kinds of superstition. There might be some truth in it, or not: we really don't know.

Scientists should certainly listen to these "folk beliefs", and put them to the test, in the hope of finding some that are true, and of finding also why and how they are true. They should listen to them in the same way that they observe other phenomena of nature (the Indians' beliefs on meteorology, as well as their beliefs about the curative virtues of some herbs, occupy here the place of any other "naturally occurring" phenomenon, either biological or cultural, to be observed, interpreted, understood, explained, but not to be accepted at face value).

Scientists would not be scientists if they treat those beliefs on a par with quantum physics or modern meteorology. Science learns from observation, but cultural phenomena such as folk meteorology are not science.

This deliberate effort at "detachment", this permanent intent to question, to examine, to test, to elaborate, to systematize, is the mark of science as distinct from non-scientific forms of reasoning. It is not top-down, it is just a different activity altogether.

Mathis Hampel said...

Nice example, still, I don t see the problem with their beliefs. Astrology onced used to be science (used anachronistically).

A pressing question then is: why should these people believe in what scientists say, since this is what Werner was asking. And since he was talking about democracy...what role should science play in the lives of these people, what social authorities do they trust in, the old and wise who are closer to the ancestors' (like the Romans did)?
Knoweldge and social order are famously co-produced (see Science in Democracy by Mark Brown) which doesnt mean senso stricto that science only works in democracy. Science can take different forms.

So I m asking: do these folks practise a democracy, a representative, a participative one, or, do they hand down power via heritage or so?
Do we (who believe in science) have to force upon them a different epistemology just because we (righteously or not) believe in scientific truth.

The questions we have to raise are about knowledge, authority, and politics, hence political climatology as Werner suggested.

Hector M. said...

Werner, science is to be trusted just because it works. The law of gravity is to be trusted, no matter what arcane or mundane motivations Newton had for formulating it: not trusting it will be dangerous for your health (e.g. if you decide to challenge it by jumping from an 8th floor window). Repeated "challenges" of this sort, all failing to disprove it (at least at the human scale: subatomic and cosmological scales are different) have resulted in people actually trusting the Law of Gravity and its quantitative predictions (even if Newton himself did not have a clue about the true nature of gravity, which had to wait for Einstein to explain it in his General Relativity, and as a by product showing how and by how much it fails at great distances and at speeds approaching the speed of light).
Now, if you want a philosophical proof of the validity of science, you are at a dead end. From Descartes onwards, through Berkeley to Feyerabend, no one has been able to "prove" that science is right. In fact, most philosophers of science would tell you that scientific theories are always provisional and subject to correction and possibly refutation. They are not perfect or definitive: they are simply the best we have.

Mathis Hampel said...

the weather amateur's name is David King.
+ I m wondering how I reacted had his forecasts accuracies of 45-55%. Maybe he wouldnt have been invited (by the Royal Met Soc).
So we shall not forget to power of numbers in these debates since they are never neutral.

Hector M. said...

Correction: My comment of July 1, 2011 5:30 PM was wrongly addressed to Werner: it should have been addressed to Mathis.

Mathis Hampel said...

#Hector 15:
My general agreement. Now what if the bamboo-birds-weather-story works for these folks. I guess they wouldnt believe in it if it had not worked - whatever "works" may mean in their life context.

Hector M. said...

Mathis 18: It may "work". We simply do not know at the moment. The same indians also believe other things (e.g. that smoking a pregnant woman's womb with the smoke of coca leaves would cause the fetus to reposition itself in the uterus, thus avoiding the need of caesarean section) which are patently false. They also believe that publicly parading an image of the Virgin Mary through the village at certain times of the year will bring more rainfall. That has also not been proved right up to now. The birds' story looks promisingly credible, and there might be some truth to it, who knows. Somebody should get a grant and study it over a number of years. Only nobody did up to now.

Mathis Hampel said...

Hector, this sounds like seasonal weather forecasts by the Met Office (or better climate models): they may "work"
Maybe these folks want to come to the Met Office to study our beliefs, (if they were a colonial power).
I suggest that we should be more careful when dealing with other epistemologies, not simply dismissing them as superstitious.

Werner Krauss said...

While we had for a moment outlined the different approaches with the example of the bamboo birds, we have now have to take care not to ask the wrong questions.

The "who is wrong and who is right" question is not always a valid one when we also consider the co-construction of knowledge and society. The scientist does not speak truth from nowhere; he or she is also constructing a social difference, simultaneously. He does so in asking the wrong question in the wrong moment. Why use the bamboo birds that our knowledge is superior? Why at all demonstrate that "we" are superior?

As an alternative, Mathis suggested the activist-scientist model. The role of the activist-scientist is indeed to share the problems of the Indios; both scientist and Indios searching for better ways to adapt to the environment, to design it, to improve life conditions in a sustainable way under the conditions of a changing climate.

The problem are not the bamboo birds; the problem is high water, agriculture, housing, dwelling, whatever. Instead of top-down education about bamboo birds, the scientist has to gain trust in a world and society that might be foreign to him. The scientist should not stare at the strange beliefs of the natives; instead, he should find common ground in a differently interpreted environment (commitment?)

It is perfectly possible for people to both believe in what hector calls "superstition" and to do the right thing anyway. By the way, "we" are not that different. For example, Evo Morales never will cease to remind us super-rational scientists that it is our culture which emits greenhouse gases as if there were no tomorrow...

Hector M. said...

Mathis, you will feel happy reading Feyerabend, David Bloor, Andrew Pickering and Michel Foucault. Highly recommended for relativistic views of reality, but strongly not recommended for application in practice. I suppose you are a strong "believer" in orthodox science in your daily life: you look for incoming traffic when crossing the street, you trust the airline pilot and the physics applied by Boeing and Airbus to the design of aircraft, you expect projectiles thrown at you to follow the trajectories predicted by mainstream Physics, and you go to the doctor (not the relativist philosopher or the witch) when you feel ill. When you get to conclusions, you do it through orthodox deductive logic, not through "other logics". Even Andean Indians or Tibetan monks go about their lives by the same principles. One can entertain "other epistemologies" in theory, for idle chat with other people enchanted by that kind of talk, but nobody actually acts according to those "other" epistemologies, or guided by "other" logics as dictated by relativist philosophy. Those who attempt to do it, do it at their peril.

Hector M. said...

Werner, how trust is bestowed on some people in certain societies is a worthy topic of study, but has nothing to do with the validity of the utterances of those people upon whom trust is bestowed. Priests have been in high regard for ages, with that high regard not contributing a tiny iota to the validity of their claims on the supernatural. Even the priests themselves probably acted in the mundane parts of their daily lives (eating, finding their way in the street, avoiding immediate physical danger und so weiter) just (more or less) like you or me. Contemporary priests do go to the MD, rather than the demonologist, to cure their flu or to get rid of their kidney stones, and they drive their cars according to modern engineering and Physics, not leaving the driving wheel loose in the trust that God will guide the vehicle to its rightful destination.

Mathis Hampel said...

Well, thank you for a nice discussion, I appreciate it.
I think Werner sums it up nicely and, Hector, since you ask for my beliefs, I m a scientific realist and a cultural realtivist but what I m most concerned with is politics. I have my own interpretations of Foucault and Feyerabend (havent read Bloor nor Pickering) and came to different conclusions. Relativism and realism dont work without each other. And this is what democracy is arguably about: a possibility to disagree.
I m not saying that I m right, I m only a student, I dont have a PhD.


Hector M. said...

Mathis, happy to learn we agree (though I am not sure we actually do).
For myself, I have been a cultural relativist like you for all my adult years since my first courses in sociology at the tender age of 18, but with age I have come to relativize my cultural relativism as well. For instance, I have come to lack respect for the value of genital mutilation of girls in Northeast Africa, or for the treatment of women according to the age-old Pashtunwali, the moral code of the Pashtun in Afghanistan. No matter how venerable those cultural traits may be, I regard them as horrendous, and not worthy of any respect. Likewise I think Jehovah witnesses do themselves (and their children!!) a disservice by rejecting blood transfusions, and many devout evangelicals in the US do more or less the same or worse by refusing vaccinations. To some extent, just as I have a very limited relativism about science, I have developed limits for my cultural relativism as well: in these regards I am a shameless defender of Western Enlightenment values. Should I repent from this politically incorrect Cultural Absolutism and return to bland relativism in the above matters? I think I shouldn't.

Werner Krauss said...

Hector, what happened to you?

Somehow, you lost track of our discussion. It seems like you faced your own fear when you looked into the mirror of the others.

Nobody wants to take away your science. You suggest that Mathis "believes" in science, too. I am not sure, but science is not a belief system. It's a tool. Once you turn it into a religion, things get difficult.

This was the very starting point of our discussion. I suggest not to compare who is right or wrong - scientist or layperson, which is the better epistemology etc.

Instead, we should figure out how we can live better. That's a pragmatic question, not one of science versus the rest of the world (and even versus yourself and your inner feelings).

Hector M. said...

Werner, the discussion has drifted probably far away from its original purpose.
I am the last person to think that science is a "belief", but the discussion (as per Mathis's contributions) has been on what a person should believe, or whom a person should trust, in matters of scientific import. I responded (clearly enough, I think) that being trusted is not equivalent to saying anything that is scientifically valid (my example was that priests have been highly regarded for years, as have been astrologers and others). Whom to trust and why is one question; what is scientifically valid is quite another.
My latest comments about moral or cultural relativism were motivated by a previous comment, and have no bearing on the rest of the conversation. What I wanted to stress is that even in cultural matters, relativism is not a coherent position, much less on scientific or epistemic claims.

The gist of science is in its method, not in its specific theories or conclusions, which are always tentative and subject to criticism. Thus my advice to "the lay person" would be: "In principle, trust no one: examine the matter yourself as far as your expertise allows you; if you have to choose, trust the guy following the most scientific method in the most transparent way. If that leaves you still in doubt, feel welcome to the uncertain world of ongoing scientific research."

Werner Krauss said...

@ Hector #27

Thanks for your reply. Instead of simply rejecting "relativism", I would suggest a reading which is close to Foucault and others. We have to take into account that most of those who use "relativism" as the opposite of sound science, never ever had read any line of Foucault or others. Otherwise, they would have learned that "relativism" has the same roots as "relation". And I would indeed suggest that scientific methods and inquiry should relate to the real world inhabited by real people. The reading of relativism as "everything is of same value" etc is cheap polemics.

That's what my intervention here is all about: how to make science part of the world it seeks to understand. How to make it's agenda relate to real world problems, instead of permanently insisting on the boring fact that only scientists are right and all the others wrong. Especially climate researchers have a tendency "to act as if purely scientific values are, and will always be, adequate to set the agenda." (nature editorial, vol 473). But to make climate research useful, public participation is indispensable. Climate science has to relate to the world of the Indios or whoever. Doing so - relating to something outside of science - indeed will have dramatic consequences for the self-understanding of science.

Just to simply ignore all the cultural methodology and reject its terminology means becoming more and more irrelevant. Climate research is on a good way to become irrelevant. Even more so, as its knowledge of climate is full of uncertainty. Climate science is not what it sometimes pretends to be. It's not speaking truth to public; instead, it's part of an ongoing public conversation, and it should learn how to fit into this role in order to stay relevant. It's not enough anymore to say "he's wrong, because he is not a scientist". Otherwise people will say some day "don't listen, he's only a scientist".

So here again my still unanswered question: What were your advice to the scientist (and not the layperson)?

Hector M. said...

Werner, unfortunately I have not the time to pursue all the ramifications here. Just let me see the following:
1. Climate science, if anything, has been TOO MUCH related to people and agendas outside science. At the moment what has been requested by critics is just more devotion to science as such: sound methods, replicability, hard data, and the like.
2. As a social scientist I am only too aware of the influence of social realities (including ideologies) in the work of scientists. I am also aware of the (imperfect) mechanisms erected by the scientific tradition since the 17th century to reduce those influences to a minimum in the making of science (open data, replicability, criticism, peer review, and so on). Most of the issues about climate science touch upon those methodological matters and the interference of policy and ideology agendas in the making of science.
3. My advise to (climate) scientists would simply be: stick to the scientific method when making science. Do not allow your personal preferences (or ideological/policy agendas) to interfere. Open your work to honest scientific criticism from outside your team or clique of related researchers. Point out yourself the weaknesses of your positions, models and hypotheses. Try hard to refute your conclusions, and to expose them to opposite (scientific) views before going public with them.
4. Paying attention to the needs of the people is usually a motivation of (some) scientists, most notably in medicine. In other fields this is of minor or no importance (e.g. theoretical Physics, cosmology, paleontology). Paying attention to people's needs is not equivalent to paying attention to their opinions or beliefs: evolutionary biology would not progress by taking into account the religious fears of creationists; climate science would not progress if its foremost preoccupation is to advance certain policies on emission reductions at the next round of climate negotiations. Scientists need have the courage to say, as Galileo couldn't, "and yet it is not so" even in the presence of overwhelming social consensus or political pressure.
5. The so-called "science wars" of the 1980s and 1990s have, fortunately, decreased in intensity in recent years. Notions that science is just one discourse among others, that objective reality has little to do with it, that it is all about influence and power, have done a lot of damage already without resurrecting post-modernist relativism about the epistemic value of science. If one chooses to interpret the word "relativism" just to mean that everything including science has some kind of "relationships" with everything else, the word becomes irrelevant in its trite generality. Climate science is already too compromised by the allegiance of many of its practitioners to policy agendas, to be further complicated by post modernist views whereby the epistemic validity of scientific claims depends upon their relevance to society or on the way science is coveyed by scientists to the people in the street or the powerful in their palaces.

Hans Erren said...

Thanks for debating my quote.

It is proven fact that IPCC cherrypicks from the available literature to construct a "consensus". Due to lack of glasnost this probably will not be eradicated in the next report.

What Werner is pleading: "bring climate sciene back to society", well, as far as I know it is already here, it needs to go back to university!

And then: Study, study, publish, SHOW YOUR WORK, don't hide the uncertainties, and debate the results with your opponents, not with yor mates. Don't preach, be nice.

Schneider said it:
"On the one hand, as scientists we are ethically bound to the scientific method, in effect promising to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but — which means that we must include all the doubts, the caveats, the ifs, ands, and buts. On the other hand..."

The other hand? The other hand is not science.

Hans von Storch said...

Werner/28 -
in short, the question is: What are the perspectives of scientists, who find themselves immersed in post-normal conditions? How to maintain scientific integrity (which has something to do with methodology, maybe Merton's ideals are helpful as guiding principles), how to maintain providing a useful societal service, which provides "understanding" (Deutung) of complex phenomena and perspectives)?

Werner Krauss said...

@Hans #31
Well, Hans, the first question is fine, but there have already been 30 comments in between. We don't have to start from scratch again. In the discussion with Mathis and Hector, we have gone already a long way.

I have stated in a recent answer to Hector that fear is a problem. The scientist tends to face his or her own fears when getting into contact with "the other". Just like a little girl who is afraid to ruin her Sunday skirt, the scientist is afraid to lose his science when getting into contact with other people. Ain't that a really strange fantasy? Insisting on "scientific integrity" in this specific context is an attempt to avoid or to annihilate the contact with non-scientists. Like having to wash hands or clean the white coat immediately after contact. As if contact were a virus that weakens by magic the scientific integrity. Just as in Joseph Conrad's "heart of darkness" the European gets lost in the haze of the African jungle.

This fear is indeed a problem. Part of the problem is that climate science loses more and more credibility through this neurotic form of contact; it turns more and more irrelevant and finally gets lost in its own purification rites. That's the opposite of providing useful service to society.

Bob Dylan once portrayed this kind of fear in his "Ballad of a thin man", (with Mr Jones here as "the scientist"):

"You walk into a room / with a camel and you frown/ you see somebody naked / and you ask: who is that clown? / you try so hard but you don't understand / you don't know what to say when you get back home / because something is happening here / and you don't know what it is / do you, Mr. Jones?"

One of many skins of klimazwiebel is fear.

Hector M. said...

Werner, I do not think your psychological diagnosis of scientists is very scientific. Have you (or anybody) ascertained the feelings of scientists when approaching "society"? And even if that be true, what is its bearing on the matter at issue here? Scientists may be fussy in their interactions with lay people, and people may regard scientists with any possible mixture of awe, respect, fear o contempt, also tinted by different degrees of conceptual understanding of scientific methods and conclusions. All these are very interesting subjects of study for psychologists, sociologists or anthropologists, but not certainly for those trying to understand how science is (or should be) conducted in order to reach conclusions that are scientifically legitimate. If the doctor finds you have an incurable cancer, that is the main fact. Whether the doctor is shy at telling you the truth, or you are loath to learn the truth, or whether your relatives are sad or happy about your upcoming demise, or whether they agree or disagree with the doctor, are a set of questions with zero influence or relevance regarding the scientific validity of the claim that you have a tumor. Debating that medical finding would require (at least) another doctor, who must be undaunted by the "authority" of the first one and by the opinions of patient and family, and must just subject the matter to strict scientific scrutiny. All the rest (including folk beliefs about health and illness, feelings of doctors and patients, and so on) is irrelevant as far as the scientific analysis of your cancer is concerned.

Werner Krauss said...

Hector, your example does not fit. Your doctor has to go into the field and find out why so many people get cancer, where it comes from. Fieldwork. Completely different situation. "Behavioral" sciences come into play. Look up George Devereux and the role of anxiety in behavioral sciences, for example.

Hector M. said...

For goodness' sake, Werner, do not debate the points of an analogy that are not relevant to the case. The same principles rule the case of fieldwork. Some cases of rare cancers appear scattered all across the US in the early 1980s. Soon similar cases pop up in the records, from Europe and other places. Haitians, gays, drug addicts and other peculiar groups seem most affected, but there are also regular guys from other walks of life. Fieldwork, trial and error, experimentation, wild guesses that fail 90% of the time, till somebody identifies the retrovirus (two somebodies, in fact, in France and the US, acrimoniously fighting for years to come about priority of discovery), then more fieldwork and guesswork until more evidence emerges: evolving immunity in Africa, drug coctails that keep the illness latent, and so on.
The HIV/AIDS story is plagued with enormous loads of superstition and prejudice, from born-again Christians insisting it is divine punishment for the sins of addiction and homosexuality, to isolationists blaming Haitian (and other) immigrants, to what not. Jealousy among researchers, superstition and prejudice abounded, but they have not the slightest relationship to the validity of the research. Preconceived ideas may have initially guided research in one direction or another, but "natural selection of research programmes" soon discards fruitless hypotheses in favour of those with better results. 30 years later, our knowledge of HIV and AIDS is much enhanced, but still tentative and incomplete. Even so, scientific knowledge about that matter is the best we have. Feelings, emotions, political pressure, conspiracy theories and all the other shenanigans that sprinkled the way towards truth in this matter are or will be soon forgotten. Compassion, as well as researcher's ambition and corporate greed, all played their part as motivation to push for results, but that failed to make good science out of bad: only the good results endured.

Scientific results thus endure, as long as they are not disproved at some point, or superseded by novel facts and better theories.

In the end, the lesson to learn is the same I tried to convey with the example of a cancer diagnose, even if the example was in some respects a less than perfect one.

Werner Krauss said...

Hector, I like this what you wrote:

"Preconceived ideas may have initially guided research in one direction or another, but "natural selection of research programmes" soon discards fruitless hypotheses in favour of those with better results."

First you relied on "belief" in science, now it is in "natural selection". You corrected and said that science of course is not a belief system. But now it's "nature" at work. In my opinion, your arguments indeed rely on these metaphors in quotation marks. I can't argue against the laws of nature, of course - even when I don't believe that there is a kind of natural selection at work in the halls of science. Instead, sometimes science leads to nowhere or even gets deadly wrong. It's a human activity, not one of nature. That's why we should talk about the role of anxiety in the scientific process, as Devereux did, for example. At least from time to time alittle bit o self-refection; for example, when discussions get out of control like the climate debate tends to do.

Anyway, I think we made our points.

It's like in the days of old, when on one side of the earth clerics discussed whether Indios have a soul or not, and on the other side Indios made experiments with captured missionaries in order to find out whether they are humans or Gods (they put them into water and waited whether they dissolve or not).

Mathis Hampel said...

Talking about analogies and Foucault. Remember Foucault's discussion with Chomsky in which Chomsky wants to get to the nature of things (eg language) and Foucault's aim is to illuminate the history of this thinking?

If science does not progress by natural selection (I cannot see how this works without a belief in God) we shall ask - for the sake of human 'banality' - how it progresses, or in the words of Elihu M. Gerson: how are 'lines of work' legitimised?

Either we believe that the world of science is in fact a revealing of God's creation or following Foucault, we need to go down the trenches of the so called soft sciences to understand why we think about climate change in the way we think - and some people think differently about it. Here science be a player among many- this is what participatory democracy is about.

Lets not have our fear of anarchism stop us from illuminating how "natural" the hierarchies we believe in are.

ad climate and analogies: Climate is very different from eg a photon, a photon is - in Latours terms - real because it is constructed - and depending on how you do that it is either a particle or wave, nonetheless: it is real. No politics here. But climate has many more realities, it has a very interesting story to tell, one of superstition, colonialism, nationalism, globalism but also sustainaibility and our thinking about democracy which are linked to the the former, in particular globalism.

We should shy away of using science as a tool (sustainability!) but need to know its mundane origins. The more tools in our kit the more likely we have success. This is my understanding of cultural relativism.

Mathis Hampel said...

corr. last paragraph: we should NOT shy away ...

Hans Erren said...

I think AIDS is not a good analogy, I think mad cow/mexican flu/bird flu are better analogies.
These were scares of end-of-the-world proportions which did not materialise.

We must learn from Malthus and try not to look too far ahead.

Werner Krauss said...

(what happened to your latest entry, Mathis - I hope I did not delete it by accident?)

Hector M. said...

Hans Erren: AIDS was mentioned as an example of how science proceeds. Scares about imminent perils that ultimately were not there might be an analogy for catastrophic announcement about climate change, if they turn out to be so.

my use of "natural selection of research programmes" was put into quotes precisely because it is not "nature" that does the selection, but the institutional process of competition among scientists and open criticism of their findings and theories. A number of authors have elaborated on the progress of science as a form of selection. See for instance David L. Hull, Science as selection (Cambridge U. Press 2001) which builds on his previous Science as process, U.of Chicago Press, 1988. See also articles compiled by Radnitzky & Bartley (eds), Evolutionary Epistemology, 1987, and by Hahlweg & Hooker (eds), Issues in Evolutionary Epistemology, 1989.

The school of evolutionary epistemology, suggested originally by Karl Popper, tries to explain progress in science through the elimination of bad explanations through trial and error, expressed in criticism based on reason and empirical evidence. It is one strand of the larger school of "naturalized epistemology" initiated by Quine in his article of that title (1969), and traces its origins to previous contributions by pragmatist philosophers like Dewey. In this general approach, science is not validated through armchair philosophizing alone, but interpreted as a real process in which objective mechanisms are at play (including the "selection" of those theories that perform better in understanding and predicting the world).

On the other hand, I have not asserted that science requires "belief" except in the most general sense of the word (meaning intellectual acceptance). Scientific findings are "accepted" in a provisional fashion, due to their basis in fact and theory, always subject to correction and improvement.

Mathis Hampel said...

Werner, no you have not deleted it, I did.

ad "How science progresses": Hector, I have not read the literature you propose. I think there also are very mundane incentives, eg. why certain research questions are asked and others not. Why hasnt anyone done research about the bamboo-bird-folks if there are millions spent on climate science? A constructivist critique on science, as you probably know, does not refute scientific findings but asks questions like this: how come climate change is imagined as a global problem in which science is at the top of ways of knowing, thus being able to correct bamboo-bird-folks beliefs. Why does climate science have epistemic authority? It simply cannot be "because it works". It has to do with how, who is doing it, and where it is done and how it changes the world of those who are measured. Otherwise gods would fight gods.

We still have not answered Werner's question.
I think we can use the frame of climate adaptation and first of all shall ask what the goal of adaptation may be, ie if adaptation is outcome-based what outcomes would be successful (and what success is in this respect). What indicators do we use and can/shall they be quantified, eg lives lost, money spent/saved, risks reduced, social change enabled etc. If monetary cost benefit analysis is the goal of adaptation then a scientific understanding of climate change suffices. If we adopt value-based adaptation the questions and goals change the role of science dramatically. Scientist must take a different more humble stance since you cannot put numbers on these costs/benefits. Science' shortcoming on these issues suffers from its own materialities, most of all, from its 'obsession' with numbers.

I think Bamboo-bird-folks have not been studied yet because there is no benefit in doing that (yet). If climate scietists realise that there is some benefit, that research programmes can be established, that others show interest in them, only then hydrologers come, followed by geologists, sociologists etc. (it is al one system in which interdisciplinary seems inevitable).
And all that just to refute these folks' beliefs? I dont think so, but after having refuted their beliefs there is an infrastructure for adaptation policies which brings me back to above paragraph. If the scientists employed in this process are not trustworthy they will be dismissed, here I spoke of activist trust. One thing should be clear as well: backlash against science is not because people think it just one belief among many, people distrust science because it comes with a whole baggage, of classical economics, risk quantification...a change of life. People to have their knowledge taken seriously.

(maybe Stuttgart 21 is a good case to study since not only "new age hippie" backlash, also it is closer than Lake Titicaca. Just think of all the emissions we cause on the way there;)

Mathis Hampel said...

excuse my bad english in #42, I was following the Wimbledon final while writing above lines

Werner Krauss said...

Devereux is still on my mind. Let's give it a try:

Anxiety plays a role when the object of research is uncontrollable. Which is certainly true in the case of climate. Emotional and scientific uncertainty are hidden behind discussions about methodologies. Even more, the focus shifts from climate to the climate science peer group and their discussions. Now climate serves only to give proof that the other colleagues are deadly wrong with their assumptions about climate. Each statement serves to ridicule other scientists or laypeople; at the same time, each one involved in the discussion runs danger to be ridiculed. Which heightens fear accordingly and the will to humiliate others.

So how to come "from anxiety to the scientific method" (the title of Devereux's famous book)? In a heated debate like the climate debate, science indeed could learn from anthropology. Anthropologists are well aware that their perspective is strongly influenced by their own situation and perception. As the anthropologist work with humans, he or she has "to work with the transferences he triggers and with the countertransference he can perceive looking at himself (

The vocabulary is too psychoanalytical? To put it in more down to earth terms: the climate debate is never only about the climate issue at stake; instead, it is always a conversation in a highly censored, monitored and hierarchical environment. According to Devereux, it is necessary to reflect this permanently when practicing science in such an environment.
And to close this circleabout anxiety and method: each statement about climate is one about something we have no control about. I don't want to talk about humbleness, dignity, respect now - you know what I mean.

Werner Krauss said...

@Mathis #42 and #43

I repeat what you wrote while preparing for Djokovic's next service:

"A constructivist critique on science, as you probably know, does not refute scientific findings but asks questions like this: how come climate change is imagined as a global problem in which science is at the top of ways of knowing, thus being able to correct bamboo-bird-folks beliefs."

Definitively a match point.

ghost said...

Watts is a scientist, a meteorologist... huh?

anyway, I am late but: climate science is a very interdisciplinary field. It is hard to say who is a layman and who is not. However, many scientists from the outside failed, because they thought they are better than actual climate scientists and climate science is bullshit. For example, statisticians. There are some who criticized a lot climate science, but they failed, because the criticized only one work, because the did not know the data sets and state of the art. Would they cooperate with climate science, both could benefit. Similar holds for some physicists, economical scientists, computer scientists, etc. There are several examples.

IMHO, climate science must create an open environment for outsiders, but outsiders must show respect. Outsiders that were successful did not fight against climate science, but were interested in progress in different forms. Sharing data and code, more accessible publications etc are good ways. But, also teaching basics is pretty important. I must say, climate science is on a good way.

PS: seriously, Watts is not a meteorologist. He is a pretty ugly "Wetterfee". But, he and his blog are successful, aren't they?