Archive for February 16th, 2010

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False Concretism

February 16, 2010

Among the many tropes circulating around the IPCC’s recent trouble is the distinction between the scientific findings of the report and the so-called public relations (PR) representation of those findings. Check out this article from yesterday’s ClimateWire (firewalled), referencing Thursday’s BBC article on the same topic. Says Nobel peace prize-winning physicist Sir John Houghton: “Your average scientist is not a good PR person because he wants to get on with his science.” The implication, obviously, is that since scientists aren’t good at PR, the IPCC is losing the PR battle.

Fair enough. Scientists can sometimes be embarrassingly nerdy and naive. (So can philosophers, btw. I don’t exclude myself from this category.) But the distinction between PR and science seems to me to be a monumental false concretism.

I’ll confess to sometimes making the distinction between PR and science myself, but I think it’s too easy to construct this falsely concrete distinction, to claim scientific integrity, and then to suggest that the problem lies primarily on the PR end. It’s a way of kludging through the core issue.┬áMoreover, it’s a problem that may yield a particular set of responses from the scientific community, not all of which are particularly constructive. The response may be either to re-trench and make sure that the facts are as close to accurate as possible (as Jones was trying to do in the BBC interview that was so magnificently bastardized by the Daily Mail) or the response may be to try to shift the frame, to instigate a new PR effort, as the Obama administration has been trying to do.

A few posts ago I raised the topic of fallibilism and proposed that the IPCC and its proxies (like the fine fellas at Real Climate) would do better to acknowledge the fallibility of the report. By this I was making an epistemic claim: all science is fallible. That’s just a fact about science. Anybody who thinks otherwise doesn’t understand the nature of a scientific claim. To assert that the findings of the IPCC are rock-solid is to open the IPCC up to criticism of the nature that is now assaulting it.

“Oh look, here’s a mistake. Guess the IPCC isn’t as rock-solid as some have been saying. Oh well.”

The certainty with which the findings are frequently presented, I suspect, is the source of a really serious problem for those of us who are actually quite worried about the state of the climate. It’s my view that this is a problem for the theory of truth, as well as the theory of knowledge, that many people are functioning with. Rightly or wrongly, when competing theories clash with one another — when a correspondence theorist comes up against a coherentist, say — sparks fly and claims are questioned.

Granted, part of the reason for the vehement insistence on the solidity of scientific claims may be due to earlier discussions and flounderings around the notion of “consensus.” When the IPCC was said to represent the “scientific consensus,” this too opened the door for substantial criticism. “Consensus” is a tricky term. It seems on one hand to suggest unilateralism, but on the other hand to suggest democratic (or undemocratic) collaboration and collusion. There are problems with that, then, too.

No, it seems to me that it would be better just to say that this is the “best explanation.” And it’s true: the best explanation of the data we have available to us is the one offered in the IPCC report. There aren’t better explanations. If there were, they’d be under discussion. I will confess, however, that there are substantial political pitfalls in making statements of this nature as well.

Why is that? Because each epistemological view carries with it a medicine chest of horse-pills that must be swallowed by adherents.

Finally, I don’t pretend to be the first person to say this. This discussion has been going on for some time in other areas. I’ll say more on this in upcoming posts, but I suspect that the clashes between political factions in the climate debate are better understood in this sense than on the terms they currently are now. And for today’s missive, I’d prefer simply to call attention to the false concretism between PR and science.