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. Moreover, 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.


  1. Hi, Ben: I don’t want to endorse the distinction between “science” and “PR” any more than you do. Dividing things up that way just takes us back to the debate in Plato’s Gorgias, between conveying knowledge and persuading–with all the truth and virtue on one side, and all the “effectiveness” on the other.

    But to echo my previous posts, there is a distinction to be made (I think) between the science and the *representation* of the science to policymakers and the public, especially in the context of controversies.

    On the science side, conclusions are based on evidence and reasoning from the evidence. (To prevent misunderstanding: you don’t have to be a credentialed scientist to play this game, although you do have to put in the time to gain expertise on the issues.)

    On the public side, scientists have a variety of choices about how they *represent* the science. The scientists connected with the IPCC have from the very beginning represented the IPCC’s conclusions as “the scientific consensus.” I take this to be an appeal to authority, inviting or even demanding the public to trust the conclusions scientists have drawn.

    Unfortunately, appeals to authority are not likely to be received favorably by everyone in the course of a civic controversy–they will be perceived by some as bossy and tendentious (as you point out above). Unfortunately also, authority is fragile, and opponents need to dig up only a few procedural problems to undermine public trust in the conclusion (as opposed to undermining the strength of the conclusion based on reasoning).

    What if the IPCC (or other spokespeople for the science) started to represent the science with more “fallibility”? That might require them not to claim “consensus,” but to report on the full spectrum of scientific views–to report the debate. I suspect that such a representation would be more robust in the public controversy. But notice also that it wouldn’t be as authoritative: it would give rhetorical ammo to more than one faction in the controversy. This means that the science might not help resolve the controversy, a point Pielke often makes.

    Anyhow, great subject, cool posts, keep them up!

    • I disagree that the IPCC appeals to authority on the basis of consensus. I regard this is a false representation.

      The IPCC doesn’t say “believe us”, it reviews the best evidence science has for climate science. All of its evidence is drawn from scientific sources (especially in WG1), with some “gray literature” where information is scarce. Anyone is free to consult and review what the IPCC’s references say, because that’s what the IPCC’s conclusions base themselves on. It’s not a even proper research organization (ten full-time staff, doesn’t even conduct it’s own research and experiments), so it can’t even claim the prestige and authority of, say, the Royal Society.

      Regardless, I believe the conclusions of climate scientists irrespective of presentation will always be attacked in the current political atmosphere. You need not look further than the constant questioning of their character and motives by the deniers; the pernicious smears of scientists lying to keep their research funds is an ongoing popular meme in the denialist blogs. In the extreme fringe of denial, you even get claptrap that asserts that climate scientists are out to bring about an “enviromarxist” world government.

      • Hi, Lemon Slice! (If you’re still listening…) I agree with you about the IPCC and the IPCC reports–they are good faith attempts to synthesize a large amount of complex research data. I think all citizens should at least look at it and read the “summary for policymakers.”

        However: my critique is aimed not at the IPCC report, but at how scientists involved in the report talk about or *represent* the report to the public. The report itself doesn’t use the word “consensus” often, but scientists who talk about the report do–and I have a project documenting this as far back as the First Assessment Report. These scientists, I think, are making appeals to authority, and so are calling for and even legitimating the highly expected attacks on their characters.

        Something like this can also be seen in the current wave of critiques of the IPCC report. The problems in the report are fairly minor; they are made major by the fact that some scientists (e.g., Pachauri) have been pushing just these items (e.g., Himalayan glacier disappearance) in their public comments. They’re overreaching — they are politicizing the report — and that seems to me to be a problem.

  2. Among people I know, the issue is more that they don’t want to get involved, but to be left to do their science, which is what they enjoy. A good guide to this is the reaction to the NSF broader impacts requirements.

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