March 14, 2010

Joe Romm wrote something on this article by Peter Gleick, and I just loved the Matt Groening cartoon, so I thought I should write something too.

Here is the way scientists think science works: Ideas and theories are proposed to explain the scientific principles we understand, the evidence we see all around us, and the mathematical models we use to test theories. Alternative theories compete. The ones that best explain reality are accepted, and any new idea must do a better job than the current one. And in this world, no alternative explanation for climate change has ever come close to doing a better job than the science produced by the climate community and represented by the IPCC and thousands of other reports. Indeed, the evidence that man-made climate change is already happening is compelling and overwhelming. And our water resources are especially vulnerable (see, for just one example, this previous blog post).

But the world of policy often doesn’t give a hoot for the world of science. That, of course, permits climate deniers to simply say “no, no, no” without having to come up with an idea that actually works better to explain what we see and know. That’s not science. It’s ideology.

This is a relatively common explanation of the conflict, and there are parts of it that I agree with — like the part about how scientists think science works, and also the part about policy not entirely giving a hoot about the world of science — but there are other parts that I think need a little more care. Namely, it’s not clear that climate denial is strictly speaking ideologically driven.

Oh, sure, some of it may be ideologically driven. Morano’s version of climate denial, for instance, seems pretty steeped in ideology. But some of it can’t be explained away by appeals to ideology.

Seems to me that a good bit of the denial comes in the form of competing ontological and epistemological claims, as well as competing views about what counts as good or reliable science.

It’s too easy to discount these views as ideological; but I’m afraid that doing so doesn’t do much to persuade those who are otherwise unpersuaded. By my lights, if the sticking point is actually over the robustness of the science, then the climate policy, the climate science , and the contrarian community that gets stuck on these points could use a good bit of reading in the philosophy of science.



  1. Completely agree that more people in the debate should read more about the philosophy of science. Actually, all scientists could benefit from a general science studies course.

    But as a (former!) physicist, I’m not sure it’s going to happen. The first two years of coursework is already pretty brutal, and right after that you’re stuck doing research all the time.

    Just curious…what philosophy of science should scientists know about? I’ve just started reading about the demarcation problem and Feyeraband’s epistemic anarchy. Also, not to minimize philosophy, but I think that some of the work by Sheila Jasanoff and other STS folks can be more directly relevant to understanding some of the dynamics in climate denial. But epistemology definitely helps too!

    To respond to your main point, I agree that climate denial is not strictly ideological. Instead of describing it as “competing ontological and epistemological claims”, I would say that the science is complicated enough that well-meaning people can interpret it differently. I think Sarewitz has said something similar.


    I find RickA’s comment particularly illuminating:

  2. Praj, the problem with your example of RickA is that his premises (pasted below) are wrong. This is simple stuff that he could easily get the facts on. Indeed, if RickA is a typical denialist, chances are he’s been exposed to the correct information and forgotten it because it doesn’t fit the narrative he’s already decided on.

    “I agree that part of the CO2 rise is anthropogenic, although how much I do not know. However, science has shown that CO2 will rise naturally after temperature rise, caused in fact by the temperature rise, releasing additional CO2 from the environment.

    “So, some part of the CO2 increase is caused by the temperature rise and some part is caused by manmade emissions. What the relative proportions are I have no idea.

    “I do not think we have a good idea of the sensitivity that links the radiative forcing to the response. We certainly need to direct more science to better understanding this number, but the reason the IPCC range of warming to 2100 is so wide (2 to 6 degrees C) is because of the uncertainty we ascribe to this number.”

    • Steve:

      Steve – first I am not a denialist, because I do not deny that the world has warmed since 1900.

      I merely question the projections from the unvalidated climate models – which indicate that the current warming trend (1.3 degrees C by 2100) will in fact double or quadruple (2 to 6 degrees C) by 2100.

      I simply ask why? Why will the current warming trend change – and suddenly change to a higher rate of increase? If this is going to happen – why hasn’t it happened already? I happen to think these are logical questions that anybody would ask.

      The answer, I find, is based on the climate sensitivity number – which is the parameter used to compute the temperature increase if CO2 emissions double from 380 ppm to 760 ppm. I find the science behind this number to be very squishy. It relies on positive feedbacks – which I have a hard time accepting – as I don’t see any evidence of these in past climate data.

      I see lots of evidence of negative feedbacks – and no evidence of positive feedbacks – so I question the climate sensitivity number.

      So I don’t doubt that we will increase our temperature about 1.3 degrees C by 2100 – I merely question the extra feedback driven temperature increase which will push that to 2 to 6 degrees C.

      You said “Indeed, if RickA is a typical denialist, chances are he’s been exposed to the correct information and forgotten it because it doesn’t fit the narrative he’s already decided on.”

      I have indeed read a great deal about global warming, including articles in Science and Nature. So I probably have been exposed to the “correct” information.

      Being only human – I also acknowledge that I may be editing the information I take in based on my preconceived notions – as we all do.

      Some of what I read I simply do not agree with.

      It certainly doesn’t help that the climate models are not validated – which means they have not been scientifically shown to have “skill” meaning that they accurately forecast the future.

      It also seems that everyday I read another article in Science or Nature which shows that the past climate models have been wrong in one aspect or another, or overlooked an important factor, such as land use changes, or carbon black or you name it – and suggests how to improve them. Which I am all in favor of. However, doesn’t that mean that they are not ready for prime time yet?

      Once a climate model has been validated – meaning that it makes a prediction which has been verified by later accumulated temperature data – then I will no longer be a skeptic.

      Until then – I don’t want to spend trillions of dollars on what could be fantasy projections of unvalidated climate models.

  3. I think that ideology can be a strong driver of how people view the science, but it’s far from the only one. There’s psychology: To some it feels good to be the underdog and get celebrated by anonymous fans and phoned up routinely by newspapers, TV and other media (that counts for the ‘spokespeople’ only). Many people have a psychological predisposition to side with the underdog (that counts for their fans). Recently I hear more often that people side with pseudo-skeptics because they are “nicer”. Kinda odd, but if that plays a major role with presidential elections, than it’s only to be expected that it also plays a role in trusting scientists (or not). Still others suffer from what I call professional deformation: They view the science through the lenses of their own specialty, which, if they’re unable to take a bit of a helicopter-view of the situation, could skew their vision. (see also http://ourchangingclimate.wordpress.com/2008/09/25/professional-deformation/ ) Perhaps that comes close to what you mean by “competing ontological and epistemological claims”? And of course some are just confused.

    For laypeople, I think ideological and psychological drivers (in that order) are most important.

  4. […] change based on the evidence? March 16, 2010 Praj Leave a comment Go to comments Ben Hale writes that climate change deniers may not be ideologically driven and instead have “competing […]

  5. […] Praj Leave a comment Go to comments My recent philosophical musings along with Ben Hale’s suggestion that climate change conflicts can partially be explained in terms of philosophy has got me […]

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