Kitcher in the Sci

June 3, 2010

Philip Kitcher (Columbia) offers up some tasty climate treats in the recent Science Magazine (thanks to Roger for the pointer). There he responds to books by Oreskes, Hulme, Hansen, Schneider, Giddens, and others. There’s also an interesting set of comments, including some feedback from the aforementioned authors, here. It’s quite a long piece for a review, but worth your time. I think Prof. Kitcher does a fine job of assessing the state of the dispute. I just want to add a few things to his analysis.

Here’s one of the things he says:

Yet it is evident that substantial disagreement remains about the consequences for humans and for other species. This is so even in those countries where citizens have largely accepted the conclusions that anthropogenic global warming exists and is likely to raise the average temperature on our planet at least 2°C by the end of the century. In the United States, the state of discussion is less advanced: Denying the reality of human caused climate change continues to figure as a serious possibility in public debates. And a large fraction of the populace believes that scientists’ warnings about the impact of any increases in global temperatures are exaggerated.


So, in reflections on the debates of the past decades, there opens up a genuine dispute about the role of scientists in influencing public policy, with some urging a stronger voice for expert testimony and others recommending reticence and even quietism.

Kitcher then rightly notes that there are really at least three entangled questions: Questions about the nature of the warming (whether anthropogenic or not), questions about the probabilities of certain outcomes coming to pass, and questions about how to address the warming. It’s helpful to disentangle these questions, of course, but his taxonomy seems to me unnecessarily narrow.

Certainly, regarding the first consideration, there are those who deny the very nature of the warming in the first place, so there are questions there. And there are also questions about the nature of the answer to the question about the nature of the warming; about, for instance, whether responsibilities to address warming track or affect the discovery of anthropogenic causality. Many ethical theorists, for instance, deny that a determination of responsibility can rest on the discovery that it is human agents who have brought the event about. (I’m delivering a paper on this topic, the question of doing and allowing, in about two weeks.) I guess I’d also add that there are questions about the moral nature of the projected outcomes, where this includes questions not just about what those outcomes might be, but what might make them better or worse outcomes. So too with the third consideration, which involves questions also about the ethical better and worseness of proposed solutions, and not just the efficacy of those solutions.

Thing is, this tripartite division structures Kitcher’s entire analysis. Given that his disentangling of these questions is overly rough, I’m not sure it’s as helpful as it might otherwise be.

Here’s another interesting claim.

It is all too easy to be beguiled by an opposite thought: that democracy demands that there be extensive public discussion, even on technical matters, discussion in which all participants operate as equals. Those in the grip of this idea will view Hansen and Schneider as hysterical and arrogant people who aim to short-circuit the proper airing of alternative views.

As a putative Habermasian (which means, effectively, that I’m in for a pretty penny with the deliberative democratic wing of the democratic theory contingent), I’m inclined to agree. One might find this perplexing, since deliberative democracy supposedly encourages deliberation from all parties. And it does. What it does not require is the feckless and meandering participation that participatory democracy might require.

I’m not interested in participation for participation’s sake. That doesn’t make any sense. We need to enable procedures that facilitate rational discussion, that facilitate reasonable deliberation. That’s what this is about. And in some cases, this will certainly require involvement and input from experts. Having said this, there’s clearly a space to challenge the experts.

And that raises the importance of Oreskes’ and Conway’s book. I’ve only leafed through it, reading a few excerpts here and there, but it really does raise an interesting and troubling thesis. It’s one that I think should trouble us all: that the structures of deliberation that should give rise to rationally relevant and effective public policies can be hijacked by private interests that are motivated not by the objectives of communication and agreement, but rather by a strategic orientation toward obfuscation and disagreement; that seek to characterize the public policy formation process in terms of strategic achievement of given ends.

Kitcher goes on to say this:

Scientists who believe that there are grave consequences for Earth and its future inhabitants face a difficult dilemma. They can talk in probabilistic terms—typically very imprecise probabilistic terms—about possible scenarios. If those potential futures are to be made vivid in ways that might engage citizens and inspire them to action, then the scenarios need to be given in some detail. Yet, as they become more specific, the precision about probabilities goes down, even to the extent that it is only responsible to declare that some outcome lies within the range of possibilities.

I’m somewhat of the mind that this is not the dilemma that the scientists face, though it might appear that this is their dilemma. I think they can give a range of possibilities, as they often do, and suggest that the uncertainty is large, but that this is an uncertainty that we do not want to countenance. Oncologists do this all the time: they don’t know what’s going to happen. Could be a few months. Could be a few years. Won’t be pretty. Maybe better to change your behaviors now. Nevertheless, of course, people still smoke. so the real question is why? Why do they smoke?

One of my side interests is in assessing the practical reasoning structures that underlie bad health behaviors. On first glance, this may seem to be considerably far afield from climate and environmental ethics, which is what I spend most of my research on, but I think the two issues are actually closely intertwined. If you consider the problems associated with motivating action or responses to climate change, or to environmental problems, the parallels are there. We want to know first, why a person engages in ostensibly irrational behavior. And also we want to know, second, what sorts of responses are appropriate to someone who might believe that behavior to be rational, what sorts of responses will stick.

Chrisoula Andreou has an interesting paper on the problem of the self-torturer from a few years back. Apart from concerns about the nature of preferences, which is really the upshot of Andreou’s work, what I think it points to is the need for climate policy makers to re-evaluate their conceptions of practical reason, which I suspect are at the bottom of much of the confusion. Maybe I’ll try to tease a few of these questions out of the coming weeks and months. I’m now back in Boulder, and now back at work, so I think I can ramp up efforts on the blog once again.


  1. Interesting. To try answer “why a person engages in ostensibly irrational behavior”, I suggest that they might simply have a different social discount rate, which is ultimately a subjective judgment. Smoking is irrational to me because the long term costs far outweigh any short-term benefits. Heck, the handful of times I have smoked have shown me that there aren’t even any short-term benefits. Some of my friends disagree, even though they are fully aware of the long term possibilities of cancer. As one of my friends put it: “smoking makes me happy.”

    So I’m not that it is such an “ostensibly irrational behavior.” It is only so after you assume a certain (subjective) valuation for long and short term gain.


  2. […] reviewed several books on climate change in Science magazine.  I meant to get to this earlier, but Ben Hale got there first and stole some of my thunder.  He even has a snappier title than me. Alas! I won’t repeat […]

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