21 July 2010

Against Scientism


Brian Wynne has a thoughtful review of Oreskes and Conway's Merchants of Doubt in this week's Nature. Wynne summarizes the core of Oreskes and Conway's argument:
Because uncertainty arises in any scientific study, powerful elites find it easy to derail policies by representing the justificatory knowledge as inadequate, even when collective scientific and related judgement supports intervention. To make science more robust against such attacks, Oreskes and Conway recommend the widespread adoption of peer-review procedures, following the model of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, with the demand that the public should trust such a process to judge the proper policy significance of scientific uncertainty.
But demanding trust doesn't always work so well. Trust must be earned. Wynne explains that the larger problem -- missed by Oreskes and Conway -- lies in the notion that science should be the fulcrum on which political debates are decided:
[T]hey miss a crucial point: the ingrained assumption that scientific evidence is the only authority that can justify policy action — scientism — is what renders both policy and its supporting science vulnerable to the dogmatic amplification of doubt.

The doubters' success lies in the way that policy questions are framed, with science placed at the centre. If a policy commitment is reduced only to a question of whether the science is right or wrong, then evidence can easily be made to unravel. Paradoxically, this happens when science attains its greatest political influence, when it goes beyond supplying the facts to defining the public meaning of problems. Public-policy issues always have dimensions beyond science, and require more than technical responses. When framing debates, policy-makers should prioritize discussion of social benefits as well as science: there are many good non-scientific reasons to reduce global environmental footprints and consumption frenzy, and to pursue greater justice, for instance. If the many factors that go into a policy commitment are recognized, science does not become the sole centre of authority and the sole target for opposition.

Wynne implies that trust is built through being more openly honest:
A more enlightened institutional culture around science and policy would foster wider debate about the implications of interventions, and of burdens of proof weighed against social benefits and the costs of erroneous outcomes. This might resemble the 'extended peer review' system of philosopher-sociologists of science Jerome Ravetz and Silvio Funtowicz, in which specialists (including non-scientists) review policy-relevant scientific claims but a wider variety of stakeholders bring further knowledge to bear in interpreting them. Rather than assuming that disputes are solely scientific, opening up these decision-making processes would render their primary nature more honestly political and economic, while giving proper weight to scientific reason and evidence.
As I've often argued, the best antidote against scientism is to open up political debates, rather than try to shut them down.

26 comments:

  1. I would cynically wonder why the British or US governments would want to open the debate when a small number of Ministry of Defence (CRU) employees, and a group around Gavin Schmidt and James Hansen at NASA, can basically control the global temperature record and access to the peer review process.

    They didn't choose Phil Jones' emails at random. He was the hub.

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  2. Hey, we agree on something!

    The issue is that scientism is a predictable result of technocratic rule.

    No matter how wide the group of "stakeholders" the group of actual stakeholders is wider still -- all the people affected.

    The committee, be it of a single scientist, or 5000 scientists and non-scientist, will lack local, specific knowledge that each member of the community posses regarding priorities, costs, subjective valuation, etc.

    The is really quite obvious. The very reason we have committees is that "two heads are better than one", ie, there are things which each member knows that they bring to the table.

    A very important point is that a committee member communicates, not their entire knowledge, but their conclusions and recommendations. It is simply an impossible task for one person to communicate to another all they know. But, we can draw conclusions and communicate those with some -- less than all -- of our reasons for arriving at those conclusions.

    The fallacy is that the wider group of "stakeholders" will succeed in both representing, and in fact being superior to, the organism that would result if each rational actor were free to choose based on their specific, local knowledge, priorities, etc.

    The only traditional legal or moral justification presented to prevent individual choice is when incentives are aligned where the best interests of some actors demonstrably harm others, physically or by imposing costs on them.

    For that to apply here, one would have to be able to (a) prove harm from CO2, and (b) calculate the magnitude of that harm accurately.

    Only then could the options be weighed.

    I made this case in a comment a long time ago, and you mentioned that certain decarbonization initiatives you expected to pass a CBA.

    That really was not what I was saying. I never argued that they wouldn't pass a CBA, I argued that the no CBA could even be performed without the ability to calculate the specific harm from a specific volume of CO2.

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  3. The scientistas of post-normal science, and their political enablers, don't worry about trust. Start momentum with whatever sells (fear, guilt, morality, superiority, etc.) and just keep repeating the message until the desired policy is enacted into law. It's not about being validated or being right. It's about the "W."

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  4. I might not be to eloquent about this - I've forgotten my academe speech - but what Oreskes et al want to do is short circuit policy by replacing it with a bowdlerized 'science' - ie, let us make a science that is 'socially realistic' - sound familiar! - which affirms, via a 'peer review', the objectives as well as yes, the probable uncertainties ( but let us keep them among ourselves) of a science in service of those 'ends' we feel appropriate. In other words, double speak. I am sure Oreskes must have a great grounding in 'structuralism', Derrida, Foucoult and others who believed science is merely an expression of power. They just don't get it, do they?

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  5. By the way, I forgot to say, great tagged video - which I remember well, here in the UK. Hope your doing well, Roger.

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  6. "in which specialists (including non-scientists) review policy-relevant scientific claims"

    We have this, in the US Congress they are called 'sub committees'

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  7. Some interesting comments...but then, this:

    "...there are many good non-scientific reasons to reduce global environmental footprints and consumption frenzy, and to pursue greater justice..."

    Though I suspect I'd disagree with his reasons for such assertions, I cannot imagine how "greater justice" could fit into this.

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  8. "When framing debates, policy-makers should prioritize discussion of social benefits as well as science: there are many good non-scientific reasons to reduce global environmental footprints and consumption frenzy, and to pursue greater justice, for instance"

    Who has more power ?

    All the really nice scientists, who are as liberal, as compassionate, and almost as cool as Lisa Simpson (while retaining her eight year old delusions of grandeur) - or Goldman Sachs ?

    How much did Lisa Simpson donate to Barack Obama's election campaign ?

    Doh !

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  9. anoldwhig: The issue is that scientism is a predictable result of technocratic rule.

    Matt: I cannot imagine how "greater justice" could fit into this.

    The arguments I've noticed in Climate Blogland for technocracy are right along the lines of the progressives of early last century. Surely our modern problems require new forms of governance, and even new conceptions of ethics and justice...

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  10. I'm reminded of Dwight D. Eisenhower's other warning...

    "Akin to, and largely responsible for the sweeping changes in our industrial-military posture, has been the technological revolution during recent decades.

    In this revolution, research has become central; it also becomes more formalized, complex, and costly. A steadily increasing share is conducted for, by, or at the direction of, the Federal government.

    Today, the solitary inventor, tinkering in his shop, has been overshadowed by task forces of scientists in laboratories and testing fields. In the same fashion, the free university, historically the fountainhead of free ideas and scientific discovery, has experienced a revolution in the conduct of research. Partly because of the huge costs involved, a government contract becomes virtually a substitute for intellectual curiosity. For every old blackboard there are now hundreds of new electronic computers.

    The prospect of domination of the nation's scholars by Federal employment, project allocations, and the power of money is ever present

    * and is gravely to be regarded.

    Yet, in holding scientific research and discovery in respect, as we should, we must also be alert to the equal and opposite danger that public policy could itself become the captive of a scientific technological elite."

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  11. Zer0th

    That's incredible. I have read the military industrial complex section, but I hadn't read that. Scientists are now employees, they do what they are told. Normally that isn't an issue, but sometimes it is.

    Yes, the billions of dollars in government grants for computers have enabled clever little chaps like Gavin Schmidt to forecast the climate in exactly the way required of them.

    As James Lovelock said

    "So why on earth are the politicians spending a fortune of our money when we can least afford it on doing things to prevent events 50 years from now? They've employed scientists to tell them what they want to hear."


    http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/blog/2010/mar/29/james-lovelock

    Eisenhower might have said "I will be your last president", but he didn't.

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  12. Regarding the notion that academic peer-review might come to be seen by the public as the equivalent of a Good Housekeeping seal of approval, Steven McIntyre over at ClimateAudit.org wrote these words a few days ago:

    "In my capacity as a reviewer, I asked to see supporting data...[Stephen] Schneider replied that he had been editor of Climatic Change for 28 years and, during that time, nobody had ever requested supporting data, let alone source code..."

    http://climateaudit.org/2010/07/20/stephen-schneider/

    So either climate science journals are exceptionally lax places in which to be academically published, or the peer-review process generally speaking tells us little about how accurate a paper's calculations might be, how appropriate the statistical analysis is, or whether the computer code used actually does what the authors claim.

    ~Donna Laframboise

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  13. Using the IPCC as model of what to do sort of defeats the goal the authors claim to work towards.
    I think that as long as science is giong to be funded heavily by the public the most important thing to develop is a system that holds scientists and the institutions that they work in more transparently accountable for what is done with the money.
    Those to whom great power is given must be held to high standards. That is clearly not the case today. This paper only underscores the problem.

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  14. This short piece is very thought provoking. I found Oreskes' original piece and her various presentations thereof infuriating: Infuriating primarily because of its use of the battle over tobacco, which is apparently a touchstone for those arguing for a larger voice for "government" in personal consumption decisions and for correcting all manner of social ills. It is a poor and flawed analogy for energy/climate policy discussions.
    Another point that your piece raises with regards to "Trust" is who is actually party to these debates. The recent revelations of the use of WWF and other grey documents as part of the AR4 is problematic both because the literature was not rigorously reviewed and that it came from sources with clear policy agendas which if explcitly acknowledged would have resulted in a different assessment of the presumed objectivity of the findings.

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  15. Roger,

    I'm a big fan of Wynne's, but I'm detecting lots of strawmen in his piece.

    "the ingrained assumption that scientific evidence is the only authority that can justify policy action"

    Who actually believes this?

    You say "the best antidote against scientism is to open up political debates, rather than try to shut them down. "

    Again, who exactly is suggesting otherwise? Most climate scientists that I know have long said that the discussion needs to move beyond the science to the realm of policy options, which is inherently political in nature. It is the opponents of action that want to drag the discussion back to the realm of the science, not the scientists!

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  16. -15-Marlowe

    I wish that these were strawmen. Here is Rajendra Pachauri upon receipt of the Nobel Prize:

    "Will those responsible for decisions in the field of climate change at the global level listen to the voice of science and knowledge, which is now loud and clear?"
    http://nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/peace/laureates/2007/ipcc-lecture_en.html

    See also my book reviews of Hansen and Schneider in Nature not long ago.

    The notion that science is the authority which compels action is well entrenched.

    As far as shutting down debates ... you've read this blog long enough to see plenty examples of this sort of behavior.

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  17. Roger,

    Where does Patchy say that science is the only authority that can justify action?

    Also, I don't find your response to my last point particularly relevant. Facts matter (science). How people think we should respond in the face of such facts (politics) also matter. Who believes that consensus on the former leads to a consensus on the latter?

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  18. >>But demanding trust doesn't always work so well.

    Given the nature of trust, demanding trust tends to backfire badly. It would be particularly odd for scientists to demand trust because science is founded on testing and verifying claims through empiricism and replication.

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  19. -17-Marlowe

    What other authority does Patchy invoke?

    "Who believes that consensus on the former leads to a consensus on the latter?"

    Lots of people. There is an large literature on the "linear model" (see, e.g., the recent Rathenau report I linked to) and the "public understanding of science" in which exactly this view is advanced.

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  20. absence of evidence is not the same as evidence of absence.

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  21. "[T]hey miss a crucial point: the ingrained assumption that scientific evidence is the only authority that can justify policy action — scientism — is what renders both policy and its supporting science vulnerable to the dogmatic amplification of doubt."

    The *real* problem is that it's virtually impossible to make a financial or moral case for significantly limiting CO2 emissions as a result of the effects of CO2 emissions alone.

    For example, it was reasonably clear with CFCs eating the ozone layer that eating the ozone layer isn't a good thing. But it's far less clear that a warmer world is a worse world. And it's also very morally ambiguous to claim that the people of today--particularly the people in developing countries like India and China--should sacrifice for the sake of descendents who will almost certainly be much better off in terms of wealth, health, and lifespan.

    So movement away from coal and oil should always be primarily justified on the basis of benefits accrued immediately, e.g., avoiding mining and drilling pollution; avoiding emissions of conventional air pollutants such as particulate, nitrogen oxides, and sulfur dioxide; avoiding landfilled solid wastes from coal combustion; and avoiding the expense of oil.

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  22. "recommend the widespread adoption of peer-review procedures, following the model of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, with the demand that the public should trust such a process to judge the proper policy significance"

    Much to funny . . someone is drinking his own bathwater and convincing himself it comes from a pure fresh mountain source.

    The public isn't gullible enough to buy into this self-aggrandizing, close minded, mental bigotry.

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  23. "Most climate scientists that I know have long said that the discussion needs to move beyond the science to the realm of policy options,..."

    As long as the policy option chosen is not business as usual.

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  24. #11 eric144

    Ike is set for Old Testament prophet of the post-neu religion. Lo, and he foreshadowed the influence of computer modeling in '61.

    The blackboard rules, eh Lucia.

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  25. Does the following still resonate?

    "The tragedy of collectivist thought is that, while it starts out to make reason supreme, it ends by destroying reason because it misconceives the process on which the growth of reason depends. It may indeed be said that it is the paradox of all collectivist doctrine and its demand for "conscious" control or "conscious" planning that they necessarily lead to the demand that the mind of some individual should rule supreme - while only the individualist approach to social phenomena makes us recognize the superindividual forces which guide the growth of reason. Individualism is thus an attitude of humility before this social process and of tolerance to other opinions and is the exact opposite of that intellectual hubris which is at the root of the demand for comprehensive direction of the social process.”
    Hayek, The End of Truth

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  26. I think really we come from a generation that does not know latin and even less Greek. Nothing is serious and yet everything is a joke. To be serious, about what is serious, is our bane and our duty. Your father knows this.
    So, the old verities matter. Somehow one sees the holes in the dress that the young are wearing today. And, one hopes, this is not indicative of all our sprouts. Anyway! Writing nonsense.

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