Friday, October 29, 2010

Our New Dark Ages

Recently I had the opportunity to listen to part of a debate between candidates for public office, and the topic of cap and trade was on their agenda. I was struck by something one of the candidates said about global warming. He claimed that not only is the question of whether global warming is driven by human activity a myth (so-called "anthropogenic climate change"), but that the very fact of global warming is a myth ("myth" was the very word he used). I was struck by this for two reasons. First, while it is true that no scientific theory is literally irreformable and, hence, the question of the causal mechanisms behind climate change must remain an open one, nevertheless the interpretation of the actual data involved in climate change is actually rather straightforward, in spite of what some rather excitable folks tried to make out of the data collection and interpretation methodologies revealed in the whole kerfuffle over the hacked emails from Phil Jones and other involved with the Climatic Research Unit at the University of East Anglia. I say this in spite of my own decidedly anti-realist leanings in the philosophy of science: all data are multiply interpretable, but usually only a very few interpretations are intellectually warranted, and in this particular case the scandal had to do not with the meaning of the data but the manner in which it was disseminated. Charges of "cooking" the data have been made, but usually only by folks who do not fully understand the nature of scientific inquiry in the first place.

Second, and more importantly from a philosophical perspective, I was struck by the attitude towards climate research that was revealed by this particular candidate's characterization of the work being done. The word "myth" is not necessarily, in my opinion, a pejorative one per se. For example, I believe that much of what can be read in the Scriptures is mythological, but that does not mean that it is not true, and importantly so. But for this particular candidate the word "myth" clearly means "falsehood" or perhaps even "lie". But even if we assume that he means only something benign, perhaps something along the lines of "an unwarranted fantasy foolishly endorsed by certain useful idiots in the climate research lobby", the attitude is nevertheless striking because of what it says about the long Western tradition of interpretations of nature as a fundamental component of our epistemological growth and self-understanding.

The candidate actually said, explicitly, "I'm not going to believe in this myth", and then there was an exchange between him and his opponent in which "believing" in climate change was compared to believing in the tooth fairy. (I am not making this up.) The first thing that should be noted, I think, is that there is an interesting tension here. On the one hand, the candidate is asserting that there are reasons to think that climate change is not happening at all. He does not say what those reasons are, he merely asserts that the whole theory is a "myth" and leaves it at that. Now, ordinarily, I would have to agree: in every empirical study the data underdetermine the available theories, so there is always a possibility that any given theoretical interpretation of the data is mistaken. However, usually when one wants to plump for one theory over another, there is an intellectual burden to say what reasons one has for thinking that Theory One is preferable to Theory Two. However, this candidate seemed to be suggesting that it is not merely that there are reasons for thinking that climate change is not happening, he seemed to suggest that there are no reasons to think that climate change is happening, just as there are no reasons (or no rationally warranted reasons) to think that there is such a thing as a tooth fairy. This is a much stronger position than mere underdetermination would warrant. It is, in fact, an irrational position to the extent that it outright denies the very thing that it sets out to assert: that empirical data are multiply interpretable.

But there is a much more worrisome aspect to this whole thing. The candidate made it clear that he actually has a criterion of warrant that justifies his position. He said quite explicitly that the reason why it is warranted to say that climate change is a "myth" is because there is no "consensus" among scientists about the causal mechanisms of climate change. In other words, it is his belief that unless there is unanimity of opinion among scientists (he made it clear that by "consensus" he means "unanimity of opinion") that Theory X is true, we are warranted in thinking that Theory X is actually false. As I remarked above, there is a viable anti-realist view that would be consistent with a moderate version of this--namely, one would be warranted in thinking that theories of climate change are always reformable--but the candidate clearly is endorsing something much stronger than mere anti-realism with respect to scientific theories. Now, let's be honest here: the guy's a political candidate, not a rocket scientist or a philosopher of science, so perhaps we should cut him some slack. What does he know about underdetermination or anti-realism? In fact, I suspect that most folks who challenge climate science would find anti-realism rather unpalatable, but that is just one of the many delicious ironies of the political age in which we live.

What is it about this that I find worrisome? Principally it is the idea that we are justified in turning a blind eye to scientific inquiry when scientific inquiry does not present us with absolute certainty of interpretation. Indeed, in the present case we are told that it is not enough to turn a blind eye: we are being told that to accept certain interpretations is tantamount to believing in the tooth fairy. Well, speaking of believing in the tooth fairy, I recently noticed that Bob Sungenis and some of his cronies have started plumping for the Ptolemaic geocentric model of the solar system (see his website here). Since at least some PhDs in physics claim to find this view worthy of attention (or perhaps it would be more correct to say that Sungenis claims that they claim to think this), are we then warranted in thinking that there is no real "consensus" on the Copernican heliocentric model? Because if so, our political candidate would appear to be committed to the proposition that believing that the earth revolves around the sun is tantamount to believing in the tooth fairy. On the other hand, if our candidate were to respond that he did not mean to suggest that kooks like Sungenis constitute a viable alternative to "real" science, so there still is a "consensus" on heliocentrism, he would be opening himself to similar charges: just who are the people who challenge the science behind climate change, and why should we take them seriously? But as I mentioned above, he does not actually give us any reasons for thinking that climate change is just a myth, he merely asserts that it is.

The difficulty here should be obvious. Science is, by its very nature, an open inquiry. No scientific theory can ever reasonably be held to be an established, irreformable fact (contrary to what Richard Dawkins says about evolutionary theory--evolutionary theory is one of the most robustly confirmed scientific theories in the history of science, but it is nevertheless still not an irreformable "fact" that is indisputably "true" in a realist sense). All data are multiply interpretable, and this includes theoretical claims. Indeed, it is difficult to see in what sense it would even be meaningful to claim that a scientific theory, which is by its very nature a model of something else, is a "fact". By claiming that science is not to be trusted or even "believed" unless it can establish "facts" by means of a "consensus" of unanimity, our candidate endorses a belief about science which is tantamount to believing in the tooth fairy. Science is no more the sort of thing our candidate believes it to be than is the tooth fairy a real live fairy who leaves children money in exchange for their teeth.

In short, our candidate's view about science is an instance of ignorance about science, and yet it is being put forward as a rational, detached, and objective view about science, one that is allegedly free from the sort of ideological dogmatism that our candidate believes has beguiled those poor benighted folks who still "believe" in climate change. This man wants to hold a position of public trust and authority; he wants to shape science policy. And yet he knows nothing about science. Voting for this man would be like letting witch doctors set the curricula in our medical schools. And this view is no longer a minority view: many other political candidates are joining this throng, based partly on the perception that the public at large tends to agree with them.

Does the public, in fact, accept this view of science? The real fear here is that, yes, by and large folks are becoming ever more irrational about the nature of the scientific enterprise. Because many people have been persuaded that science is already politicized, they are becoming ever more receptive to charges of politicization in just about every scientific arena. I do not deny that scientists are human beings with political aspirations, nor do I deny that much scientific research receives funding and other means of support on the basis of political considerations. To deny these things would be as irrational as adopting the view of science adopted by our candidate. I agree with those who worry that many policy decisions that accept and appeal to the data of climate scientists are politically motivated and often unwarranted, but this does not mean that I think that every and all scientific interpretations of climate data are equally rationally warranted. In spite of the fact that there is no "consensus" of the sort our candidate demands, it would be irrational to claim that it is not the case that the majority of experts in the field of climate research think that the climate is, indeed, changing. Many of these same experts think that the climate is changing because of causal mechanisms set into play by human activity. This latter claim is much more difficult to establish, of course, but it is not irrational to believe it--believing in anthropogenic climate change is not the same thing as believing in the tooth fairy, nor would it be even if it were the minority view among climate scientists. It is one possible interpretation among many, and to deny this is mere political posturing. Putting political power ahead of genuine epistemic progress and knowledge of the natural ordering of things is just one sign among many that we are living in an age characterized by willful ignorance and indifference to intellectual achievement and the nature of scientific expertise. In short, we are living in a new dark age.