The Learned Ignoramuses of Climate Science
Steven Koonin, in his terrific book Unsettled: What Climate Science Tells Us, What It Doesn’t, and Why It Matters (2021) writes:
with scientists’ unique role comes a special responsibility. We’re the only people who can bring objective science to the discussion, and that is our overriding ethical obligation. Like judges, we’re obligated to put personal feelings aside as we do our job. When we fail to do this, we usurp the public’s right to make informed choices and undermine their confidence in the entire scientific enterprise … Activism masquerading as The Science is pernicious.
Rarely is the masquerade revealed as frankly as it was in an interview published in Discover magazine in October 1989 with Stephen Schneider, a climate scientist at Stanford University. Before he became alarmed about global warming, he had been alarmed about global cooling, in 1971 co-authoring an article in the journal Science warning of it. In the Discover interview, Schneider unintentionally described the deep ethical bog into which he—and, I suspect, many climate scientists—have sunk.
This essay is drawn from the latest Quadrant.
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“On the one hand,” he began, “as scientists we are ethically bound to the scientific method, in effect promising to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but—which means that we must include all the doubts, the caveats, the ifs, ands and buts.” The phrase “on the one hand” is ominous, but so far, so good and kudos to Schneider. But then he adds:
On the other hand, we are not just scientists but human beings … And like most people we’d like to see the world a better place … To do that we need to get some broad-based support, to capture the public’s imagination. That, of course, means getting loads of media coverage. So we have to offer up scary scenarios, make simplified, dramatic statements, and make little mention of any doubts we may have. This “double ethical bind” we frequently find ourselves in cannot be solved by any formula. Each of us has to decide what the right balance is between being effective and being honest. I hope that means being both.
That’s rubbish. Dan Gardner’s response in The Science of Fear (2009) is trenchant:
Uncertainty is so central to the nature of science that it provides a handy way of distinguishing between a scientist talking as a scientist and a scientist using the prestige of his white lab coat to support political activism. Look at the language. If a scientist delivers the simple, unconditional, absolutely certain statements that politicians and journalists want, he is talking as an activist, not a scientist.
The trouble with scientists moonlighting as activists is that politics and science are chalk and cheese—and the second job can become the main gig. Scientists worthy of the name must constantly do so, but rarely in politics does anybody consider whether he might be wrong. It’s the educated person, the respecter of scientific method and informed debate, who bears a special responsibility to consider dissenting views. And if that obligation extends to discordant evidence, which surely it does, then the scientist’s obligation is the heaviest of all. Yet given his conviction that his cause is not just right but righteous, considering—never mind respecting—other evidence and views is precisely what the scientist-activist can’t do without betraying his cause.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) describes itself as “the UN body for assessing the science related to climate change”. For its Assessment Reports, thousands of volunteer experts assess thousands of published scientific papers to provide a “comprehensive summary” of what is known about climate change. The IPCC’s Special Report of 2018, Global Warming of 1.5 deg C, quotes the French author Antoine de St Exupery on its title page. Translated, the quotation reads: “As for the future, it’s not about foreseeing it, but making it possible.” This is a slogan for an activist, not a scientist whose remit is evaluating the findings of other scientists.
But exhortation to activism is not the only problem encountered by the IPCC’s army of volunteer experts reviewing the published data; the data itself may be far less robust than claimed. Science has prestige and therefore power, which inevitably gives rise to “scientism”, wearing the clothes and using the language of science while lacking its rigour. In an article in the Weekend Australian in October 2018 (“Faith in Science Is Undermined by Peer-Review Failings”), Judith Sloan wrote:
The trouble for the IPCC—and for many other outlets that carry scientific findings—is that a crisis in science has been brewing for some time … The fundamental problem is that the results of many peer-reviewed papers and reports have not been confirmed when the experiments have been repeated or the data reanalysed.
John Ioannidis, an eminent medical scientist at Stanford University (ironically the same institution as Stephen Schneider), belled the cat in a much-cited and must-read paper published in 2005 by the open access journal PLoS Medicine titled “Why Most Published Research Findings Are False” (subsequently published as a book). He concluded: “there is increasing concern that most current published research findings are false … For many current scientific fields, claimed research findings may often be simply accurate measures of the prevailing bias.”
Why can’t so many studies be replicated? Why, in other words, does ever more “science” fail to meet the canons of science? According to Sloan:
researchers have strong [career] incentives to establish significant results while discarding inconvenient data … Authors often make it deliberately difficult for other researchers to re-do experiments or check findings. Additionally, many referees … do a lousy job by simply reading papers and approving them if they [like] their findings.
Furthermore, as Schneider admitted, “scary scenarios” garner publicity. Bjorn Lomborg (“The Sky Is Not Falling”, April 2018) notes:
humans are partial to bad news. Media outlets reflect and shape this preference, feeding us woe and panic. Long, slow, positive trends don’t make it to the front page or to water-cooler conversations. So we develop peculiar misperceptions, especially the idea that a preponderance of things are going wrong.
There is no doubt that specialisation has brought with it, at least in the physical and biological sciences, great advances in knowledge, in technology and in prosperity, but specialisation comes at a cost. In The Revolt of the Masses (1930), the Spanish philosopher José Ortega y Gasset described and analysed a major one. “Previously, men could be divided simply into the learned and the ignorant, those more or less the one, and those more or less the other.” Over the past century or so, however, a new kind of person has emerged, “an extraordinarily strange kind of man”, who cannot be called “learned, for he is formally ignorant of all that does not enter into his specialty”, yet at the same time cannot be considered “ignorant, because he is ‘a scientist’ who ‘knows’ … his own tiny portion of the universe”.
Ortega y Gasset concludes that the only fitting name for such a person is a “learned ignoramus”. Learned ignoramuses populate all parts of society today (I don’t deny that I’m one; perhaps you’re one, too). If they possess valuable skills and talents, and stick to their specialist knitting, they can do considerable good. If they venture outside their proper boundaries, they’re mostly harmless—or, at any rate, they’re dangers only to themselves, their families, students, clients (who can dismiss, chastise or shun them). However, when they become self-righteous and when they lead or influence powerful agencies of government that issue society-wide decrees, they create big problems, worsen existing ones, and thereby produce broad, deep and enduring damage and suffering.
As C.S. Lewis put it in God in the Dock:
Of all tyrannies, a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It would be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron’s cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated; but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience …
One only need cast one’s mind back to the darker days of the Covid pandemic to recall the relish with which “omnipotent moral busybodies” went about tormenting the populace for its own good.
Chris Leithner is Managing Director of Leithner & Company, an investment company based in Brisbane. He acknowledges with thanks the editorial assistance of Toby Nichols