Climate scientists behaving badly? Part 5: virtue in testimony.

We now consider a couple of testimonial virtues.

Sincerity of testimony

There has been reason to be worried about the sincerity of public testimony by climate scientists for twenty years, ever since Professor Schneider of Stanford (now a senior member of the UN’s IPCC) said that scientists should ‘offer up scary scenarios, make simplified dramatic statements, and make little mention of any doubts we might have’. So the recommendation is to give us distorted presentations of the science aimed at achieving the political effects the scientists deem best. For scientists to testify thus is a serious derogation of their epistemic duty towards us. On the contrary, we should be able to rely on scientists to tell us the true state of the science on an issue irrespective of the political import. Furthermore, to offer testimony distorted in this manner is to make an illicit power grab, based in an abuse of their role as experts, in which they seek to substitute their judgement of what should be done for ours.


Here, by contrast, is a much more nuanced remark ‘I know there is pressure to present a nice tidy story as regards 'apparent unprecedented warming in a thousand years or more in the proxy data' but in reality the situation is not quite so simple…. For the record, I do believe that the proxy data do show unusually warm conditions in recent decades.…I believe that the recent warmth was probably matched about 1000 years ago.’[1] It appears that this hawk is affirming the medieval warming which the hawk consensus denies. This remark is notable in part for the fact hawks do not make this kind of qualified dissent from their consensus in public. But they ought to.

What should we make of the remark that ‘I've just completed Mike's Nature [the science journal] trick of adding in the real temps to each series for the last 20 years (ie, from 1981 onwards) and from 1961 for Keith's to hide the decline.’? Tree ring series show rising temperature in first half of 20th Century and then falling temperatures towards its end, so on the graph for public consumption on the cover of the 1999 report of the World Meteorological Organization the graph is made up by pasting in the rising temperatures from the tree ring data and then rising temperatures from a thermometer source. (see bottom of http://tierneylab.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/11/30/hacking-the-climate-debate/#more-7709 ) This looks like cherry picking for the sake of propaganda purposes. Furthermore, honest reporting here would have made clear that, contrary to the oft repeated claims of the hawks, the evidence for warming is not unequivocal. It is also worth noting that in 2004 skeptics had questioned whether it was satisfactory to be ‘grafting the thermometer record onto a proxy temperature record’ and had been put down for this by Michael Mann, who said ‘No researchers in this field have ever, to our knowledge, ‘grafted the thermometer record onto’ any reconstruction’ (http://www.realclimate.org/index.php/archives/2004/12/myths-vs-fact-regarding-the-hockey-stick/#comment-380).

 

From the emails it would appear that the partisanship of climate scientists extends beyond science and into politics, as evidenced by the remark that ‘I tried hard to balance the needs of the science and the IPCC , which were not always the same’.[2]  I take it that the conflict here is between the truth about uncertainties and an appearance expedient for political ends. But no scientific testimony remains legitimate once the scientists have stooped to such a balancing.

 

Here is an acknowledgement of the pressures against sincerity of public testimony: ‘The scientific community would come down on me in no uncertain terms if I said the world had cooled from 1998. OK it has but it is only 7 years of data and it isn't statistically significant’[3]. As I understand this, the author knows it has cooled and knows that he would be punished for saying so publicly, but doesn’t think 7 years of cooling is statistically significant evidence against a general warming hypothesis. I agree it bears another interpretation, that the 7 years data is not statistically significant evidence that the world has cooled, but that makes less good sense of his statement ‘OK it has’. Nevertheless, and regardless of which interpretation is correct, what he reports is that the scientific community is so dogmatic on these issues that it will punish even the statement of known facts if they are in any way inconvenient for the general warming hypothesis.  That ought to be shocking, but we have all known of this intolerance for some time, at least since the point at which disagreement was likened to holocaust denial, and have given it a free pass. Now we see the consequence: climate scientists will not tell us inconvenient truths for fear of punishment. Is this is the intended consequence? I don’t know. If it is intended, then this is a scientific community that has left its duty to tell us the truth behind and is in danger of leaving science behind.

Restraint in not going beyond ones knowledge

Few hawks practice the requisite virtue of restraint. As soon as they move from claims about warming to claims about what should be done about it they go beyond their expertise. First of all, to tell us that we should do something about warming is to presume to know that there is a climate optimum, to know that we should attempt to reach or maintain a climate optimum and to know that warming is moving us away from it. But what is optimal is not a value free fact but depends on the truth about value. Furthermore, whether warming is moving towards or away from an optimum also depends on highly complex economic and technological questions, questions which are again beyond the expertise of climate scientists. Secondly, they frequently imply that our causation of warming means we should do something, but in fact that is irrelevant to whether we should do something. If we should seek an optimal climate then we should do so irrespective of whether we are causing it to warm or not. You might say that climate scientists have as much right as anyone to their beliefs about what should be done. Indeed they do, but that is beside the point. Climate scientists have a public pulpit only for their climate science expertise and to use that pulpit to promote their own normative opinions is to insinuate a spurious authority behind whatever actions they support.


[1] http://www.eastangliaemails.com/emails.php?eid=138

[2] http://www.eastangliaemails.com/emails.php?eid=794&filename=1177890796.txt

[3] http://www.eastangliaemails.com/emails.php?eid=544&filename=1120593115.txt

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3 Responses to Climate scientists behaving badly? Part 5: virtue in testimony.

  • Jerome Ravetz says:

    I believe that Schneider’s comments were considerably more nuanced than that; see the reference in my first WUWT essay. Also, Roger Pielke Jr. has made a good analysis of the problem in his ‘The Honest Broker’. Angela Wilkinson knows the UEA people; she refers to ‘evangelical science’. You may have seen that I have been denounced as a sort of Machiavellian type, preaching Quality as a substitute for Truth. But that barrage of criticisms has given me much food for thought. My current (and hopefully last) contribution will be in the next Oxford Magazine. I hope that we can find a point where we disagree!

  • Here’s a problem. Can anything systematic be said about the distinction between ‘minor lapses’, ‘being only human’, or ‘fiddling’ as opposed to ‘bad practice’, ‘dishonesty’ or ‘theft’? As a matter of history, I believe that the UEA scientists were being excused as ‘just behaving badly’ under consderable provocation, until all the information on the blogosphere showed otherwise. That, I think, is my distinctive contribution to the discussion. I called it Post-Normal Science in action, and was then vilified by people who see PNS as an invention of the devil. Such is life…

  • Hi Jerry. I doubt if anything systematic can be said about the distinction between minor lapses and serious vice. The difference can be partly a matter of degree and partly a matter of intention. The questions of responsibility, culpability and exculpation are as complex and as individually differentiated as they always are, and the distinction between assessing the agent and the act is as cogent as ever. This does seem to be an area in which the epistemic vice of anti-charity (interpreting what anyone says in the worst possible light) has become the rule and is applied as much to philosophers commenting on the methodological issues as is is to anyone disputing the facts. Added to this is a general problem in much philosophy of science: philosophers often fail to signpost clearly which remarks are intended to describe science and which are stating the normative principles of good science. Kuhn, of course, completely muddled the two up. In case people want to read your essay, here is the url: http://wattsupwiththat.com/2010/02/09/climategate-plausibility-and-the-blogosphere-in-the-post-normal-age/

    I don’t think Schneider’s comment is much more nuanced. Here is the full context from Discover magazine in 1988:

    “On the one hand, 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 doubts, the caveats, the ifs, ands and buts. On the other hand, we are not just scientists but human beings as well. And like most people we’d like to see the world a better place, which in this context translates into our working to reduce the risk of potentially disastrous climate change. 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 might 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.”

    You can find the original quotation on this page of Schneider’s website: http://stephenschneider.stanford.edu/Mediarology/MediarologyFrameset.html, where he also discusses it and defends himself by placing emphasis on the significance of the final sentence, but I don’t think it helps him much. Admittedly, in context the force of the prescription of the sentence I quoted is a little milder, but it is a prescription for all that. Furthermore, the penultimate sentence shows him to be very mistaken. Most particularly, he fails to understand that his personal political agenda, however worthy it may be, is irrelevant to his epistemic duty. He has our attention because and only because of his expertise, and for that reason in giving public testimony he is not in an ethical double bind between promoting his preferred ends and being honest. Nor does he have any right to trade off honesty of testimony against whatever he regards as being politically effective. His duty is simply to be honest.

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