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Nicholas Shackel, Cardiff University

Climate scientists behaving badly? (Part 1)

Global warming hawks claim the moral high-ground, claim to speak for what is right against grubby self-interest. It behooves those who take the high ground to behave well themselves. Do they?


Data and email exchanges between climate scientists have been stolen from the servers at University of East Anglia’s Climatic Research Unit and published online. Whether the data or content of these emails tell us anything about global warming is not an issue I am concerned with. Nor, for that matter, am I concerned with bad behaviour in the sense of global warming hawks being rude about global warming skeptics. The bad behaviour of interest is epistemic bad behaviour, and on this matter I think the emails tell us quite a lot. Furthermore, the Climatic Research Unit is one of the world’s leading players and so the behaviour of its members tells us something about the epistemic state of climate science.

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The Independent Safeguarding Authority

Anyone who wishes to work with children, including even a parent who wishes to help out in the school their child attends, is required to undergo vetting by the Independent Safeguarding Authority. The politicians responsible say that this will protect children from paedophiles.


Philip Pullman (children’s book author) has refused to be vetted because “It is insulting and I think unnecessary, and I refuse to be complicit in any scheme that assumes my guilt.” (here) As a result he will be banned from reading his books to children in schools. The Children’s Laureate thinks that ‘the scheme [is] "governmental idiocy" which [will] drive a wedge between children and adults’. Arguably, then, believing it right to vet the enormous number of people that will be vetted (11.3 million by November 2010) is corrupting of the relations between adults and children, and is in part a manifestation of something poisonous in our attitude to adults. So there is a broad question over whether the ISA, simply through existing, has bad consequences and  is unjustly disrespectful. That is not what I want to discuss. I want to consider only the issue of the epistemic duty of the politicians who have created it and of the authority itself.

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Economic uncertainty and epistemic humility

In the last six months I have heard that the current economic crisis proves that free market capitalism is a failure. I have also heard that it proves that government intervention is responsible for market booms and busts. I have read that the causes of the current crisis are greed, irrationality, easy money, low interest rates, preverse incentives, complex financial instruments, subprime mortgages, people believing that house prices would always rise, people insisting that houses must be made affordable,  the US congress laws that force banks to provide a certain percentage of subprime mortgages, the capital ratio requirements on banks being less for subprime mortgage backed securities than for prime mortgages, the distortion of mortgage lending by government sponsored entities (Freddie Mac and Fannie May), the lack of an exchange for credit default swaps creating un-noticed systemic counterparty risk, mark to market valuation of bank assets, too little government regulation, too much government  regulation, the government scaring us, the government not scaring us enough,  the lack of a bail out (stock market falls) , the delay of a bail out (stock market continues to fall), and the bail out (stock market carries on down).


Why am I talking about this? Because these circumstances are precisely the kind in which we in general and experts in particular indulge in a certain kind of epistemic irresponsibility: over-confidence in belief. When the stakes are high and circumstances highly uncertain it appears that we can hardly bear to conform our belief to the uncertainty. Paradoxically, uncertainty turns us to dogmatism.

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Forensic Failure

Testimonial power is the power we have to determine the opinion of others by testifying. To testify is to make sincere assertions in such circumstances under which we are understood to be offering those assertions as to be worth relying upon. When things go well, we tell people what we know and they come to know it through our telling them. We all have varying degrees of testimonial power relative to subject matter, to circumstance, to our knowledge and to what we are known by others to know.


Forensic experts are granted immense testimonial power. Their testimony is taken to be sufficient for conviction in the absence of any other evidence. Judges are reluctant to delve into the grounds of their expertise or into underlying disagreements among experts on the meaning of forensic evidence or the basis of interpretation. Their claims are taken to be backed by the epistemic authority of scientific method.


I do not think that forensic experts presently warrant the testimonial power they have been granted.

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Epistemic duty and conspiracies against the laity 2

Conspiracies against the laity frequently operate with an inverted morality. For example, honour among thieves includes the obligation not to snitch, that is to say, not to tell the truth about the wrongdoing of each other. By contrast, the professions have an epistemic duty to speak the truth about the success and failure of the deployment of their particular profession’s expertise, and about the success and failure of the professional activities in which they are engaged and for which they are responsible.

Margaret Haywood, a nurse, had sought to fulfil this duty, but the Nursing and Midwifery Council has treated her as a snitch.

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Conspiracies against the laity and wishful thinking

Most duties are concerned with or grounded in the significance of actions. By contrast, an epistemic duty is a duty whose grounding object is belief or knowledge rather than action. My concern here is with a certain epistemic duty had by professionals and their professional organizations. Professionals present themselves in public as being in possession of special expertise and as taking on correlate special responsibilities. They require us to grant them special discretion on the promise of holding each other accountable through professional organizations, which organizations in turn present themselves in public as speaking for their profession.
    The epistemic duty that concerns me here is the duty to speak the truth about the success and failure of the deployment of their particular profession’s expertise, and about the success and failure of the professional activities in which they are engaged and for which they are responsible. This a duty which professional organizations are reluctant to fulfil. Bluntly, their message to us is often “ we know a lot so shut up, do what we tell you, trust anybody we approve of  and don’t hassle us about them: we’ll let you know if there’s a problem”. Too cynical for you?

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Three arguments against turning the Large Hadron Collider on

In response to Anders Sandberg’s post on the Large Hadron Collider.

The physicists responses to worries about the risks posed by the LHC make it unclear whether they understand the moral issue. They may have the power, but they do not have the liberty to hazard the destruction of all present and future goodness. Nobody does.

Professor Frank Close of the University of Oxford has been quoted as saying that "The idea that it could cause the end of the world is ridiculous." (here). Is it ridiculous because it is impossible, or because it is very unlikely? I don’t think he knows it is impossible, and being very unlikely is not sufficient to dismiss the risk. Yes, it’s very unlikely, but being very unlikely is not remotely unlikely enough and may be beside the point, as, I think, these three arguments demonstrate.

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