Guest post by Dr. Jerome Ravetz
While the micro-bureaucracy of the Lisbon workshop bureaucracy grinds its way towards the release of a statement, I realise that the time is long overdue for me to touch base at WUWT.
After all, it was at WUWT (with the help of Rog Tallbloke) that I made my debut on the blogosphere, and enjoyed the reaction of hundreds of readers, be they enthusiastic or vitriolic. Also, it was on WUWT that I had the first experience of seeing non-violent communication in the Climategate debate. The circumstances were surprising, for it involved our very own fire-eating champion Willis.
He was responding to Judith Curry’s posting, where she explained how she had got to where she was then. Of course he loathed her for complicity in the great Warmista fraud, and he despised her for attempting to apologise for her actions rather than crawling to WUWT in full contrition. But he had to admit that he respected and admired her for guts in doing a Daniel act, and facing the lions like himself. At that point, non-violence in the climate debate was born. For Willis had realised that bad people are not necessarily all bad. There might even be some purpose in talking to them! From that point on, WUWT could take the lead in enforcing civility in the debate, and I am very pleased to see how the principle has spread all across the lines.
Reflecting on that incident, I began to shape up ideas for the workshop that eventually took place last month. Of course it was highly imperfect, with many things done and not done in error. But what was remarkable was the universal spirit of accomplishment, even delight, that people were getting on so well and so productively. Of course, this depended to some extent on our choice of invitations; we did get close to the edge of the zone on the spectrum within in which people would be sure to be reasonably civil to each other. On that first meeting, with so much other learning to do, it would not have been productive to have explosions of mutual insults. Another time, we could try to take on that one as well.
I suppose people know that I went to a Quaker college, Swarthmore, and I have spent all the years afterwards making sense of its message of nonviolence. In a course on political science I read ‘The Power of Non-Violence’ by Richard Gregg. It struck me as very sweet but quite unrealistic. Between then and now was Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela, Aung San Suu Kyi, and now Tunisia, Egypt and beyond. It seems that a group of non-violent activists in Serbia had used a book by one of Gregg’s followers, Gene Sharp. They had passed the message to a study group in Qatar, and it was picked up by the activists in Tunisia and Egypt to become the basis of their strategy. The rest is history in the making. There is at last some chance that revolutions now will not simply produce new tyrannies. All this gives support to my conviction that we were correct in making the main purpose of the Lisbon workshop to further the development of non-violence in scientific debate.
My principle has always been that you don’t know what the other person is going through, and to return their violence doesn’t help them resolve their conflict of conscience. It’s so easy to condemn the evil ones and try to destroy them; that way we would still have the sectarian killings in Northern Ireland and probably a bloodbath in South Africa. On the personal level, who would have known that the slave-trader John Newton was being prepared for the experience that would eventually lead him to compose ‘Amazing Grace’?
With those words of explanation, I offer my Lisbon public lecture to Anthony Watts for debate on WUWT. This, I believe is the essence of the Lisbon story, rather than who said what about whom. Willis – over to you!
Non-Violence in Science?
‘Reconciliation in the Climate Change Debate’
Public Meeting at the Gulbenkian Foundation
Lisbon 28 January 2011
People attending this conference might find the whole idea of non-violence in science to be strange. We are familiar, by now, with the use of reconciliation and non-violence to resolve intractable disputes in the political sphere. Indeed, it is now generally accepted that this is the only way to achieve a lasting and just settlement in conflicts between peoples. It worked in South Africa and in Northern Ireland, and noone with standing in the international community argues for a different approach to the Israel-Palestine conflict. But science? What possible relevance could this approach have to science?
Debate, sometimes fierce and impassioned, is the lifeblood of science. The advances of science do not occur smoothly and by consensus. There are always at least two sides to the interpretation of new theories and results. Social researchers have found that each scientific side explains its own attitudes in methodological terms, and explains the attitudes of the opposition in sociological terms. Roughly speaking, “I” am being a scientist, and “They” are being – something else. All this is quite natural and inevitable, and it has been that way from the beginning.
The process does not work perfectly. There is no ‘hidden hand’ that guides scientists quickly and correctly to the right answer. There can be injustices and losses; great innovators can languish in obscurity for a lifetime, because their theories were too discordant with the prevailing paradigm or ‘tacit knowledge’. However, to the best of our knowledge, the correct understanding does eventually emerge, thanks to the normal processes of debate and to the plurality of locations and voices in any field of science.
Why, then, have we organised a scientific conference about reconciliation, where we have actually had instruction in the theory and practice of ‘Non-Violent Communication’? Do we really need to import the teachings of Mahatma Gandhi into the conduct of science? We believe that on this occasion we do. This conference has not been about science in general, or any old field of science. The focus has been on Climate Change, and in particular the rancour that has been released by the ‘Climategate’ emails from the Climate Research Unit at the University of East Anglia in Norwich, England.
This debate has not just been about the science of climate change It also concerns policy, for reducing the emissions of Carbon Dioxide worldwide. This requires a very large, complex and expensive project. It extends into lifestyles and values, as the transition out of a carbon-based economy will require a change in our ideas of comfort, convenience and the good life. There are urgent issues of equity, both between rich and poor peoples now, and also between ourselves and our descendants. All these profound issues depend for their resolution on an adequate basis in science. Some say, if we are not really sure that bad things are happening, why bother imposing these drastic and costly changes on the world’s people? But others reply, by what right can we use scientific uncertainty as an excuse for failing to protect ourselves and our descendants from irreversible catastrophe?
Both of those positions accept that there is a real debate about the strength of the science, and effectively argue about the proper burden of proof, or degree of precaution that is justified. But there are plenty of voices on the extremes. For quite some time, the official scientific establishments, particularly in the Anglophone world, claimed that ‘the science is settled’, and ‘the debate is over’. At the opposite extreme are those, including some quite reputable scientists, who argue that nothing whatever has been proved about the long-term changes in climate that might be resulting from the current increase in the concentration of Carbon Dioxide. Between these extremes, the explanations of opposing views are not merely sociological. They become political and moral. Each side accuses the other of being corrupt. The ‘skeptics’ or ‘deniers’ are dismissed as either working for outside interests, industrial or ideological, or being grossly incompetent as scientists. In short, as being either prostitutes or cranks. In their turn, the ‘alarmists’ or ‘warmistas’ are accused of feathering their own nests as grant-gaining entrepreneurial scientists, playing along with their own dishonest ideological politicians. In their protestations of scientific objectivity, they are accused of the corruptions of hypocrisy.
In the classic philosophy of science, it was imagined that debates would be settled by a ‘crucial experiment’. The observations made by Eddington in 1919 confirmed Einstein’s general theory of relativity, tout court. Before that, Rutherford showed that the atom is nearly all empty space, with a massive nucleus and planetary electrons circling it. Such crisp, clean experiments are taken as characteristic of natural science, establishing its status as solid knowledge, superior to the mere opinions of the social sciences and humanities. Where such crucial experiments happen not to occur, as in the case of Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection, it is assumed that they would occur if we could devise them. For that is the essence of science.
When we come to the climate, there are indeed two classic, simple experiences that for some are as conclusive as Eddington’s observation of the planet Mercury and of the light from the star in the Hyades cluster. The first of these is the original model of a ‘greenhouse’ earth made by the Swedish scientist Svante Arrhenius in 1896. And the second is a remarkable set of readings of atmospheric Carbon Dioxide, taken on top of the Hawaiian volcano Mauna Loa, showing a steady rise from their inception in the 1950’s. Nothing could be more convincing than that combination, except to those who do not wish to be convinced. Suffice to say that the application of the Arrhenius model to the actual conditions on earth, including all the effects that could modify the entry and exit of radiant energy, plus the storage of heat in the oceans, leaves plenty of room for debate for those that want it. And the Mauna Loa data extend only over a half-century; extrapolating that backwards or forward is again not entirely straightforward.
Hence the climate science debate is one where all the features that make natural science different from sociology, or indeed from politics, are weakened or absent. And in the course of that debate we have discovered a serious flaw in the prevailing philosophy of science: there is no explanation of honest error. Students of science never see a failed experiment or a mistaken theory; for them it is success and truth all the way. Only those who have done truly innovative research discover how intimately are success and failure, truth and error, connected. And so when a scientist finds him- or herself convinced of the truth of a particular theory, they have no framework for treating their erring opponent with respect. “I” am right, “you” are wrong, and by persisting in your error you demonstrate that your failings are moral as well as intellectual. In the ordinary course of scientific debate such attitudes are kept under control, but in the total, complex climate science debate they come to dominate.
The debate has passed its peak of intensity, as the failure of Copenhagen has taken the impetus out of the policy drive. But the rancour and bitterness are unresolved. There has been some softening of attitudes about the issue of global warming, but (so far as I can see) little softening of emotions about past adversaries. It is for that reason that my colleagues and I have made this unusual experiment, if you wish bringing Gandhi to science or even science to Gandhi. As we planned it, our hopes were modest indeed. We could not imagine attracting people with very hardened views on the other side. We know that political negotiations begin with intermediaries, then perhaps progress to members in adjacent rooms, eventually have principals all ensconced in a secret location, and only when it is all over do they meet in public. Of course people don’t trust and respect each other at the start; and they themselves are distrusted by their own side even for dealing with the enemy. Only gradually, with many fits and false starts, is trust built up.
So for our first little experiment, we brought together people who would at least talk to those we brought with opposing views. And of course, what is essential in such activities, all who are there agree that this is an important venture. When we saw how some very busy people have enthusiastically agreed to come from very long distances, we felt that this venture is indeed worthwhile. Of course we hope that by its success it will lead to others. We do not at all intend to ‘solve’ the climate science debate, or to reach a consensus on whether we must now mount a global campaign against Carbon Dioxide. That is to be left to other forums, organised from within the appropriate scientific institutions. If we can only get people talking, and eventually framing particular scientific questions on which agreement could in principle be reached, that will have been as great a success as we could hope for.
We would also like such a venture as this to be an example of the power of non-violence, even in science. The great culture heroes of the last half-century have been defined by non-violence: Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu, and now Aung San Suu Kyi. They all paid a price for their convictions, sometimes a heavy one. We note that none were white men, and none were scientists. This is not to say that non-violence has been totally absent from science. We all know of Einstein and his ambivalent relation to warfare; and there is the late Sir Joseph Rotblat, who gave up a career in science to found the Pugwash movement for East-West dialogue during the cold war. But if we search for scientists who have really lived out their non-violent convictions, we find two nonwhite women: Wangerai Maathai and Vandana Shiva.
That reflection brings me to the state of science itself. Those of an older generation remember a time when the prestige of science was unquestioned. Science would save the world, and scientists would do the saving. It is all different now, and the mutual denunciations of the scientists in the Climategate debate have not helped. One of the most important influences that drove me to a personal involvement in this debate was a report by our distinguished colleague Judith Curry, of a conversation with a student. This student was dismayed by the Climategate story that had just broken, and wondered whether this was the sort of career that she wanted to take up. We all know what happens to institutions when they fail to attract the brightest and the best young people. Slowly, perhaps, but surely, they atrophy and wither.
You see the connection. If ‘science’ comes to be seen by young people as the sort of institution where Climategate happens, and where scientists insult and condemn each other, its future is not bright. Of course, this negative reaction would happen only at the margins; but it is at the margins where we will find the really wonderful young people that we need. I cannot prescribe, indeed I can scarcely imagine, how the spirit of non-violence that has inspired the political world can be imported effectively into science. But I would argue that it is an attempt that is well worth making, even for the future of science itself.