Guest Post by Willis Eschenbach
Dr. Ravetz, welcome back to the fray with your new post. My congratulations on your courage and willingness to go “once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more …”
You are putting AGW supporting scientists to shame with your bravery, most of them (with some conspicuous exceptions like Dr. Meier and Dr. Curry) post on some site where people will agree with them and pat them on the back and tell them how right they are. Here, nobody is right, everyone gets attacked (including me), and that is the strength of the site.
Onwards to your issues:
Now, many thanks to Willis for reminding me of the challenge to give an example of uncertain facts and high stakes. Let me try. In early 2001 there was evidence of an incipient epidemic of foot-and-mouth disease in England. It was not at all certain, how infectious it would be, or what sorts of containment measures would suffice. There were conflicting values, although these were not made clear to the public at the time. These reflected the interests of the different stakeholders, including beef exporters, other farmers, non-farm users of the countryside, and politicians.
For each of them the stakes were high. The best-known stake at risk was the status of British beef exports, as certified FMD-free; this was worth some hundreds of millions of pounds in the increased price for such beef on the world market. But there were other stakes at risk, including the pedigree herds of cattle and sheep built up by farmers, and (largest of all, as it was later realised) the possible harm to all the non-farm activities in the countryside. And what was eventually realised to be the overriding stake was the political fortunes of Tony Blair, with an impending General Election which he didn’t want to have in the midst of an epidemic.
Coming back to ‘the facts’, these were to be determined by experts; but there were two opposed groups of experts. One was the government scientists, who generally had a conservative approach to the risks and to the science. The other was a group of academics, who had developed an expertise in epidemiological modelling. They made ‘pessimistic’ assumptions about the infectivity of the disease, and so their recommendations were on the side of a very aggressive approach. This suited Tony Blair’s political agenda, and so there was a severe quarantine and very extensive slaughtering. However one might criticise the government’s actions, the decision was indeed urgent, and there was a situation of high stakes, disputed values and uncertain facts.
My thanks in turn to Dr. Ravetz for providing the example. I now see the difference between his view and mine. What he sees as an unusual situation (facts uncertain, values in dispute) I see as everyday life.
Facts are rarely certain. Life is like that. Science is like that. It is very, very uncommon that we have scientific certainty about any complex real-world question. Despite that, throughout its history science has been of inestimable value in exactly these situations. This is because, rather than being based on something vague like beliefs or myths or “quality”, it is based on hard evidence and falsifiability and replicability. When facts are uncertain, we need more science, not less.
Regarding values, as long as there is more than one person involved (that is to say all of the time) values will likely be in dispute. Again, so what?
Since science has dealt quite well with these problems for centuries, why do we need a new post-normal “science”? How is the example different from any of the other public issues where science plays a part? Yes, as Dr. Ravetz clearly articulates, science often gets lost in the play of power politics … but that is a political issue, not a scientific issue.
Dr. Ravetz continues:
There is another lesson for PNS in the ‘foot and mouth’ episode. It was presented to the public as ‘normal science’: “here’s an epidemic, let’s apply the science and stop it”. The uncertainties and value-conflicts were suppressed. More to the point, the ‘extended peer community’ was nonexistent. Divisions among the scientists were kept under wraps. Damage to the rural communities was revealed piecemeal, and then as incidental to the noble effort of quarantine. Only the investigative journal Private Eye published the gory details of the exterminations.
I would put all of this under the heading of “transparency”. Again, this suppression and hiding is nothing new, nor is it a problem with science itself. Throughout history the people in power have sought to make their decisions in a way that is shielded from the public eye. See my discussion of the CRU Freedom of Information Act (FOI) debacle for a modern example.
I do not, however, see this as requiring any kind of “post-normal” change. It simply requires transparency, transparency, and more transparency. That’s why we have “Sunshine Laws” in the US requiring public meetings of governmental bodies. Thats why we have FOI laws. Not because of any problem with science, but because of a problem with humans and their power games. Sunlight is the best disinfectant for that disease, not a new kind of “science”.
Dr. Ravetz then discusses a couple of issues that had been raised by commenters in his previous posts.
Possible corruptions of PNS. These are inevitable. After all, what prophetic message ever escaped being converted into a battleground between priests and demagogues? But I should be more clear about which corruptions are most likely to emerge in PNS, and then to analyse and warn against them. It will painful, since I will be criticising colleagues who have been well-intentioned and loyal.
Well, despite his warning of inevitability, “democracy” as a prophetic message seems to have done pretty well. “Liberty” hasn’t fared too badly either. “Marxism”, on the other hand, led to the death of millions of people. Post-normal “science”, like the Marxism that Dr. Ravetz followed for much of his life, is rife with possibilities for corruption. This is because it preaches that, rather than following a hard line of evidence and scientific replicability, we should follow a very soft mushy line of something called “quality”. Me, I agree with Robert Heinlein, who said:
“What are the facts? Again and again and again-what are the facts? Shun wishful thinking, ignore divine revelation, forget what “the stars foretell,” avoid opinion, care not what the neighbors think, never mind the unguessable “verdict of history”–what are the facts, and to how many decimal places? You pilot always into an unknown future; facts are your single clue. Get the facts!”
Or as Homer Simpson said:
Facts are meaningless. You could use facts to prove anything that’s even remotely true!
It is only when people don’t like facts proving something that is remotely true that they start clamoring for a judgment based on something like “quality”. Dr. Ravetz goes on to discuss this problem of the vague nature of “quality”, saying:
Quality. On this I find myself reduced to arm-waving, that ‘we all know what Quality is’. But I can say that I am well aware that Quality is not a simple attribute, but is complex, influenced by history and context, recursive (who guards the guardians?), fundamentally a matter of morality (if the people at the top are crooked, the whole edifice of quality-assurance collapses), and of course fallible. This may seem a very insecure foundation for the sort of knowledge that we need, but it’s the best we have. And if one looks for better guarantees of truth even in Pure Science, one will be disappointed.
Although Dr. Ravetz claims that “we all know what Quality is”, count me among the ones who don’t have a clue what it is. Dr. Ravetz seems unable to define it, despite my repeated requests for clarification. I disagree entirely that “quality” is the “best we have” as a foundation for the sort of knowledge we need, as Dr. Ravetz categorically states. I don’t want something undefined (and perhaps undefinable) as the foundation for my knowledge. I prefer to build my edifices on data and evidence and mathematics and facts and replicability and falsifiability and the usual scientific foundations, rather than on “quality”, whatever that might be.
Dr. Ravetz then reveals his aversion to the concept of “truth”:
There is another unsolved problem, Truth. I realise that I have a case of what I might call ‘Dawkins-itis’ in relation to Truth. Just as Prof. Dawkins, however learned and sophisticated on all other issues, comes out in spots at the mere mention of the word ‘God’, I have a similar reaction about ‘Truth’. I must work on this. It might relate to my revulsion at the dogmatic and anti-critical teaching of science that I experienced as a student, where anyone with original ideas or questions was scorned and humiliated. I happily use the terms for other Absolutes, like ‘beauty’, ‘justice’ and ‘holy’; so clearly there is something wrong in my head. Watch this space, if you are interested.
I can see why, if that is his reaction to the word “truth”, he might be averse to science. For me, a scientific truth is merely something which we have not yet falsified. And until it is falsified (as most “truths” may be in time), it is our best guide. For me, scientific truth should be the “foundation for the sort of knowledge we need”, as Dr. Ravetz puts it.
Dr. Ravetz then defends himself against a straw man, viz:
Finally, for this phase of the dialogue, I would like to defend myself against a charge that has been made by various critics. This is, that I personally and intentionally laid the foundations for the corrupted science of the CRU, by providing the justification for Steve Schneider’s perversion of scientific integrity. First, there is no record of the guilty scientists ever mentioning, or even being aware, of PNS during the crucial earlier years. Also, shoddy and corrupted science in other fields did not wait for me to come along to justify it. My influence is traced back to a single footnote by Steven Schneider, citing an essay by me in a large, expensive book, Sustainable Development of the Biosphere (ed. W.C. Clarke and R.E. Munn), (Cambridge, University Press, 1986). PNS first came into the climate picture with the quite recent essay by Mike Hulme in 2007. That was a stage in his own evolution from modeller to critic, and came long after the worst excesses at CRU had been committed. I should say that I do not dismiss conspiracy theories out of hand, since some of them are correct! But this one really does seem far-fetched.
I neither think nor have I said that Dr. Ravetz intentionally laid the foundations for the corrupted science of the CRU. However, what he calls “Steve Schneider’s perversion of scientific integrity” fits perfectly into the framework of post-normal “science”. For those unaware of Schneider’s statement, it was:
To capture the public imagination, we have to offer up some scary scenarios, make simplified dramatic statements and little mention of any doubts one might have. Each of us has to decide the right balance between being effective, and being honest. 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.
Call me crazy, but I prefer scientists who are scrupulously honest, regardless of whether or not they are effective. I don’t want “scary scenarios”. But post-normal AGW scientists seem to have no problem with Schneider or his claim. For them, “scary scenarios” are their bread and butter.
Next, as ScientistForTruth pointed out in his comment on Dr. Ravetz’s earlier essay, the influence of post-normal “science” on climate science does not trace to “a single footnote by Steven Schneider”, nor did it come into the discussion “long after the worst excesses at CRU had been committed.” To the contrary, Dr. Ravetz himself linked the two back in 1990, and the link was cited by Bray and Von Storch in their 1999 paper, “Climate Science: An Empirical Example of Postnormal Science”. So the idea that it all came to pass after the CRU excesses is nonsense, it was in play a decade before that. ScientistForTruth provides further examples as well, his comment is worth reading.
As to whether post-normal “science” is totally in tune with and accepted by the AGW proponents, consider the list of recommended blogs in the blogroll at Post-Normal Times. Post-Normal Times is the main website espousing post-normal “science”, and Dr. Ravetz is listed as one of the Editors. Here are the blogs that they think represent good, honest science:
Science & Policy Blogs
A few things ill considered
Al’s Journal [Al Gore]
James’ Empty Blog
jfleck at inkstain
Only in it for the gold
Other Science & Policy Links
Network for Ecosystem Sustainability and Health (NESH)
Real World Economics Review
Stephen H. Schneider, Climatologist
Union of Concerned Scietists [sic]
We have Steven Scheider’s link, and links to RealClimate, Rabett Run, Skeptical Science, Stoat, deSmogBlog, Deltoid, and the rest of the un-indicted co-conspirators. Many of these blogs ruthlessly censor opposing scientific views, in what I suppose is the best post-normal fashion. We have the blog of the noted climate scientist, Al Gore.
But not one blog which opposes the AGW “consensus” is listed. No Watts Up With That, which was voted the Best Science Blog last year. No ClimateAudit, voted the Best Science Blog the year before that. Not one real science blog, just dissent-suppressing apologists for AGW pseudo-science. Color me unimpressed, that is as one-sided a list as I can imagine. How is that scientific in any sense?
So while Dr. Ravetz may disavow any responsibility for the AGW debacle or the CRU malfeasance, it is quite clear that the concepts of post-normal “science” are central to the anti-scientific philosophy espoused on those AGW blogs, and by the AGW movement in general. Coincidence? You be the judge …
Yes, I agree that Dr. Ravetz did not, as he says, “personally and intentionally [lay] the foundations” for the nonsense that passes for science in the AGW camp, from the CRU on down. But his philosophy has most certainly and quite consciously been used as a guiding star by those who would prefer that we do not look at the man behind the curtain … and that is no coincidence at all. Like Marxism, post-normal “science” is a perfect philosophy for those who would propound their own ideology while hiding behind a pseudo-scientific shield of “Quality”.
Finally, you may have noted that I have called it post-normal “science” throughout this essay. This is for a very good reason.
— It may be post-normal … but it is not science by even the most expansive definition of the word. —
Let me close by saying that despite my (obvious) distaste for Dr. Ravetz’s philosophy, he has my highest admiration for putting his ideas out on this forum. That, to me, is real science. Science progresses by people making claims in a public forum, whether in journals or blogs or other media, and other people trying to falsify the claims. At the end, what is left standing is “truth” … at least until it is falsified at some future date. In this manner (if in no other), Dr. Ravetz is following the scientific method, and has my respect for doing so.