Guest essay by John Ridgway
I’ll tell you what you don’t get to see that often nowadays: Death by Chocolate.
There was a time, not so long ago, when no dinner party was complete without a postprandial chuckle over the prospects of slumping dead into one’s pudding bowl. Now, sadly, Death by Chocolate has gone the way of Mississippi Mud Pie and Baked Alaska, never again to menace party-goers with fanciful threats that belie the delicious truth. It all seemed so jocular then.
Of course, I’m not laughing now, sat here with my type 2 diabetes. Nevertheless, I think it is fair to say that Death by Chocolate was fake news – a triumph of fear over facts. To prove the point, all I needed to do was to apply the scientific method, mastered as a consequence of studying physics at both undergraduate and postgraduate level. A simple body count, a few questions about who had eaten what, and a bit of basic statistics would have been enough to establish the science behind the Death by Chocolate hypothesis. At least, that would have been the case if my dinner party guests had been obliging enough to succumb to their fate before they got to the brandy and cigars. After that point, disproving the hypothesis would get decidedly messy. Besides which, what sort of host would I have been, counting corpses to prove a scientific point.
So what should I have done? Apply the precautionary principle and insist we all stick to the trifle? Perhaps. But if I had done so, would that have been a scientific decision or would it have been a political one, driven by the imperative of etiquette over scientific curiosity?
Turning to the Death by Carbon Dioxide hypothesis, I think we can see that we are confronted by a similar dilemma. To pass the test of falsifiability, we will have to wait until the predictions of Catastrophic Anthropogenic Global Warming (CAGW) have been confirmed by Nature. Any conclusions that one may reach prior to that point will be tainted by levels of uncertainty that far exceed the limits required for scientific confirmation1.
So, if we are to use science as a foundation for timely political decisions, then we must necessarily accept that the science will be incomplete. That is not seen as a problem to those who advocate exercising the precautionary principle; after all, acting under significant levels of uncertainty to avoid catastrophic consequences is what the precautionary principle was invented for. Unfortunately, whilst the principle may represent pragmatism in the face of uncertainty, it can also provide the basis for institutionalised neurosis, in which the seriousness of an imagined scenario can be used as the excuse to replace scientifically deduced probabilities with a fear-driven respect for the merely plausible. The challenge is this: how do we come to terms with the realities of post-normal science without succumbing to a modern version of Pascal’s Wager, complete with all of its religious connotations.
Science and Truth in Practice
You know, I think that sometimes post-normal science gets a bad press. Undoubtedly, when it is sold as a postmodern antidote to the philosophical realism that underpins ‘normal’ scientific methodology, one can understand why heckles are raised. Whilst most of us can accept that truth is, to a certain extent, a social construct, any attempt to downplay science’s ability to counter such subjectivity will not play well with those of us who have first-hand experience of science at its objective best. But I don’t think that is what Silvio Funtowicz and Jerome Ravetz had in mind when they first presented their own brand of the philosophy of science.2
I believe their primary intent was simply to propose a pragmatic alternative that is more suited for the support of policy-making under uncertainty. For example, if one looks under the post-normal bonnet, one finds concepts such as NUSAP3, which provides a framework for the categorisation and assessment of evidential uncertainty that would not look out of place in practical arenas such as safety-critical systems engineering. This shouldn’t come as a surprise, since post-normal science’s avowed intent is to provide a framework for problem-solving within complex, high-stake scenarios characterised by significant levels of uncertainty. As is the case in many other fields, the safety-critical systems safety engineer has to evaluate complexity and uncertainty, and does not enjoy the luxury of waiting for the body count in order to make his or her safety case.
Having said all of this, I’m not sure that the pragmatics behind post-normal science can justify the ‘extended peer community’ as a means of ensuring effective quality assurance.4
And I’m certain that taking the further step of democratization, whereby consensus usurps the twin towers of falsifiability and repeatability, will leave most of WUWT’s readership baying at the moon. By taking such steps one is left with a view of science that is closer to the courtroom than the laboratory, and that detracts from the integrity of ‘normal’ science – we don’t want to know whether CO2 is found guilty of plotting humanity’s downfall, we want to know if it actually is guilty. The post-normal approach may be necessitated by complexity, uncertainty, contested values, high stakes and expedience, but it doesn’t alter the fact that it is a highly compromised approach to the pursuit of science.
Not So Post and Not So Modern
It may seem to some that such aspects of post-normal science represent postmodernism at its worst, but there is nothing modern about the reasoning that lies at the heart of scientific post-normality. Back in 1669 the thoughts of renowned philosopher and mathematician, Blaise Pascal, were posthumously published in a paper rejoicing in the somewhat unassuming title, ‘Thoughts’. Within it, Pascal presented an argument for belief in God that now goes by the name of Pascal’s Wager. He proposed that, when it comes to deciding whether God exists or not, Man is a finite being faced with a world of infinite uncertainty. In fact, since rationality can never be used to decide the issue, one might as well toss a coin. If God exists and you choose not to believe, you face infinite loss in the form of eternal damnation. On the other hand, belief in God, if he didn’t exist, can only result in finite loss (e.g. Sunday mornings in church when you could be down the pub). So, with a fifty-fifty chance, what sort of fool plumps for the option carrying the potentially infinite downside?
By basing his decision upon a combination of probability and utility, Pascal had invented the decision theory upon which post-normal science is based. However, by downplaying the role played by rationality, he had also demonstrated how a combination of fear and pragmatism can be used to make the irrational seem sensible. Basically, Pascal was arguing that one should believe because one has a vested interest in believing. Faced with complexity, uncertainty, contested values, high stakes and expedience, Pascal used the supposed impotence of rationality to justify choosing the option that suited him best.
So, if you’re wondering why your eyelid twitches whenever post-normal science is mentioned, it is probably because it shares much of the logic that lies behind religious advocacy. That doesn’t make it wrong; in the right hands it still offers a rational approach to the adoption of science in the support of policy-making – that is a good thing. But in the wrong hands it can lead to the rational adoption of politics and ideology in the corruption of science. And that’s a bad thing.
The IPCC: A Masterclass in Post-normal Dystopia
Mike Hulme, professor of climate and culture in the Department of Geography at King’s College London, and former professor of climate change in the School of Environmental Sciences at the University of East Anglia, has described climate change as a, “classic example of…post normal science”. He explains that the absence of controlled experimentation requires that the principles of falsifiability and reproducibility be replaced by the development of consensus amongst deliberating experts. In the case of climate science, this consensus arises following consideration of field studies and mathematical models. In stating this, Mike Hulme is not expressing an opinion, nor is he making an accusation. It is a simple statement of fact. The IPCC makes no secret of the importance it attaches to consensus; forming a consensus is what it was set up to do. In a Climate Change article, dated 2011, Garry Yohe and Michael Oppenheimer wrote:
“Achieving consensus is, to be clear, one of the major objectives of IPCC activities. Paragraph 10 of the amended Procedures Guiding IPCC Work, for example, states that ‘In taking decisions, and approving, adopting and accepting reports, the Panel, its Working Groups and any Task Forces shall use all best endeavors to reach consensus’.”
Relying upon consensus is hardly an ideal situation, but clearly it is one considered acceptable for the purposes of drawing up policies that commit the world’s governments to colossal investments in green energy. And if that were all there were to it, I would just shrug my shoulders and accept that this is what happens when scientists and policy makers are confronted with complexity, uncertainty, contested values, high stakes and expedience.
However, one should keep in mind that the IPCC was also set up with the expressed intention of investigating climate change, where ‘climate change’ is defined as human-caused climate change. The consensus that is sought, therefore, centres upon that prejudgement. And remember that “all best endeavours” are required to ensure such a consensus. So is it any wonder that the IPCC’s executive summaries for policy makers mention nothing of the uncertainties reported by its working groups and task forces? Is it any wonder that IPCC members deemed to hold contrarian views are routinely side-lined or dismissed? Is it any wonder that the IPCC so judiciously flouts its own rules for peer review, or the admissibility of cited references? I could go on but the IPCC’s misdemeanours have already been well-documented elsewhere.5 Suffice it to say, when it comes to reaching a consensus, the IPCC’s conception of “all best endeavours” seems quite inventive.
I suspect that the lack of full scientific rigour condoned by the post-normal scenario conveniently suits the IPCC in pursuit of its preconceived political agendas. Once consensus has been proposed as a legitimate arbiter of scientific enquiry, the scene is set for the corruption of science in the guise of science. And fears that climate science is being used in the service of higher ideals are hardly assuaged when hearing prominent former IPCC member, Mike Hulme, say, “the idea of climate change is so plastic, it can be deployed across many of our human projects and can serve many of our psychological, ethical, and spiritual needs.”
Spiritual needs indeed! So it seems we are back to Pascal and his wager; could it be that complexity, uncertainty, contested values, high stakes and expedience are being used by the IPCC as a pretext for believing what it has a vested interest in believing?
So Where are the Anti-Scientists?
When the man on the Clapham omnibus6 thinks about scientists he will, more than likely, conjure up an image of an absent-minded boffin, bedecked in a white coat, surrounded by the paraphernalia of the laboratory. Such an individual is to be trusted, since he or she deals only in data and logic in the noble pursuit of truth. There are no preconceived values or hidden agendas, only Nature being forced to reveal her secrets under the scrutiny of the scientific method. This is indeed what normal science is about. Objectivity reigns supreme because only falsifiable statements are allowed, and reproducibility of results is de rigueur. Such a scientist is not in the business of idle speculation. So, who should we believe? Scientists and their facts, or the right-wing politicians and climate change deniers with their fake news? What qualifications do these deniers have anyway to impugn the scientists’ expert authority?
Except, that isn’t what the real debate is about. In most cases, science is a commercially funded enterprise, undertaken by individuals who are paid to get results that matter to their patrons. Even in academia, the success of a scientist’s career is largely determined by the revenue generated for his or her parent institution, resulting from the prestige of published papers and citations. Increasingly, policy-makers look towards such scientists for the evidence that can be used to support their favoured policy. And when they do so, the scientists concerned are often dealing with problems beset with complexity, uncertainty, contested values, high stakes and expedience. This is a heady cocktail, forcing them to resort to conclusions supported by decision theory rather than by hypotheses that pass the tests of falsifiability and reproducibility. Now the borderline between science and advocacy becomes blurred, and there is quite enough partisan speculation abroad for any right-minded sceptic to question.
Under such circumstances, questioning the CAGW hypothesis cannot be labelled as anti-scientific; it is simply justified scepticism taken to its logical conclusion. However, the media have successfully demonised the sceptics’ position largely by selling the IPCC’s work as an example of science in its finest tradition. The IPCC is responsible for generating this impression since it partakes in a particular brand of politically corrupted post-normal science, in which uncertainties are often censored and replaced with statements of certitude that no self-respecting post-normal scientist would endorse. Reasonable climate sceptics are not anti-normal science or even anti-post-normal science, but they are against the mis-selling of the latter as the former. The real anti-scientists are the IPCC policy makers who oversee the gruelling, last-minute, all-night, summary-writing sessions during which any hint of scientific post-normality is removed prior to the summaries being issued for the consumption of the unwitting public.
In summary, the IPCC scientists conduct post-normal science but the IPCC portrays their work as the ‘normal’ science that the lay public holds in such high regard. This is disingenuous. CAGW sceptics are not anti-science, but they are against such duplicity. I’ll grant you that the Death by Carbon Dioxide hypothesis has more science behind it than Death by Chocolate, but it is still only post-normal science, and post-normal science is the sort of science that is settled when the policy-makers say so. Some would say, therefore, that the IPCC’s politicking is the true face of anti-science.
1 By ‘confirmation’, I really mean a convincing failure to falsify.
2 See, for example, Funtowicz, S. and Ravetz, J., 1993. “Science for the post-normal age“, Futures, 31(7): 735-755.
3 NUSAP is a notational system used in the management and communication of uncertainty when dealing with science used to support policy. The acronym stands for: Numeral, Unit, Spread, Assessment, Pedigree. For more information, see NUSAP net.
4 The internet may be a rich source of erudite critique but it is also infested with fake news and ill-informed diatribe, so much so that it is no longer seen by some as an open forum for healthy debate. In a recent article published by Wired a number of experts were asked what they thought was needed to ‘fix’ the internet. Sir Tim Berners-Lee advised that, “It’s about re-establishing facts, which means re-establishing data and science as the basis for democracy”. This doesn’t sound like a ringing endorsement of the current state of affairs.
5 See, for example, the Inter Academy Council (IAC) audit of 2010. Read it at your leisure, but I draw your attention to the following two findings:
“Review Editors do not fully use their authority to ensure that review comments receive appropriate consideration by Lead Authors and that controversial issues are reflected adequately in the report”.
“…guidance was not always followed, as exemplified by the many statements in the Working Group II Summary for Policymakers that are assigned high confidence but are based on little evidence”.
Remember, these are not the opinions of a bunch of internet nut-jobs payed by Big Oil to sow doubt, these are the findings of an august and respected body mandated to provide independent governance of the IPCC.
6 Sorry, but I’ve just realised that this expression may require explaining to some of my readership. Back in 1871 Lord Bowen, then a junior court counsel, coined this expression to represent public opinion. It has since been adopted by the British judiciary system to measure the standard of care a defendant must live up to in order to avoid being found negligent. If the man on the Clapham omnibus wouldn’t be satisfied, then you’re going down! Note that only the men on the omnibus were to be metaphorically consulted. Presumably, the women were in their metaphorical kitchens, keeping their opinions to themselves. Ah, different times!