Monday, 10 July 2017

Science, skepticism and humility

David Runciman's recent Guardian piece carefully examines how and why a political constituency emerged for skepticism about human-induced climate change, and then drops the ball right at the end with the try-line in reach.

The main thrust is that the oil majors and other large firms have commercial incentives to cast doubt on human-induced climate change, so funds are available to influence public opinion, which demand is met by various scientists, lobbyists and politicians.
 ExxonMobil alone has spent more than $240m on public relations in this area in the past two decades. Many of the leading Republican candidates for president in 2016 (though not Trump) took campaign funding from the Koch brothers, who have been at the forefront of the fight against the scientific consensus on climate change.
Runciman does a good job of exploring the way commercial incentives affect the supply of perception-management services. Absent a commercial motive, there would be less doubt conveyed to the voting public and the apparently quality of the doubt would be lower. So on the supply side of the doubt market, climate change looks a lot like tobacco: in both cases, substantial and well-established commercial interests purchased scepticism from scientists.

Motives matter, but so do methods. Runciman argues that it can be easier and more effective to label your opponent as a hypocrite than a liar. Some tobacco science shills smoked their own product but you can almost always accuse a climate change activist of not doing enough...
Hypocrisy is hard to avoid when it comes to the politics of climate change, since it is a collective-action problem. It’s far from clear what difference any individual action will make. What matters is what we do together. This makes it practically impossible for any one individual to match words to deeds. Yet the failure to do so provides the perfect stick for the climate cynics to beat their opponents with.
We're all familiar with these cheap cynical jibes: oh you have a plastic bag / flew here / own a flat-screen TV, so you don't personally really care about climate change. Runciman reckons this kind of bullshit is effective at shifting public opinion against climate change scientists, and that climate-change-deniers have converted skepticism for their own commercial ends.
Twitter is a vast hypocrisy-generating machine that is corroding democratic politics. Scepticism, which is a democratic virtue, is giving way to cynicism, which is a democratic vice, across the board.
I think many people would broadly accept most of the above and, notwithstanding the odd complaint, be broadly on board with Runciman right up to his last couple of paragraphs, reproduced below.
We live in an age when mistrust of politics has spilled over into mistrust of expertise, and vice versa. To respond with ever-greater certainty in the name of science is a big mistake. Expertise doesn’t just need humility. It also needs to reclaim the idea of scepticism from the people who have abused it. Experts need to find a way of expressing uncertainty without feeling it undermines their expertise. Voicing doubt has been allowed to become a synonym for admitting you were wrong. The way out is to stop insisting that you were right in the first place. 
Lots to agree with here. We definitely need humble scientists rather than arrogant ones, so uncertainty needs to be honestly appraised and clearly communicated. I'm also keen on reclaiming skepticism from those who have abused it, but the skeptics and I have very different opinions about the scope of this problem and the culprits, so lets just set that aside for now so we can focus on the ball-dropping final paragraph.
The scientific consensus on climate change is real. But by insisting on its merits for the purposes of politics, its champions have exposed it to ridicule. Political arguments for climate science – indeed, for any science – in the age of Trump should not keep saying that the populists are lying about the consensus. They should say that they are hypocrites about the doubt: they do not practise what they preach because they think they know the answers already. Climate change deniers argue they are only trying to discover the truth. We should all be sceptical about that.
Where did that come from?  Even though the other side is lying about the consensus on climate change, and has strong commercial incentives and the ability to generate doubt, Runciman wants us to ignore all that and instead argue that they are hypocrites. Which they can easily deny by simply claiming to be open-minded.

It's a bad idea tactically because nothing can be proven, which makes it a very bad idea strategically for the non-shills.

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