Tuesday, 15 December 2009

Climate-Science and Conspiracy

“I am very happy to affirm that I am not a giant expert on climate change: I know a bit, and I know that there’s not yet been a giant global conspiracy involving almost every scientist in the world (although I’d welcome examples).” — Ben Goldacre. [1]

One can hardly trust the integrity, or else the intelligence, of someone who would cast the matter in so flippant and so adversely-framed a fashion, but it seems instrumentally, though not morally, to be the best strategy left to those who still wish to defend an obvious example of bad science.
.....It is ironic that Ben Goldacre, who has made a journalistic career out of professing to be against bad science, would speak in favour of a magnificent and glaring example of it, though we should hardly be surprised. He is another small example of why posterity, if there might still be a sapient and merry remnant of it, will laugh its head off.
.....The dichotomy which Mr Goldacre sets up is clear: either one believes it likely that the science of global warming is valid, or else one believes it likely that there is a global conspiracy, involving almost every scientist in the world, to conceal its invalidity. I can suggest a dichotomy of my own: either Mr Goldacre lacks the intelligence to understand that relatively few scientists in the world are actually involved in generating the claims of climate-science; that a few of those few in that sub-field of science have influence over the  direction of research; that all of those few find it conducive or even necessary to their careers to profess a belief in a certain theory; that some other scientists who stand outside that sub-field may be inclined to give credence to its claims; and that a sub-field of science, or even the whole field of science itself, can be warped or corrupted at various levels in many simple, subtle, and all-too-plausibly-human ways; — or he is employing a contemptible strategy designed to suggest that his opponents must believe in something highly implausible, if not absurd: something like a worldwide network and active conspiracy amongst hundreds of thousands of glint-eyed scientists all laughing madly in their secret conferences at the vast deception that they are knowingly perpetrating. But perhaps my dichotomy is a false one too. Perhaps it is a trichotomy: it could be that Mr Goldacre is none too bright, or that he is a scoundrel, or that he is both.
.....If we were to judge the success or validity of scientific theories by the number of occasions, and the degree of enthusiasm, by which they were proclaimed to be unquestionable truths as held by the vast majority of genuine and reputable scientists, then we might rightly say that the theory of anthropogenic global warming has been a very successful one, perhaps second only to Lysenkoism. But maybe Mr Goldacre finds incredible the claim that the science of biology in the Soviet Union was for many years subverted by a quack-theory. I mean, fancy believing that all the scientists of the All-Union Academy of Agricultural Sciences of the Soviet Union — every one of them reputable by its power to define them as such — were involved in a conspiracy against genuine scientific research! Or perhaps it was mostly that a vast public-bureaucratic government, much like our own, involving ideologies and ambitious men, much like our own, was able to kill a science and let a zombie-science arise in its place. Either way — preposterous!
.....Sarcasm aside, in suggesting the high implausibility of a global conspiracy of hundreds of thousands of witting members, I do not mean to imply that there have been no conspiracies in the case of climate-science. Clearly there have been. Some scientists have conspired in various ways to deceive a large number of scientists and non-scientists alike. Of that we know for sure. Thereto alone it is somewhat irrelevant the extent or proportion to which they were informed by benevolence, malice, hopes for large dinners, or anything else. The question of benevolence, malice, or anything else, is addressed largely to the motive-content of conspiracies, and is at a tangent to the mere fact of their existence. [2] Other conspiracies, each formed for whatever reasons and interests, some fleeting and trivial,  some long-lasting and serious, we may well suspect to exist at higher and lower levels of significance and influence. Great power and wealth are to be had and social maneuvers to be made — with the usual agent involved: a clever and aggressive species of hairless ape.
.....There is nothing surprising in the mere fact of the existence of conspiracies, or rather, there is nothing more surprising therein than that groups of school-children, company-executives, or marketing-men conspire against particular rivals and against the general outgroup, the scope whereof may extend to the public at large. To adapt a phrase from Robert Michels: who says organisation, says conspiracy.
.....Most conspiracies are largely insignificant or petty, simply occurring as natural and frequent aspects of any group-life. Some, of course, can be grander or more significant, as is clear in the case of climate-science. The most pertinent questions in this regard are about their nature and aims, their size and scope, and the relative degrees of their deliberate and systematic aspects, wherewith one ought not to make oneself prey to, nor indeed be put off by, the silliest and the unfairest connotations which tend nowadays to be associated with the word.
.....The fairly-recent and widespread refusal to believe in conspiracies, which, as I say, are in varying degrees of significance natural aspects of all groups and organizations, testifies to the increasing inability on the part of millions to think without having their thoughts subverted and overthrown by unnecessary connotations; for this refusal does come mostly by way of cravenness in the face of the justifiable fear that one will be called a nutcase in acknowledging any state of affairs to which the word “conspiracy” is rightly and significantly applicable. It seems that the word “conspiracy” cannot be taken in a prosaic sense by most people anymore; they must take it in a grand sense, by a few in reference to their own grand claims of conspiracy, and by most in mockery of any claim thereof.
.....One might have expected that the experience of the playground, in which some groups of children conspire against other groups of children, would have been enough to give most people a life-long understanding of the nature of social reality; but it seems that at some time or other in their lives the species of wit native to them, a species educable by experience, is overrun by an interloping foreign species of faux-sophisticated cretinism. A world of fools can be turned into a world of morons by selling them the idea that moronic disbelief is rational and enlightened detachment.
.....Anyway, in the absence of credible evidence, it is trivially true, of course, that the climate of the earth might be changing outside its natural pattern due to human interference, but then it is trivially true that the Zarboks of Planet Nasquib might at this very moment be pointing a giant laser-gun at the earth, ready to blast it to smithereens. But let us conspire to keep this latter possibility a secret amongst ourselves. We do not wish to give governments or corporations any more bright ideas. Inter-stellar battle-fleets are expensive to build, I hear, and no doubt Al Gore would need to be involved.

[1] Ben Goldacre, “Climate change? Well, we’ll be dead by then”, The Guardian, 12th December 2009.
[2] It is a fairly good adage that one should never ascribe to malice that which can be explained by incompetence, so long as it is not misapplied or made into a mind-emptying mantra. (The case is similar with Occam’s Razor, which is perhaps the most popularly-misunderstood and abused principle of all time.)


dearieme said...

The extraordinary thing with Global Warming doctrine is that the evidence for it is not just a little on the weak side - it is essentially non-existent.

Deogolwulf said...

The whole affair is an extraordinary spectacle. It ought to furnish sociologists, psychologists, historians, etc, with many years of quite wonderful material. Unfortunately propagandists will find much of use in it too.

bgc said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
bgc said...

I'm trying to boil it into a four line chant suitable for de-programming the youth :

We don't understand,
We cannot predict,
We cannot control
The clim-ate.

Chanted to the rhythm:


(Repeated ad nauseam, or until the message gets-through.)

There's a touch of syllogism about it, in the sense that because we don't understand we cannot predict, and because we cannot predict we cannot control (i.e. make climate do what we want it to) - control being *much* more difficult than prediction.

[This replaces the previous post, by adding the dee-diddles.]

Deogolwulf said...

You could try to persuade Bono and Sting to record it.

dearieme said...

A chum of mine used to tell students "Nature doesn't shave with Occam's razor".

xlbrl said...

And where has our blogger found this charming faith in sociologist, psychologist, and historians?
Someone is an incorrigible curmudgeonly optimist.

Deogolwulf said...

Xlbrl, you'll be glad to hear that I have found no such charming faith. The affair ought to furnish sociologists, psychologists, historians, etc, with wonderful material. From it they could learn much about the modern condition and what is possible under it. And almost certainly they will do so, some for good purpose, others for ill. Sociologists, psychologists, historians, economists, etc, will serve the needs of propaganda and demotic managerialism, as has long been the case; and the techniques thereof always need to be improved and refined in the face of the progressive democratic, liberal, and egalitarian spirits, even just in order that actual government ---or rather management --- remain possible.

xlbrl said...

Do I not understand you to say that no matter what new dysfuntion the left inflicts upon the civilization, there is also a self-righting process to keep the host functioning? To me that is optimistic, but perhaps it is true.

Deogolwulf said...

Xlbrl, not no matter what, and not optimistic. It is terrible that the process has come so far, and I certainly have no wish to see it continue. (The thought that it may continue is not an optimistic one.) The left would destroy culture and civilisation, and has done a fine job in that regard already. Under the difficult conditions and the absurd demands of the libertarian, egalitarian, anti-hierarchical, and anti-authoritarian temper, the maintenance of power requires a great effort of deception owing to those conditions and demands made of it by that temper which it tries to appease and use. Naturally there can be no government in conjunction with egalitarian liberty and without hierarchical authority, yet it is the latter which is despised and the former which is demanded, and so, in order to survive and grow, power, now maintained on the claim that it serves the demands of the people, must present itself as an agent of what is demanded and an enemy of what is despised; and it must do so of course by great deception and mendacity. This liberal temper was spread in the first place in order to destroy all those social structures which would hinder the growth of the centralised public-bureaucratic state. It has been very successful, and many people, libertarians amongst the loudest, hold this to have been a great historical process, a march to freedom and happiness, which must, however, be pushed still further. (Generally libertarians are little black jokes sent by the gods.)
And, suffice it to say, I am not optimistic about that continuation. The sooner the whole edifice of public-bureaucratic government collapses, the better; but it won't be pretty.

bgc said...

@Deogolwulf: "Naturally there can be no government in conjunction with egalitarian liberty and without hierarchical authority, yet it is the latter which is despised and the former which is demanded, and so, in order to survive and grow, power, now maintained on the claim that it serves the demands of the people, must present itself as an agent of what is demanded and an enemy of what is despised; and it must do so of course by great deception and mendacity."

That is very neatly expressed - the whole thing in a nutshell - but I don't think I had properly recognized this process until you stated it.

xlbrl said...

THAT is what I assumed you to think. Chesterton despaired of the same dynamic.
We had a Democrat Senator recently admit they were terrible at making their ideas work, that this was what Republicans were good for. No one thought it wise to repeat that statement.

Anonymous said...

To descend to the everyday -- your comment about playgrounds reminds me of my occasional amazement that people seem to forget entirely what it is like to be a child. I have no doubt that schools are full of passions, feuds, corruption, and hatreds, that can only be controlled by radical suppression. Yet, despite the fairly frequent reminders of this truth that appear in the press, it is rarely acknowledged. It is, indeed, as if there were a conspiracy -- a grand conspiracy -- to deny the viciousness of the human young. So, in fact, as you remark, adults do not recall the lessons of the playground, just as they mostly do not recall what they were supposed to be taught in the classroom.

danielj said...

Was it George Bernard Shaw that said "All professions are conspiracies against the laity" or somebody else?

James Higham said...

The overriding consideration at the moment, of course, is whether we're headed for a new ice age.

Ilíon said...

"Was it George Bernard Shaw that said "All professions are conspiracies against the laity" or somebody else?"

Adam Smith, he of 'The Wealth of Nations' fame (or, if one is a leftist, infamy), said much the same thing long before that ol' socialist ever noticed the fact, assuming he did ever.