Imagine my excitement upon learning that in July, Ecopsychology UK will be holding their seventh ‘Edge of the Wild Gathering’ at the Green and Away campsite, Worcestershire. I’m hoping at least one of the workshops will explain how a man of logic could succumb to the wicked enchantment of climate science scepticism. I doubt that there are any CliScep fans in the ecopsychology fraternity but, just in case one of their highly-trained Integrated Body Psychotherapists is reading this, I offer my own story as a case study. In return I ask only for their considered diagnosis.
It all started when I decided that knowing the truth was better than having friends and a healthy sex-life. I believe this happened after society had already decided it didn’t want to be friends with me, and before I knew what sex was. Anyway, I’ll spare you the sordid details of my self-loathing and sublimation and move directly to the part where I arrive at Sussex University to study theoretical nuclear physics at postgraduate level. By immersing myself in quantum mechanics I was seeking the truth—but gradually, as my thoughts floundered on a sea of arcane symbolism, I realised the search for fame and fortune might be a better use of my youthful energy.
So, equipped with little more than promise and penury, I turned my back on academia and set off down the road to what would ultimately prove to be profitable anonymity. But after many years of futile industry (mostly spent in quality assurance, wafting the sword of truth in the faces of the indifferent) I gave up trying to establish the cult of John Ridgway, preferring to drift off into early retirement. I am now in my dotage, with only tinnitus to drown out the hollow laughter still echoing down the panelled corridors of the physics department.
By surrendering to the sirens’ call of financial stability, did I throw away the perfect opportunity to ennoble myself in the pursuit of knowledge? Perhaps. I’d certainly had the right attitude. For me the scientific method was a harsh mistress who must be obeyed. I was more than willing to lick her stiletto if it meant discovering a hidden truth. But attitude alone was never going to be enough. As I reconsider my scientific genesis, I see now that I was singing the song of science, but it was all a bit karaoke. I was never going to find my own voice, let alone write a scientific classic for the world to hum. This matters. At university I thought myself a pupal pupil, waiting to turn into a butterfly that others would chase. In reality, I was destined to become nothing more than a fact-sniffing bluebottle, seeking out the truth by joining the swarm of scientists buzzing above whichever epistemic turd had the most compelling aroma.
Speaking of bluebottles, have you seen ‘The Fly’? It’s a cinematic warning against the hubris of scientific ambition. However, the storyline only works because the average hominid and the average fly share a great deal of DNA. In particular, both are biologically programmed to employ an important heuristic: trust in the majority.
Although there may be no such thing as the herding gene, to deny any sociobiological foundation for such behaviour in humans (of which scientists are a putative subset) would be to ignore the obvious evolutionary advantages of latching onto the wisdom of the masses. Rather than waste effort on personal, original discovery, you’re better off taking on trust the path laid before you by your genetic brethren. Critically, however, your decision-making must be informed by insights into method and motivation. Knowing the fly’s penchant for faecal matter, you avoid its congregation. I, for one, do not share that insect’s interests and I have little respect for its methods of enquiry. Scientists, fortunately, are better equipped than the fly. Knowing that they follow a strict methodology based on the tenets of falsifiability, peer review and reproduction of experimental results, I’m much more likely to be impressed by a scientific headcount. But should I be?
The problem is that appeal to authority only works when the authority is appealing. As an acolyte of physics I had good reason to believe the scripture. Simply knowing that every stiletto-licking physicist on Earth was devoted to the idea of proving the others wrong was reason enough to trust any idea that survived such scrutiny—at least until it didn’t. In the meantime, the consensus view was always a pretty good surrogate for truth. Alas, I left my physics career behind me before I had time to discover that Nature didn’t share my naïve faith in scientific probity. It was only many years later that the veil was lifted, and two disciplines in particular were responsible for my disillusionment. The first blow was struck by string theory, the coup de grâce by climatology.
All you need to understand about string theory is that it is a description of the fabric of reality on the Planck Scale and that any experimental exploration on such a scale would require a particle accelerator of galactic stature and presence. As a consequence, string theory enjoys zero experimental corroboration; nor is there any prospect of such confirmation in the conceivable future. And yet it has attracted more attention within physics than any other theory of unification, by a sponsored mile.
The consensus view on the fabric of reality may be that it is held together by supersymmetric strings, but in this instance consensus stands for diddly. Without the possibility of experimental confirmation, string theory is a non-falsifiable speculation. As such, it isn’t even science. The bluebottle instinct is strong here, but it’s not a shortcut to wisdom—it just facilitates the quest for grant money. The scientific community’s infatuation with string theory merely shows how quickly human reasoning can slide back into the land of the faeries for want of a decent experiment.
So I came to ask myself: if talent, an absence of falsifiability and the instinct to herd are all it takes to encourage intellectual coagulation, what would we expect if moral panic were added to the mix? Well, I think we would expect climatology.
Riddle me this, my ecopsychological friends: If I were to point out to the string theorists that their ideas lack experimental confirmation, and their popularity cannot be taken as evidence of truth, I would expect a knowing nod followed by an invitation to discuss the importance of Anti de Sitter/Conformal Field Theory correspondence. I certainly wouldn’t expect the public to weigh in by clattering me over the head with a placard that pleads, ‘Leave our poor scientists alone!’ And yet, pointing out the identical problem with the Catastrophic, Anthropogenic Global Warming (CAGW) hypothesis would be cause for wailing, shirt-wrenching and fainting. It will be earnestly suggested that I be incarcerated in an institution for the criminally insane. Australian psychologists of Polish extraction will take great pleasure (and several grants) explaining to the world the source of my cognitive dysfunction. With not a hint of irony, they will force me to tolerate the moniker of ‘denier’, in an obvious reference to Shoah denial.
The world is supposedly plagued by climate science deniers, yet there is no such thing as a ‘supersymmetric string denier.’ Pourquoi la différence?
Well, the main difference, I believe, is that no matter what theoretical physicists decide, no polar bears will die. This is worth repeating. Nothing that looks cuddly will suffer. Nor is there anything in string theory to suggest that the Earth’s coast-dwelling primates should run for the hills. The string theorists may be deliberating upon the very nature of reality but there is nothing really important at stake. As a consequence, the guardians of human morality feel no need to strike me down with thunderbolts of self-righteous invective. With no lofty ambitions to save the world, string theorists came to dominate their academic ecosystem, and it only took sociological natural selection. The climatologists, having God on their side, seek dominion far beyond their scientific niche.
I got my scientific training in a field that demanded only the most stringent evidence. For climatologists, morality and exigency are so influential, it doesn’t seem to matter that the only way they can make their theories fly is to liberally sprinkle them with proxy dust. I do not resent their freedom of expression, nor do I dismiss the body of evidence (such that it is) that they call upon to support their claims. But I draw the line at having my intelligence insulted. You can tell me that 97% of scientists say we are all going to fry in the fat of our oil-guzzling complacency, but I have read the Climategate emails for myself. So don’t talk to me about percentages.
Watching the fulminating mob on the evening news railing against what they see as right-wing political interference in ‘the science,’ I can’t help but feel that they are not protecting a beleaguered set of logic-loving Mr Spocks, but a boldly-going bunch of Captain Kirks. Let us not reprove such scientists for their postmodern approach; after all, a presumption of urgency is forcing their hand somewhat. Nevertheless, neither should they begrudge me my right to retain an open mind and the right to point out that scientific consensus only exists to trick the unwary bluebottle. The evidence for the CAGW hypothesis is what it is, and the fact that the IPCC was set up with the explicit purpose of establishing consensus is the main reason why I should question it.
Excuse me, I have to go now. It’s time for my treatment. Yes, Dr Lewandowsky. Anything you say, Dr Lewandowsky.