Here’s a remarkable example of the post-truthiness of some elements of contemporary academia.
A magazine called Issues in Science and Technology has published an article Fear Mongering & Fact Mongering, by Adam Briggle, a philosopher at a third-rate institution called University of North Texas.
The article starts by dismissing the old-fashioned claptrap of Poincaré and Feynman, and then talks about research misconduct and ‘responsible’ research. But the main thrust of the article is to try to introduce a concept of “fact mongering”.
Where fear mongering can stoke irrational panic, fact mongering can cause irrational calm and complacency.
Briggle illustrates the distinction by referring to the notorious alarmist article The Uninhabitable Earth by David Wallace-Wells, full of irresponsible pseudo-scientific fear-mongering about “panic”, “terrors”, “death” and “destruction” (which, as I noted recently, has serious consequences for the mental health of those who fall for it). Briggle mentions that the article was criticised by scientists, but doesn’t have the decency to link to any of these criticisms, such as this one where the Wallace-Wells article is described as “Alarmist, Imprecise/Unclear, Misleading” by a team of climate scientists including Richard Betts, Chris Colose and Victor Venema. Even Michael Mann says that it exaggerates.
Amazingly, Briggle claims that the scientists who corrected Wallace-Wells’s alarmist falsehoods were irresponsible fact-mongers:
It prompted some denunciations, but also soul-searching among the climate science community about its rhetoric. Perhaps in their desire not to be discounted as fear-mongers, scientists had become fact-mongers. They may have assumed that they don’t really have a “fact” until it is scrubbed clean of all emotion, especially fear. This is certainly not misconduct in a narrow sense, but it may well count as a form of irresponsible research. Has the climate science community hid behind neutral facts and insufficiently scared the public? If so, theirs would be a rhetorical, not a logical, failure.
Briggle highlights two people who are guilty of fact-mongering: Roger Pielke Jr and Bjorn Lomborg. He says he was a student of Pielke’s 15 years ago, and is concerned about Pielke’s WSJ article on natural disasters (edit: paywalled, but there’s a free version available at his blog).
Thus, I was surprised to see his op-ed counseling us to be “factful” when it comes to climate change. He has, it seems, adopted Lomborg’s view that there are facts on one hand and irrational fears on the other. And the fact is that despite all the bad news, times have never been better. He argues that there is little evidence that climate change has made weather more extreme. Indeed, natural disasters are claiming fewer lives than 50 years ago, and as a proportion of global gross domestic product the costs of natural disasters have actually gone down.
Pielke has been delivering this message for years, and as with Lomborg it has earned him the ire of many environmental scientists. As far as I can tell, his thesis is logically, or empirically, flawless. It is the rhetoric of it that has me wondering. He highlights a set of facts from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) about specific weather phenomena. What he doesn’t mention are the words in bold at the top of the same report stating that “warming of the climate system is unequivocal” and changes are “unprecedented.” When Pielke says the IPCC substantiates his claims, that may be literally true, but also rhetorically questionable. When does a reasonable argument slip into cherry-picking, or cherry-picking slide into misrepresentation?
So according to Briggle, Pielke’s article in the WSJ about natural disasters should have included some statements from the IPCC that have nothing whatsoever to do with disasters. Briggle also appears to believe that the concept of using facts to rebut irrational fears is a new idea invented by Lomborg. And that Pielke’s logical, flawless thesis is rhetorically questionable.
I’ve long argued that the world has seen a dramatic drop in lives lost to disasters, and that as poverty around the world has been reduced, the economic toll of disasters has not increased as fast as increasing global wealth. This is indeed good news. These are hardly controversial views, as they are also conclusions of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which produces periodic assessments of climate science, impacts, and economics, as well as being indicators of progress under the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals.
He says that Briggle is “late to the party”, mentioning previous smears that he has been subjected to for failing to join in the fear-mongering. Briggle’s article
represents yet another effort from within the academy to silence others whose views are deemed politically unwelcome or unacceptable. At most research institutions, the penalties for researchers who engage in FFP are severe, and often include termination of employment. Of course, Briggle is not alone in sending a powerful and chilling message about which views are deemed acceptable and which are not.