Many years ago – I recall not when – I was driving to a place – I recall not where – whilst listening to the radio – I recall not why – and someone was speaking – I recall not who.
In fact, I remember next to nothing relating to this anecdote, apart from what the gentleman on the radio said in his interview. He was clearly some grand fromage within his field and he was blathering on about a scientific subject for which I couldn’t give a monkey’s. Besides which, the rush hour traffic was demanding all the attention I was prepared to pay. That is, until I heard the following:
“You see,” he opined, “there is this new theory that is getting all the government research grants. And I think that is a dangerous thing. It won’t take long under such selection pressure before we find that the integrity of the scientific community engaged in this area of research will be called into question. I fear for its future.”
“That,” I replied indignantly, “is nonsense on stilts.”
Nobody was in the car with me, but that didn’t stop me from going on to explain to my fantasy audience why Man-in-Talking-Box had spoken with forked tongue. “You see,” I explained patiently to the passenger’s seat, ”it is in the very nature of the scientific method that no such loss of integrity could be possible. This guy obviously doesn’t know what he is talking about.”
It was probably another five miles down the road to Damascus (or was it Doncaster?) that the penny finally dropped and I suddenly realised that the gentleman was absolutely right. If one is dealing with a science that is low on experiment and high on long-term predictions, there is actually nothing left in the scientific method that can guarantee immunity from the insidious bias that policy-based funding introduces. This was a pivotal moment in my life, because it was at that point (I recall not when, etc.) that my confidence in the scientific community was irrevocably compromised. All those years rejoicing in the un-impeachability of scientific objectivity – years, it transpires, spent in naïve infatuation. I could have wept.
I have put you through this rather vague anecdote because, without hearing it, you could never fully understand why a scientifically educated, self-identified intellect such as myself could possibly fall into the evil hands of the climate science deniers. It goes without saying that the gentleman on that car radio, many years ago, was talking about anthropogenic global warming, but that hardly matters; I couldn’t back then give much of a toss regarding the intricacies of the science involved. What kindled on that fateful day was a new outlook on the whole scientific endeavour and a realisation that, first and foremost, science is a social undertaking subject to all of the rules that guide the emergence of societal understanding. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not going all postmodern on you – science still rules. But it did turn me into an obsessive sceptic who, upon hearing any scientific ‘fact’, would immediately ask the question, “Yes, but how do the social dynamics of scientific practice bear upon the credibility of that assertion?” Global warming just happens to be the most topical, and most important, of those subject areas for which that question seems germane. But, believe you me, the principle extends far and wide within science, covering all of its manifestations – yes, even my beloved physics: String theory anyone?
So when the good folk at The Conversation finally lost patience with me, and banned my efforts to ask the credibility questions, I can’t say I was terribly impressed. I was even less impressed given that they chose to do so when I was commenting upon an article that was seeking to dismiss the idea that groupthink could possibly be a concern within the climate science community – a subject dear to my perverted, rotten, contrarian heart. For those who are interested, the comment moderated by The Conversation read as follows:
“I agree with everything this article says regarding groupthink in climate science. As indeed I must if I don’t want my comment to be removed in accordance with The Conversation’s new moderation policy.”
Of course, most of you will know me well enough by now to understand that my professed agreement was an exercise in irony – merely an experiment to see whether The Conversation’s perfervid moderators could be goaded into deleting a comment that was ostensibly in full agreement with the author they sought to protect. I say ‘goaded’, but let’s be honest, it required only the gentlest of prods – no more than the mere suggestion that their ‘zero tolerance’ moderation policy might eradicate up to 99% of bacterial denialism, but only by rendering all subsequent metrics of consensus meaningless. Theirs is a method of data selection taken from the top draw of the scientific method (hint: more irony here). Of course, there is a lesson to be learnt from all of this: If someone is censoring idiotically, then one must expect that any attempt to point this out will be idiotically censored.
Admittedly, the above experiment was designed only to examine the craven groupthink tactics employed by climate science’s journalistic halo (as it surrounds the saintly heads encasing climatology’s finest brains). It was never intended to provide evidence that groupthink actually exists amongst climate scientists. So what might?
This is the point where I should launch into a mercilessly hostile critique of the haplessly naïve and trite Conversation article that had first attracted my attention, but I will resist that temptation. Suffice it to say, I am more saddened than surprised that there are still folk out there, purporting to work in serious science (and still others working within cognitive science) that are peddling the sort of nonsense I might also have peddled long ago, before I discovered the true meaning of wonderment. So, instead of becoming embroiled in one of those tedious social theory of science debates, I will just quote Professor Gary Yohe, a serial lead author for the IPCC:
“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’.”
It would seem to me difficult, to say the least, to maintain that groupthink is impossible within an organisation that (by its own admission) had been set up with the expressed intention of thinking as a group. It is even more of a challenge when one reflects that the organisation concerned thought it important enough to point out such intentions in an official procedure. Unfortunately, without any further guidance as to what ‘best endeavours’ might cover, one has to be left wondering – unless, of course, you are one of The Conversation’s moderators and your days of wonderment are long behind you.
It is important to appreciate just how emotionally invested one can get in the cult of the scientific method. After all, what finer mode of thinking do we have by which we can understand the universe? So it is no surprise that people can get very indignant and angry when they encounter viewpoints that do not appear to be sufficiently respectful of the scientific community. It is easy to dismiss such viewpoints as irrational and ill-conceived. I too have felt those emotions and can fully understand why others do.
For example, many years ago I read a book called ‘Fuzzy Thinking’ by a guy called Bart Kosko. He seemed to have an enormous chip on his shoulder and spent much of his time bleating on about how his pioneering work in fuzzy logic was belittled by the scientific mainstream. His book even had a section titled ‘Don’t confuse science with scientists’. His disregard for the scientific consensus angered me so much that I did something I had never previously done, nor have I done since: I ceremoniously threw a book into a dustbin. I even invited all my imaginary friends around to personally witness my stand against the anti-science movement. (Well, they were all invited but some of them didn’t show up. It is at times like this that you find out who your imaginary friends really are).