Climate change scepticism is often said to be driven by a strong anti-science sentiment, usually accompanied by a failure to understand how science works in practice. Specifically, the anti-science sentiment is said to be directed towards a community of climate scientists promoting the idea that the scientific evidence is already strong enough to justify an urgent, if not to say desperate, transition to a Net Zero society. The scepticism questions the confidence of such scientists and suggests that it is misplaced. But is it really plausible that a whole community of scientists could be guilty of acting in a dysfunctional manner? Surely that accusation would be tantamount to a conspiracy theory. For example, could one reasonably accuse such climate scientists of any of the following vices:
- Tremendous self-confidence, leading to a sense of entitlement and of belonging to an elite community of experts
- Being an unusually monolithic community, with a strong sense of consensus, whether driven by evidence or not, and an unusual uniformity of views on open questions
- In some cases, a sense of identification with the group, akin to identification with a religious faith or political platform
- A strong sense of the boundary between the group and other experts
- A disregard for and disinterest in the ideas, opinions, and work of experts who are not part of the group, and a preference for talking only with other members of the community
- A tendency to interpret evidence optimistically, to believe exaggerated or incorrect statements of results, and to disregard the possibility that their theory might be wrong. This is coupled with a tendency to believe results are true because they are “widely believed”
None of the above seem particularly true to the spirit of the scientific method, and so it would be easy to dismiss such accusations as being the cynical speculations of a scientifically illiterate outgroup. Could anybody who carries the correct and appropriate respect for any scientific community possibly recognise the above description? So surely this is just the sort of scurrilous and unfounded nonsense that one should expect from a climate change denier.
Except that it isn’t. What it is, in fact, is a direct quote taken from Professor Lee Smolin’s book, The Trouble With Physics. It isn’t actually a description of the group of climate scientists who are declaring a climate change emergency. It is, instead, a description of the community of string theorists that currently dominates the forefront of theoretical physics.
Smolin isn’t an ignorant anti-scientist. He is a researcher into quantum gravity who has made his own notable contributions to string theory. And so my question is this: If it is possible, outside of climate science, for a whole branch of science to behave in a dysfunctional manner that undermines its own enterprise, then why would it be so far-fetched to believe that the same may be possible of climate science? Furthermore, if it is possible for a prominent member of a group outside of climate science to engage in such candid criticism of his colleagues, why does it remain so implausible that anyone could speak with equal candour from within climate science?
I’ll leave these questions as an exercise for the student.