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.

34 Comments

  1. I’m a school teacher, and as practitioners of teaching we have almost no respect for the academic branch. Educationalists are some of the most wrong-headed people you could hope to meet — basically ignoring any data that doesn’t fit their world view.

    Yet my colleagues will vociferously answer that global warming must be true because of the consensus among scientists.

    I simply cannot persuade them that a group of academics can all be wrong — despite them being very aware of a group that meets the exact same requirements.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. There is a difference here, which is that the nature of the Universe is not of existential importance (if you see what I mean). Climate change just might be (I don’t think it is, and I think elementary logic proves it). If they are right, we are doomed. That must have an affect on the coherence of the party line.

    And I’m not sure about the position of the speaker: inside or outside the group? It’s easy for an apostate to be critical. Key is whether the group actually takes note of the criticism or bats it away.

    But I must also note that there are still scientists who are willing to push back, even against the climate phalanx. I posted this on the “Derelict Planet” thread, but I don’t think anyone wanders that dark alley these days.

    ==

    An update on story three from this piece (via WUWT via Steve Milloy), the fish terminally confused by elevated CO2 – or were they?

    The “odd little bro pocket” of Clements, Sundin, Clark & Jutfelt have published an article showing an “extreme” decline effect in studies on the effect of CO2 on fish behaviour. They do not say that the early data was made up, but:

    It is important to note that the early studies published in 2009 to 2010, and some subsequent papers from the same authors, have recently been questioned for their scientific validity … When all papers authored or coauthored by at least one of the lead investigators of those early studies were removed from the dataset (n = 41 studies, 45%), the decline effect was no longer apparent from 2012 to 2019.

    A bit of an ouch.

    “Meta-analysis reveals an extreme “decline effect” in the impacts of ocean acidification on fish behavior”

    https://journals.plos.org/plosbiology/article?id=10.1371/journal.pbio.3001511

    ==

    Chester, is that a version of Gell-Mann amnesia? https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gell-Mann_amnesia_effect takes you to its author, Michael Crichton, and you have to scroll down.

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  3. Might I suggest that I answered my own question back in the very first article that I posted on this blog:

    “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.”

    Liked by 2 people

  4. John, the analogy from Smolin’s work is just too good. I guessed where you were headed when I started reading it, but it still sent a delicious shiver of anticipation down the spine. Thanks for drawing our attention to it.

    The irony is that I suspect many climate scientists, of whom all of the points could be made, might read it in the context of other types of scientists and nod their profound agreement.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Mark,

    Of course, this is all about the sociology of science and its capacity to subvert the scientific method. If you want to see a good example of the righteous indignation that academic scientists are capable of when they see sociologists commenting upon their precious objectivity, you only have to take a look at this performance played out recently on ATTP:

    https://andthentheresphysics.wordpress.com/2021/12/27/maybe-a-little-science-denial-is-actually-in-order/

    The response came across as an intellectual talking point, with the sociologists roundly criticised. But there is really no reason to overthink these things. Returning to Smolin, this is what he had to say about it:

    “The sociology of science is not a mysterious force; it refers to the influence that older, established scientists have over the careers of younger scientists. We scientists feel uncomfortable talking about it, because it forces us to confront the possibility that the organisation of science may not be entirely objective and rational.”

    I see no reason to assume that it ever would be.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Well, in the case of climate science, we have Richard Lindzen’s eye-witness account of how the dysfunction arose and naming names.

    “When an issue becomes a vital part of a political agenda, as is the case with climate, then the politically desired position becomes a goal rather than a consequence of scientific research. This paper will deal with the origin of the cultural changes and with specific examples of the operation and interaction of these factors. In particular, we will show how political bodies act to control scientific institutions, how scientists adjust both data and even theory to accommodate politically correct positions, and how opposition to these positions is disposed of.”

    His text: http://www.globalresearch.ca/climate-science-is-it-currently-designed-to-answer-questions/16330

    By taking a few minutes to read his text, you can learn from Lindzen some important truths:

    How science was perverted from a successful mode of enquiry into a source of authority;

    What are the consequences when fear is perceived to be the basis for scientific support rather than from gratitude and the trust associated with it;

    How incentives are skewed in favor of perpetuating problems rather than solving them;

    Why simulation and large programs replaced theory and observation as the basis of scientific investigation;

    How specific institutions and scientific societies were infiltrated and overtaken by political activists;

    Specific examples where data and analyses have been manipulated to achieve desired conclusions;

    Specific cases of concealing such truths as may call into question gobal warming alarmism;

    Examples of the remarkable process of “discreditation” by which attack papers are quickly solicited and published against an undesirable finding;

    Cases of Global Warming Revisionism, by which skeptical positions of prominent people are altered after they are dead;

    Dangers to societies and populations from governments, NGOs and corporations exploiting climate change.

    Liked by 2 people

  7. Mark: “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.”

    Indeed it is often said so, but regarding general public scepticism this narrative is nevertheless false, and is put out by ardent believers in climate catastrophism generally, and in (barely) more sophisticated yet supposedly ‘legitimising’ terms, by academics from the highly biased field of ‘climate psychology’.

    “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.”

    Scepticism comes in two brands, instinctive, and rational. The vast bulk of scepticism in publics comes from the former, and may or may not be sponsored by a culture, for instance Rep/Con culture in the US. Bulk instinctive scepticism is measurable. The relatively tiny rational scepticism, oft expressed in climate blogs for instance, is not measurable.

    In the Rep/Con example above, this group do often blast mainstream climate science as the primary culprit (for NZ etc), albeit not from an ‘anti-science’ perspective, more from a ‘doing the science wrong’ position. However, notwithstanding group-think aplenty in the lower levels of the IPCC (and complete cultural hi-jack in the highest level), the lowest level (technical chapters) representing the IPCC’s scientific position, does *not* support certain global catastrophe, and indeed its impact sections by no means justify a crash net zero. A small minority of scientists *outside* the IPCC position (and who complain that it is ‘far too conservative’, or ‘politically biased’ *away* from catastrophe) do claim certain imminent catastrophe. Those on the inside, are I think what Brad would call ‘good Germans’; they turn a blind eye to what is falsely done in their name. At any rate, the primary culprit is outside of the science, it is cultural, and has captured most of public authority. No doubt it pressures the science heavily, but to date that is still mainly an outside influence. Dick Lindzen has a nice video from some years back pointing out that mainstream science and the sceptics *agree* that there is no global climate catastrophe on the horizon.

    Bulk scepticism, as noted, is measurable. Like belief in climate catastrophism it is a function of cultural identity, and is not ‘anti-science’. Outside the US (more complex cultural mix there), the two components of cultural identity that matter, are belief or rejection of climate catastrophism *in its own right* (because it is a ‘secular religion’), plus religiosity (for any main Faith). Neither cultural belief or bulk instinctive scepticism are ‘simple’ functions. Both depend upon whether individuals face a reality-constrained situation (i.e. competing with other issues / priorities), or an unconstrained situation (no such competition); the expression of belief or rejection in these two scenarios, can differ widely, and can even completely contradict. This is an expected function of how the two cultures (based on climate catastrophism and religiosity) react. [All measurements related to this are at the national, not individual, level, across very many nations].

    “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:”

    Whatever the vices of the good Germans, and no doubt they are many, their science does not justify a ‘desperate transition to Net Zero’. Rational scepticism requires knowledge; if the above is not known, one presumes that rational sceptics, like the cultural Rep/Cons in the US, might then conclude that mainstream climate science is indeed the primary culprit.

    This doesn’t speak directly to your fine article; as you note scientists are subject to group-think and cultural hi-jacking like anyone else. But I think it is useful context.

    Like

  8. “Whatever the vices of the good Germans, and no doubt they are many…”

    I see Ron lists some, also courtesy of Dick Lindzen.

    Like

  9. Chester,

    I have belatedly liked your comment because of the remark regarding educationalists. I am not, nor ever was I, a school teacher, but my wife was. So this one was from her 🙂

    Like

  10. I’ll leave this here if I may – it seems topical. A letter in the Guardian today:

    “There is a simple rule of thumb for distinguishing between charlatans like the Net Zero Scrutiny Group (Report, 8 February), the European Research Group and anti-vaxxers on the one hand, and the science community on the other: charlatans only look for evidence that they are right; scientists are only interested in evidence that they are wrong.
    Charles Baily
    Bedford”

    https://www.theguardian.com/science/2022/feb/13/scientific-proof-that-being-wrong-is-right

    There seem to be multiple levels of irony in such a short statement.

    Liked by 2 people

  11. Mark,

    There is a simple rule of thumb for distinguishing between charlatans and serious journalism. Just look at the letters they agree to print in their newspapers. The philosophy of science reduced to a fridge magnet slogan? Really?

    Liked by 1 person

  12. By way of dismissing the glib wisdom on display within the letters page of the Guardian, I could point out that the Hungarian philosopher of science, Imre Lakatos reflected upon a lack of asymmetry between falsification and verification. As he put it, if a scientist encounters a bright red swan, that doesn’t mean that he would abandon his theory that all swans are white. He would simply go looking for the painter.

    And if you are looking for a couple of fridge magnet slogans to work with, how about these two I just dreamt up:

    Science is the art of drawing conclusions from incomplete information.

    Scepticism is a desire for higher artistic standards.

    Like

  13. It is simply amazing just how many times wrong combinations of Anglia, University and East are used by those wishing to draw attention to deficiencies in one tiny part of it – CRU (which seemingly never gets scrambled). Beth, actually you should be excused being so very far away.

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  14. No John – Science is the art of constructing provisional HYPOTHESES from incomplete data.

    Like

  15. Alan,

    But if it stops at only constructing hypotheses then nothing is achieved. The conclusions represent a consensus view arrived at in the face of evidence. Time has a habit of overturning consensus but, in the meantime, the conclusion will have served a purpose.

    Before we go much further, may I venture that we may just be playing with words here and that there is no fundamental disagreement?

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  16. Of course, the other possibility is that you are referring to the concept of science in the abstract — a defined logic, if you will — whereas I am referring to science as the social phenomenon, in which consensus is used to influence courses of action.

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  17. “…I am referring to science as the social phenomenon, in which consensus is used to influence courses of action”

    Social phenomena are by definition not science, having emergent causation (groupthink, culture, herd instinct, whatever). Consensus is indeed a social phenomenon, and is not needed for universally replicable results in a defined context. And science says nothing whatever about taking courses of action. Albeit its generally the case, as we’re all human and all subject to biases, that science can rarely proceed in ‘pure’ form.

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  18. Once again, Andy, I think you are using the word ‘science’ in a particular sense. I was using it in the pragmatic sense in which science is what scientists do. It is, by this definition, the very essence of a human institution. That is not to deny what you say regarding the concept of a scientific logic.

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  19. As a geologist my definition of a scientific hypothesis tends to impinge upon what others would consider a theory. Commonly in geology not enough is preserved in the record for a firm theory to be established by the elimination of all rival hypotheses. A geologist called Chamberlain wrote a short paper introducing the “Method of Multiple Working Hypotheses” which covers this situation. With insufficient data one should propose as many different explanations (=hypotheses) as the limited data allow, recognising that it may not be possible to eliminate all the alternatives.

    Over the years I have come to believe that Chamberlain’s method should apply to all science when there is still insufficient evidence to eliminate all possible alternative explanations. Science should not consider problems solved when there is evidence pointing toward a single explanation because a deliberate search may well provide evidence that a different explanation is equally viable.

    Thus for me the definitions I was originally given are the ones I usually accept – that a hypothesis is a provisionally accepted explanation, whereas a theory is a hypothesis that has stood the test of time and resisted attempts to overthrow it accommodating and incorporating new data as it did so. This is not to say that a theory cannot in the future be overthrown. A useful consideration is that textbook science consists of theories. Most research papers contain hypotheses.

    So John, I think we may differ about hypotheses and theories.

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  20. Alan,

    >”So John, I think we may differ about hypotheses and theories.”

    I hope you will be pleased to hear that we don’t. My fridge magnet ditty wasn’t intended to be a comment on the distinction between hypothesis and theory; in fact, I do not use either term and I accept everything you say. However, if you allow for the sake of argument my use of the term ‘science’ in the sense of it being a human institution, I think the allowance should come with the acceptance that such institutions proceed in directions that are guided by a sense of confidence. Where this confidence comes from is the issue. One should have more confidence in a theory than a hypothesis because one enjoys more evidential weight than the other. But, human institutions being what they are, consensus also plays a key role. In fact, if you look at what the IPCC says about this, you will note that they believe that confidence is a function of consensus and evidential weight:

    The Confidence of Living in the Matrix

    They draw a matrix in which both consensus and evidential weight can range from low to high, and each cell in the matrix indicates a resultant level of confidence. They even go so far as to state in their guidelines that high confidence is still possible in the face of weak evidence as long as the consensus is high! This is why there are so many reasons to distrust the IPCC. Consensus has a role in science but should only be high if the evidence is strong. My article demonstrates how in the real world of science, where the prescribed ethics that unify the community are not always respected, this need not be the case – which is a shame.

    If WordPress was a little bit more intelligent, it would have offered the ‘Confidence of Living in the Matrix’ article as being related.

    I’m entering the time of day when I tend to have less time to spend on Cliscep, so if I seem to retire from the debate, please bear with me.

    Like

  21. John: “I was using it in the pragmatic sense in which science is what scientists do.”

    Really ‘science’ is not the word to use to describe the above, for any depth of discussion. It is ‘The Academy’, or at least ‘the enterprise of science’, or ‘scientific institutions’ for particular parts thereof, or ‘scientists’ who make their individual efforts. ‘Science’ alone, is what in such discussions is generally reserved for only the defined logic. The pragmatic execution occurs indeed via ‘human institutions’, which collectively or separately have names. Notwithstanding that the vernacular and even the dictionary definitions, are much looser; but then for normal public usage the distinction doesn’t matter.

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  22. >”Really ‘science’ is not the word to use to describe the above, for any depth of discussion.”

    Give me a break mate, it was supposed to be on a fridge magnet 🙂

    As long as you understand now what I was getting at, I can die satisfied. I will not get drawn into a debate regarding how deep a conversation is possible whilst using ‘science’ as a shorthand to mean the activities of scientists.

    Liked by 1 person

  23. A few years ago, WUWT alerted me to this blog post by Sabine Hossenfelder.

    http://backreaction.blogspot.com/2018/11/the-present-phase-of-stagnation-in.html

    It discusses the lack of progress in physics, and blames the theoreticians for “trying to solve problems that don’t exist.”

    Developing new methodologies is harder than inventing new particles in the dozens, which is why they don’t like to hear my conclusions.

    This is the penultimate paragraph:

    I am afraid there is nothing that can stop them. They review each other’s papers. They review each other’s grant proposals. And they constantly tell each other that what they are doing is good science. Why should they stop? For them, all is going well. They hold conferences, they publish papers, they discuss their great new ideas. From the inside, it looks like business as usual, just that nothing comes out of it.

    The whole thing is worth a read, if anyone missed it the first time around.

    Liked by 1 person

  24. By the way, in terms of a lack of progress in climate science, we don’t have to look much further than the non-narrowing of the range of plausible estimates for ECS, which means that benign outcomes and horror shows are still on the table.

    Liked by 2 people

  25. Jit, Richard,

    I need to get back to this tomorrow, if I find the time.

    Like

  26. Jit – posted this over on FENTON thread, but maybe relevant here given your comment –

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Brane

    “In string theory and related theories such as supergravity theories, a brane is a physical object that generalizes the notion of a point particle to higher dimensions. Branes are dynamical objects which can propagate through spacetime according to the rules of quantum mechanics. They have mass and can have other attributes such as charge”

    think that was my last foray into trying to understand the universe – my head still hurts !!!”

    Like

  27. Richard, Jit,

    I am a little puzzled why Hossenfelder is claiming that the LHC has failed to confirm anything despite it having been used to discover the Higgs Boson in 2012. Putting that quibble aside, my main objection is that she over-simplifies the social dynamics that lie behind the stagnation in foundational physics. It is due to so much more than pal review of papers and self-satisfaction. A better appreciation can be gained by reading Smolin’s book. It is also worth pointing out that the hiatus in the confirmation of theories is largely to do with the fact that such theories are speculating upon what physical reality looks like on the Planck Scale. Even the LHC can’t help you very much with that. Also note that Sabine is a quantum gravitist who comes from the general relativity stable. They are not too keen on the string theory crew and are resentful of their dominance.

    The stagnation in the refinement of ECS estimates does, I believe, have a strong parallel. Whilst such estimates were based upon what models were telling us, no progress would be possible because the climate scientists were just doing what the string theorists are doing — just mucking around with hypotheses. It is telling that it was only when paleological observation was added into the mix that progress could be made. My question would be why this wasn’t done so much earlier. Was it because uncertainty is the climate activists’ friend?

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  28. JIT for me the lack of progress in climate science means I don’t have to look much further than the constant focus upon minuscule temperature increases in places all over the world as evidence of dire projections of unmentionable harm to be visited upon us unless we relinquish the benefits of industrialisation. For sceptics it is so counterproductive.

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  29. When I look back at the way I have discussed string theory’s inability to make testable predictions, I feel I have rather understated the problem. It isn’t just that string theory makes predictions at the Planck Scale. After all, the theory also has to paint a picture that is consistent with the real world at relatively lower energies, and that is at least verifiable. No, the real problem is that there is no single world description that can be called the String Theory. String theory is not that well formulated. It is just a family of hypotheses that are unified by the concept of stringiness operating in hidden dimensions of the universe, and there are more potential instantiations of that family than there are atoms in the universe. String theory cannot make a cohesive prediction because it is not yet a single, well-defined theory.

    There is a parallel to be found in climate science. There is no single, well-defined theory of the existing climatic state and how it must progress; there is instead a family of proposals unified by underlying physical laws, but with many remaining parametric degrees of freedom. A select few of these proposals (hypotheses, if you will) are collated as part of a climate model ensemble that the climate science community decrees as being ‘the’ theory of how climate will progress (with its accompanying prediction exhibiting a statistical spread). In doing this, each model prediction is amalgamated using a statistical approach that is actually inappropriate given the epistemic uncertainties at play. The credibility of any given climate model is not as important as the credibility of the ensemble. A bit of this and a bit of that does the trick nicely. It’s an arcane art.

    String theory models are not, of course, amalgamated in this way; each is taken in turn and put to the test. The very few that have been sufficiently well formulated for this purpose have failed the test because they have made at least one or two predictions that are at odds with the known universe — only 10 followed by 500 zeros of such formulations left to go. Nevertheless, the string theory and climate science situation has its analogies. It is amazing what narratives can take flight when there is a surfeit of hypotheses and a dearth of experimental confirmation for any given one.

    Liked by 2 people

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