Home > Climate Change, Public Voice of Science > Kitcher on global warming

Kitcher on global warming

Philosopher Philip Kitcher just reviewed several books on climate change in Science magazine.  I meant to get to this earlier, but Ben Hale got there first and stole some of my thunder.  He even has a snappier title than me. Alas! I won’t repeat what Hale said, and I recommend you go over there and read his post.  Needless to say, you should also read the (pretty long) Kitcher piece.  I’ll have more to say soon, but for now I’ll highlight this:

Captured by a naive and oversimplified image of what “objective science” is like, it is easy for citizens to reject claims of scientific authority when they discover that scientific work is carried out by human beings.

While expanding would have diverted from the main analysis, I wish Kitcher had dwelt on this a bit more.  Why exactly is the public captured by naive and oversimplified images?  Surely the scientific community has played no small role.  We’re nothing if not advocates for an overly simplistic view of science.  Though I’ve sharply criticized a monolithic view of both science and scientists, this is one instance where it’s warranted.  Pretty much all scientists are perfectly happy uttering crudely simple phrases like “replication is the ultimate test of truth in science” when speaking to the public.  Encouraging naivety and oversimplification is par for the course in these situations.

This is something mildly (deeply?) hypocritical about such messaging.  We never stop hyperventilating about the importance of science and scientific reasoning:  Be rational! Look at evidence! Use the scientific method!

And yet, properly applying these principles conflicts with the account of science promoted by scientists themselves! If people actually looked at evidence and used “the scientific method”, there’s no way they’d believe some of the bullshit we say.  You can either be rational or you can accept scientists’ description of science.  But you can’t really be both at the same time.  We welcome rationality and evidence-based reasoning except, ironically enough, when talking about science.  Here it seems we want nothing more than mindless, uncritical adulation.

Now there are much worse sins than hypocrisy.  For the most part it doesn’t really kill anyone.  But Kitcher suggests that global warming deniers succeed partly because the public adopts an oversimplified view of science.  Given that scientists themselves promote such views, and also given some of the dire predictions of a warming world, hypocrisy might be a bit more costly in this case.

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  1. Mark
    June 15, 2010 at 7:23 pm

    Replication isn’t the ultimate test of truth in science?

    • June 17, 2010 at 11:05 am

      Hi Mark. Thanks for the comment, and sorry for the delay. I’ll highlight a couple things. First, both “replication” and “ultimate test” are very poorly defined. My labmates and I used to discuss all the time that as physicists we didn’t really do experiments. We simply made observations. After all, how can you really experiment with the coupled sun-Earth system? So if we’re not really doing experiments, what exactly does it meant to replicate? Each time you do an experiment, the solar and space conditions are different. In the end, replication for us means something quite different than for, say, a synthetic chemist. If you’re interested, Robert Frodeman’s book “Geo-Logic : Breaking Ground Between Philosophy And The Earth Sciences” discusses how the standards for earth science are different than for standard “science.” (fyi, I actually haven’t read this book! But it’s on my list.)

      So since replication means such different things to different areas of science, it also has varying degrees of importance. In my (former!) field, I would say that we didn’t really focus on replicating previous results as much as, say, constructing sound physical models, acquiring better data, etc.

      For these reasons, I would say that we can’t say replication is the “ultimate truth.” It definitely has a role, and sometimes replication has been very important in the advancement of science. But it is not a generalized claim. If you read through some of my previous posts in the “Disunity” category, you’ll see that I am pretty adamant that we shouldn’t promote a single vision of science. Science is too diverse and broad to be judged by one, single criteria.

      Hope this long-winded rambling response has helped! I’ll try get some of my labmates who are still in space physics to see if they have any thoughts.

  2. Mark
    June 17, 2010 at 5:13 pm

    I agree that a simple term like “replication” hides a lot of complication. As a geoscientist myself, I’m well aware that we have only one Earth to do experiments on, and poorly controlled experiments at that. And as for “ultimate truth”?!

    But the state by Dr Kennedy you’re characterising as simplistic doesn’t use the phrase “ultimate truth”, but “ultimate test of truth”, and if you read it in context (as far as you can from a newspaper report) it seems to be saying that replication (rather than peer review) is the ultimate quality control. If you have an important result to verify you don’t rely on peer review, you don’t rely much on “auditing”, you rely on repeating the procedure that got the result, whether it be an experiment, an analysis or a model simulation. And people generally put more stock in replications that aren’t exactly the same as the original (though those have their place). So, hypothetically, if you had a result that consisted of an analysis of paleoclimate data, resulting in a time series of Northern Hemisphere average temperature for the last millenium you would test it by repeating the analysis, using different mathematical methods, gathering more data with different proxies bearing on the same problem, etc. You can replicate those things, you can’t replicate the Earth.

    To my mind the only thing Dr Kennedy was guilty of when he said “replication is the ultimate test of truth in science” (assuming he’s been correctly quoted) is using grandiose terms like “ultimate” and “truth” when he’s really implying something a little more modest.

    “Science is too diverse and broad to be judged by one, single criteria.” I agree entirely.

    • June 18, 2010 at 6:07 pm

      Hi Mark. Thanks again for the great response. You’re right, I should have read the quote more closely.

      It seems, however, we’ve sort of converged to an agreement. We both think that Kennedy was wrong by using grandiose terms like “ultimate” and “truth.” But whereas you think this was “only” a small error, I would judge it somewhat more harshly. I think that it’s a really bad idea to to say things like that. If Kennedy was really implying something quite modest, and if science shouldn’t be judged by a single criteria…why did he make that claim?

      Finally….as I read through my first response, I realize I forgot the word “space” in front of physicist. I’m sure the atomic and condensed matter physicists would be upset by my suggestion that they don’t do experiments!

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