OK, forgive me, this one’s a bit philosophical. It starts with why we believe what we believe, and ends with a justification for science outreach, not despite the fact that people’s belief structures are stubborn, but because of it. (As usual, just a first pass.)
And it refers to a brewing argument about which “side” of the climate “debate” is most dogmatic and quasireligious. In fact, beliefs are beliefs. I claim that idea that anybody is entirely rational about anything, the idea that some of us form our models of the world entirely on evidence, is excessive. The question is how to deal with reality knowing that these biases exist.
I refer you to this argument by Prof John Stackhouse, about as intelligent a person as you can imagine being a Bible literalist; the resurrection, the loaves and fishes, the whole nine yards, if I understand correctly. I have been following him to try to get insight into how the thought process of dogmatism works, and it’s presented an interesting challenge:
I think we share a lot of common ground here. We agree, for example, that one ought to have good reasons for what one believes or, at least, be able to reply adequately to challenges to that belief. We agree that if one cannot adequately defend one’s beliefs, including one’s premisses, one ought to change one’s beliefs, or premisses, or something. One shouldn’t just keep believing things that one cannot adequately defend.
But let’s stop there for a moment. Why shouldn’t I be entitled to keep believing things that I cannot adequately defend?
Suppose, for example, I believe something because I have believed it all my life and it seems to make good sense of whatever it is it is supposed to describe or explain. It seems to fit the facts. Perhaps it is, in fact, true. So when someone comes along and offers apparently strong arguments against my belief, I could certainly accede to those arguments and give up my belief. But couldn’t I also decide that, while the arguments against my belief certainly seem sound for the moment, perhaps they are not as sound as they appear? Perhaps, in fact, they are not sound at all, and I am just not sophisticated enough to see immediately why they are not sound. Indeed, since my belief has seemed to me to be true for quite a long time and over quite a number of relevant circumstances, wouldn’t it be rather reckless of me to drop a belief simply because I can’t defend it well right now? Wouldn’t such an attitude dispose me to credulity and even abuse at the hands of magicians or charlatans or con men or preachers of false doctrines?
When I think, furthermore, that lots of apparently capable people hold to that belief also, it would seem reckless indeed to drop that belief simply because I can’t defend it adequately, for perhaps some of them can. Indeed, isn’t it very likely that some of them can, since it is exceedingly unlikely that I am now encountering a brand new, devastating argument never before encountered and handled well by any of my fellow-believers? So perhaps I might ask around a bit, do some reading, get some expert counsel, before I drop my belief at the first sign of serious trouble.
That’s what a scientist ought to do. That’s what a scholar of any discipline ought to do. That’s what any rational person ought to do.
Now, if you follow the rest of his argument, you will see he takes it to a place that is (not just to an atheist or an agnostic, but to someone like me who finds value in religion but constructs a religious view on evidence rather than defending an inherited and outdated package) transparently ridiculous.
The argument, though, is not easy to dismiss.
Indeed, this is why we tend to eschew debate with denialists. It is not hard to construct a single argument that to somone unprepared for it seems logically coherent. Take the “tropospheric hot spot”. Assert that all GCMs produce a feature that no observations reproduce (without noting that this isn’t a complete refutation even of the predicted feature). It is best if the scientific community is not especially interested in this contradiction, so that the innocent debater has nothing in his or her arsenal to refute it. Conclude that climate models are flawed (stipulated) and allow the audience to infer that this flaw amounts to a warmING bias everywhere. (The denialists themselves seem incapable of distinguishing between a warm bias and a warming bias, as we see by their squawking about underrepresentation of “cold” (rapidly warming) polar data.) Claim that all predictions are BASED ON these “flawed”, implicitly biased models. Conclude that there is nothing to worry about.
An argument like this is convincing coming from an unibased investigator. But nobody is unbiased about the climate question anymore. We want our juries ignorant of the case at hand for a reason, which is why jury trials of celebrated cases are difficult. However, everyone, regardless of background, claims to be the genuine self-questioning scientific party.
How do we react to an argument of this sort? Much as we’d like to say we are not swayed by prior beliefs, nobody is innocent in that way, on either side. We take the argument and slot it into 1) how credible other arguments we have heard are 2) our social connections to other people that we respect and 3) how coherent it is with our “priors”, i.e., our pre-established beliefs.
So when I say, come on, if a deity capable of inserting itself into the womb of a virgin existed, why would it choose to spend nine months sweating in a moist sack and a dozen years suffering the indignities of childhood? Why would it not just show up from the sky, a far more impressive performance? I mean, the whole story just doesn’t add up, what does the literalist Christian answer? First, that they have heard many arguments form incredulity in the past that have been unconvincing. Second, that most everyone they most love and respect believe exactly the contrary. Third, that their well-being corresponds closely to their perceived relationship to the deity in question, reinforcing their prior (and in fact, reinforcing my own interest in religion, which is ultimately about the nature of the subjective, not about the nature of the objective).
How is this different from out belief in climate science, and in particular, to its not especially subtle conclusion that we are doing a lot of damage with our current rate of greenhouse gas emissions? Presented with a challenge, we note that past challenges have all been defeated. We point to the impressive list of institutions that support the consensus (somewhat ignoring that the list is not compelling to our interlocutors). And we point to the broad coherence of evidence.
Is there some way that this set of “beliefs” really is qualitatively different from the beliefs of our opponents, or form the beliefs of religious dogmatists? Yes, there certainly is, but the answer doesn’t lie in the oversimplification of Popperian refutation. As I have said before, the sensible scientific belief in the nature of our problem is not about a hypothesis, but about a set of estimates. There must be a sensitivity of the climate system to greenhouse gases. There must be an impact function from that system to dependent systems. There must be a threshhold rate of change, and a threshhold absolute change, that exceeds the cost of avoiding it, and another that is intolerable and must be avoided at all costs. What those numbers are is what we should be discussing.
But we are still left with the question of whether these estimates are based on a legitimate evidence-based framework or a constructed dogma. By becoming associated with “environmentalism”, we allow ourselves to be tainted by the excesses, real or imagined, of the environmentalist movement. The denialist frame sees claims made by climate science as being of the same ilk as intuitive claims made by environmentalists in the past, some of them established as sloppy and excessive, and others attacked as such. Make no mistake, paranoid excesses of environmentalists have damaged essentially innocent economic activities in the past. So what we see as physics they see as politics, making it easy to slot into a category of doubt.
So from the deniers’ frame, the position we espouse is packaged with a whole bunch of other positions (cancer from transmission lines, e.g., or autism from vaccines) that are not well-supported. Our social connections are perceived to be with dubious social elements who are perceived as superstitious and wantonly destructive. And our recommendations are grossly incoherent with their beliefs about economics.
This last, of course, is head-vise territory for us. How could your economic theory falsify an analysis in physics, chemistry and biology? But explaining why physics, chemistry and biology have to be mutually coherent and economics slave to the others is actually not all that easy, given that people really believe economics is a “science”! How often do we hear “this can’t be true because…” followed by an argument from economics or politics. We dismiss these arguments out of hand. We are like the dog, these arguments are “blah, blah, blah, Ginger” to us. But we need a way to counter them.
We believe what we believe based on a whole set of inputs. Those who want us to believe things that are not true (e.g., a literalist interpretation of the English translation of the Bible, AGW denial, non-native birth of President Obama, etc.) must replace the set of inputs which we receive from the environment around us with a contrary set.
So what makes arguments from physical science different from arguments from other bases? We know that it is because of a far higher level of coherence than any other human activity has achieved. Some of our opponents know this too, but they haven’t had enough experience with it to take their hard knocks.
But others, notably the engineers, get it. They understand about coherence. And they are leaders of the opposition precisely because of the importance of social connections in forming beliefs.
They just don’t understand the depth of our fields, nor the social context in which it emerges. That is why, despite what journalistic professionals and people like Randy Olsen say, despite the fact that the number of people who really will roll up theior sleeves and study is small, it is crucial to present information in depth and in a cognitively accessible didactically sound way.
And speaking as someone who has taken graduate level classes in both engineering and in climate science, I assert from experience that we have a more difficult task, but also that we do it quite badly.
So that’s why, for all my other disagreements with the naysayer squad, I agree that we need to make the science visible. They think they can just look in our notebooks and figure it out, though! That just shows how badly they underestimate the maturity of the field. That makes the visibility all the harder.
There is still plenty of room for climate research, but it will be quite some time before the predictive capacity of the field improves substantially. We probably have to settle for the very coarse picture of the future we already have, and make decisions based on that. The main practical role for climate science now is didactic. And no adequate institutional support exists.
To connect reason to policy discourse, reason has to be made accessible. This isn’t just about openness – that’s really a somewhat inadvertent insult. It’s about explanation. And at any given level, at any given moment, any given explanation will carry very little weight. We have to accept that. And some people will cling to superstitions or biases. We have to accept that too. But, like the emissions themselves, science is cumulative. And it’s beautiful and interesting, but it’s unnecessarily obscure. The real task is to make it more visible.