Wednesday, December 9, 2009

the existential issues in the global warming debate

I am thinking about climate denialism with relation to one of the great questions in sociology, which goes: “what does it profit a man if he gain the whole world and lose his soul?”

Indeed. When I was in Atlanta for Thanksgiving, I had a discussion with Doug, my levelheaded brother, about global warming. Doug is – or at least, I hope he is going to be – the thermostat king of the Southeast. At the moment, he is making good money replacing thermostats at various heavy use sites, like hotels. Long may those day renters fiddle with their hot and cold!

And so, like my brother Dan, and unlike me, he strides about in the world, rubs shoulders with plenty of talk radio listeners, middle managers, the salt of the earth who have spent their allotted time building their precarious monuments to the self of houses, pickup trucks, entertainment centers, skill sets, marriages, kids. They are the main, and I am not part of the main. I am an island. I work alone, editing mostly academic papers, never really seeing my customers, and all my monuments to self have crumbled to the ground before my eyes.

Everybody has an edge. My edge is that I am a loser. But – because that, too, must be wiped away from the perceptive apparatus in order to see clearly - I defer to my bro in terms of his grasp of the social psychology of the American middle class.

So I asked him if one of my intuitions is right. I’ve long thought that the reason the great American middle (Southeast division, at least) is so convinced that the issue of global warming is fake is because that middle thinks that this is a sneaky way to blame it. The Americans fought communism because they felt the communists blamed them for their lifestyles – although at least the communists could be said to envy those lifestyles, and want to take them over and use them for their own obscure purposes. But to these people, the environmentalists are worse – they just want to destroy everything for the birds and the beasts. They aren’t even pro-human.

Doug did think that I was partly right. The people he talks to, the main, do feel like they are being blamed for global warming.

Paul Krugman’s blog, today, is about why global warming seems to turn up the crazy. Climate rage, he calls it. He has two explanations:

“First, environmentalism is the ultimate “Mommy party” issue. Real men punish evildoers; they don’t adjust their lifestyles to protect the planet. (Here’s some polling to that effect.)

Second, climate change runs up against the anti-intellectual streak in America.”

I think Krugman may have grasped surface aspects of the issue, but not the deep structure. That structure is existential. The blame is existential (you are condemned for your entire way of life) and the resentment is existential (you are condemning me for my entire way of life – and who are you?).

The science of climate change enters into the matrix of blame and counter-blame in America and makes an emotionally charged demand: that one take an objective look at the totality of American lifestyles. What this demand ignores is that objectivity is not emotionally neutral. On the contrary, objectivity touches on humanity’s greatest fear – the fear of being prey, of appearing without any excuse or mitigation in the hunter’s gunsight.

Thus, the pettiness and superstition that has become the vernacular of denialism is not, I think, simply about American “anti-intellectualism.” One of the things I have disliked from the very soles of my feet about the pro-science side of the climate change debate is the reliance on authority, instead of argument – the scientists have formed a ‘consensus’, so that answers the question. Climate gate shows that, as one would expect, a consensus is a political thing, which consists of infinite strategizing. Real anti-intellectualizing occurs only when intellectuals are treated as authorities to whom we, who have presumably gone through high school and can judge for ourselves, are supposed to bow down.

I see that appeal on the liberal blogs a lot – plus the disciplinary policing. And I think: this is bullshit. It donfuses respect with belief.

Any amateur – myself, for instance – should be able to grasp the objective issues of climatology, and judge for themselves the evidences for the climate change – which, while called global warming, doesn’t necessarily mean uniform warming in all places on Earth at all times. It seems to me that the climatologists have created a very impressive case – and they have done so not by moving from certainty to certainty (which would be prima facie evidence that something funny is going on), but by the stumbling, adjusting, adhoc-ery that is the real history of science, from germ theory to quantum physics. In my opinion, the image of consensus –by concealing the real work of science – actually undermines the case for climate change. It makes any discrepancy seem like a matter that discredits the whole, and makes the scientists seem like conspirators, “covering up’ things. In fact, discrepancies are to be expected. The models that climatologists use to project the sum of the earth’s weather not only go forward, into the future, but go back, into the past. But what are they made of? They are made out of information we have gathered from the relatively puny percentage of earth time where we have recorded temperatures – 150 years out of the Earth’s 4.5 billion. We build a structure that both projects and retrojects climate conditions. Our structure is shaky. And will probably so remain – science being about probabilities, not certainties. It is not, though, as shaky as, say, the market in derivatives.

So, let’s take up state of the art in dendrochronology in our next post.


duncan said...

the stumbling, adjusting, adhoc-ery that is the real history of science, from germ theory to quantum physics. In my opinion, the image of consensus –by concealing the real work of science – actually undermines the case for climate change

Yes - yes - this is precisely right, and it's really good to see someone articulating it. (Your posts on climate science are great, roger.) This is why fucking 'climategate' is so revealing, I think - above and beyond the baseline denialist nuttery, it's revealing of how people understand, or misunderstand, the scientific process.

So a huge amount of noise has been generated around that email which contains the phrase "Kevin and I will keep [papers] out [of the IPCC report] somehow - even if we have to redefine what the peer-review literature is !" Shock! Outrage! Such bias on the part of supposedly impartial scientists!

This outrage (which is suprisingly genuine, I think - as in, it's not all disingenuous denialist debating tactics) reveals such confusion about how scientific peer-groups or norms of scientific judgement are (or possibly could be) generated that it's hard to know how to start arguing back? Do people think that credible scientific communities just fall from the sky, as natural kinds, without having to be produced and endlessly reproduced through precisely these kinds of ongoing low-level judgement-calls? Where do people think the peer-group in peer-review comes from? The fact that people (environmentalists like Monbiot included) could see this is anything other than business as usual demonstrates a profound ignorance about science - a misunderstanding about the kind of authority science possesses.

It reminds me of the Speculative Realists, actually. The same willed and/or naive failure to understand the significance of epistemological questions - the same insistence on seeing anything that's 'socially constructed' as fallen and sinful. This seems to be a powerful current intellectual inclination.

(Sorry to rant.)

Roger Gathmann said...

Well, duncan - rant on! What is most interesting is, in the end, the community couldn't redefine the peer review, and had to use other than their first approaches to patch together a climate chronoscope. This, actually, is what one would expect. It seems to be everyone's impression that we have a tape of a billion years of climate records we could use, when of course what we really have is a basket of data heavily leaning to Europe and parts of the U.S. over the past 150 years and clues.

But I'm going to try to go into this in another post, and do my duty to ... something or other.

Anonymous said...

I agree fully with you both here, a return to some of the texts of the philosophy of science and the social study of science (which is not superceded by Latour's critical study of it, and which on the contrary confirms much of the muddled nature of lab-work and the ad hoc nature of consensus) is needed. In the grand scheme of things scientists have had a relatively short time to work on climate, they also freely admit their results glean only tendencies and probabilities and not laws, that the climate itself is an archetype of complexity. So when an overwhelming majority tell us we're in trouble (even before the fact that this message goes against any capitalist cui bono) we should listen up.

duncan said...

a tape of a billion years of climate records we could use

Yes, exactly. People look at the multiple levels of interpretation that go into any scientific output of this kind, and think that, because it's very clearly interpretation (and therefore informed by a whole nexus of already-produced community standards, results, etc.), what we're seeing in the scientific process is bias, rather than normal science. Another prominent theme in the cacophany the emails have unleashed is that the climate scientists were obviously approaching the data with preconceived ideas of what they'd find (and again - this is stuff that's said not just by denialists, but by would-be supporters of climate science). The implication, presumably, is that scientists should unlearn all their previous knowledge before approaching every new piece of information, perhaps using one of those memory gadgets from Men in Black. Interpretation itself is taken to be anti-science (rather than, say, absolutely central to science).

If nothing else, this whole ruckus shows how difficult it is to defend science without an adequate sense of the social construction of scientific results. Again as you say - if science is presented as possessing the wrong kind of authority (which it regularly is), the actual scientific process looks like a falling away from that ideal - indeed, can look to many people like corruption or fraud. It's really important that defenders of climate science (or of the scientific process in general) not go any further down that road.

Anyway - as you can tell I'm annoyed by all this. :-P

duncan said...

box3 - yeah, that's spot on about Latour. A lot of people (including, a little oddly, Latour himself) seem to take that kind of STS work as being much more critical of the scientific method than it possibly could be. I guess that's a lot of what's frustrating me about discussions around these emails - a lot of science studies type analysis is basically just descriptive: this is how science works. It works just fine this way. And anyone who wants to defend science - and scientific results - better get comfortable with that, or you're setting up a false ideal which can then all-too-easily be toppled by the revelation that climate scientists can be rude about colleagues or engage in academic politics or interpret their data or whatever.

Phil said...

I've been trying to get a handle on Quine lately and am struck by the applicability of his thesis of confirmation holism of scientific theories to the "climategate" saga.

If I'm understanding the idea correctly, it means that any one observation or even series of observations are insufficient to refute a scientific theory. Additionally, it states that empirical observation always underdetermines ANY theory and perhaps ordinary language use. An upshot of all this is that there is no such thing as theory-unbiased observation. Scientists are going to be working with a theory that will effect what they consider evidence or observations that pertain to supporting or refuting the theory.

I think that there is a clear relation between Quine's thoughts on confirmation holism and the current brouhaha over "climategate." As other commentators have stated previously, there is a fundamental misunderstanding here about the method and ways that science and scientists work. The right-wingers are acting like Vienna-Circle positivists in their view of scientific activity and theory formation and verification.

I'm really new to Quine, so forgive me if this is incorrect.

Roger Gathmann said...

Phil, that works for me re Quine. But I don't think that the denialists are operating under the terms of any one notion of science. It is more the establishment liberals - those who emphasize the expert's authority and "what science says" - who seem to have a very naive view of science, so they are liable to be shocked by climategate.

There's a nice essay somewhere by Stephan Gould about the 'refutation" of Darwin by Lord Kelvin. It was actually a pretty good refutation, in that Kelvin made standard assumptions about the outflow of heat and the size of the earth to come to the conclusion that the earth could only be 400 million or (as he got older and more arthritic) 10 million years old. Thus, there wouldn't be enough time for Darwinian variation to work.

Darwin knew those Kelvin estimates were wrong - he trusted to his theory as his own proof that they were - but only with the discovery of radiation was the Kelvin refuted on the plane of physics.

Gould points out, though, that the canonical story of this debate is wrong. In the structure of evolutionary theory (that unreadable tome) he points out that it was Kelvin's unscientific lowering of the age of the earth from his original estimate of 400 million years to 10 that caused dissent. In actuality, Kelvin helped destroy the ageless geological uniformity of the planet assumed by Lyell and provided the code for a synthesis of geology and physics. This was to the good!

Similarly, the denialist bitching about the statistical methods used by Mann have provoked better measurements and methods. The think is, that isn't enough - and it is here that denial departs from science altogether. They have no desire to offer better explanations - they simple desire to destroy the "issue."

Phil said...

The Kelvin/Darwin anecdote is fascinating. I'll have to look into it.

By the way, congratulations on making the cut over at 3quarks.