Feb 17, 2017

I Get Frustrated, Lemme Tell Ya --- Trying to Discuss Global Warming with Those who Buy the Mythology of Science

Images (mostly) by Basil Wolverton

Here's an argument I get from one particularly rabid Science True Believer (specifically about man-made global warming, but it could apply to any controversy):

"Oh, are you kidding me! If somebody could disprove global warming (evolution, vaccines, etc.) do you know how famous they'd be? Scientists would LOVE to make a discovery like that. They can't do it though!

But yeah, scientists love to pick apart each other's ideas... they're always sniping at each other, trying to find the flaws in each others' research... If anybody could disprove global warming, they'd ABSOLUTELY do so, because it would make their career!"

Et cetera, and so on. I think I have given the gist of the argument, and the tone, if not the exact words used.

There are two things that make this difficult to refute, in the midst of a lively conversation with multiple parties jumping in and diverting:

1) The total incredulity at any challenges to their idea (note exclamation points, and emphatic all-caps words.) They basically don't want to hear another point of view, and barely listen to anything you say.

2) My response is sort of complex, difficult to put in a sound-bite or short phrase. It strains the amount of attention-span they are willing to give me. I have, like, 5 seconds to make my case, and then they may interrupt, go off on something else, make a joke, get distracted, etc.


And what is my response? First, I will admit that Stephen's argument (that's who I get this example from, my fellow comics cabal attendee Stephen --- the comics cabal is a group of local writers and artists) has a superficial plausibility. I could believe that scientists are an ornery bunch of sniping, egomaniacal nerds, eager for credit and glory, convinced of their own great mental acumen, and the lousy brains of their peers. Not really I mean, but as a sort of exaggerated caricature, it's a plausible scenario.

But a couple of points limit the effectiveness of this self-correcting nerd egoism. First, just as a matter of sociology and realism about How Things Work, in the Real World:  These guys are all bought in to the consensus reality, for the most part. They have been HAZED by an extensive indoctrination process (BA, MA, PhD, post-doc training, etc.) into the tenets of their clan, their tribe, their "faith" if you will.

They are not going to snipe and dispute major tenets of the faith, they are going to snipe and dispute small trivial side-issues. The narcissism of small differences, as Freud called it, might apply here: their trench warfare is going to be over teeny-tiny things nobody outside their tribe knows or cares about.

Because, here's the thing too:  As Thomas Kuhn pointed out in "The Structure of Scientific Revolutions," the process of normal science is about confirming and working out (elaborating) a given paradigm; it is NOT about seismic revolutions in thought.

Let me break that down, if you have not read Kuhn or encountered this idea. Science as an institution works by taking a given hypothesis (e.g. man-made global warming, ASSUMING IT TO BE TRUE, and then finding evidence that supports and confirms that view.

Ah, you say, but what do they do with contrary evidence? "Well, buddy, that doesn't prove anything. We've got mountains of 'proof,' and you found one piddling little contrary data point. Go blow it out your---

"Or hey, you know what? You know what would be really good, Mr. Low-level Researcher? Here's an idea, if you want to 'get ahead' in this racket. Why don't you figure out a way that your 'conflicting data point' actually can be fit somehow into our current model? Now THAT might win you a pat on the head and a cookie.

"Because, you see, we're not playing the Overturning Paradigms game. Or YOU'RE not, anyway. Did you think you were little Albie Einstein when you came in here, your first day on the job? Ready to shake things up and show us 'big boys' how things really are? No, you're going to do several decades of research that supports OUR theories, and then, maybe, if you do really really good at that, we'll bump your status a little, and you might get your own lab, and be 'independent.'

"But at your current status level... Well hey, you try to buck us and we'll 'peer review' your ass right out of all the respected journals. That's right, we'll blackball anyone who won't play ball, we'll keep you out of the best clubs, your career won't advance, you'll end up at some underfunded state school in the South, and anything else we can dream up."

* * * * *
That's a little bombastic perhaps, sorry about that. I'm as "emphatic" as the people I complain about I guess... My point, though, is that this "normal science," as Kuhn terms it, works by building up an elaborate edifice based on a pre-conceived notion about the conclusion.

And don't get me wrong, this is a legitimate process I think, for expanding scientific knowledge, as long as we recognize its limitations, and don't misunderstand what science is. The general public thinks that these pre-conceived conclusions are "the final result" of science, and that they're "the best knowledge we have so far." Ergo, "we must act on it."

The general public also HATES to hear that previous scientific regimes (eg the 19th century view of chemistry, geology before plate tectonics, Copernican astronomy) have been overturned. Because, what are you saying, that CURRENT theories could be overturned? Come on, man, that's all we've got! That's what we're hanging out hat on, for now... ya can't take that away..

They also HATE to hear that scientists before a paradigm shift often do not give up their ideas even when confronted by the "evidence" of the new theory. That is, for example, the guy who came up with plate tectonics could not get a hearing for DECADES. He turned out to be "right" though, so they say --- that is, at some point, the upper echelons of geology adopted his idea. But many scientists from the earlier regime would understandably have a hard time admitting that their lifetime of work was "wrong."

This is the origin of the phrase "Science advances one funeral at a time." If science were perfectly "objective," why can't those guys get with the new program? Just show 'em the evidence, and they should hop right on board, right?

In fact, as Kuhn points out, discredited paradigms still produce useful results. This is something else the public misses ---- there is not some black or white, easy answer to these questions. "Just tell us what to believe!" the public shouts at scientists (priests.) "What are we believing today? It's man-made global warming, right? Okay, cool, I'm smart, now I know what's what."

It don't work like that... Nobody knows SHIT. Not even the priests... The real value of what they do, and I do think there's a value (putting aside the questionable role they play in society at large) is in the building up of these elaborate edifices of data, based on some probably flawed assumption. The flawed assumption GUIDES and directs research --- just don't conclude from that that anybody actually knows anything. Not, at least, in some authoritative, ultimate, "priestly" way. If you want "priestly" answers --- go to a priest! Or shaman, or guru, or wise man up on a mountain-top...

* * * * *
Let me underline the point too, about why you can't just "present the evidence" that disproves global warming. Even if you're a scientist trying to make your name or whatever.

It's all about this concept of paradigms. Here's the thing:  The very same evidence will be interpreted differently under different paradigms.

So if you bring your data to a global warming guy, he will "see" that evidence differently from a "denier." Or rather, interpret it differently. But perhaps if he has absorbed the paradigm fully enough, he WILL INDEED automatically "see" it in a way that fits his worldview. Just like liberals and conservatives and all other tribes having their own filter on the world. Scientists are not immune --- nor SHOULD they be, since that is "normal science."

According to Kuhn, only when conflicting data builds up to an absurd height, will the old edifice begin to crumble. I wonder if even that is enough; and in any case, that process of crumbling can take decades, or even centuries. I suspect that the real trigger for shifting a paradigm is something from outside Science --- some shift in society, in politics or power relations. Or perhaps in the social engineering schemes for society.

After all, who sets the paradigm that will be followed by all the careerist, company men of Science? Who has that power, who's the Decider? These institutions of Science are no different from all the other hierarchical institutions of Civilization. When you go to work (assuming you are an employee of some company, and not the eye in the pyramid of the deep state) do you walk in and decide to upset the apple cart --- or do you keep your head down and do your job? That's the same way in Science, in Academia generally.

I was reading a book recently about scholars in the field of medieval studies, and the author pointed out that in any given academic field there are "from 2 to 10" bigwigs who control all the funding, the patronage, and the "consensus" or mainstream view of things. In France, he said, these are called "mandarins." They're big kahuna alpha chiefs, who strut around and get all the glory, the money, the praise, the status, etc. And unless you have some magic pedigree yourself (ie come from some wealth or high status family) you're probably not going to just walk in and shake them from their perch. In fact if you don't beg and grovel for handouts you probably won't get anywhere in your career.

So I assume it works about like that in the field of global warming. In fact, from reading some of the Climategate emails, that was the impression I got:  a small number of science dudes work together, politically, to pressure and police other scientists to stay on the reservation. They get pissed off even if one of "their" guys (ie a guy who's on their "team") deviates even slightly from the company line, or wants to be more cautious about something or be more restrained, etc. It's very fucking political, is what I'm saying.

So don't give me this idea that all the scientists are champing at the bit to discover some heretical new view of the world. That ain't it at all...

Yeah, well, I did manage to make my point to Stephen about the plate tectonics guy being ignored and shut out by the mainstream geologists. But his response was, "Oh, well, I don't know that case so I can't comment." Right but it's not just about that case... It's every case. Every case where some "heretic" (interesting that the language mirrors that of religious faith) comes along and questions the consensus. And that will be your fate, my friend, Mr. Low-level Scientist, if you challenge the dogma about global warming.

One thing that's really funny too, these guys in my comics cabal, who are all true believers in Science --- they all think that, like, Exxon and Shell are paying off a bunch of phony hack scientists to dispute global warming. And THAT'S the only problem here. I don't even know where to begin. Yes, okay, probably something like that goes on. But more to the point, you can't seem to see the forest for the fucking trees here. Your big picture view is so distorted by the matrix you're in, that you can't see the entire Government-Corporate-Media-Military complex that's invested in the pro-global warming camp. And not only that, but the "Big Oil" guys are probably playing some controlled opposition role in their funding of anti-AGW scientists. I.e., at the highest levels, at the ownership level, are they not the same gang who are pushing pro-AGW? How to explain this to people though, who are blinded by their matrix programming to think "Big Oil bad" and see the world in this cartoon way? People who aren't even aware that they've BEEN programmed, that they have work to do in questioning the propaganda we're swimming in.

I could go on and on. Maybe someday I'll learn how to write an outline and structure my writing like a real essay, that would be great. Maybe I'll pick up in a Part 2 or 3 some time, but for right now I've already gone on too long, so... let me go draw some comics now... (Haha, yeah right. Like I draw comics any more... Who's got time for that monkey business. I've got long-winded blog posts to write...)


  1. I can't read this whole post, but here are some things I think y'all can agree on. 1) Science isn't perfect. 2) Science is the best method we've got for learning new things about the universe. 3) Going forward, humans should try to fix science. 4) Using science, people have overturned major misconceptions in the past, so they should be able to do it again.

    Here's where y'all differ: Stephen thinks that the problems in science are minor enough that we can talk about breakthroughs WITHOUT bringing up those problems. You, on the other hand, think that the problems are so bad, we need to revisit them, even in cases where nearly all scientists agree. I'd compare that practice to bringing up food poisoning every time someone offers you food, or bringing up air pollution every time someone says it's nice out. It's true that those ARE problems, but they're not so bad that they need to be delved into at EVERY opportunity.

    I'd be interested to find the limits of where you do and don't believe in scientific claims. I know you're very skeptical about dinosaurs, so I wonder -- Do you believe in earthquakes? Have you ever felt one? What about the human appendix? Have you ever taken one out? If you haven't experienced these things personally, how can you be sure they exist? Maybe they don't! You could make lists of the major scientific claims you do and don't believe in, and try to figure out why you think certain ones pass muster.

  2. I know you're skeptical about these, so you could start your Skeptical List off with:
    • Atoms have protons and neutrons.
    • Nagasaki was decimated by a nuclear weapon.
    • About 2000 years have passed since the time of Jesus.