09 March 2010

Asking the Impossible of Science

Many of the self-appointed defenders of science are in fact asking science for the impossible. Consider this expectation from Peter Preston, writing in the Guardian:
Democracies move in particular ways. Voters have to clamber on board when sacrifices are required. They have to see the need for pain, to sense the danger of doing nothing. They have to lead their leaders as well as follow – once they switch off, nothing good happens easily, if at all. . .

What's to be done (except wait for a natural disaster that ends all argument – and much else besides)? First, through gritted teeth, say what won't work, what's been tried already and failed.

More jaw and Gore from politicians can't cut it. They have come to seem secondhand sources, merely parroting a frail scientific thesis. That goes, alas, for journalists, too – and for pressure groups issuing lurid warnings or staging angry demos. Those of us who are convinced, who believe in the necessity of action, haven't changed our minds. But we're not the point. The audience that matters is out there, sleeping or drifting. And rousing it will demand something different, not more of the same. . .

And the plain fact is that we surely need a prophet, not yet another committee. We need one passionate, persuasive scientist who can connect and convince – not because he preaches apocalypse in gory detail, but in simple, overwhelming terms. We need to be taught to believe by a true believer in a world where belief is the fatal, missing ingredient.
For those really wanting to support the scientific community, I would suggest that asking scientists to be the leaders of a political campaign for action on climate change is certainly not the right way to go about it. I'd further venture that looking for prophets in the scientific community to convince unbelievers is distinctly unhelpful.

23 comments:

Roddy said...

That's a very odd piece. Talk about making explicit the Crichton-esque connection between environmentalism and religion, espeically the Judeo-Christian tradition.

I may try and rewrite Preston in a Biblical style.

Emil Perhinschi said...

"We need to be taught to believe by a true believer in a world where belief is the fatal, missing ingredient."

creepy ... science is about methods, not about being right or believing ... one does not need to believe in science, belief is needed only when reason and proof are not enough. Don't they teach philosophy in highschools in UK ?

Raven said...

These people just don't get it.

The problem is we don't have the technology and no amount of cajoling is going to change that.

Find a way to produce energy without CO2 emissions that costs about the same as the free market price of fossil fuels and the market will solve the problem.

Mark B. said...

The need for a great man to rise up and lead comes right out of fascist ideology. Ironic that you see it coming from the Guardian, no? The failure of democracy, the need for belief, the higher cause, it's all there.

Tregonsee said...

C.S. Lewis once wrote to the effect that clergy are tasked with a very important but very focussed duty, and we do them no favor by expecting them to be equally skilled in purely secular areas such as politics. Much can be said about scientists.

grimes_mm said...

Mr. Preston,

An environmental Messiah is not what you need. If you want people to believe your case, you only need to do a few things: (1) Stop manipulating data, (2) open your data up to scientific investigation, which will allow someone to duplicate the finding of the experiment, and (3) stop censoring the peer reviewed literature, allow science from both angles to be heard. If your case will stand up then, I'll be an advocate for AGW myself. But, then and only then.

jstults said...

Cross posting from OIIftG:
He (and you?) both think that science has something to say about what the public's values should be, and you are surprised when talking about science doesn't change anyone's values.
[...]
The reason transparency is insufficient is because everyone involved is trying to borrow credibility from The Science to prop up their value system.

Frontiers of Faith and Science said...

CS Lewis, in the 'Screwtape Letters" has his demon speculating about the need for the infernal forces to create a hybrid magician/materialist to really confound humanity.
Setting aside the religious context, I think it would be very bad to have a scientist/prophet as called for in this plaint of Preston.

dagfinn said...

It seems to me there is already such a prophet and his name is James Hansen. And if he doesn't qualify, why not?

Craig said...

I would think Al Gore is very insulted by this discussion after all the effort he has put in to be recognized as that very prophet.

;~)

jae said...

That blurb is exactly why I put so little faith in "the crusade." I want to gag when I read such illogical crap.

AppleNews said...

Like Alston Chase said in his book "In a Dark Wood":
"When the search for truth is confused with political advocacy, the pursuit of knowledge is reduced to the quest for power."

markbahner said...

"And the plain fact is that we surely need a prophet, not yet another committee. We need one passionate, persuasive scientist who can connect and convince – not because he preaches apocalypse in gory detail, but in simple, overwhelming terms. We need to be taught to believe by a true believer in a world where belief is the fatal, missing ingredient."

When Peter Preston finds his prophet, have him send his prophet to any blog (especially including mine). I'd destroy his prophet. As pointed out by dagfinn (comment #9), James Hansen is the logic "best" person as a prophet.

The problem is that most of Hansen's apocalyptic predictions (e.g., regarding sea level rise and species extinctions) simply aren't supported by science.

Peter Preston apparently simply can't conceive that the science of climate change might not support a climatic apocalypse.

Len Ornstein said...

Citizens and their leaders seek absolute truths to guide their decision making.

Logical deduction from (some) generally axiomatic 'models' are the only source of such absolute truths.

The inductive 'facts' of science, are always provisional. The confidence that can be placed on how well they support the predictions/projections of a model can increase non-linearly with repeated observation, but can never yield absolute truth – or falsity.

The facts of climate science (that depend heavily on hydrodynamic phenomena) are especially noisy – and therefore, generally uncertain.

Few scientists appear to know how to convey a sense of how the uncertainties of 'their facts' should be applied in political decision making.

IF we need a 'prophetic' leader, it perhaps should be someone who can teach citizens and politicians how to incorporate uncertain facts into policy making – as a kind of insurance.

Harrywr2 said...

Raven said... 2

"Find a way to produce energy without CO2 emissions that costs about the same as the free market price of fossil fuels and the market will solve the problem."

Actually, for countries without massive coal reserves that point has for the most part arrived. I think most 'citizens' would pay a small premium for domestic energy vs imported energy.

Timo said...

"The audience that matters is out there, sleeping or drifting."

Preston assumes that the rest of the audience is sleeping or drifting. He is either ignorant or unaware of the possibility that this part of the audience already made up its mind and comes to different conclusions and solutions, at least others he had in mind. In the very end the public will decide whether and/or which actions should be taken to cope with the consequences of 'climate change'.

edaniel said...

There are several prophets, and have been for many years.

It's not the lack of prophets. It's their one, and only one, prophecy that's the problem, "Listen to only the revealed truth. Shut down carbon now, right now, or the entire planet is doomed. There are no other options"

Alan F said...

All this reads too much like the Catholic Church investigating its own wrong doings. If science ever needed to publicly renew its atheism, its in the area of climate science.

eric144 said...

There is no rational discussion of AGW at the Guardian. Every journalist has to conttribute something to the propaganda, so they invent gibberish like this.

The green section was heavily sponsored by Shell Oil, up to and including the Copenhagen conference. They sponsored the Independent too.


Climategate: George Monbiot, the Guardian and Big Oil

But who is it that sponsors the Guardian?s Environment pages and eco conferences? Why, only that famous non-fossil-fuel company Shell. (Though I notice their logo no longer appears on top of the Guardian?s eco pages: has the Guardian decided the relationship was just too embarrassing to be, er, sustainable?)

And which company has one of the largest carbon trading desks in London, cashing in on industry currently worth around $120 billion ? an industry which could not possibly exist without pan-global governmental CO2 emissions laws ? BP (which stands for British Petroleum)

And how much has Indian steel king Lakshmi Mittal made from carbon credits thanks to Europe?s Emissions Trading Scheme? £1 billion.

And which companies were the CRU scientists revealed cosying up to as early as 2000 in the Climategate emails? There?s a clue in this line here: ?Had a very good meeting with Shell yesterday.?

And how much was Phil Jones, director of the discredited CRU, found to have collected in grants since 1990? £13.7 million ($22.7 million)


http://blogs.telegraph.co.uk/news/jamesdelingpole/100019523/climategate-george-monbiot-is-in-the-pay-of-big-oil/

jae said...

The "true believers" just don't get the concept that people are looking for facts, not spin and "religion." Now, Lisa Jackson is spouting the same kind of nonsense: http://epw.senate.gov/public/index.cfm?FuseAction=Minority.Blogs&ContentRecord_id=4352e814-802a-23ad-430d-d9bee8a05035&Issue_id

Never admit it's a matter of merit, but blame everything on "bad PR," "poor messaging," "oil company shills," "racism," etc., etc.

heyworth said...

Typical Guardian. They've misspelled "profit".

Abdul Abulbul Amir said...

"I think most 'citizens' would pay a small premium for domestic energy vs imported energy."

You may have discovered a wonderful opportunity. Perhaps you should go into business and start selling this higher priced energy.

You may consider starting small with a marketing test. A possibility would be bananas. Try growing them in a hot house in Maine, and see if consumers will pay more for domestic.

willard said...

Suggesting not to do such and such is not to suggest much.

What would be a plausible, not only possible, but tried and true alternative?

PS: Who's not self-appointed, by the way?

Post a Comment

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.