It is time to stop quivering in our boots in pointless fear of the future and just roll up our sleeves and build it.
- Ray Pierrehumbert

Monday, November 15, 2010

Pseudo-Empiricism and Denialism

While empiricism is an insufficient model for science, while not everything reduces to statistics, empiricism offers cover for a certain kind of pseudo-scientific denialism.

Andy Revkin features a comment regarding an excellent NYTimes article on sea level rise.

Here's the comment:

What takes five long and laugable pages could've been distilled to an honest few sentences:

Since we have no clear way to measure the effect of land-ice melt on sea-level, and, indeed, no reliable way to measure "global" sea levels at all; and, further, only the most primitive models of how such melt might be occuring and what its consequences might be, we can only say that with regard to these phenomena we have no scientific understanding whatsoever and can therefore make no predictions of any kind."

And indeed the "scientists" in the article are obliged to say such things, over and over. Except when they extra-scientifically announce that, despite their total and complete ignorance and admittedly utterly primitive grasp of these phenomena, they "feel" that things are "bad" and "getting worse all the time."


There's more; that's just the polite part. Yes, I love being called a scare-quote scientist. Nothing better to start a conversation on an even keel. Of course, that isn't the intent, is it?

But look at what's being said. This is Watts Up technique asea; the measurements are uncertain; therefore they might as well not exist; therefore there is no cause for concern!

Does one have to answer this sort of reasoning? Dress anything in high enough dudgeon and it sound plausible at first reading.

But no, if sea levels go up two meters we won't have any doubt about it, any more than if global mean temperature goes up 5 C. If there are inaccuracies in the precursor information, that does not mean there is no information available at all. And even if there were no empirical evidence whatsover, that doesn't invalidate the concern, because there is already no empirical evidence whatsover that the concern is invalid.

So this is an example of how the perfectly ordinary scientific concept of uncertainty gets conflated with the nasty irrationalism of denialism.

So here's a piece by Matt McCormick that examines this turf:


But the nature of this impulse is coming into focus with recent efforts in empirical psychology. Geoffrey Munro of Towson University recently showed that when we are confronted with scientific, empirical evidence that challenges a position we favor, we are more likely to reject science altogether and claim that it cannot be employed to address questions of that type at all. The Scientific Impotence Excuse: Discounting Belief-Threatening Scientific Abstracts. Munro took test subjects with views about stereotypes, such as homosexuality. Subjects were tested beforehand to determine what views they held. Then they were given fake abstracts of scientific studies that purported to either prove or disconfirm the stereotype. So some studies indicated that homosexuals had a higher rate of mental illness, for example, while others indicated that their rate of mental illness was lower. Not surprisingly, the subjects who read abstracts that supported their preconceived views concluded that their views had been vindicated. But something remarkable happened with the the subjects who had their prior views challenged. Rather than acknowledge that they were mistaken and change their minds, these subjects were much more likely to conclude that proving (or disproving) the thesis simply couldn’t be done by science. They rejected science itself, rather than give up their cherished idea.


concluding:
Their charges are in need of protection; they need their faith strengthened against doubts that would undermine them. Sermons, prayers, devotionals, and cermonies serve to fortify beliefs and behaviors in them that would not be sustained otherwise. Doubt, criticisms, and objections are the point of the scientific method. Finding reasons to reject a hypothesis makes it possible for us to make some provisional claims about what is true. Without some methodological procedure for vetting hypotheses and separating the good from the bad, we can’t claim to have any justification for them. The method of doubting is what justifies and keeps the floodgates of failed views closed.


Insidiously, failing to doubt is the charge increasingly hurled at us.

As Oreskes points out, it's very common for the opposition to hurl charges that describe themselves! It's hard to answer. No, you're stubborn and gullible, not me. Are too!

But the credulity is not ours. We actually know the difference between uncertainty and ignorance. And yet, people who might realistically have been expected to be allies are being convinced that all we are doing is being stubborn and closedminded. We are politically outclassed. We are a pickup street team playing on professional turf. Their job is too easy, and I don't think recent developments change this much.

But they're still wrongheaded and foolish. The fact that they have won the year and look to win the decade is nothing to celebrate.

16 comments:

n-g said...

The Munro paper seems to be behind a paywall, but neither of the groups appear to have had the appropriate response when confronted with a scientific abstract:

It's just one paper; other scientists haven't had a chance to test or try to build on it yet; I don't even know if other scientists have already spotted flaws in it; so no, my opinion is not affected by this study, nor should it be.

Sam said...

"Not surprisingly, the subjects who read abstracts that supported their preconceived views concluded that their views had been vindicated."

Confirmation bias. A honey trap for investors, scientists, and engineers with nasty consequences. Also includes ignoring or invalidating oppositional evidence.

"...it's very common for the opposition to hurl charges that describe themselves!"

Projection. Most amusing to observe if nothing is at stake, and great for figuring out who will screw you by watching how worried they are that they might get screwed.

In a sense, there is nothing new under the sun with all of these propaganda tactics, which were refined to a high art by the tobacco companies and their lobbyists. The climate change issue is enormously much bigger than anything humanity has faced in the past. These responses are to be expected - Europeans took hundreds of years to fully accept the roundness of the earth. The problem is that we need to change the perspectives of billions of people over tens of years. The one area that I think the BI guys get right is that positive messaging is much more effective on many people than negative ones. MLK and Mandela did not inspire their important social change with a monochromaitc focus on injustice, they painted an inspiring picture of what the world could look like when important changes were made. Perhaps that model might help with some people, and the magnitude of change can be increased as long as the sign is in the right direction.

We live in a world in which the affluent are not prepared to even mildly curtail their lifestyles, and the very poor are not participating in the problem meaningfully, and those in the middle hope to be those at the top. None of these groups are being responsive to negative messaging, even though the negative messages speak the truth. Confirmation bias keeps people in a state of ignoring the facts (ignorance) and a much smaller group denying the facts, both displaying confirmation bias. This is a situation that calls for two steps - strong regulation by responsible agencies and forceful, largely positive behavioral messaging (think WWII posters) for emissions reductions. Both of these steps rely on science for guidance and monitoring, but are fundamentally advertising using a knowledge of human psychology in service of environmental stability. The science is only the first step, the sales and marketing come next. Gore has tried, but got his messaging wrong - who will be the MLK of climate change?

guthrie said...

Several times i've run into normal people who have somehow turned into denialists, and they seem incapable of reading even paper abstracts correctly. "Dr smiths paper shows you are wrong!" they claim, smugly.
I then go and look up the paper, and have to explain to them why the abstract doesn't mean what they think it means. Usually these are scientifically uneducated people. Which rather fits with n-g's comment. Not only are many mops unknowledgeable about how science works, they are also unable to parse an abstract.

frank -- Decoding SwiftHack said...

Sam: I think that's just the right idea:

"This is a situation that calls for two steps - strong regulation by responsible agencies and forceful, largely positive behavioral messaging (think WWII posters) for emissions reductions. Both of these steps rely on science for guidance and monitoring, but are fundamentally advertising using a knowledge of human psychology in service of environmental stability."

* * *

But let me go back to an interesting point by MT:

"And yet, people who might realistically have been expected to be allies are being convinced that all we are doing is being stubborn and closedminded."

Well, when people get an advertising message, you can't really expect them to really understand it in the exact same way you're like them to understand it. Messages get lost, they become blurred, and sometimes they simply get distorted in weird ways -- but that's is OK as long as there's a clear overall outline to the message.

If your current immediate goal is to instil a nuanced understanding of the scientific method into more than half of the US population using detailed argumentation, then I'll say you're setting yourself up for a world of pain.

* * *

"Does one have to answer this sort of reasoning?"

The correct reply is this: 'Shorter comment: we don't know everything, therefore we know nothing.'

-- frank

EliRabett said...

Cassandra was a climate scientist. She was also right

Neven said...

Cassandra was punished for a reason. Maybe Cassandra the scientist is being punished for having killed the Gods.

Like Georges Brassens sang in Le Grand Pan:

Et l'un des dernier dieux, l'un des derniers suprêmes,
Ne doit plus se sentir tellement bien lui-même
Un beau jour on va voir le Christ
Descendre du calvaire en disant dans sa lippe:
"Merde je ne joue plus pour tous ces pauvres types.
J'ai bien peur que la fin du monde soit bien triste."

notjonathon said...

The population of the world has more than doubled in my lifetime. By 2030 or so (a year I am statistically unlikely to see), when all the great aquifers of the Great Plains are nothing but memories and the prolonged Southwest drought has made desert ghost towns of such cities as Las Vegas and perhaps Phoenix and Riverside, as well, and the food riots have begun, maybe Americans will no longer be too fat to riot.

Then the scientists will certainly be blamed for failing to warn us of the dangers.

I would dearly love to be proven wrong.

David B. Benson said...

notjonathon --- Well stated.

Jim Bouldin said...

Hence, Buddhism: Try (hard!) to clear out the misconceptions from your mind, and to which you're more attached than you realize, before evaluating what's true and not.

Jim Bouldin said...

p.s. It is my view that there is a cadre of deniers just waiting for Revkin's newest article, competing to see who can be the first to state their nonsense, in order to give the impression that said nonsense is general sentiment.

NewYork said...

Jim Bouldin: "p.s. It is my view that there is a cadre of deniers just waiting for Revkin's newest article, competing to see who can be the first to state their nonsense, in order to give the impression that said nonsense is general sentiment."

"Collaborating" is probably more accurate than "competing". What I've noticed from the comments section there (and elsewhere) is there are probably about 10-20 regulars (maybe a little more, might involve individuals using multiple logins) who high five those who say something that appears skeptical of global warming, no matter how idiotic. If you want a real-world test, when the next article appears, just post something excessively silly like "AGW is a fraud and climate scientists should apologize for bamboozling us", or say something bad about James Hansen or Michael Mann, and note how many "thumbs up" you receive.

David B. Benson said...

notjonathon --- I copyed your comment, attrituted to you, over on DotEarth where it has been well received.

David B. Benson said...

MT --- I wish you had used a different word than empiricism to describe what I think you are after. The problem is partly that empiricism has long and honorable roots in the stuggle against dogmatism and so on.

Unfortunately, there doesn't appear to be a suitable term AFAIK. So I suggest making up a word, starting from Greek or Latin. There is a long established tradition of doing so within science itself as well as in the philosphy and history of science.

notjonathon said...

David Benson:
Why, thank you. As a lurker for the most part, I actually felt somewhat intimidated commenting right after the erudite bunny and the excellent ice observer Neven.

Andy S said...

How about if I try my hand at summarizing the summary of sea level rise.

The ocean is really, really big and you can dump a hell of a lot of extra water in it before it becomes really obvious that things on the shore are going under. When it is obvious, it will be too late to slow down let alone stop it from over filling.

Humanity will collectively share the feeling of flushing the toliet knowing the wad of paper left from your kids should have been pulled out first, and then realizing nothing can be done to prevent the piss and shit from flowing all over the bathroom carpet.

A good friend and collegue of mine once stated he couldn't go to his boss (an elected official) and tell him 1 mm of sea level rise a year was going to result in disaster for Louisiana. Of course now it's over 3 mm a year. Louisiana is already losing tens of thousands of acres of land a year and all of our best science and observations tell us we'll long for these days 50 years out.

Can you imagine the faith in physics the first astronauts needed when told that a tiny miscalculation would hurl them off into space forever? I see no reason to lose our faith and guts in science now.

poi said...

That is not a comment by Andy Revkins, but a comment by "Sere". Your post is not fair to Andy - or did I misunderstand your post?

Per Isakson