Wednesday, March 14, 2007

More Melanie Ravings.....

Well, I have been missing the loony rantings of the future mass murderer (as are all those that deny climate change, for they will be partly responsible for the consequences of the world's neglect) Melanie Phillips. However, today didn't disappoint me. Her main focus of attention on her most recent blog, is an article by Mike Hulme in today's Guardian. First, I will show you her extract of the article, and then the bits that she missed. On her blog, she quotes Hulme as writing the following:

Philosophers and practitioners of science have identified this particular mode of scientific activity as one that occurs where the stakes are high, uncertainties large and decisions urgent, and where values are embedded in the way science is done and spoken. It has been labelled ‘post-normal’ science…The danger of a ‘normal’ reading of science is that it assumes science can first find truth, then speak truth to power, and that truth-based policy will then follow.

Note the '...' (always a give away that something important has been edited out). Now the actual piece from The Guardian (I have highlighted the bits she missed through the use of '...'):

Philosophers and practitioners of science have identified this particular mode of scientific activity as one that occurs where the stakes are high, uncertainties large and decisions urgent, and where values are embedded in the way science is done and spoken.

It has been labelled "post-normal" science. Climate change seems to fall in this category. Disputes in post-normal science focus as often on the process of science - who gets funded, who evaluates quality, who has the ear of policy - as on the facts of science.

So this book from Singer and Avery can be understood in a different way: as a challenge to the process of climate change science, or to the values they believe to be implicit in the science, rather than as a direct challenge to scientific knowledge.

In this reading, Singer and Avery are using apparently scientific arguments - about 1,500 year cycles, about the loss of species, about sea-level rise - to further their deeper (yet unexpressed) values and beliefs. Too often with climate change, genuine and necessary debates about these wider social values - do we have confidence in technology; do we believe in collective action over private enterprise; do we believe we carry obligations to people invisible to us in geography and time? - masquerade as disputes about scientific truth and error.

We need this perspective of post-normal science if we are going to make sense of books such as Singer and Avery's. Or indeed, if we are to make sense of polar opposites such as James Lovelock's recent contribution The Revenge of Gaia, in which he extends climate science to reach the conclusion that the collapse of civilisation is no more than a couple of generations away.

The danger of a "normal" reading of science is that it assumes science can first find truth, then speak truth to power, and that truth-based policy will then follow.


Quite a big chunk eh? After her edited extract of the article, Phillips ranted:

Indeed! Facts first, conclusions afterwards is the very basis of scientific inquiry. But not any more, it seems, where the religion of global warming is concerned. Here the facts have to fit the theory.

What Hulme is trying to express, as I understand it, is that it is difficult to take a normal reading of science if one does not know the background to the research (ie the source of funding etc). It is difficult, if not impossible, to determine what 'truth' is under these circumstances. It is only through complete transparency that we can begin to determine what is 'truth'. Consequently, it is necessary to weigh up the stakes and the decisions necessary. In the case of climate change the stakes are so high, and the decisions so urgent, that even if there was a climate of uncertainty, action would still need to be taken.

In a further passage, Phillips quotes:

Self-evidently dangerous climate change will not emerge from a normal scientific process of truth seeking, although science will gain some insights into the question if it recognises the socially contingent dimensions of a post-normal science. But to proffer such insights, scientists - and politicians - must trade (normal) truth for influence. If scientists want to remain listened to, to bear influence on policy, they must recognise the social limits of their truth seeking and reveal fully the values and beliefs they bring to their scientific activity.

She comments:

What an admission! Let’s read that one again. Self-evidently dangerous climate change will not emerge from a normal scientific process of truth seeking. Of course not. The facts don’t support it. It’s not true. So, says Hulme, let’s abolish the need to establish the facts and the truth and impose the theory on the basis of — what’s that again — ‘values and beliefs’. In other words, climate change science has got to be anti-science. It’s got to be anti-truth. It’s got to be nothing more than an ideology.

Hulme actually writes (again I have highlighted the bits she missed):

Two years ago, Tony Blair announced the large, government-backed international climate change conference in Exeter by asking for the conference scientists to "identify what level of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere is self-evidently too much".

This is the wrong question to ask of science. Self-evidently dangerous climate change will not emerge from a normal scientific process of truth seeking, although science will gain some insights into the question if it recognises the socially contingent dimensions of a post-normal science. But to proffer such insights, scientists - and politicians - must trade (normal) truth for influence. If scientists want to remain listened to, to bear influence on policy, they must recognise the social limits of their truth seeking and reveal fully the values and beliefs they bring to their scientific activity.

Chink of weakness

Lack of such reflective transparency is the problem with "unstoppable global warming", and with some other scientific commentators on climate change. Such a perspective also opens a chink of weakness in the authority of the latest IPCC science findings.

And surely that is the point, unless there is a degree of reflective transparency, there can be no 'truth'. One only has to look up the subjects of this article by Hulme. Try clicking on exxonsecrets.org (see sidebar) and tapping in the names S Fred Singer and Dennis T Avery, these are not reliable sources. Hulme is not talking about abolishing science, he is talking about the impossibility of finding 'truth' when so much is kept from the public. But then, Phillips and her murdering buddies have never been to keen on analysing facts, only their political viewpoint.