by Judith Curry
What we can see in academic support for climate change is an emotional zeal combined with a highly developed form of abstract thought that is not very healthy, especially when it is combined with a strong sense of self-interest. – Greg Melleuish
The Australian has a interesting essay entitled Too many academics are driven to abstraction by their addiction models, written by Gregory Melleuish. Excerpts:
The moderate enlightenment always sought to reconcile the great body of ideas, beliefs and ways of doing things that we have inherited from the past with the new discoveries of the sciences.
The radical enlightenment, from the 17th century until today, has little or no time for tradition and wants to make the world anew on the basis of abstract, and usually untried, theories. Moreover, they believe that it is possible to inflict those theories on the world through an act of will.
We should fear this growing dominance of the abstract over the concrete and of an adversarial culture over one that seeks to reconcile ideas and the practical realities of the world.
Climate change has largely been pushed by academics and their allies in the media. Why has climate change proved to be so popular among academia as a group? I think that there are a number of answers.
The first is naked self-interest. They have discovered that with climate change they are on a real winner. They can claim that the government needs to fund them so that they can find ways of overcoming the effects of climate change, even reverse it. The more that is done on climate change, the more that needs to be done. As a research topic it appears to be one that can be milked forever.
The second is that as a topic it is an expression of the academic desire to reduce the world to a series of models that can be manipulated to predict the future. We live in a world that is both complex and contingent. It is a delusion to believe that we can create a model that depicts reality in such a way that we can control the future. When we attempt to do so we simply remain in the abstract world of the model and become its slave.
The third is a form of moral panic that seems to have overcome many academics. A major discovery of the past 100 years is that education and devotion to intellectual matters does not make modern human beings more rational. Academics, like other people, are prone to scares and panics, and hence to using their intellects in defence of irrational projects.
Academics, like many other intellectuals, have a very high opinion of themselves and their rightness. Humility is not a virtue in their world. If you are right and you have good intentions, then surely you should not only be heard but should also prevail. In fact, you probably believe that you have a duty to prevail and to drown out the views of those who lack your qualifications and capacity to employ models. They are just inferiors who need to be brought into line.
The government and their academic allies use a number of tactics to achieve this goal. One is to delegitimise anyone who is not considered to be an expert in the field. Another tactic is to complain about the “extremism” of those with whom one does not agree and to condemn their supposed verbal violence. The final tactic is to complain about lack of balance.
Free discussion is a major check on excesses of government power. It must be permitted to follow what arguments it wishes even if, from time to time, it does become a little excessive. The best way to correct excess is to allow for other critics to admonish those who have stepped over the line or for critics to poke fun and ridicule such foolishness.
Unfortunately, academics often fail to have respect for the common sense of everyman and everywoman. They are addicted to their abstract models and this prevents them from having a sensible and practical approach to dealing with people.
Why be critical of the government when it is the government that hands out research funding, jobs and other goodies? Academics know on which side their bread is buttered. After all, bureaucrats are also addicted to abstract models of the society they are employed to administer. It is a marriage made in heaven.
What we need now more than ever is a space where the heirs of the moderate enlightenment and the believers in a natural order can flourish. By that I mean those who know that the relationship between ideas and the real world is a complex one and that when reality refuses to bend to a theory, the solution is probably to junk the theory.
The real problem is the way in which the growth of the universities in Australia has been matched by the development of a dominant subculture that is both addicted to abstract ideas and appears to have a stranglehold on the intellectual life of the country.
The solution is to break the monopoly of this group so that a genuine pluralism can flourish in Australia. This means recognition that there are other ways of knowing things than the academic view of reality. This means fostering other institutions alongside our public universities so that there is real intellectual diversity in Australia. It means providing the means whereby people outside of officially sanctioned institutions, such as the universities and the ABC, are able to contribute to the public sphere.
It means fostering private institutions that can provide genuine intellectual diversity.
JC comments: Several things struck me about this essay. First is the importance of reconciling ideas with the practical realities of the world, when it comes to policy.
The second is the call for intellectual diversity. I recently finished reading the book The Infinite Resource: The Power of Ideas on a Finite Planet, by Ramez Naam, a book that arguably deserves its own thread (I’ll eventually get around to it). It is about supercharging innovation, and in the early part of the book Naam argues that imposing homogeneity of thought is the enemy of innovation. Imposing homogeneity of thought is also the enemy of science, and the IPCC driven consensus seeking process is arguably slowing down progress on climate science. The climate blogosphere has made significant headway in breaking the monopoly on climate science and its messy implications.