by Judith Curry
The dogma post seems to have a struck a nerve, but both sides seem be talking past each other. One side sees the dogma as self-evident, the other side wants evidence.
Alexander Harvey points out that the word I probably want to use is dogmatism and dogmatist (although I was becoming rather attached to Tom Fuller’s “dogman.”) According to the Random House Dictionary:
Dogmatism is defined as “unfounded positiveness in matters of opinion,” and the “arrogant assertion of opinions as truths”. A dogmatist is “a person who asserts his or her opinions in an arrogant manner”.
The dogmatism that I am talking about is at the science-policy interface. Gallileo ran into problems with dogmatism at the interface of science and religion. The forces in play here are much bigger than just science. People will have a hard time convincing me that the public behavior I see among a number of scientists (e.g. use of the word “denier”) is not well characterized by dogmatism. But again, that is not my main point; my main point is how the larger forces in play enable and reward dogmatism, with science (not to mention policy) suffering for it.
I received this question in an email yesterday:
“Is it possible that, regardless of the best intentions on all parts, the intersection of science, funding, politicians, media and public policy is doomed to create bad science (in terms of oversimplification and suppression of uncertainty), questionable public policy and, in the internet age, bitter acrimony amongst those who should be colleagues?”
This is exactly what I am trying to understand.
My positive feedback loop post elicited over a hundred emails. My take home from these emails is that my argument isn’t particularly original (this kind of thing is endemic and widely discussed in other fields) and my argument was too narrow (I didn’t include the increasing financial interests and big $$ in all this, as well as politicians investing their careers in this.)
Text from the email message I received
“I am currently reading a book entitled “Good Calories, Bad Calories” by Gary Taubes. I’m not sure if you have read it, and a quick perusal of other blogs finds no mention, so I thought I would bring it to your attention for the parallels to the development of the climate consensus. The book itself is concerned with various aspects of diet and health, and their interaction with public policy and public funding.
In two chapters in particular (‘The Creation of Consensus’ and ‘Fiber’) Taubes lays out a very compelling story, which begins with forceful personalities laying out a hypothesis based on scanty and somewhat contradictory evidence, which then becomes the accepted hypothesis of the large funding agencies, even in the absence of further evidence, due to its prima facie plausibility. Once it hit this state, the hypothesis became a forced consensus through the intervention of governmental funding (and concurrent need to simplify the science and reduce uncertainties for governments) and the general impression expressed through the media (which always seems to require a simple message, preferably of doom). It then, of course, became the basis of public health policy related to diet. Throughout this whole period, the scientists and researchers who has doubts the base hypothesis were derided at conferences, told that they shouldn’t disagree publicly (as it would dilute the main message), found funding difficult, had results re-interpreted or quietly ignored (or found it hard to publish), and generally either ignored or treated like heretics to a true faith. As a result of all this, fifty or sixty years after the original (probably) flawed hypothesis our public health agencies are still toeing the line on dietary guidelines – with no more hard evidence than they had originally.
This quick summary certainly doesn’t do Mr. Taubes’ book any credit, but I think you get the idea. The entire process of the development and imposition of the consensus – with the intervention of government, funding agencies and media – is remarkably similar to the process in the area of climate studies, up to and including the demand for public policy before the research has been solidified. Equally striking are the descriptions of the major groups and personalities involved, from scientists who became policy advocates, through politicians needing a simple solution, to environmentalists latching on to further their agenda. The only element that seems to be missing is the internet with its blogs capable of disseminating adverse information to a wider audience (the lack of which might explain the apparent lack of bitter acrimony).
Second, I would use these two parallel lines of development to ask the question: is it possible that, regardless of the best intentions on all parts, the intersection of science, funding, politicians, media and public policy is doomed to create bad science (in terms of oversimplification and suppression of uncertainty), questionable public policy and, in the internet age, bitter acrimony amongst those who should be colleagues?
A major caveat here. One thing that I’ve always believed, and is reinforced by Taubes’ work, is that the participants almost universally have good intentions and are following the course they believe is best. Human failings and their personalities often get in the way of this, and sometimes lead to excess on their part, but by and large I cannot see evil intent on anyone’s part, much as I may disagree with them. “