by Judith Curry
Over at WUWT, Jerome Ravetz has a guest post, which includes the text of his lecture at the public event in Lisbon, which is entitled “Nonviolence in science?”. I’ve excerpted what I regard as the more interesting points to serve as the focus for discusion.
Debate, sometimes fierce and impassioned, is the lifeblood of science. The advances of science do not occur smoothly and by consensus. There are always at least two sides to the interpretation of new theories and results. Social researchers have found that each scientific side explains its own attitudes in methodological terms, and explains the attitudes of the opposition in sociological terms. Roughly speaking, “I” am being a scientist, and “They” are being – something else. All this is quite natural and inevitable, and it has been that way from the beginning.
The process does not work perfectly. There is no ‘hidden hand’ that guides scientists quickly and correctly to the right answer. There can be injustices and losses; great innovators can languish in obscurity for a lifetime, because their theories were too discordant with the prevailing paradigm or ‘tacit knowledge’. However, to the best of our knowledge, the correct understanding does eventually emerge, thanks to the normal processes of debate and to the plurality of locations and voices in any field of science.
This debate has not just been about the science of climate change It also concerns policy, for reducing the emissions of Carbon Dioxide worldwide. This requires a very large, complex and expensive project. It extends into lifestyles and values, as the transition out of a carbon-based economy will require a change in our ideas of comfort, convenience and the good life. There are urgent issues of equity, both between rich and poor peoples now, and also between ourselves and our descendants. All these profound issues depend for their resolution on an adequate basis in science. Some say, if we are not really sure that bad things are happening, why bother imposing these drastic and costly changes on the world’s people? But others reply, by what right can we use scientific uncertainty as an excuse for failing to protect ourselves and our descendants from irreversible catastrophe?Both of those positions accept that there is a real debate about the strength of the science, and effectively argue about the proper burden of proof, or degree of precaution that is justified. But there are plenty of voices on the extremes. For quite some time, the official scientific establishments, particularly in the Anglophone world, claimed that ‘the science is settled’, and ‘the debate is over’. At the opposite extreme are those, including some quite reputable scientists, who argue that nothing whatever has been proved about the long-term changes in climate that might be resulting from the current increase in the concentration of Carbon Dioxide. Between these extremes, the explanations of opposing views are not merely sociological. They become political and moral. Each side accuses the other of being corrupt. The ‘skeptics’ or ‘deniers’ are dismissed as either working for outside interests, industrial or ideological, or being grossly incompetent as scientists. In short, as being either prostitutes or cranks. In their turn, the ‘alarmists’ or ‘warmistas’ are accused of feathering their own nests as grant-gaining entrepreneurial scientists, playing along with their own dishonest ideological politicians. In their protestations of scientific objectivity, they are accused of the corruptions of hypocrisy.
And in the course of that debate we have discovered a serious flaw in the prevailing philosophy of science: there is no explanation of honest error. Students of science never see a failed experiment or a mistaken theory; for them it is success and truth all the way. Only those who have done truly innovative research discover how intimately are success and failure, truth and error, connected. And so when a scientist finds him- or herself convinced of the truth of a particular theory, they have no framework for treating their erring opponent with respect. “I” am right, “you” are wrong, and by persisting in your error you demonstrate that your failings are moral as well as intellectual. In the ordinary course of scientific debate such attitudes are kept under control, but in the total, complex climate science debate they come to dominate.
Those of an older generation remember a time when the prestige of science was unquestioned. Science would save the world, and scientists would do the saving. It is all different now, and the mutual denunciations of the scientists in the Climategate debate have not helped. One of the most important influences that drove me to a personal involvement in this debate was a report by our distinguished colleague Judith Curry, of a conversation with a student. This student was dismayed by the Climategate story that had just broken, and wondered whether this was the sort of career that she wanted to take up. We all know what happens to institutions when they fail to attract the brightest and the best young people. Slowly, perhaps, but surely, they atrophy and wither.
You see the connection. If ‘science’ comes to be seen by young people as the sort of institution where Climategate happens, and where scientists insult and condemn each other, its future is not bright. Of course, this negative reaction would happen only at the margins; but it is at the margins where we will find the really wonderful young people that we need. I cannot prescribe, indeed I can scarcely imagine, how the spirit of non-violence that has inspired the political world can be imported effectively into science. But I would argue that it is an attempt that is well worth making, even for the future of science itself.