Polemics, Politics, and Problematizations

by Judith Curry

While working on my null hypothesis essay, I encountered this interview with Michel Foucault shortly before his death, entitled “Polemics, Politics, and Problemizations.

Some excerpts from the interview:

I like discussions, and when I am asked questions, I try to answer them. It’s true that I don’t like to get involved in polemics. If I open a book and see that the author is accusing an adversary of “infantile leftism” I shut it again right away. That’s not my way of doing things; I don’t belong to the world of people who do things that way. I insist on this difference as something essential: a whole morality is at stake, the one that concerns the search for truth and the relation to the other.

In the serious play of questions and answers, in the work of reciprocal elucidation, the rights of each person are in some sense immanent in the discussion. They depend only on the dialogue situation. The person asking the questions is merely exercising the right that has been given him: to remain unconvinced, to perceive a contradiction, to require more information, to emphasize different postulates, to point out faulty reasoning, and so on. As for the person answering the questions, he too exercises a right that does not go beyond the discussion itself; by the logic of his own discourse, he is tied to what he has said earlier, and by the acceptance of dialogue he is tied to the questioning of other. Questions and answers depend on a game—a game that is at once pleasant and difficult—in which each of the two partners takes pains to use only the rights given him by the other and by the accepted form of dialogue.

The polemicist , on the other hand, proceeds encased in privileges that he possesses in advance and will never agree to question. On principle, he possesses rights authorizing him to wage war and making that struggle a just undertaking; the person he confronts is not a partner in search for the truth but an adversary, an enemy who is wrong, who is harmful, and whose very existence constitutes a threat. For him, then the game consists not of recognizing this person as a subject having the right to speak but of abolishing him as interlocutor, from any possible dialogue; and his final objective will be not to come as close as possible to a difficult truth but to bring about the triumph of the just cause he has been manifestly upholding from the beginning. The polemicist relies on a legitimacy that his adversary is by definition denied.

Perhaps, someday, a long history will have to be written of polemics, polemics as a parasitic figure on discussion and an obstacle to the search for the truth. Very schematically, it seems to me that today we can recognize the presence in polemics of three models: the religious model, the judiciary model, and the political model. As in heresiology, polemics sets itself the task of determining the intangible point of dogma, the fundamental and necessary principle that the adversary has neglected, ignored or transgressed; and it denounces this negligence as a moral failing; at the root of the error, it finds passion, desire, interest, a whole series of weaknesses and inadmissible attachments that establish it as culpable. As in judiciary practice, polemics allows for no possibility of an equal discussion: it examines a case; it isn’t dealing with an interlocutor, it is processing a suspect; it collects the proofs of his guilt, designates the infraction he has committed, and pronounces the verdict and sentences him. In any case, what we have here is not on the order of a shared investigation; the polemicist tells the truth in the form of his judgment and by virtue of the authority he has conferred on himself. But it is the political model that is the most powerful today. Polemics defines alliances, recruits partisans, unites interests or opinions, represents a party; it establishes the other as an enemy, an upholder of opposed interests against which one must fight until the moment this enemy is defeated and either surrenders or disappears.

Of course, the reactivation, in polemics, of these political, judiciary, or religious practices is nothing more than theater. One gesticulates: anathemas, excommunications, condemnations, battles, victories, and defeats are no more than ways of speaking, after all. And yet, in the order of discourse, they are also ways of acting which are not without consequence. There are the sterilizing effects. Has anyone ever seen a new idea come out of a polemic? And how could it be otherwise, given that here the interlocutors are incited not to advance, not to take more and more risks in what they say, but to fall back continually on the rights that they claim, on their legitimacy, which they must defend, and on the affirmation of their innocence? There is something even more serious here: in this comedy, one mimics war, battles, annihilations, or unconditional surrenders, putting forward as much of one’s killer instinct as possible. But it is really dangerous to make anyone believe that he can gain access to the truth by such paths and thus to validate, even if in a merely symbolic form, the real political practices that could be warranted by it. Let us imagine, for a moment, that a magic wand is waved and one of the two adversaries in a polemic is given the ability to exercise all the power he likes over the other. One doesn’t even have to imagine it: one has only to look at what happened during the debate in the USSR over linguistics or genetics not long ago. Were these merely aberrant deviations from what was supposed to be the correct discussion? Not at all—they were the real consequences of a polemic attitude whose effects ordinarily remain suspended.

It is a question, then, of thinking about the relations of these different experiences to politics, which doesn’t mean that one will seek in politics the main constituent of these experiences or the solution that will definitively settle their fate. The problems that experiences like these pose to politics have to be elaborated. But it is also necessary to determine what “posing a problem” to politics really means. Richard Rorty points out that in these analyses I do not appeal to any “we”—to any of those “wes” whose consensus, whose values, whose traditions constitute the framework for a thought and define the conditions in which it can be validated. But the problem is, precisely, to decide if it is actually suitable to place oneself within a “we” in order to assert the principles one recognizes and the values one accepts; or if it is not, rather, necessary to make the future formation of a “we” possible by elaborating the question. Because it seems to me that “we” must not be previous to the question; it can only be the result—and the necessary temporary result—of the question as it is posed in the new terms in which one formulates it. 

JC comments: I was quite struck by this essay and its relevance to the disputes surrounding climate change.  I will leave it to you to elucidate and discuss the relevance.

111 responses to “Polemics, Politics, and Problematizations

  1. Sometimes your hand is forced.

    The arrogation of the right to commandeer the world’s resources to battle AGW does not hinge on an ideal debate between equals. It is indeed a battle between power-ravenous self-anointed elites and the rest of us.

    • Whose hand was forced?

      Who chose the easy path – the binary (either/or) approach to the issue – and the simple phrase “arrogation of the right to commandeer the world’s resources . . .”?

      It seems you staked out your position without anyone forcing you to do so.

    • Brian H

      Aw, c’mon, Brian.

      While I agree with what you write, you make it sound so polemic.

      How about rewording it the way that H.L. Mencken did (long before the global warming hysteria):

      The whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary.


      • Instead of “divide and rule” I like to say “scare and rule”. The easiest way to divide is to scare first. Then it’s a piece of cake to divide. To scare is even easier if you know the spots.

        When men and women learn to resist the scare, that will be the day!

  2. Dr. Curry,

    Can we rename your blog to ‘Politics, Psychobabble, Etc.’ now? ;)


    • Your thesis is that those discussing the climate debate should ignore what one of the leading thinkers of the 20th century has to say?

      • Dr. Curry,

        I don’t see any refernce to Climate or Global Warming in the interview. So, I’m not sure where or what the relevance is.

        And as far as “one of the leading thinkers of the 20th century” goes, that may be your opinion, but from what I’ve read in the interview, he’s probably not one.


      • Andrew, were you reading the same piece? This is exceptionally relevant to the climate debate.

        Thanks Dr Curry, a thoroughly interesting read. This is the second piece you’ve posted (that’s not been specifically about the scientific intricacies) that’s making me have a re-think about my position- or at the very least, how i present and debate that position.


      • “This is exceptionally relevant to the climate debate.”


        In what way?


      • In the way to distinguish between the search of knowledge and a fight of polemicists.

      • “In the way to distinguish between the search of knowledge and a fight of polemicists.”


        OK. When does climate enter the picture?


      • OK, I’ll bite. Do you not recognize the polemicist warmists?

      • If this line doesn’t hold any relevance, then you’re not paying attention: “The polemicist relies on a legitimacy that his adversary is by definition denied.”.

      • “The polemicist relies on a legitimacy that his adversary is by definition denied.”


        What does this have to do with climate?


      • As much as the scientific method or a rational discussion has to do with climate knowledge.

      • Bad Andrew, 6/5/11, 11:42 am, Foucault

        The polemicist relies on a legitimacy that his adversary is by definition denied has nothing to do with climate, everything to do with IPCC and its climatologists.

        IPCC addresses its work to the public, explicitly via the public’s Policymakers. Response is acceptable only if published in an approved climate journal.

      • Thanks Jeff and Gene,

        I just wanted to point out that this interview has nothing to do with the climate, and it doesn’t.

        It’s just symptomatic of the fact that arguing stinky climate science itself has lost effectiveness, so people like Dr. Curry have to spray philosophic Lysol at the issue, to try and have something to talk about.


      • Not really and you could easily argue that your post just proved the point.

        The science is by no means ‘settled’, but that was always a polemic position though, now wasn’t it…

      • BA –
        On Saturday I was listening to a lecture on the history of the “Origins of Life” debate while driving . It had nothing to do with “climate” – at least not any climate you’d recognize – but it was indistinguishable from the climate debate. If you changed the names of the participants and a few words in the arguments, it WAS the climate debate. And I learned from that lecture – as I learn from everything I read/hear/watch.

        Never diss what you don’t understand – it may become useful in the future. Or it may bite you if you ignore it. :-)

      • When someone asks a valid question and the question is ignored in favor of labeling the questioner a “denier”, “oil company shill”, etc. then it illustrates that quote. De-legitimizing someone rather than debating them is an old and dis-honorable tradition.

      • BA like others I’m puzzled that you can’t join the dots. We have had several posts here, one as recently as the last few days, discussing the efforts by warmists to explain dissent as a form of psychological impairment. Elsewhere the warmist argument is equally, if rather more subtly, polemical. After all, the appeals to authority of which the warmists are so fond are just as much an attempt to deny authority to dissenting voices. The warmists respond to dissent by demonising their critics. How much more relevant to the present state of climate science can you get?

      • Bad Andrew


        I joined the dots a long time ago. I agree with all your points. My point is only that discussing the “climate debate” is not dicussing the climate. The climate is supposed to be what the debate is about. The climate debate is not about philosophy. Philosophy has been debated since the beginning of history and is not going to be resolved anytime soon. It’s just Dr. Curry’s attempt to distract from the fact that climate science is a fraud.


      • I think we have to be very careful here. I think it’s reasonable to assume that a portion of the ‘core’ climate scientists are, well, in too deep- shall we say. HOwever there are hundreds of ‘climate scientists’ working in different fields, dilligently and correctly.

        It’s when it all gets collected, adjusted and presented that it starts going to pot.

      • That’s an interesting point of view, when contrasted with the opposite view that these posts might be rather seen as building excuses for not acting on the existing scientific knowledge.

        I’m much more worried about this possibility, while I admit that finding the right balance is difficult.

        Perhaps you are not so much interested in the climate science than in condemning climate scientists as fraudsters.

      • Pekka, i find myself again, largely agreing with your post, save for a few subtle but important differences:

        It is important to act on scientific knowledge when appropriate, but the current level of knowledge re: cliamte is low. the theory is still in it’s founding phase and the whole issue is more pollitical than scientific (which is a damned shame as it;’s fast becoming a really fascinating subject).

        Just as we have to be careful not to throw the baby out with the bathwater when dealing with the issues in climate science, we also have to be equally careful to not go too far the other way and assume that there is a need to act.

      • Labmunkey,
        It’s still a good rule of thumb to assume that mainstream science represents the best available knowledge on any field that has been a subject of extensive research. There are on the other hand obvious biasing factors that have influenced climate science, but telling, how significant they are is very difficult.

        The problem is that a very long list of potential sources of uncertainty may very well be misleading. It can certainly be misused to represent uncertainties as larger, than they really are, and not only to outsiders but also to the person himself. There are definitely major uncertainties, but we should not get fooled in either direction by a biased selection of arguments. On this cite we can read all the time comments by people who appear totally convinced by skeptical arguments. Many guest postings discuss some issue that hasn’t reached much weight in the main stream science. My impression has been that most often this is the case for good reasons. The issues are not as important as they are purported to be.

        I have my own pet issue (shared by many as seen also in some very recent comments). That issue is our ability of making good policy choices that are both effective and without excessive cost of some type. My own view is that we shouldn’t try to achieve too much too rapidly, as that’s is likely to result in something very different of goals set. That applies both to wide implementation programs like those of extensive biofuel production and to more general policy measures like the Kyoto Protocol and various directives of EU climate and energy policies. Here in EU we hear every so often of some new regulations that may be reasonable under some circumstances, but lead to obviously unreasonable effects elsewhere. This is the consequence of trying to do more that capabilities allow.

      • the ‘consensus view’ was reached very quickly on, suprisingly, little work (comparative to say other branch’s of science).

        You are 100% right to point out that just because the uncertainties exist (and of which there are many) that they torpedo the science or the consensus position, they don’t (at least not on their own). You are also 100% right that many of these uncertainties are weilded as ‘weapons’ rather than discussion points. But the uncertainties are STILL there.

        As for policy, i agree a more cautious approach is warrented- but only in the context of sensible ‘do anyway’ steps- reducing ALL pollution and generating good energy security. The fixation on co2 (imho) is more dangerous than the actual puported co2 issue.

      • Judith Curry, 6/6/11, 10:52 am, Foucault

        Excellent article. You have provided a framework in which we might discuss the IPCC and its presentation of AGW. Science doesn’t work precisely because the IPCC presentation is a polemic. Soviet genetics, indeed.

        You left out the part of Foucault’s interview where he said he rather liked being called a “crypto Marxist”. I researched that term and found this from the American Thinker, 5/23/08:

        “Crypto Marxism” — crypto meaning “hidden” — is a useful word to describe what’s happened in the last twenty years. Because as soon as the Soviet Union crumbled, a host of barely disguised post-Marxist ideologies grabbed the microphones: the Green Movement, now furiously peddling global warming fraud; Third Way socialism in Europe, trying to hitch the welfare wagon to free markets; the European Union, a new autocracy of unelected committees, exactly what the USSR used to call “workers’ Soviets”; the unbelievably corrupt, bigoted and self-serving United Nations; and all over the academic world, an explosion of anti-Western and anti-democratic fads like Post-Modernism, Multi-Culturalism, Deconstructionism, Feminism, anti-Zionism, Black Liberation Theology and other repackaged Marx imitations. Bold added.


        That helps tie more than a few things together into one big knot.

      • Feminism is Marxism too? So Judith should be at home cooking dinner and looking after the kids?

      • Tonto52, 6/9/11, 11:36 am, polemics

        Feminism is Marxism too?

        Yes, but not from these analyses. American Feminism leaves no doubt about its über left orientation. E.g., it has yet to come to the defense of Sarah Palin.

        The American Thinker claims that Marxism encompassed Feminism. Of course Marxism would. One of the three tenets of Marxism, Identity — to treat people collectively as opposed to individuals — fits feminism to a T. The other tenets of this model are Citizenship — obligations trump rights — and Governance — oligarchy over self-government. Surely Feminism is in accord with these, too, through its Social Justice aims — economic and political egalitarianism, solidarity, group rights, tribute, political correctness.

        So Judith should be at home cooking dinner and looking after the kids?

        I know nothing about Judith’s domestic virtues, and infer none. I deduce nothing from the articles she posts for analysis beyond her willingness to experiment with anti-science, including the AGW model.

        You seem to be assuming that feminism is the opposite of male subjugation. It was, once. It migrated briefly to oppose “male chauvinism”, but those are quaint views. Feminism has completed its transformation to Marxism for Women. See Marxist roots of radical feminism


        and especially the remarks of Tammy Bruce, former president LA NOW.

      • ‘If I open a book and see that the author is accusing an adversary of “infantile leftism” I shut it again right away.’

        Perhaps some of us can be forgiven, then, for not being terribly interested in the ruminations of a “leading thinker” who is so obviously prone to snap judgments.

  3. Dr. Jay Cadbury, phd.

    I don’t see any relevance at all between Focault and the global warming hoax. This is a scam and it began as a scam. I am quite certain now that blogs like these are actually designed to perpetrate the hoax. For example, Judy claims to be her own person and has some disagreements with the more diehard enviro gyros. However, she still harbors some concern about the supposed global warming hoax. Enron came up with the idea of a carbon tax, James Hansen gave testimony in 1988 in which they opened the windows of the hearing room to make it seem hotter, Michael Mann made a fake graph to rewrite history and he was supplanted by William Connolley who was deleting posts of the Medieval Warm Period on wikipedia. Furthermore, I don’t think the surface station siting is near adequate, I think some of the calculations like the radiative forcing of co2 are wrong, etc. Did I miss anything? At this point, you would have to be an idiot to believe global warming is real.

    • “At this point, you would have to be an idiot to believe global warming is real.”

      Ouch! I agree.

      Only I would add that global warming IS real, just like global cooling.

      But, “Global Warming” is not even wrong. It’s just Orwelian speak. That means not even wrong!

    • I know nothing about you or your credentials, but I appreciate your direct style of communication !

      What a refreshing change from the plague of gobbledygook government-financed, lock-step consensus “science of climatology” !

      I am busy writing another paper on SE – solar energy – but I want to express general agreement with your main concerns.

      My main concern today is the misuse of government science as a tool of government propaganda – as President Eisenhower warned might happen one day:


      Instead of being studied as a warning, it seems Eisenhower’s speech was studied by politicians who wanted to use science as a tool of propaganda.

      Over my 50 year research career the US National Academy of Sciences and the US DOE (Department of Evasion) have carefully ignored experimental data that show Earth’s heat source is the unstable remnant of a supernova that gave birth to the solar system about five billion years (~5 Gyr) ago and continues to generate solar energy (SE), solar neutrinos (SN), and discharge waste products in the solar wind (SW):

      a.) Neutron emission produces 60% SE, 0% SN, 0% SW

      b.) Neutron decay to hydrogen generates 5% SE, 100% SN, 0% SW

      c.) Hydrogen fusion to helium makes 35% SE, 0% SN, 0% SW

      d) Continuous discharge of these waste products from the Sun’s neutron star produces 0% SE, 0% SN, 100% SW

      Solar neutrinos almost certainly do not oscillate, but we have no idea how many other government reports are distortions.

      With kind regards,
      Oliver K. Manuel
      Former NASA Principal
      Investigator for Apollo

      • Willis Eschenbach

        Oliver, could you please STFU about the sun? Go find a thread about the sun, as you have been requested many, many times, and discuss it there.

        When you start going on and on about the sun on each and every random web page you land on, people just point and laugh and you lose credibility … is that your intention? Do you realize how foolish and desperate your solar rants make you look?


      • Rob Starkey

        Good luck with that one

      • Earth’s climate is not independent of the Sun, Willis. That is the probably the most glaring flaw in the whole AGW story!

        This dependence could not be understood until the Sun’s internal structure was deciphered.

        As Dr. Ivanka Charvátová notes in a recent interview:

        “Already Sir Isaac Newton in his PRINCIPIA (1687) intuitively came to the following conclusion:

        “… since that centre of gravity (centre of mass of the solar system) is continually at rest, the Sun, according to the various positions of the planets, must continually move every day, but will never recede far from that centre.”

        This effect is not insignificant. The Sun moves across an area the size of 4.3 solar radiuses, i.e. 0.02 AU or 3.106 km. As a coincidence, the average solar speed is around 50 km/hr. Just like the speed of a car driving downtown.

        The first study about SIM was written by P.D. Jose in year 1965.”


        SIM jerks the dense, solar neutron core around inside the diffuse, glowing ball of waste products (photosphere) like a yo-yo on a string [See 2011 preprint, http://arxiv.org/pdf/1102.1499v1%5D.

        SIM-induced variations in climate confirm the importance of the Sun’s internal structure to climatology.

      • Oliver, You might also want to point out that Greenhouses do get very cold at night and therefore the GHE does depend on the sun too. I do have to say that if the sun were to suddenly cool down, then so would the Earth, no matter how much CO2 was present in the atmosphere.
        Is this the point you are trying to make? If so then you are 100% in agreement with the scientific consensus.

      • Surely this is the perfect place for ranting that makes one look foolish?

  4. Dr. Jay Cadbury, phd.

    Also, if anyone would look at a history book, you would discover that there has been much more co2 in the atmosphere but nobody pays any attention to that. You would think that with all the talk of a warming world, the GAT temperature is above average. Whoops, no, its actually below. That might be another good question. Hey Judy, I thought we were supposed to calculate the temperature based on running averages….how come this isn’t being done. Why are we told the world is warming yet not told that this is only based on data starting from 1800 or 1850? The world was in a cooling phase for millions of years before…was a cooling phase of millions of years erased by a few thousand years of warming? Judy, please provide some sort of explanation for the duplicity.

  5. greg elliott

    Readers wishing to confirm the science of Climate Change may wish to examine the Admiralty Charts drawn by William Bligh. The same Bligh of Bounty fame.

    200+ years ago Bligh drew some of the most amazingly accurate charts ever made of the remote islands in the Pacific. Many of these areas have never been resurveyed and the charts are unchanged. Except for footnotes for GPS correction factors, they have not been adjusted for lat/long or for sea level change over 200+ years.

    We spent many years sailing the Pacific in a small boat. Our boat drew 6 feet – one fathom – so we were very aware of the 1 fathom mark on Bligh’s charts. It is like the centerline on the highway. Cross over at the wrong time and you risk serious damage or death.

    The amazing thing for us is that these old charts are still accurate today. The soundings do not show any measurable rise in sea level. If the charts say you will run aground in Tonga at low tide 200 years ago, you still run aground in Tonga at low tide today. If the charts say a rock in Fiji draws 4 feet at low tide 200 years ago, the rock still draws 4 feet at low tide today.

  6. Judith

    Send a copy to Martha.


  7. Dr. Jay Cadbury, phd.

    Okay, lets see here. The liberals have identified a problem, global warming. The solution is to tax it. Every answer they have is to either tax or give money out. There is so much plastic in this banana that we could soon be facing a plastic scarcity.

  8. In his interview Michael Foucault asks:

    Has anyone ever seen a new idea come out of a polemic?

    He the answers his own question later in discussing

    what happened during the debate in the USSR over linguistics or genetics not long ago

    Yes. And there is another example of a “new idea which came out of a polemic”, which was part of the credo of the Third Reich and which eventually manifested itself in the Holocaust.

    So unfortunately the answer to his question is “yes”.

    Had he asked

    Has anyone ever seen a GOOD new idea come out of a polemic?

    The answer would be “NO”.


  9. I suppose the only point i’d raise is that usung the framework above, how do you resolve the issue of trying to prevent polemics once (and if) evidence of wrong doing??

    For example if deliberate and improper data manipulation methods had been identified (not saying there are- this is a theoretical quesiton, and this was the only example i could think of ‘on the spot’)?

    Is there a point when you are forced into a polemic position due to the actions of the other party?

    Or can you remain, always, removed??

  10. Dr. Jay Cadbury, phd.

    I am assuming that question was for me. I am a registered Republican who does not like the party right now. At this point, Ron Paul and Rand Paul best represent my views. I have always voted however, for the person I think will do the best job. For example, one of my all time favorite presidents is Harry Truman, who was a Democrat. As for keeping politics and ideology out of this global warming issue, I’m dissappointed in both sides. The Democrats use it as an emotionally appealing issue and I feel the Republicans are not doing enough to push back. When the Democrats hold hearings on this issue, they stack the panels. I’d like to see the Republicans hold a hearing and make an equal panel, not stack it with all scientists who don’t believe in global warming. The bottom line is, if a Democrat is running for president who is opposed to cap and trade, he is halfway to my vote. Here is my analogy for global warming:

    It is like when 1 kid in a class has a peanut allergy. Instead of simply telling the child not to eat anything with peanuts, the parents will take a fit and demand that peanuts be banned from the entire school.

  11. ferd berple

    “JC comments: I was quite struck by this essay and its relevance to the disputes surrounding climate change. I will leave it to you to elucidate and discuss the relevance. ”

    Clearly the debate in Climate Science has taken on the form of a scientific polemic. As Foucalt clearly lays out in the interview, a polemic is not concerned with the search for the truth. A polemic assumes there is no chance of error and is solely concerned with winning. “God is on our side”. “the ends justify the means”.

    As Faucalt lays out, there can be no profit to continue a debate about the science of Climate Science in the face of a polemic, as the rules of debate are not being followed. The debate should instead take the form of a debate about the role of a polemic in preventing the purpose of science, the search for the truth.

    While it may be easy for people to support “saving the planet”, the same cannot be said for “breaking the rules”. This may present a way forward in Climate Science. Stop discussing the science. Instead, discuss the rules of debate and their role in discovering the truth. Shine the light of day on the polemic.

    Start with the phrases “the science is settled” or “the evidence is incontrovertible”. Climate science is unique in this regard among all the sciences. In no other branch of science is the science “settled” or the evidence “incontrovertible”. This is strong evidence that Climate Science is not science at all. If it was, then why is it unique as compared to all other branches of science?

    How can Climate Science be a science when it does not resemble any other science? Religion, politics and the law consider that matters are “settled” or “incontrovertible”. Science does not. This then argues that Climate Science is not a true science. It’s nature is more similar to that of religion, politics or the law. As such, the debate over Climate Science should not be concerned with the science, because the rules of science are not being followed.

    Ask yourself this simple question. Why does “Climate Science” add “science” to its name? Does Physics, Astronomy, Meteorology, Chemistry, Mathematics, Biology, Medicine? Why is climate science unique? Because Climate Science is no more a science than the People’s Democratic Republic is a democracy.

  12. I think its amusing to read Foucault discussing truth, since I put him at the heart of those who claim there is none.

    • Foucault isn’t a relativist but that facts are coordinated according to the relevance they have for those doing the coordination (thus discursive practices create meaning)

      • This sounds like very much like a concensus. The ‘relevance for those doing the coordination’ part sounds very subjective. How does one become a part of ‘those’ who are doing? Sounds very relevant to the AGW discussion at hand.

  13. Jack Maloney

    Thanks for the Foucault quote! Here’s another one to remember:

    “Akin to, and largely responsible for the sweeping changes in our industrial-military posture, has been the technological revolution during recent decades. In this revolution, research has become central, it also becomes more formalized, complex, and costly. A steadily increasing share is conducted for, by, or at the direction of, the Federal government.

    “Today, the solitary inventor, tinkering in his shop, has been overshadowed by task forces of scientists in laboratories and testing fields. In the same fashion, the free university, historically the fountainhead of free ideas and scientific discovery, has experienced a revolution in the conduct of research. Partly because of the huge costs involved, a government contract becomes virtually a substitute for intellectual curiosity. For every old blackboard there are now hundreds of new electronic computers.

    “The prospect of domination of the nation’s scholars by Federal employment, project allocations, and the power of money is ever present – and is gravely to be regarded. Yet, in holding scientific research and discovery in respect, as we should, we must also be alert to the equal and opposite danger that public policy could itself become the captive of a scientific-technological elite.

    Dwight David Eisenhower’s Farewell Address

    • Instead of heeding the warning from Eisenhower’s 1961 farewell address:

      ” . . . . we must also be alert to the equal and opposite danger that public policy could itself become the captive of a scientific-technological elite”

      The warning became the template that federal bureaucrats followed to form a scientific-technological alliance – supported by both political parties – with ever increasing budgets to train scientists with research funds, . . . just as Pavlov trained dogs with dog biscuits.

      What happened over the past 50 years?

      1. Federal research agencies became proponents of obsolete dogmas.

      2. The US DOE skillfully avoided finding any new sources of energy.

      3. NASA collapsed – still clutching the SSM (Standard Solar Model).

      4. Politicians and world leaders seized upon the absurd AGW story.

      5, We have a climate scandal that refuses to be sweep under the rug.

      And here we are, blogging about climate with society living in fear.

  14. Polemics and politics are just another heuristic used to make decisions that they can’t research for themselves. It’s not always the best way but its understandable given our time constrained lives.

  15. And now the critique of polemics is used as a tool of polemics.

    • Alas yes, my friend, how can it be otherwise? Polemics is ravenous. But we can still laugh. And sit quietly while the storm passes, until we can talk again, until it returns again.

      Let them shout. They know no other way.

  16. Judith the quote from Foucault’s interview is a devastating critique not only for much of what passes for discussion in the realm of Climate Science, but for most of the discussion of politics in general. Where would Fox and MSNBC be without those techniques. However, even more relevant to me were the latter parts of the interview in which he put forth the idea of posing the problem to politics and the utility of the “we”.

  17. That’s the great Michel Foucault, not Michael Foucault. ;-)

    Yes, Foucault disliked polemics. I’m not sure if everyone will know this, but he was referring to polemics in academe and specifically the Humanities. For Foucault, criticism/ critical reflection was the job of academics, and he thought polemics in academe interfered with argumentation (in the technical/philosophical sense of argumentation and critical analysis). He preferred to distinguish himself from common critics e.g. journalists, now bloggers.

    Many other philosophers defend the role of polemics in academe, arguing against Foucault that it has been absolutely crucial to the development of academic fields such as social justice, feminism, postcolonialism – and climate change.

    I guess Foucault can provide a theoretical framework for considering the politics of climate change on the basis of his criticism of polemics, but it’s going to require Judith to shut down her blog in the Foucauldian spirit of elitism.

    That’s hilarious.

    • Jeff Nelson

      I’m glad to see you put climate change in the same category of study as anti-colonialism, both have the same devotion to “accuracy.”

      Speaking of academe- check out the New School of NY ad on the dotEarth blog. It links to this exciting degree- http://www.newschool.edu/milano/environmental-policy-sustainability-management-ms/

      Yes, you too can discuss policy options based on the simple assumption that the world is out of resources and global warming is getting worse. Tuition is expensive- but they’ll show you how to borrow money to get the degree. Borrow, that is, on the assumption that your area of study isn’t true and you’ll have enough money (from contributions and taxes) to pay back the loan.

  18. Perhaps in some way his approach is akin to your efforts here, n’est-ce pas?

  19. Foucault, once an open communist and a hard core progressive/leftist his entire life, is not one I would turn to, to tone down the rhetoric of the climate debate. The fact that he tried to avoid being identified by his beliefs, and actions, is in concert with modern stealth progressivism, not a desire for more reasoned debate.

    His fawning over the Ayatollah Khomeini and the prospect of shari’a governance in Iran alone demonstrate the hollowness his objections to polemics in this article. It’s like applauding the Democrats’ savaging of Clarence Thomas, Robert Bork and Sarah Palin, then complaining of the politics of personal destruction when someone points out Barack Obama’s radical history.

    Ignoring the author, the point of his article is also badly mistaken.

    “Polemics defines alliances, recruits partisans, unites interests or opinions, represents a party; it establishes the other as an enemy, an upholder of opposed interests against which one must fight until the moment this enemy is defeated and either surrenders or disappears.”

    The author’s attempt to turn polemic into a word of derision is a polemic itself. Defining alliances, recruiting partisans and uniting interests in politics is the only way the average man can exercise political power. It is no surprise that an elitist like Foucault disdains such democratic processes, when used against his post-modernist progressivism. Remember, this interview was given in 1984, the time of Reagan, Thatcher, and a conservative resurgence.

    The parallel to the present is almost comic. Progressives scientists and journalists, with the backing of progressive, government funded scientists, have been trying for over a decade to seize control of energy, tax and regulatory policy using the excuse of CAGW. Their polemics have included An Inconvenient Truth, The Day After, the homicidal 10:10 cartoon, wishing for Nurenburg trials for skeptics, labeling skeptics as equivalent to holocaust deniers, tatooing their denialism on their bodies, anything written by Joe Romm…. But now we should abjure polemics?

    Forgive me if I am not receptive to the attempt to demonize polemics now, when the political tide has turned against this concerted progressive power grab.

  20. I think this is a very interesting article that raises points that certainly apply to a forum such as this. What he calls polemics is the meta-debate, i.e. debate about the real debate, where the real debate is the science that is described in the second paragraph and represents how progress is made in understanding the core science issues, while polemics don’t lead to any scientific resolution, nor are they designed to. They are to recruit members to a polemic point of view, and may often have the opposite effect, depending on how they are carried out.

  21. Judith,
    Foucault, perhaps also some of his work on Power. I’ll also suggest Morse Peckham specifically http://www.amazon.com/Explanation-Power-Control-Human-Behavior/dp/0816616574 . And Rorty as well.

    Topics that are interesting jump off points are obviously the desire on the part of some to criminalize denialism. Let’s take an example from Dave Clarke’s blog (Deep Climate) Here is a commenter

    “DC, what I mean is that, while society hasn’t found a way (compatible with the rule of law) to criminalize climatology denialism in the way it has narcotics and (in some states, on some level) prostitution, gambling, guns etc., nevertheless the practitioners know that it’s wrong — or would know if they allowed themselves to stand still and reflect. The damage done by denialism to society and to victims is much like that of the above mob-related activities — also something denialism denies.

    Being a denialist requires a sort of moral numbness, of the kind also found in the tobacco industry — and in power politics. Together with an assumption that, we won’t get caught, they cannot touch us, often with a notion of democratic society and its law enforcement being ‘soft’. And then going from transgression to transgression. And when caught (often after a long string of crimes that were never solved or gave a suspended sentence as a ‘first offender’), the error in the criminal mind is not so much the crime, as being caught for it. And excuses, explanations, and more bull. But never an admission or an apology.

    There is much more, but this is how I see in denialism the workings of the criminal mind.”

    As I have said many times, the claim that “the debate is over” is at it’s heart a call to use power and force on those who still continue to talk or question. the debate is over, means there is no more dialog. There is only action. and if you continue to talk or try to question, then we will find a way to shut you up.

    The methods of silencing people are well known. you bar them from discussing. you discredit them; you dehumanize them; you criminalize their thought. you fantasize about eliminating them. And if you have enough power, you impose ultimate sanctions

    • John Carpenter

      I often wonder; how will those who advocate for aggressive mitigation strategies propose to do so and stay within and maintain (here in the US) our constitutional rights? This question needs to be asked to those with such a POV.

      The type of thinking in this post exemplifies the first step toward an ‘elimination’ strategy the most extreme earth activists unfortunately embrace (10:10 video anyone?). It’s also the first step perpetrated by the most nefarious criminal leaders in history. How ironic was it that the poster of this comment thinks they have ‘justice’ on their side?

      Perhaps Bob Dylan could pen a new protest song… “With Gaia On Our Side”

      The real scary part is the author of this post would not discriminate between the range of views that exist for those who question our understanding of climate and/or how to address it. All you have to do is question to become a ‘denialist’… and then go to jail. :(

      We have all seen the term ‘denialist’ lobbed around this blog in careless ways by a few visitors with preconcieved ideas towards people who have legitimate questions or an alternate POV. There is no substitute for civility and civility cannot be the first virtue to be tossed out in this debate.

      • My recollection is that I predicted a 10:10 type moment before it occurred. There was nothing special on my part in seeing it coming. The very STRUCTURE of these types of debates necessitates it. For the most part participants in this debate don’t realize that certain argumentative paths and and techniques are ingrained in the way we think.

  22. I would like to continue along the thought line that ferd berple started above.

    It has been difficult to truly define science since the simple world of Bacon et al has been overwhelmed by Hopper, Kuhn, Lakatos, Feyerabend, etc.
    Accordingly I am comfortable in defining science by describing its characteristics. In part it is an endeavor that is stimulated by curiosity, that searches for truth in the natural world, strives for objectivity, openly shares its discoveries, treats all participants on an equal plain by being concerned only with what they say not who they are, follows certain rules of decorum, and above all its participants are characterized by an open mind and a healthy skepticism. These characteristics are just a start and an interplay of ideas in an open dialog would modify and certainly expand them. But for now I would like to leave it at…..if it walks like a duck, quacks like a duck, etc.

    ferd berple then raises the point is climate science truly science. I would modify this to limit it to, is AGW science truly science?. Work done by scientists and gentlemen such as Roger Pielke are indeed science, climate science. But after 19 years of following this issue, I say the keepers of the keys to AGW client science’s image violate almost every characteristic of science there is and that includes the IPCC, “Science” magazine, The American Physics Society, the EPA , etc. AGW science is political polemics just as Foucault describes it.

    But this should not surprise any true scientists who is aware of the history of AGW. AGW was first expanded on by Arrhenius at the turn of the twentieth century. The first science climate degree was not awarded until the nineteen sixties. According to Mike Hulme no paper discussing climate change was published until the late 1980’s. Yet is was during the 1980’s that the foundation for the IPCC was laid with its AGW charge. It was 1988 when Hansen gave his famous paper to a sweating Congress. Behind this movement was a mere decade of small warming with the thirty years before that of either flat or declining temperatures.

    Such history does not sound like a history of any science to me. What curiosity launched AGW science? What data prompted this discovery? Where was the search for truth? Where are the objective confirmations in the real world? What would be its acceptance if its propositions were written on paper rather than silicone? Since the so-called science of AGW has developed where is the tolerance for open minds and healthy skepticism? Why the ad hominid attacks even on sites like this? Whatever happened to dialog? I agree AGW climate science is not science at all, it is a religious and political movement that has captured a large group of scientific technicians, (they do not practice real science) to do their will.

    • Who has invented the concept “AGW science” and who are using this concept?

      Only those who want to tell that it’s not a science. Others don’t even propose that “AGW science” exists as science or non-science.

      It’s just a strawman.

      Climate science has produced knowledge about AGW, but that is not the same thing.

      Several papers on climate change as a consequence of CO2 emissions were published in 1970’s and many more in early 1980’s. I learned about it in 1980 from the IIASA project that produced the report “Energy in a Finite World” and published its result as a book in 1981. That report considered climate change as a limiting factor for expanded use of coal. National Academy of Sciences published the report Energy and Climate in 1977.

    • I’d like to draw a parallel with the Buddha, who my teacher, S N Goenka, refers to as “a true scientist.” The Buddha, in a search for the sources of the unsatisfactory, suffering, nature of existence, developed a technique to observe with detachment reality as it manifested from moment to moment within his own mind and body. Through this technique (known as Vipassana meditation), he was able to understand the impermanent, essenceless nature of existence, in which we consist of mental and physical phenomena which arise and pass away with great rapidity. Through this, he was able to free himself from the conditionings, craving and aversion which cause unhappiness.

      But he didn’t then polemicise, he didn’t teach a dogma or form an organised religion (the word “Buddhism” is first recorded several hundred years after his death), he said “Here is a technique which each person can use to discover the truth for themselves.” He taught the technique, so that people could examine reality directly themselves, rather than depend on received knowledge or wisdom. The equivalent in AGW might be scientists who seek the truth and then provide to all who are interested the techniques and data by which they can test for thenmselves the truth perceived by the climate scientists.

  23. Rob Starkey

    As opposed to the meaningless exchange on the topic of climate change that has been going on in regards to this post, I suggest all pay close attention to what is currently going on in the US courts. Many legal observers believe that the US EPA’s position that CO2 is a harmful pollutant will be upheld.

    If the EPA’s position is affirmed, it will be a huge decision and impact all of us.


    • Only those of you Americans that drink carbonated soft drinks, oh and those of that breath.

  24. Excellent excerpt, and pertinent to Australia. Des Moore, former Treasury Deputy Secretary (Economics) and now commentator and CAGW-critic reports that following a letter in the Australian Financial Review last week, the current Treasury Secretary (formerly head of the Dept of Climate Change) and Dep Sec (Econ) have asked to be removed from his mailing list. They accuse Moore of having the “wrong facts,” and have not responded to his offer to present his case to a Treasury forum. Cf also my link to Henry Ergas’s article on the latest Garnaut report in the previous thread:


  25. Tomas Milanovic

    Your thesis is that those discussing the climate debate should ignore what one of the leading thinkers of the 20th century has to say?

    Well, while it is not clear whether there can be a such a thing like a “leading thinker” it should be rather clear that Foucault was not one.
    As far as political “thinking” is concerned, Foucault had been wrong in about every opportunity given to be wrong.

    In the early 50ies (the period of triumphant Stalinism) he was communist.
    Then he had been Sartrist (the period when the french saying went “Better be wrong with Sartre than right with Aron”).
    In the late 60ies he was radical Maoist (the period of the triumphant and, oh so humanist, cultural revolution).
    And in the 70ies he wrote about the Khomeini’s take over in Iran :
    One thing must be clear. By “Islamic government,” nobody in Iran means a political regime in which the clerics would have a role of supervision or control.
    Can one be more wrong than that?

    It is telling that he began this interview with the expression ““infantile leftism” because that is a quite valid label of what he was (like skeptic or warmist are valid labels too).
    I would prefer “unstable romantical leftism” but that’s just a choice of synonymes.
    Obviously he didn’t like that people call a spade a spade and made a whole, rather trivial pro domo argument out of it.

    Regardless of the tradition of Foucault of being wrong, if one judges this interview only for its own merits, it doesn’t pass scrutiny either.

    But the problem is, precisely, to decide if it is actually suitable to place oneself within a “we” in order to assert the principles one recognizes and the values one accepts; or if it is not, rather, necessary to make the future formation of a “we” possible by elaborating the question. Because it seems to me that “we” must not be previous to the question; it can only be the result

    This is certainly not any “problem”, it is a bias of every professional philosopher who must find “problems” in all everyday’s details because that’s what he does for a living.
    This statement is actually a trivial tautology.
    The creation of groups always happens AFTER questions and discussions.
    Foucault is fighting a strawman here.
    As he belonged to a particularly hideous “we” – the maoist Gauche Prolétarienne – if I was living in France at that time, I would have belonged to a completely opposite “we”.
    Our respective “wes” are trivially result of questions and discussions but we arrive at very different conclusions.
    The creation of “wes” already happened and one doesn’t need to be a rocket scientist to predict that a discussion between Foucault and me about Mao’s virtues would just have been a waste of time even if history has shown later that I was right and he was wrong.

    The point of this post being that while asking questions is always a good thing, there are questions concerning especially values which most individuals already answered long time ago.
    Those are typically questions that don’t belong to science and have no absolute answer with a demonstrable “truth” value with uncertainty bars …

    When in a given situation equality opposes freedom, what is one’s answer?
    Just an example of such a question.
    To the contrary of Foucault I consider that research for truth in some limited subdomains of human activity (science) should be always complemented by a clearly assumed system of values/preferences .
    The latter might very well be strongly opposed between 2 groups and it should be also recognised and assumed as a fact.
    If in some extreme cases which the history is full of, the opposition is so strong that there must be fight then let there be fight.
    And it is both the ability to discuss truth in domains where truth may be had and assumed convictions in other domains that are a guide for everyone’s actions.
    This is valid for politics as well as for climate change.

    • And I was already a fan of Tomas the scientist!

    • > To the contrary of Foucault I consider that research for truth in some limited subdomains of human activity (science) should be always complemented by a clearly assumed system of values/preferences .

      A quote would be nice to substantiate what Foucault is saying “to the contrary” of that claim, which might very well be trivial, even for Foucault.

      > In the early 50ies (the period of triumphant Stalinism) he was communist.

      Yes, from 1950 to 1953, when Foucault was in his early twenties.

      The mention of “stalinism” is interesting, in the light of what Judith took note in the blog post.

      Mentioning details of Foucault’s life to deligitimize his thoughts deserves due diligence.

      > Then he had been Sartrist […]

      This might be very hard to show, as this is patently untrue.


      People tend to forget that libertarianism might very well become what has been communism for a previous and glorious

  26. Joe Lalonde


    There is hilarity in all of this!

    Co2 and heat were bound as the same source.
    Co2 being a by-product and radiation/heat a totally separate source.
    Meanwhile focus on Co2 ignored whatever heat source which may have created this becoming a greenhouse gas affair.
    Then we have solar radiation and all the reflection, absorption, into a single number to cover a round planet that has varying heights of land mass and is bigger at the equator to the poles.

    A real laugh of comic errors.

  27. So Mann, Schmidt, Trenberth, and the other notorious climate scientists engage in polemics? Hmmm…

    • The use of the word “deniers” to dismiss your opponents is a clue. Schmidt may not do that, but I have seen Mann and Trenberth use the term frequently

      • Yes, and you did the same, Judith.

        It’s tough not to label.

      • curryja, 6/7/11, 11:08 am, polemics

        Schmidt may not [use the word deniers]? His very own, ponderously moderated, house organ for IPCC, realclimate.org, featured an entire article on the subject, Handbook in Denialism.


        This article is a patent pitch for Haydn Washington and John Cook’s Climate Change Denial: Heads in the Sand (bold added) and for John Cook’s perversely titled, house organ blog, skepticalscience.com, which is actually believer’s credo answering what the “group” over at realclimate itself calls a Gish Gallop, an attribute of “denialists”:

        [Larry] Bell [of Forbes] uses the key technique that denialists use in debates, dubbed by Eugenie Scott the “Gish gallop”, named after a master of the style, anti-evolutionist Duane Gish. The Gish gallop raises a barrage of obscure and marginal facts and fabrications that appear at first glance to cast doubt on the entire edifice under attack, but which on closer examination do no such thing. In real-time debates the number of particularities raised is sure to catch the opponent off guard; this is why challenges to such debates are often raised by enemies of science. Little or no knowledge of a holistic view of any given science is needed to construct such scattershot attacks. Bold added, Forbes’s rich list of nonsense , 1/6/11.

        Perhaps the Gish Gallop of all Gish Gallops is skepticalscience’s very own list of 163 selected, amateur (non-scientific) arguments, no more than straw men carefully selected for Cooked up responses:


        This is not science.

        But better tests for polemicists exist than the use of a word.

        When Rocky Collins asked, Can anyone at realclimate.org please respond to this article [the Acquittal of CO2]?, Schmidt answered, That’s pretty confused. He neither understands the physics of CO2, nor the implications of the Vostok record, nor the concept of positive feedback. We’ve discussed each of these issues before, and I would refer you there. – gavin .


        He didn’t address that to me directly, but I gave him a full, categorical answer, discussing his brand of physics in detail, especially on his, as well as IPCC’s, confusion over solubility and feedback:


        Gavin has yet to respond. The polemicist’s technique is not to allow oneself to be drawn out into logical debate: a variant of Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain.

        When just today I critiqued Fred Moolten’s misunderstanding of acidification and its many implications today, his response was, Jeff – I can see the medication isn’t working.

        Regardless of the substantive issues of the physics and modeling, that is, of the science, these responses are empty and, non-substantive, the hallmark of polemics. It is a refusal to engage in dialog. You should put Schmidt back behind the curtain, and add Moolten.

        To be sure, polemics is likely to win the day in the political arena, but it is in no part science. As unfortunate as that ultimate fact may be, worse is that polemics stifles science long before decision day.

      • andrew adams

        That’s different from calling them “IPCC idealogues”?

    • “The polemicist , on the other hand, proceeds encased in privileges that he possesses in advance and will never agree to question. On principle, he possesses rights authorizing him to wage war and making that struggle a just undertaking; the person he confronts is not a partner in search for the truth but an adversary, an enemy who is wrong, who is armful, and whose very existence constitutes a threat. For him, then the game consists not of recognizing this person as a subject having the right to speak but of abolishing him as interlocutor, from any possible dialogue; and his final objective will be not to come as close as possible to a difficult truth but to bring about the triumph of the just cause he has been manifestly upholding from the beginning. The polemicist relies on a legitimacy that his adversary is by definition denied.”

      It might be helpful to identify some of these privileges that allow someone to never agree to be questioned. For example, taking the case of Steig and O’Donnell. O’Donnell had tried to put questions to Steig about his paper. Steig responded with a challenge that O’Donnell should try to get his ideas published. The privileges we might suggest are these. Since Steig belongs to a group we might term ‘expert’, he has several privileges that allow him to never agree to question. he has privilege to name the battleground, a battleground where he actually gets to play at referee. Without suggesting anything wrong with this, we can of course see how Steigs friendships and memberships and his expertise ( all well earned) allow him certain privileges. Mann’s position also allowed him to write in confidence to others that they should ignore what McIntyre had to say. Essentially, Mann could poisen the well. Having friends on editorial boards ( a defense that Jones mentioned) also is a privilege.

      It think the best way explore what Foucault says about the polemicist is to explore the various privileges in the publication system and funding system.

  28. David Bailey

    Michel Foucault essay reminded me of a student discussion I shared many years ago.

    We remarked on the fact that different kinds of discourse followed quite different sets of unspoken rules. Extreme examples, were the rules for discussion in a research seminar, and those that apply in the pulpit, or (in an even more extreme form) in televangelist shows. Practical lessons – such as how to scuba dive safely – follow yet another style, as does music appreciation, or political speech making. For fun, we attempted such feats as discussing cobalt coordination chemistry in the style of a televangelist!

    I rather think that Climate change research has managed to blur its style boundary!

  29. Craig Loehle

    The irony here is that Faucault is a key figure in post-modernism (relativism), which has had a devasting impact on the humanities and has also infected climate science. Here I am thinking of the attitude that labels a scientist as “bad” if his work undermines the consensus or questions some key proposition, even if you can not find him making political statements (I have experienced this firsthand with my own work). It is also unfortunately true that Foucault in some other writings talks gibberish, though I agree with aspects of what he says here about polemics NOT being designed to uncover truth, but to “win”.

    • Yes, some people said foolish things on the name of Foucault, so what he says is gibberish. Actually Foucault’s work has its root in Kantian criticism.

      Recanting philosophical stereotypes is not enough. Due diligence is deserved for all kind of data.

      • Craig Loehle

        I did NOT say all of his work is gibberish. And following Kant’s lead is no sure path to truth either.

      • I did NOT say that Craig Loehle said that all of his work his gibbering.

        And following Kant is no sure path to post-modernism either.

    • Craig,

      I would not call him a relativist in the simple meaning of the term. Excavating the history, structure, or genisis of ideas is done without regard to the truth of them. In other words, the question of truth is bracketed. I might for example give you a description of the dream I had last night without commenting on whether or not it corresponded to ‘reality.’ That doesn’t commit me to a belief in dreams or disbelief in reality. The question is “bracketed”.

      The other thing to note is that “questioning”, is not necessarily designed to uncover truth. Foucault valorizes questioning and dialogue as a method of uncovering the truth. But we can well observe that sometimes people use questioning to obscure the “truth”, to derail dialogue. There is nothing privileged about questioning even though Foucault tries to assign individuals an inherent right to question. The privilege of questioning, which is the privileging of philosophy, relies on the unexamined notion that truth is somehow hidden, that truth is somehow arrived at through discourse, but is itself outside discourse. Yet discourse never arrives at the truth; it is always deferred. For some questioners, hemlock is the only answer.

      I realize this might not make sense. So let me make it more clear. Sometime people ask questions or express doubt in bad faith. They use it to disrupt legitimate power. And yes, the polemicist also exhibits bad faith by refusing to answer legitimate questions. So one cannot tell whether or not truth is being sought by merely looking at the structure of dialogue.

      • But we can well observe that sometimes people use questioning to obscure the “truth”, to derail dialogue….

        Sometime people ask questions or express doubt in bad faith. They use it to disrupt legitimate power.

        And to create doubt and cynicism where none is warranted in order to influence the play of power in a discourse.

        I would label McIntyre’s and other “skeptics” questioning of climate science and scientists to be in that vein.

      • This is the mistake that many people make. It’s not entirely clear that the questioning in and of itself causes the doubt and cynicism. For myself my doubt and cynicism resulted directly from people not answering a simple question. It’s not the question in an of itself that causes the doubt. It’s rather the exchange between the questioner and the questioned. The issue comes down to what is warranted. What level of questioning is warranted? Is it fair, for example, to ask that a paper accurately describe what a scientist did? And if it doesn’t is it fair to ask for the supporting documentation?
        In the case of science such questions are not only warranted, they are expected.

        In the end this comes down to who gets to decide what is warranted when it comes to questioning the science. Certainly not the scientists. And certainly not those asking the questions. As it stands the law has some things to say about who gets to ask questions and what is in order and what is not in order.

        McIntyre follows a protocal.

        1. Ask the scientist. The appeal here is to the “standards” of science. One should share code and data for the betterment of science.
        When scientists said no…
        2. Ask the journal. the journals have there own standards where they try to codify the “standards” of science. Thou shalt make data available.
        When journals refused to adhere to their OWN standards then
        3. Use the Law. Scientists are paid and that payment often brings responsibilities. Like, everyone is warranted to ask and receive your work.

      • From the point of view of science itself the natural solution to this problem is informal as the natural solution is for most of the issues of pure science. The idealized picture of pure science is very libertarian: Better science wins ultimately, because it’s better. A scientist, who doesn’t tell enough on her work loses stature. Her work doesn’t influence the science as much as the same work would, when represented more comprehensively.

        The specific practices and formal requirements may be very helpful and make the process more efficient. Thus being paid to work as scientist leads to the duty of doing that effectively and following proper practices. In case of “pure science” the judge of the performance has been the informally defined science community. The science community has often been rather closed and disregarded criticism from those thought to be non-scientists. Formal requirements of the type of FOIA from outside have been unheard of.

        In several fields of applied science, perhaps most notably in medical research related to development of medicines, it has been understood for years that formal QC requirements are essential and that the science is not always up to standards, but the same hasn’t been as obvious in most fields. Thus the climate science was not ready to the transition to an important factor in political decision making. The old practices were not right for the requirements of “postnormal science”. The individuals didn’t understand the requirements of their new role and reacted wrongly to requests of outsiders of their familiar community.

      • I dont find much to disagree with in your assessment.

      • steven mosher, 6/8/11, 12:56 am, polemics

        The protocol you attribute to McIntyre is two parts paper checking (what peer review is supposed to do) and one part a witch hunt for an ad hominem (the tired oil company gotcha).

        Science is about creating models of the real world, whether natural or manmade, models with predictive power. The ultimate test for science is the validation by measurements (facts) fitting within the error bounds of non-trivial (no “the Sun is going to rise at 6:12 am”) predictions made by the models.

        It is neither informal, nor [loosy-goosey] libertarian, nor gauged by some vague and subjective sense of better, as Pekka asserts at 6/8/11, 4:11 am. It is highly structured. The stature that Pekka refers to is peculiar to academe, and is notably absent in most of industrial science, which is by comparison to academe extremely fast paced, productive, and secretive. Nor is science determined by the science community, by publication in professional journals, or even by patent count. It is always determined by the validation of model predictions, which trumps any other criterion.

        Science imposes ethical duties on scientists to report their work honestly, meaning objectively and following the scientific method. Scientists who respond to postnormal processes and political imperatives, as Pekka also suggests, are into polemics, operating outside the bounds of science and unethically.

      • 1) I was explicitly discussing “pure science” not industrial science.

        2) The goal of pure science is to progressively add to the knowledge on reality and to store that knowledge as basis for further scientific work, and as a side benefit also for applied use, often through applied research. The scientific process also improves the knowledge by correcting earlier errors.

        3) The science community has developed and maintained the practices that scientific work follows. They are different in different fields of science and they get modified, when the level of knowledge improves. There is no single well defined “The Scientific Method”, but many more general principles apply to all good science. These general principles include ethical issues, but perhaps the most important is honest self-criticism, i.e. every claim must be justified and possible gaps in the argumentation brought up openly.

        4) It’s deep in the spirit and independence of science that only the science community controls it’s rules concerning the quality of pure science. Outsiders have their say on many other things, because they are funding the science, but not on that. (Applied science is another matter.)

        5) In 2) I wrote knowledge on reality</b. That means that empirical confirmation is essential, but the way that confirmation is obtained may vary widely. Sometimes one single empirical conflict with earlier theories may form the basis for great progress (Einstein’s work is good example), sometimes the data is plentiful and changes in theoretical structures minimal. (Climate science is not about new basic theories, but about learning on the Earth system taking advantage of existing basic theories, new methods based on these theories, and a great variety of observational data.)

        6) “Postnormal science” is not a type of basic science, but it a state of the conditions, where science is being done. It’s about the requirements that the outsiders put on scientists. It’s more about applied research than pure science. Many scientists, who would like to do pure science have been forced to switch to applied research under pressure of the state of “postnormal science”. Some scientists have certainly switched willingly, when they see their influence on societal decision grow, but that means that they cannot do any more pure science as much or at all.

      • Pekka Pirilä, 6/8/11, 10:31 am, polemics

        1. You think no universal agreement exists on Scientific Method, try pure science. Whatever you mean by pure science, science is practiced no differently in academia than it is in industry. It is practiced no differently on the natural world than it is on the manmade world, except for the fact that what is called validation in natural science is different than closure in technology by the fact that in technology the real world can be brought into agreement with the model as well as the reverse.

        2. The goal of science is improve the predictive power of models of the real world. Nothing more. The goal of SCIENTISTS might be to progressively add to the knowledge , but that is a personal, subjective standard, well outside science.

        3. I didn’t claim there was a single Scientific Method, well-defined or otherwise. I do believe there is a best version, which is beyond the scope of Climate Etc. and its audience of too many polemicists. I don’t find that the best version includes ethics. I don’t find that openness is a criterion, either. Every implication of a model is subject to validation on its explicit and implicit predictions, and failing validation on a prediction invalidates the model.

        4. By quality of pure science, meaning not polemical science, you might mean the progressive grades of models known as conjecture, hypothesis, theory and law. I don’t recognize an authoritative “science community”. It is certainly neither the professional journals nor the professional societies. Both have been horribly compromised, as is now the case with AGW.

        5. I agree with you on validation, meaning empirical confirmation, except that what must be validated are non-trivial predictions. And I agree that it can take many forms. I’m not sure what you mean by “climate science”. See ferd berple on 6/6/11, 12:04 pm, for an excellent little critique on the concept. Of course none of the progressive, new wave, postnormal, polemicists came out from behind their blinds to engage in his commentary, any more than they do in scientific matters. I don’t suppose commentary by the only Systems Scientist participating in the dialog here is going to have any flushing effect either.

        AGW is a serialized novel of the science fiction genre. It relies on a manufactured consensus, captive professional journals advocating for the dogma, closed to debate, and models that violate physics and science. The genre is fun if you buy the premises. We have a raft of polemicists posting here and there with genuine technical and scientific credentials promoting the whole notion. It’s a phenomenon.

        The problem with the Scientific Method is with people, esp. polemicists, who don’t want to be bound by professional discipline, people who might think science is informal and akin to libertarianism or Protestantism. The tighter the rules, the more difficult the model. The larger the congregation, the greater the confirmation. Climatology is a bit of a hard problem, proclaimed to be much worse than it is by advocates of the fantastical human caused climate change. Science will prevail once we dial back all the nonsense and polemical tentacles.

        6. For an interesting article, pay an encore visit to Bray, D. and H. von Storch, Climate Science: An Empirical Example of Postnormal Science, Bull.AmMetSoc, v. 80, no. 3, March, 1999, pp. 439ff. Judith Curry linked to this paper, with comments, on 1/24/11:


        It has some interesting definitional sections and discussion, though way too much on a multinational opinion survey. What the consensus thinks is irrelevant to science, and this lengthy discussion tends to promote the fiction that a consensus is any more than personal reinforcement for the insecure advocates or charlatans. The conclusion that climate science is a case study in postnormal science, which is not science at all, is important.

        For more on von Storch, the poster bad boy in climatology, see his 12/22/09 editorial in the Wall Street Journal.


        As Dr. Curry said,

        I prefer to use the term “postnormal environment for science” to avoid the perception that proper scientific methods are being ignored. The environment that brought about the behavior of Mann, Jones et al., the blogospheric obsession with their emails, and publication of statements such as those by Hasselman and Trenberth does not reflect a normal scientific environment, but rather a highly politicized one. Scientists and others being labeled as “deniers” or “alarmist” is a clue that this is not a normal environment for science.

        The deterioration of science neither starts nor stops with emails, or the obsession over them, nor with the overt manipulation of journals. And it is not a consequence of outside pressures put on climatologists to convert to applied science. It is manifest in the AGW story and in the junk promoted by IPCC (e.g., solar amplification ignored, cloud cover feedback ignored, thermodynamic equilibrium in the surface layer, chartjunk fingerprints, disparate records glued together), its followers in accord, all in the name of science. That proper scientific methods are being ignored is evident based on the simplest theoretical grounds, to use IPCC’s own phrase.

      • It’s not necessary to reformulate, what I wrote above.

        Concerning thoughts of von Storch on postnormal science, I have read his writings and comments (mainly on Kilmazwiebel), and agree mostly with them. I also believe that he agrees with what I wrote above on that point.

      • Sorry, I prefer to be objective in my description of what science actually is. That is, scientifically describe what it is that scientists actually do, rather than prescribe what they should do. Those practices will work with varying degrees of skill. So, yes some models of what we call “reality” are more skillfull or better than others. Models aren’t validated, they are ‘yet to be replaced by something more useful’

      • steven mosher, 6/8/11, 4:14 pm, polemics

        By all means, let’s all be objective. So let’s see if I have you right: If a scientist has a cheeseburger for lunch and practices polemics with his specialty, then by your definition, having a cheeseburger for lunch and practicing polemics are part of science?


        Sorry, too, models are indeed validated. That’s how and when they become theories. But your observation that they are ‘yet to be replaced by something more useful’ is quite good.

      • We can also compare good and bad science. These are not precisely defined concepts, but in retrospect we can certainly identify processes that have led to valuable results and to rapid progress of science, and compare those processes to less successful scientific work. I cannot cite any research that has been done on those lines, but I have tried to figure out, what I have seen myself and what I have learned from a variety of unspecifiable sources. Much of what I have written on the subject in the above and other comments is influenced by those observations.

      • Science has several meanings and can mean different things to different people, which is not very scientific, if you think about it. The root of the word is sci – which means “to know”.

        I always like the Feynman speech “What is Science?”.
        speech What is Science

      • Pekka –
        We can also compare good and bad science. These are not precisely defined concepts, but in retrospect we can certainly identify processes that have led to valuable results and to rapid progress of science, and compare those processes to less successful scientific work.

        Here’s an environmental scare that I hadn’t run into before. For some, the question might be – which “science” is bad and which is good? Note the last line – how many of those 1000 papers were worth the paper they were written on? .

        The New York Times science page today reports on new research that essentially says “never mind” about the popular environmental meme that male sperm counts have been falling sharply over the last few decades, the result, it was presumed, of environmental contamination of some kind. “In Update on Sperm, Data Show No Decline,” Times science writer Gina Kolata reports:

        Are men becoming less fertile, with declining sperm counts and diminishing sperm quality? If they are, then sperm might be an early warning sign of environmental dangers. And the prime suspects have been substances like plastics and pesticides that can have weak estrogenlike effects on cells.

        But now 15 years of data from 18-year-old Danish men taking their military physicals show no decline in sperm counts, after all. The idea that sperm counts were plummeting began with an alarming paper published in 1992 by a group of Danish researchers. Sperm counts, they reported, declined by 50 percent worldwide from 1938 to 1991, and the trend would continue, they said.

        Many other researchers criticized the data’s quality, citing flaws like a lack of standardized methods of collecting semen, methodological issues in semen analysis, biases in the ways men were selected, and variations in the length of time men abstained from ejaculating before their semen was collected.

        The study, said Dolores Lamb, a fertility expert at Baylor College of Medicine and president-elect of the American Society of Reproductive Medicine, “was problematic and raised alarms in society without critical thinking about the caveats and weaknesses inherent in the data and its analysis.”

        Nonetheless, the paper was highly influential. It was cited by 1,000 subsequent scientific papers.

      • Pekka Pirilä, 6/8/11, 4:14 pm, polemics

        We can also compare good and bad science. These are not precisely defined concepts … /

        Without an unambiguous, measurable definition of good and bad you cannot scientifically decide good and bad anything. Confusion of good vs. bad and especially better is what lays many treatises on evolution out of the bounds of science and into the flaming jaws of religion.

        … but in retrospect we can certainly identify processes that have led to valuable results and to rapid progress of science, and compare those processes to less successful scientific work. I cannot cite any research that has been done on those lines, but I have tried to figure out, what I have seen myself and what I have learned from a variety of unspecifiable sources.

        Try Jennings, B.K., On the Nature of Science, Physics in Canada, 63(1) 2007.


        Jennings makes a half dozen or so second tier errors. He is confused about quality control and the scientific method, including the peer-review process; he doesn’t discuss measurements, standards, and facts; he woefully underplays randomness and cause and effect; skips over scaling in models. Regardless, his is a highly quotable work. Published commentary is also available online.

        However, it is predictive power not reasonableness that is the final arbiter in science. Even very unreasonable models, like Newtonian gravity, quantum mechanics, continental drift, evolution or string theory, must be accepted if but only if they correctly predict observations.

        It is wrong to think that the task of physics is to find out how nature is.

        Science is not about discovery of laws. Laws are models, manmade, and do not exist in nature. Nature projects patterns on our senses, which give birth to science.

        Popper’s basic idea is correct, models cannot be proven but still can be tested by comparison with observations. However, rather than strict falsification we judge a model by its predictive power.

        Except that Popper’s model for science itself was quite wrong, and so was his disdain for definitions. Science is never induction, which would require falsification, but is always deduction.

        Following Popper, we can make a model and see how well it describes past
        observations and predicts future observations. The fundamental idea of model building
        (hypothesizing) and testing against observation actually goes back much farther, at least
        to 1267 and Roger Bacon’s
        Opus majus.

        Observations are any sensory input.

        Or sensing instrument.

        Rather model construction is a creative activity — as creative as anything in literature or the fine arts.

        It is up to the proponents of the new result to convince the rest of the community that the results are correct. It is not up to the rest of the community to show the new results are wrong.

        Of course, this does not foreclose on debunking junk in IPCC Reports and the AGW model.

        It is only the peers who would have the knowledge to spot errors.

        Whoops! For example, climatology draws from epistemology, science, systems science, physics, chemistry, mathematics, and statistics. Specialists in those fields are not considered peers in climate journals, or in polite dialog among (or email between) climatologists. Only climatologists are approved. Yet specialists in those field are precisely positioned to spot errors. This is not peer review, but superior review.

        Science does progress, new models are constructed with greater and greater predictive power.

      • By all means you might choose to document the diet of a scientist, but you’d probably not be successful in using it to predict anything about the usefulness of his results which is what I’m suggesting. You’d probably find that was a wheel that didnt turn. All models are already theories. As theories they can be used to understand the past or predict the future. They do so with varying skill. At some point scientists stop checking the skill of the model and they accept it as “true” What this means of course is that they find it pointless to try and disprove it anymore. They find that they can do more things by accepting it than by fighting it. There isnt any bright line for making this decision. They call the theory a “law” and they move on to other things. Of course these “laws” become embedded in other theories and become more resistant to removal. But that’s merely a pragmatic decision. Of course somebody can always come along and rewrite all the laws.

  30. Dr. Jay Cadbury, phd.

    Simply amazing. Nobody knows why we don’t discuss temperatures in the context of the historic running average, the GAT. Again, amazing.

  31. Interesting to see Foucault made relevant in the climate debate.
    Polemics deserve a bit of credit in regards to creativity, “search for truth” and whatnot – maybe Valla’s “On the Donation of Constantine”? But I’m in broad agreement with this one. There’s a fundamental difference between rhetorical theatrics designed to convince and conquer and an actual discussion meant to approach the truth.
    The latter is difficult to pull off when you believe that the other side isn’t worth having a discussion with (may even belong in jail), or that you already have the truth in hand.

  32. Tomas Milanovic


    A quote would be nice to substantiate what Foucault is saying “to the contrary” of that claim, which might very well be trivial, even for Foucault.

    The quote was in the post.
    To avoid misunderstandings I stressed, hopefully quite strongly, that my point was related to the Foucault’s interview and of course not to the thousands of other pages that Foucault wrote.

    Mentioning details of Foucault’s life to deligitimize his thoughts deserves due diligence.

    Those are hardly “details”! It’s sounds like a famous french politician who said that the gaz chambers were a “detail” of history. And indeed these not so “details” delegitimize the relevance of Foucault’s opinions and convictions as far as politics are concerned.
    Why should one listen to somebody who has been always wrong (in this domain)?

    Then he had been Sartrist […]

    This might be very hard to show, as this is patently untrue.

    In a too fast lecture you must have misinterpreted what I meant. But I give you credit, labels may be sometimes misleading.
    Of course, as already stressed several times, I didn’t intend to “analyse” Foucault’s philosophy.
    This would have been boring, out of topic (e.g relevance of the interview to the climate debate) and has been done in thousands of books.
    What I meant was that Foucault’s political convictions were identical to those of Sartre during this period.
    The difference being that Sartre was sticking to the same (marxism) almost all his life while Foucault was an opportunist jumping from one error to another – from Stalin to Mao to Khomeiny etc.

    My point has been that Foucault says basically in this interview that one should discuss before joining a group what is a trivial observation.
    And it misses the point because it implies that oppositions between groups can always be eliminated by a discussion. In reality sometimes they can (science) and sometimes they can’t (politics or values).
    What he calls “polemics” is often a discussion of the latter variety.

    • ## Reactionary claptraps

      Tomas Milanovic,

      /1. Here is the seemingly obvious statement that, according to your interpretation, Foucault disbelieved:

      > Research for truth in some limited subdomains of human activity (science) should be always complemented by a clearly assumed system of values/preferences.

      A quote from the interview would be nice to understand by which words one gets this interpretation of yours, which will be tough to reconcile with the main idea behind Foucault’s archeological and genealogical works, if they can be seen to integrate this “complementation” of values/preferences into historical methods.

      According to my reading of the interview, simply Foucault stipulates conditions for a dialogue to appear. Not a simile of a dialogue. A real one, where people can truly speak their mind and their heart without coercion. Heart and mind going hand in hand, in Foucault’s conception of truth. He’s a romantic, what can I say.

      This model of dialogue implies some rules for any kind of dialogue, from a rational inquiry to a political discussion. This model does not imply that we eliminate “oppositions between groups”, only that groups must stop polemicizing if they wish to dialogue. I believe that this is the idea that caught Judith’s attention.

      When people believe they “call a spade a spade”, they must accept as a consequence that communication channels gets broken, at least for the time they do call a spade a spade.

      /2. You were detailing Foucault’s life political choice to argue for this:

      > Foucault had been wrong in about every opportunity given to be wrong.

      This presupposes that Foucault is talking about political preferences. This is quite clear when you say:

      > Why should one listen to somebody who has been always wrong (in this domain)?

      It is even clearer when we see how you dismiss Foucault as a valid authority:

      > And indeed these not so “details” delegitimize the relevance of Foucault’s opinions and convictions as far as politics are concerned.

      But notice the conflation here. Foucault is not talking about political preferences, but about **dialogue**. Unless dialogue is a power struggle akin to polemics and politics in general, your conclusion does not obtain.

      It would be interesting to know which “leading thinkers” have made political choices you deem good enough for you. If you can say that Foucault is not a leading thinking thinker, you surely have a prototype in mind.

      /3. Now to your historical mentions, not “details” as in “unimportant”, but as in “produced by detailing”. You made explicit what you wanted to say by them:

      > Foucault’s political convictions were identical to those of Sartre during this period (i.e. marxism).

      While it is true that Foucault and Sartre belonged to the same faction for three years, it would be very strange to presume that they shared marxism. Foucault in fact was way more revolutionary than Sartre, and even Chomsky. This biographical note makes it quite clear (my translation):

      > [C]oming to maturity after the Occupation, Foucault and many of his contemporaries judged that it was not possible to cling to the existential humanism that developed during the preceding epoch. Notwithstanding their attraction to marxism and the French Communist Party, they almost immediately turned their back to the generation of Sartre, Merleau-Ponty and Hyppolite .


      To corroborate my one-minute, rushed, almost litteral translation, here’s the opinion of a guy who studied Habermas, Foucault and Brandom :

      > There is no doubt that Foucault’s analysis of capitalism is carried out in the context of and to a certain extent in opposition to the Marxist analysis of capitalism. However by Marxist analysis Foucault does not mean the work of Marx but a set of Marxist doctrines guarded and monopolised by communist parties. Foucault dreamt of the emergence of “(a) left culture that was not Marxist” in this sense.


      (Judith, I know I already told you, but if you like this interview by Foucault, you’ll like Robert Brandom.)

      Being a marxist is not being a Marxian. Not all Marx scholars are communists. The only thing we can say for sure is that Foucault was a revolutionary.

      /4. And so the only label left to join Sartre and Foucault is “leftist”. The label is quite telling and still deserves due diligence: for instance, “leftist” has not the same connotation as “gauchiste”. Let it be known that I am in no way condoning any Parisian intellectual of the past here.

      Without coming up to an interpretation that do justice to Foucault and Sartre’s commitments to social causes, we’re left with common claptraps that in no way improves understanding. I’ve yet to see a reason why these claptraps lead to dialogue.


      Perhaps there is a simpler test for Foucault says in that interview. Suppose, for argument’s sake, that I tell you that your overall comment, with his reactionary framing and libertarian undertones, fits this blog’s dominant narrative quite well. Would you think that I’m trying to open up a dialogue?

  33. p.s. The term is ‘problematization’ (Foucault’s theoretical/critical mode of philosophical and historical inquiry into the relationship between power and knowledge — not problemization.
    Maybe Judith you can fix that in your posting of the title, since none of your Foucault scholars have noticed or helped by correcting you. I don’t know if your word exists — looks like a good word — but it is not Foucault’s. ;-)

  34. The comments come perilously close to Ecoing the Telluric Currents debate in _Focault’s Pendulum_ .

    Perhaps Judith should start over , with The Empire of Signs — where would the Climate Wars be without the creation and manipulation of symbols?