The politics of knowledge

by Judith Curry

One needs to ask good questions about whose claims to trust and why. – Sheila Jasanoff

Sheila Jasanoff has a new essay, entitled What Should Democracies Know? that provides some interesting perspective on ‘alt-facts’, etc. Excerpts:

The “post-truth,” “alt-fact,” “fake news” era has drawn understandable outrage from thoughtful people. Some, especially in the mainstream media, assume that the line between truth and lies is clear-cut, and can be ascertained through careful fact-checking, as in a recent New York Times editorial on the real costs of the Trump administration’s immigration enforcement policy. Others, more historically minded and attuned to technological change, have called attention to social media and the ease of propagating claims that have not passed through the costly, messy processes of peer review or validation through experiment. Still others have noted the rise of data as a substitute for tested facts, and how politicians’ reliance on mass measures of electoral sentiment may undermine the cultural habits of deliberation on real-world problems.

As a teacher in a public policy school, who also has a considerable involvement in undergraduate education, I feel an urgent need to address this issue. My interest is not merely in enabling students to judge for themselves why some arguments are better than others or why some claims are entitled to deference while others should be set aside as “not proven.” Those aims of course are basic, and I spend hours each week thinking how to make my students into more critical thinkers, more careful readers, and more persuasive writers. That, however, is not where the pedagogical buck stops. The challenge of the moment is to make students think harder about how knowledge and power work together in modern democracies, for good and for ill. To that end, I believe we also have to explore in our teaching why arguments take the forms they do, why some sources of knowledge count for more than others, why facts are not always available when needed, why one person’s settled knowledge looks like another’s baseless allegation, and why being uncertain is not an insurmountable obstacle to making wise public policy.

To turn students into critical users and evaluators of public knowledge, it is not enough to lead them into the thick of dueling facts and counter-facts. One needs to ask good questions about whose claims to trust and why. Democratic theory has spent thousands of years wondering what makes it legitimate for the few to rule the many. We have to cultivate similar awareness of what makes it acceptable for a few to know for the many. Why do some facts, especially those couched in numbers, carry so much political weight: unemployment statistics, poverty metrics, the GDP, life expectancy, pollution burdens, highway fatalities, dietary guidelines, and many more? What principles of accountability exist and are appropriate for institutions charged with producing these facts that we live by? What rights do citizens have against abuses of knowledge by those in power? How can those rights be better articulated, given that no society can make its rules of public knowing fully transparent? What, in short, is the constitutional position of science, those tacit or explicit principles that govern in any society the relations between science, expert judgment, and political power?

My students have learned since their early school days how to evaluate the facts the world holds out to them. They are often masters of logic and technique, accomplished debaters, and skilled at choosing between weaker and stronger claims. Yet, like children taught to believe that babies are brought in the beaks of storks, they have not learned to question how facts are made. This moment calls for an end to that dangerous innocence. Only through sustained reflection on why we know what we think we know can we find ways to strengthen, even augment, our collective knowing—and so push back against those who would dismantle the human institutions we have entrusted with the hard task of making public knowledge.

JC reflections

Jasanoff raises some important points.  Scientific ‘facts’ are being used as a political weapon.  Unfortunately, there is widespread confusion about what constitutes socially relevant knowledge, with much purveying of truthiness and factiness. The sociology and politics of knowledge is a topic that deserves much reflection.  I am particularly heartened to hear how Jasanoff is educating her students.


113 responses to “The politics of knowledge

  1. The Sociologist already think they have all the answers, they are why we are here at this point. They have taken over our institutions of learning. Have they not JC?

  2. Pingback: The politics of knowledge – NZ Conservative Coalition

  3. Re: “Why do some facts, especially those couched in numbers, carry so much political weight: unemployment statistics, poverty metrics, the GDP, life expectancy, pollution burdens, highway fatalities, dietary guidelines, and many more? ”

    Let’s start with this:

    NUMBERS are not FACTS

    They are just numbers. Most numbers used in politics, social advocacy, and scientific advocacy are turned into factoids which are not strictly true but support the advocacy cause.

    Americans have been falsely educated into the belief, which stems from a weird doctrine of scientism, that numbers, particularly LARGE or PRECISE numbers are inherently factual because of the idea that “numbers are pure and never tainted by bias or opinion.” (or something along those lines, anyway). I used to believe that myself in my undergrad days.

    • Numbers are a form of factiness. A good example of misuse of numbers is the Drake equation concerning whether we are alone the universe. Start with a large number (galaxies in the universe), multiply by another large number (stars per galaxy), then throw any string of very small probabilities (planets/ star, rocky planets, with atmosphere, habitable zone,…) and voila, you still always end with a significanly large positive number. But no knowledge of the truth of the proposition.

      • More important about the Drake equation is that almost all of the terms are completely unknown, and we have zero empirical evidence for the guesses used in interpreting the probability of intelligent life. If we could have some idea about the different terms in the Drake equation it would be useful. As it is, it is just a bunch of guesses strung together. At best, it tells us what kind of data to pursue.

      • ristvan ==> For my money, the existence of other life in the universe is based on simply logic. The Drake equation has always been nonsense.

      • Define life. Single cell prokaryotes likely. Multicellular eukaryotes unlikely.

      • Kip, I was not opining on the likelihood that we are alone. That gets into personsl religious beliefs. Only on the factiness of the Drake equation.
        If you want my personal views on this fundamental evolution questiion, read the short book by A.G. Cairns-Smith, Seven Clues to the Origin of Life. A summary of his much longer scientific tome.
        I have yet to find anything to refute that simple hypothesis. Which means, independent of the sillynDrake equation, lige has evolved before and will continue to do so on suitable planets to suitable stars.
        As to the eye ID false deconstruction, already published, based on a much longer and more detailed book on same. Plus there is a great more related material in my book, Characterization chapter.

      • Rare Earth: Why Complex Life is Uncommon in the Universe argues that while primitive life might be very common, there’s a lot of other factors that have to be right, and stay right over extremely long periods of time, to get more advanced life.

      • Much more relevant, I think, is the “road deaths” numbers. These are almost always expressed as absolute number/year. Yet the more relevant number – the one that tells you how safe it is to drive somewhere – is number/passenger miles.
        The first (absolute) is a factoid used by people who have an interest in increasing regulation (politicians and those who advise them), while the second is, as above, a much better indication of how likely you are to be killed while driving somewhere.

      • As someone who’s dealt with tangled string and extension cords, when I see how many nucleotides are in a DNA strand, it makes me think getting life started is biology’s highest hurdle.

      • Cannot have started with DNA. No transcription mechanism. Highly recommend Cairns Smiths summary of his masterpiece, Seven clues.

  4. “Only through sustained reflection on why we know what we think we know can we find ways to strengthen, even augment, our collective knowing—and so push back against those who would dismantle the human institutions we have entrusted with the hard task of making public knowledge.”

    1. presupposes that reflection is an effective technique and exclusively so
    2. presupposes that the institutions should not be dismantled– or replaced.

    In short, the good professor needs to employ more of the critical thinking that she thinks she is teaching and question some of her assumptions, particularly about the arm chair approach to knowing.

    This was also funny

    ” One needs to ask good questions about whose claims to trust and why.”

    Ah no.

    There is no good question about WHOSE claims to trust.

    There are good questions about.

    1. What claims to Accept
    2. What claims to Question
    3. What claims to Ignore
    4. What claims to test
    5. what claims to suspend judgement on
    6. What claims are actually important
    7. what method you can use to correct and improve your prior
    decisions about claims.

    The last thing you want to do is think that you can decide WHOSE claims to trust. Trust me.

    The teacher is still operating in the old world of “trusted instituitons”

    So.. at some point you decide to “trust” the banks, or trust the NYT,
    ot trust Judith, or Trust Me.. That makes your knowledge vulnerable to attack from a single failure. You just OUTSOURCED your knowledge and power. Its not resilient, but the good professor has an instituition to protect. So of course she wants to teach you how to reliably outsource your knowing. She wants to tech you how to trust, rather then to question the whole need to trust, So suppose you learn whose claims to trust. That was yesterday. How often do you re validate WUWT as a “trusted source”? How often do you re check Judith as a trusted source? Do you trust yourself to do the trust checking?

    I read some of her other stuff on cosmopolitan epistemology.

    Trust me, Dont waste your time

    • Agree with this basic viewpoint. Never outsource your own knowledge. But unfortunately most do most of the time.

      • yes people used to outsource their knowledge (power) to the MSM,
        say about climate change.. or they outsourced their knowledge to Al Gore and AIT
        Then untrusted sources of knowledge (the internet) up ended those institutions.
        So some folks, outsourced their knowledge to the internet.
        Then of course we got fake news.
        And the MSM screamed fake news, as they posted fake news.

        In the near future we will outsource our understanding to algorithms.
        Algorithms that predict better than we can, but algorithms that fundamentally cannot explain why they decided what they decided.

        Spent a great time listening to andreas antonopolous last night in Sunnyvale on Fake news… I’ll link the video when they post it

        to give you a hint of where we have to go with tommorrow epistemology.

      • Agree with both of you. We shouldn’t but we do. That’s what makes sites like this important. One to remind you of the need to apply critical thinking and two to help with provide some hints on the the sort of things that you might think critically about. These kinds of sites help to provide the uninitiated with a basic toolkit. A way of both framing and expressing you thoughts. All of this is essentially educational and sadly some of that seems to be lacking in both schools and other institutes these days. Starting to sound like a grumpy old man now. So I think it’s time to stop.

      • Good points, Mosh. A bit airy-fairy for me: “Only through sustained reflection on why we know what we think we know can we find ways to strengthen, even augment, our collective knowing.” Reflection per se won’t provide answers, and knowing is at the level of the individual rather than the collective, however constituted. Observe yourself closely and with detachment, and you’ll find that you consist of minute particles, arising and passing away with great rapidity, no substance, no lasting entity. That is real knowledge, and will give you a better framework with which to approach external knowledge.

    • “The last thing you want to do is think that you can decide WHOSE claims to trust. Trust me.”

      The other statement is true. The other statement is false.

    • Mosher partially discusses “WHOSE claims to trust?”

      This is a valid question if it refers to “whose claims ” as simply a way to designate different scientific evaluations by different researchers based on evidence and logic.

      In contrast it would be an invalid question if it suggests our trust should be based on the person who suggested the interpretation.

      I would guarantee Judith would be asking the former.

      • “This is a valid question if it refers to “whose claims ” as simply a way to designate different scientific evaluations by different researchers based on evidence and logic.”

        err no. Read HARDER

        ‘This moment calls for an end to that dangerous innocence. Only through sustained reflection on why we know what we think we know can we find ways to strengthen, even augment, our collective knowing—and so push back against those who would dismantle the human institutions we have entrusted with the hard task of making public knowledge.”

        she is interested in pushing back against those who want to dismantle
        the institutions ( read universities, governments, science organizations)
        Who “we” ( What WE?) have entrusted with the task of distributing
        knowledge. So for example, there are those of us who want to
        disrupt the institution of science publishing and peer review. Who DONT want to entrust the business of science to universities, governments, etc. So she is quite interested in WHO one trusts. Not in
        the sense of individual scientists, but rather of shoring up the existing


        “I would guarantee Judith would be asking the former.”

        Excuse me if I dont trust your guarantee. That would be silly. Why would I trust what you think Judith would ask when I can just ask her?

      • I would trust someone of demonstrated honesty and integrity. But I wouldn’t necessarily accept that what they say is correct, they may believe it but not have the appropriate background to evaluate and judge the relevant material.

      • PS: many of my friends are honest and have high integrity, but also have beliefs which I do not accept, in most cases because they have accepted external “wisdom” without sufficiently querying or assessing it, or going to basic sources themselves.

    • Mosher: “One needs to ask good questions about whose claims to trust and why. Ah no”

      If you take this position, 99% of the voters shouldn’t be voting. In today’s world, it is impossible for the average citizen, or most highly educated people, to be an expert on science, business, math, law, economics, software, medicine, technology, foreign affairs, the military and any other specialized form of knowledge that affects everyone’s lives. You have to know who to trust initially, and then if the issue is important enough, you do your own research to determine whether the initially trustworthy person, or institution is in fact dispensing reliable knowledge or advice.

      Those people who merit initial trust are generally those without ideological positions that they wish to further, and those that are open with the basis of their knowledge and open with the limits of their knowledge. They are also open to challenges to their conclusions. A classic example of an initially trustworthy person is Richard Feynman. Many intolerant people in the field of climate science are classic initially untrustworthy people.

      Whether you like it or not (and it is not unreasonable to dislike it), trust in particular experts is how juries decide complex cases. Since they are generally not permitted to ask questions and since they are not chosen on the basis of academic achievement, they cannot possibly evaluate the merits of the financial issues in most complicated antitrust cases. The same is true with respect to complicated medical malpractice cases.


      • JD,
        I think you miss the point. He’s not advocating analysis paralysis, he’s saying that you need to read both sides of an issue and not let someone else choose the only side you listen to. The author of the piece is basically saying, “let me tell you which side you pay exclusive attention to.”
        In the voting analogy, Mosher is saying go to the Republican’s speech, go to the Democrat’s speech, make up your mind. He’s pushing back against the writer’s claim that you just need to go hear the Democrat, because trustworthy folks have already decided the Republican is wrong.
        In this space, anyone who is just reading WUWT or just reading ATTP isn’t doing it right. Academia shouldn’t be picking which one to read, it should give us the tools to recognize when both are making weak or strong arguments and we should be reading both with those skills.

      • Jeffn: If Mosher was saying what you state, I would agree. However, I don’t think so. Among other things, he stated: “There is no good question about WHOSE claims to trust.” He is focusing on persons and saying that you have to do your own work on virtually everything. (He has a past history of telling those who disagree with Hansenite science to do their own work. My response is that as a taxpayer, I have the right to have non-ideologues doing the work.)

        After I posted, another example came to mind. Because of the Federal Government, I have 4 complicated health insurance policies. I have a good and sophisticated insurance agent. I rely on him to do the work with minimal input on my own. I, having practiced workers’ compensation law for 17 years, with about 10-20 hours of work, could understand my policies. Or, I can work with the agent and occasionally monitor him. I trust him and work with him.


      • I have issues with the “do your own work” argument as well. Mostly because it requires someone to prove a negative- Nobody needs to prove to me that bigfoot doesn’t exist, bigoot enthusiasts need to prove to me that he does.
        My complaint with the article is that seems to argue that we should educate people on which side is trustworthy. I disagree, we should empower people to read and think critically to reach their own conclusions. I don’t need a phd in biology to question BigFoot and I’m capable of reading a ripping good yarn about him without impacting that skepticism.
        The big problem with “climate science” is that it asserted it had proven it’s point and demanded that everyone pay attention to them. Once people looked at what they did, they realized they aren’t convinced that climate science has proven its bigfoot exists. Interestingly, Mosher argues that climate science has already won that debate, but any review of what the world is doing about it belies that. Even AGW advocates are shutting down clean nuclear plants and fighting cleaner gas-burning plants. Hippy dippy California is requiring only white-painted cars and slapping regulations on dairy farmers while all of it’s airports offer multiple daily flights to Hawaii- releasing more CO2 than all the dairy cows in the state.

      • Do your TV set work as intended – or doesn´t it?

        My point is that it takes a whole bunch of geniuses to make you able to see a movie on your television set. But even an idiot can tell you if it works or not.

        In my profession, opinions do not count – data do.

    • I sympathize with the argument. But as a practical matter, most people do not have the time to thoroughly investigate everything they need to or want to know. Even if they have the necessary skills, which they often do not.

      That is true even of would-be ‘experts.’ They naturally are prone to have little time to attend to problems outside the narrow domain of their expertise.

      So while the appeal to authority is logically fallacious, it is socially useful, almost unavoidable. A healthy civic order has people and organizations that have earned trust over a substantial period of time, and that strive to protect their integrity. A society that loses or never had that integrity suffers and may collapse.

      • Exactly. Nobody has the capacity or resources to gain their own knowledge about everything. There are very few things that any individual has learned for himself or herself. Instead, the vast majority of knowledge is (and has to be) a matter of trusting other people while checking for basic consistency. Even an experimental physicist at some point is trusting the people who manufacture his lasers.

    • “1. presupposes that reflection is an effective technique and exclusively so
      2. presupposes that the institutions should not be dismantled– or replaced.”

      YOU are pre-supposing the the author has not already done the work themselves, and rather than presenting it at “indisputable fact”, is instead asking others to go through the same process and (hopefully) arrive at the the same conclusion they did.

      “The last thing you want to do is think that you can decide WHOSE claims to trust. Trust me.”

      re: trust me – Not likely ;-)

      MOST people (at least used to) trust “science” because it has (had?) the reputation of not trusting anything – even itself. Nothing is/was beyond being questioned, by anyone. True, it often took a while for old paradigms to die, but eventually they did. Since most people don’t have the time and/or skills required to check everything, finding someone (or some process, such as science) to trust is VITAL to reaching certain decisions – things like (but not limited to): what foods to eat, what amount of exercise to do, what level of education to aim for, what treatment for this specific illness, etc etc. You can’t know everything in the modern world, you HAVE TO trust someone or some group that you BELIEVE know what they are doing. The hard thing is not trusting SOMEONE, the hard part is DECIDING WHO TO TRUST AND WHY.
      By teaching critical thinking skills, the author is helping their students to independently asses the quality of the evidence presented as a guide to whose interpretation of that evidence is to be trusted. Not foolproof I’ll grant you that, but certainly better than blind trust “because authority”.

      • Steven Mosher

        ” You can’t know everything in the modern world, you HAVE TO trust someone or some group that you BELIEVE know what they are doing. The hard thing is not trusting SOMEONE, the hard part is DECIDING WHO TO TRUST AND WHY.”

        1. You only have to trust if you fear.
        2. What you fear is making a mistake.
        3. Mistakes are a great teacher.
        4. Make mistakes

        Don’t outsource your knowledge to other peopke. Go ahead and make mistakes. Most if not all of your decisions are unimportant. It’s ok to suspend judgment and not know.
        You don’t need knowledge to act.

        20 years from now just do what the algorithm tells you to.

      • Making mistakes is a very good way to learn. Providing one acknowledges them and doesn’t repeat them either personally or via citation. This one of the issues that I have with some noted climate studies practitioners.

      • “Don’t outsource your knowledge to other peopke.”

        Evolution and society favors creatures that expend less energy for the same outcome. Learning expends energy. Finding ways to not need to learn that aren’t detrimental to your well being are therefore advantageous to both survival and social status. Trust is one such mechanism. Since it isn’t perfect, the results are variable, but learning the skill of picking the right person to trust is significantly more valuable than learning what is required for an individual task. There are many, many tasks that can be learned or outsourced – learning them all is impractical, learning how to outsource, when and to whom is a better use of scarce resources.

    • “Trust no one.”
      – The X-Files

      Sometimes there’s more truth in fiction…

    • “The last thing you want to do is think that you can decide WHOSE claims to trust. Trust me.”

      Once again, Mosher is misleading. He’s leaving out the other half of the equation (surprise!) The FIRST thing you can do is decide that you can’t trust someone like him, who is known to play fast and loose when communicating. It’s not rocket or climate science.


    • “There is no good question about WHOSE claims to trust.”

      Well, I think there is one good question and that you believe there is one as well:

      “Why should I trust anyone’s claims when I can think for myself?”

      Unfortunately in our “fast-paced” world where everyone is in a hurry to do whatever, deciding to trust someone is an easy path. Even for people who used to dedicate their lives to trusting no one and always questioning everything and everyone, like journalists.

      Which opens society up to be snookered like it’s never been snookered before.


    • Those aims of course are basic, and I spend hours each week thinking how to make my students into more critical thinkers, more careful readers, and more persuasive writers.

      Be critical of others facts, but get people to accept your own?

      Maybe I am prejudiced about the term “Persuasion”, which means to me to not let the facts speak for themselves, but to use other tools to get them accepted.

      Seems like advocacy lite.

    • Big surprise maybe but I fully agree with you. :)

    • I was about to take issue with the final paragraph of Jasanoff’s piece, and I find you got there before me. What indeed are these “institutions we have entrusted with the hard task of making public knowledge”? Is there a “Ministry of Truth” that no one told me about? If there was one then I am sure it would need to be dismantled.

      The truth about all this “post fact” and “post truth” talk is that the illiberal establishment has been trying to subvert the truth for so long that it thought it owned the very concept. Political insurgents on both sides of the atlantic have rejected a huge body of false knowledge, and the elites are reeling. Not all of the insurgents have shown much dedication to replacing it with well-founded knowledge. But I am afraid Jasanoff has nothing useful to add to this debate.

    • Jim D still stuck in a correlation-is-causation bubble., apparently never having heard that other forces can and have made similar temperature changes.

      And not realising that the reason the climate establishment too regurgitate thusly, is because they are selectively hired and paid to.

  5. When I was 15, I decided I wanted to be a scientist and focussed my education on math physics and chemistry. Those who must be obeyed on setting education policy had decided that such early focus would create a community of scientific Philistines so we’re required to have additional courses in general studies and uses of English language. One requirement was to study a book entitled ” Straight and Crooked Thing” by Robert Has. Thouless. The blurb on the back of the book states ” The author believes that psychological factors often dangerously distort correct thinking. He shows for instance how the use of emotional words can obscure facts and how fallacies in Argument can often mislead an unwary audience.
    Over 50 years later when I started reading climate science “crooked thinking” immediately came to mind so I have re read the book. The book lists 38 dishonest tricks ALL of which can be found at various times in climate science literature.
    The books should be required reading for all students and especially those involved in politics, climate science and the sale of used cars!

  6. Wrote a whole book about this complex topic, The Arts of Truth. Even the title is an example, since the book is really about the arts of untruth. Harvard’s motto is Veritas, yet the Yard’s famous statue of John Harvard is ‘the statue of three lies’. An example from the introduction.
    Facts do not stand alone, they depend on perspective and context. Facts are not knowledge; Knowledge requires a larger framework. The ‘intelligent design means the eye could not have evolved’ creationist falsehood is an example in the book. So is the classroom size fallacy fomented by teacher unions concerning public education policy. Both are cases where a groups ‘political knowledge’ interest bias is strong and evident.
    It is much easier to disprove a ‘fact’ given some framework than to prove it ‘true’. Problems arise when the framework is itself a Potemkin Village equivalent. Geologists rejection of Wegener’s factually well supported 1912 (paper) then 1916 (book) theory of continental drift is an example from the book. Took 60 years for what is now universally understood to be true–plate tectonics–to be accepted by geologists despite Wegener’s massive catalog (in four categories) of indisputable supporting facts.
    Teaching critical thinking, IMO, is best done by the case method as at HLS and HBS. No substitute for lots of practice to sort out the politics of knowledge.

    • Roger Knights

      “Harvard’s motto is Veritas”

      Back in the Fifties a Harvard student started an inter-dorm snack business he called (in his flyers) “VeRyTasTy Pies.” The administration blew a gasket and made him change the name or shut it down.

    • I much prefer the Royal Society’s “Nullius In Verba.”

      (OK, maybe just because I’m reading the Baroque Cycle again.)

  7. From the full essay by Professor Jasanoff:

    “Repeatedly over the past few months I’ve heard anguished cries from former students and junior colleagues asking how I might make sense of the strange time we’re in—a time in which so much we’ve valued about the making of robust public knowledge and critical understanding has been tossed overboard as if of no consequence to the conduct of the nation’s politics.”

    Really? Let’s assume this means “HRC lost and I’m not happy about the results”.
    Did critical understanding get tossed overboard when millions of voters across the country saw what a HRC Presidency would mean and said “No thanks”?

    The second paragraph of Professor Jasanoff’s essay delves into the technical. “Information wants to be free” is often heard in the context of rapid and broad dissemination of “information” in its broadest meaning: Everything from well researched reports, carefully reasoned opinion pieces, to emotional rants and raves, deliberate lies and distortions to impulsive texts and tweets. Information may indeed want to be free, but QUALITY information (employment data, sales, oil reserve estimates, energy consumption, etc., etc.) is pricy, so what we are seeing is the internet equivalent of Gresham’s law: bad “information” drives out good.

    Throw in scorched earth politics being practiced in the USA today and you get the mash we have now. WH Spokesperson Spicer’s comment about chemical weapons is a case in point. People that should (and quite possibly do) know better jumped on his comments about Nazis not using chemical weapons in WW II. The Axis powers for the most part did not use chemical weapons on the field of battle- the context of the present Syrian situation and its tragic civil war- despite having produced significant arsenals of chemical weapons. The Axis powers knew full well their use would provoke a response in kind from the Allied powers, which also had very significant chemical arsenals. The limited documented use of chemical weapons in Africa, Asia and Spain prior to Sept 1939 was against those without the capacity to respond in kind. The execution of millions in concentration camps by CO and cyanide was not the field of battle as usually described. It is a legitimate distinction in the context of Assad and the Syrian govt. paying a price for the use of chemical weapons in battle, esp. in the context of President Obama’s “line in the sand” about such use.

    I am personally troubled by the US response for many reasons, which are off topic for this thread.

  8. Curious George

    People tend to ignore history – especially young people. 2017 bears an uncanny resemblance to 1937. Read Dr. Goebbels’s The Art of Propaganda. It won’t tell you how to avoid it, but at least you will be able to recognize it.

  9. This abuse of the English language and the art of distortion was amply covered by Richard Weaver’s little book written over sixty years ago titled “The Ethics of Rhetoric”.

  10. Funny how this weighty intellectual concern about truth and ‘facts’ only came up after the unexpected outcome of the US presidential election.

    I think truth and facts are hiding in the deep ocean below 2000 meters.

    • Sometimes, truth and facts win, and we elected Trump to fix a lot of problems. He still has advisors who feed him bad information to cause him trouble, but hopefully, he can get rid of them and replace them with honest conservative people.

  11. The essay is about teaching people where to go to get the real facts, and it isn’t blogs, nor is it the President. In this world, it is more important than ever to be able to sift through what you hear to get at the real facts of a situation. There is too much noise in the regular public channels, and people are being polarized by their own bubbles of information or spin. People need to be wary of enclosing themselves in such bubbles, like here. Go out and search for yourself. Don’t just be spoonfed by your chosen media.

    • Jim D, I agree with some of what you say, but the multiple blogs present facts and falsehoods way beyond what any person could research on their own. The facts are facts you might not find on your own. Read and decide what makes sense, We are judged to be competent to serve on a Jury to make life and death decisions about other people, we should be able to decide what makes sense on a blog or we should be barred from Jury Duty. We should be competent to decide when the President is telling the truth or when he has been deceived by his liberal alarmist advisors that he needs to dismiss.

    • Jim D, some blogs are useful; many are not. Some wiki entries are useful; many are not. Some peer reviewed papers are useful; many are not. (I exposed clearcut academic misconduct by Marcott in Science, by Fabricius in Nature Climate Change, and by OLeary in Nature Geoscience, all footnoted essays in Blowing Smoke.) Almost nothing in legacy MSM can be trusted. Fake news abounds.
      The notion of trusted fact/knowledge sources has by and large been blown to pieces. My ebook The Arts of Truth deals with this extensively in fields as diverse as energy, education, healthcare, food, geology, and climate change.

      The good news is that with the internet, google fu, and the basic skills of critical thinking, it is possible to fairly rapidly sort wheat from chaff to a reasonable degree on any sufficiently important topic. That is, to personally assemble ‘real facts’ inside some supporting knowledge framework to form political policy judgements. My book gives hundreds of interesting examples and ‘rules of thumb’ for critical thinking.
      Prof. Jasanoff seems to be teaching how/who to trust, rather than to trust no one and learn how to think critically for oneself.

      Nowhere is this problem/solution more evident than in CAGW. In fact by far the longest book chapter is on this topic, with about 400 footnotes, illustrating everything discussed in previous chapters. Prof. Lindzen kindly critiqued it before publication so that I wasn’t making any big errors. More or less shreds AR4. IPCC is NOT a trustworthy source despite all the veneer to the contrary. That is shown by several big, important examples going to the very core of AGW beliefs. Water vapor, clouds, model sensitivity, attribution, consequences.

      • With warming rates effectively over 2 C per doubling, skeptics are still scrambling to come up with a reason that fits why the warming and CO2 rise occurred at the same time in this past century. I think they have made a very poor case for themselves especially as regards their publications, which is why no one listens to them. Publish scientific stuff if you want a voice that counts among scientists. It has been a very poor performance so far. Blame your own skeptical scientific leaders for this failure.

      • Re MSM: I worked on a couple of newspapers, one a national, the other part of a large network, and a commercial radio station. I left the field because it was too dishonest for me, the saleable story mattered more than the facts. But there are some honourable exceptions, I appreciate The Australian newspaper, in part because it gives space to a wide range of people, many of whom have views very different from the Oz. If it has an editorial line in something, it doesn’t impose it on its regular commentators or guest writers, who come from all over the spectrum. In recent years, due in part to a great long-term editor, Chris Mitchell.

      • Geoff Sherrington

        From about 1984 The Australian kindly published several hundreds of letters that I wrote under a pseudonym. I did not bother to try competitor newspapers. Then came the Internet and blogging. It is surprising (to me) how little change there has been to the message.
        Some groups of knowledge towers above politics.

  12. The essence of expertise is understanding the limits of your knowledge. It takes a lot of physics study before you grasp which assumptions and “lies” were told to make some problems tractable with useful solutions. It’s not a mistake to make assumptions, solve simple cases and add perturbation, but it is a mistake to confuse those assumptions with reality.

    One of the problems I see with discussion of “facts” is that there’s always an underlying set of assumptions and worldview through which reality is passed. The best analogy I’ve been able to come up with is from linear algebra: a particular basis vector in one system might be expressed as a combination of an infinite number of basis vectors in another, like a localized “position” function requires a large spread in frequency space from a Fourier transform. Similarly, a Christian conservative is going to project information on to his or her own ideological basis and then identify those components which have the largest contribution. An agnostic socialist might project the same information and have nothing interesting stand out.

    Sadly, we have limited capacity and limited philosophies, so we’re projecting from an infinite dimensional reality onto very finite dimensional philosophical/ideological bases. Information will be lost in the mapping, and facts will necessarily look very different from one viewpoint to another. I’m sure we’re all not flexible enough to rotate through different sets of ideological bases, discarding and picking up assumptions, in order to get a best fit for all circumstances. The best thing I can say for “facts” and this little analogy is that, since we know there will always be information lost as we map external reality onto our mental concepts of reality, humility is encouraged. There are huge limits to what we ought to be confident about, and there is a variety of alternative idea spaces better suited for working with a particular piece of the real world than another.

    There is no solution to teaching people to find facts. No worldview has a fact shortage, either. If appeal to facts (filtered by ideological lens, but still facts) is the basis for deciding which side is right and which is wrong, we’re kinda toast. Everybody’s well armed with facts and data. The real lesson for me, bored of “facts and data” is liberated humility: my limited capacity means that I don’t actually know which side is right or wrong. See the power there? “I don’t know, and I don’t even have to know. In fact, there’s a far more interesting (and less controversial) problem over here that I’m going to learn about instead.”

    • Geoff Sherrington

      It is desirable so keep the mind on hold when questions arise that are unsettled, not right nor wrong, because such a state remains open to further inputs. When writing on blogs like this I have asked many questions but made (I think) no statement of affirmation about any contentious, important matter. The successful hard scientists I know tend to be this way. OTOH, many of the prominent climate researchers do make strong affirmations. I do not know which course is best.

  13. Michael Mann, Al Gore, the UN, Eurocommies, radical envirowackos, Leftist/liberal Western academia, Hollywood swells… not the way do inspire confidence.

  14. Great post by “gewis”.

    I perhaps would dare to add:

    Accoording to Ms Jasanoff’s last sentence she displays a curious trust in the existence of minds or intellects in collectives (lets say what Kant called the “ich” or ‘I’).

    A bit more modern I would argue that knowledge may be considered the result of a massive complexity reduction procedure carried out by an algorithm embodied in a person. There’s no collective version of it. No “we know”, no “collective knowing”, no “public knowledge”.

    Thinking from here as a start may help clarify some things.

    What’s collective is behavior coordination and decision making. Empirically this works best when individuals make their judgements independently.

    Policy making as a process has nothing to do with science though science may have a part in it (see the seminal book by Kingdon).

    Coming to numbers, there is such thing as Measurement Theory (e.g. Suppes, Zinnes “Basic Measurement Theory”, 1963). Dry stuff but instructive. There have been interesting disputes about measurement in psychology since some guy in the 50’s or so defined measurement as the assignment of numbers to objects.

    If you want to think about knowledge you actually have to start with the foundations. Else it doesn’t make much sense. And you have to do it yourself. Your collective cannot help you except from demonstrating to you that you were wrong. If you can’t or won’t do this be aware of your basic incompetence.

    • I want to add that religion, tradition and morality may be regarded as form of collective knowledge, but I believe that wasn’t what Ms Jasanoff was thinking of.

    • I agree that there’s no “we know,” yet a great deal of what “I know” comes from what somebody else said or wrote. Because we exchange information and interact, it’s reasonable to look at an effective collective knowledge. Back to my silly physics analogies, an acoustic wave (phonon) in a material can be treated as a particle, even though it’s really a description of a massive number of constrained particles interacting and exchanging momentum with each other. I think ideas can be held and spread collectively between people in the same way, because we’re individually constrained yet mutually interacting. Maybe.

      This is somewhat akin to the original idea of a “meme,” before it became stupid pictures with captions. A meme was like a meta-idea, an idea as an object that spread and shared between people. Yes, the knowledge is only held individually, but we share it with each other in a way that you could possibly track the motion of the idea as an independent object, with individual minds being the medium of travel.

      For example, if I mention “gun control,” you’re probably not thinking of proper grip, sight alignment, trigger squeeze, breathing, etc. Instead, the first thing that comes to mind is government policy to restrict access and use of guns. Religion, tradition, and morality are shared in the same way as political ideology and science. That’s why I could say, “Newton’s Second Law,” and you would know what (or could easily find) what I’m referring to.

      The fundamental truth of momentum conservation may be independent of the name, but we all associate that name with it. Religion attempts to assign names and descriptions for perceived fundamental truths too, and to the degree it helps me articulate truths I’ve since learned/confirmed for myself, religion has been very useful. So has science. I’m careful to avoid confusing the description or models of things with the things themselves.

      • Beside subjective knowledge there is objective knowledge in the Popperian sense of having been written down in some way. But owning a book doesn’t give you its knowledge.
        I believe a problem with the article is the intermingling of different kinds and notions of knowledge. Knowledge of the social kind is mostly about social institutions and rules of behavior. Both incorporate (at least should) additional implicit knowledge about the nature of man and its environment.
        Today actual or presumed scientific knowledge (reproducible reports about observations) often becomes a necessary ingredient of regulative rules of behavior. Here is probably where the real trouble begins, especially when the presumed scientific “facts” are equivocal.
        A leader will have to use alleged scientific knowledge somewhere to justify a decision concerning collective action. And when you mobilize people for collective action you cannot tell them that the decision is based on equivocal evidence even if it is and even if you believe it is. You have to sell it as fact no matter what. So power will necessarily collide with the scientific method.
        The only way to counter this is freedom of speech. These kinds of situations are probably quite common. They are often decided only with much delay. Progress comes stumbling.

      • It’s hard to admit truth, or the weakness of your position, when you know people are going to use it as a weapon against you. In the competition for limited resources, we all become lawyers. Gag me.

  15. Reading “Straight and Crooked Thinking” recommended by climate541 with link to the PDF helpfully provided by George Turner. Thank you both. I will be sharing this link on my Facebook page. Very pleased with the book so far. It appears to be an excellent summation of how to identify fallacious arguments.

    • The author had limited access to information, focused too much on a recurring theme: information about the Soviet Union. I lived in post Soviet Russia, and it’s evident to me he wasn’t well informed about what went on. So his examples feel very weak. The book could be rewritten using more up to date examples, such as the Iraq WMD tales, changing ideas about the roles of fat, sugar and biomes in diets, the claim that RCP8.5 is business as usual, and the controversy over dark energy that emerged recently.

  16. I recall in the late 1970s being told that information is ammunition. In this instance the question is about when numbers become information. In a policy context the users of numbers are wearing blinders that truncate the discussion. We in the US tend to be naive about numbers and weight them toward more objectivity than they deserve.

  17. Andrea Saltelli just tweeted this one for me, very relevant. Jerome Ravetz 1990 The Merger of Knowledge With Power

  18. I’ve always enjoyed this essay by Steven J Gould on the acceptance of plate techtonics over static earth geology. I’m not saying he gets it exactly right. But he does make clear that ‘facts’ in isolation from a larger context [theory in this case] are not always as dispositive as we might think.

  19. “You see, one thing is, I can live with doubt, and uncertainty, and not knowing. I think it’s much more interesting to live not knowing than to have answers which might be wrong. I have approximate answers and possible beliefs and different degrees of certainty about different things. But I’m not absolutely sure of anything, and there are many things I don’t know anything about, such as whether it means anything to ask why we’re here, and what the question might mean. I might think about it a little bit; if I can’t figure it out, then I go onto something else. But I don’t have to know an answer. I don’t feel frightened by not knowing things, by being lost in the mysterious universe without having any purpose, which is the way it really is, as far as I can tell — possibly. It doesn’t frighten me.”

    • Care to attribute the quote?

      I like it. I’ve long annoyed people by reminding them that bad information is worse than no information. Trying to cross a flimsy bridge that can’t hold your weight is far worse than there being no bridge at all.

  20. Everything You Know Is Wrong

    The Firesign Theatre

  21. Here is my suggestion about how to distinguish knowledge from beliefs:

    §1 A scientific argument consists of clearly stated premises, inferences and conclusions.

    §2 A scientific premise is verifiable. Premises and their sources are identified and readily available for independent verification.

    §3 A scientific inference is logically valid.

    §4 A scientific conclusion is deduced by application of axioms, definitions and theorems or measured properties and scientific concepts that have already been verified or validated.

    §5 A scientific concept consists of statements that are logically valid conclusions deduced from premises that are themselves logically valid conclusions, axioms, definitions or theorems.

    §6 A scientific concept is well-defined and has a well-defined capability of prediction within a well-defined context.

    §7 A scientific concept can only be validated by comparison of predictions deduced from that concept with measurement results. Whenever predictions differ from measurement results, by more than the combined uncertainty of the measurement results and the claimed capability of the concept, there must be something wrong with the concept – or the test of it.

    §8 A scientific concept can only be referred to as validated for the context covered by the validating tests.

    §9 A scientific statement is based on verifiable data. Data and precise information about how that data was obtained are readily available for independent verification. Whenever data are corrected or disregarded, both uncorrected and corrected data are provided together with a scientific argument for the correction.

    §10 A scientific measurement report contains traceable values, units and stated uncertainty for well-defined measurands in a well-defined context.

    §11 A scientific prediction report contains values, units and claimed capability for well-defined measurands in a well-defined context.

    See this link for a full account with definitions and explanation:

    • That’s your belief.

      • “That´s your belief.”

        No. I know that:

        §1 If premises, inferences and conclusions are open to other interpretations than the intended interpretation. I can not verify the argument because I can not know which interpretation to verify. Hence, I can only accept the argument on the basis of a belief.

        §2 If Premises and their sources are not identified and readily available for verification then the premises can only be accepted on the basis of a belief in the proponent of the argument.

        §3 If an interference is not logically valid, the truth of the premises does not guarantee the truth of the conclusion. The truth of the conclusion can then only be accepted on the basis of a belief.

        §4 If a conclusion is not a logically valid inference from well-defined and true premises the conclusion can only be accepted on the basis of a belief.

        §5 If A scientific concept is not a logically valid inference from well-defined and true premises the concept can only be accepted on the basis of a belief.

        §6 If a concept, an expression of a relationship between two or more measurands, can not be used to predict the value of the measurand of interest it is useless.

        If the capability of that concept is not stated, then it can not be said that the prediction is wrong no matter how poor the prediction is. The truth of that concept can then only be accepted on the basis of a belief.

        §7 It is logically impossible to adjust a concept to an observation that is not yet known. Prediction excludes all kinds of adjustments of the concept to match the measured values.

        If the prediction of a concept does not match observations there must be something wrong with either the concept or the test of it. There is nothing else that can be wrong.

        If the ability of a concept has not been validated by prediction, the truth of that concept can only be accepted on the basis of a belief in the ability to predict.

        §8 The truth of a concept outside the validated context can only be accepted on the basis of a belief.

        §9 If data is not available for verification, any conclusion drawn on basis of that data can only be accepted on the basis of a belief.

        If uncorrected data is not provided, the truth of the correction can only be accepted on the basis of a belief.

        If the correction is not be supported by an argument where the truth of the premises guarantees the truth of the conclusion, the truth of the correction can only be accepted on the basis of a belief.

        §10 If the values are not traceable to the definition of the measurand, the value of the measurement can only be accepted on the basis of a belief.

        A value without a unit is meaningless.

        A measurement without a known uncertainty can not be used to conclude on the truth of a prediction.

        §11 Analog to §10

      • You see, if those principles are followed, I can verify things myself or see to that things are verified – if it is within my authority.

        If those principles are not followed, I can only accept an argument, statement of concept on the basis on the basis of a belief – in which case science would be no different from politics or religion.

  22. bedeverethewise

    “Knowledge is proud that it knows so much; wisdom is humble that it knows no more.” William Cowper

    Humble seems to be out of fashion lately.

    • Pride and humility have switched places on the Seven Deadly Sins and Seven Heavenly Virtues charts.

      I blame the Jesuits.

  23. This is an area I know quite a bit about. The CCSSs state that,

    “Integration of Knowledge and Ideas:
    Integrate and evaluate multiple sources of information presented in diverse formats and media (e.g., quantitative data, video, multimedia) in order to address a question or solve a problem.
    Evaluate the hypotheses, data, analysis, and conclusions in a science or technical text, verifying the data when possible and corroborating or challenging conclusions with other sources of information.
    Synthesize information from a range of sources (e.g., texts, experiments, simulations) into a coherent understanding of a process, phenomenon, or concept, resolving conflicting information when possible.”

    My hunch is that the liberal bunch that came up with these standards as they apply to scientific text didn’t fully realize these very same standards will eventually bite them in the asss.

    Given the task set before us as public school educators, applying this section of the standards to the process of educating up and coming college students is a uniquely satisfying endeavor.

  24. “Yet, like children taught to believe that babies are brought in the beaks of storks, they have not learned to question how facts are made.”

    Part of the process of asking questions is to enter into the world of uncertainty. Many, I’ll even say most people are VERY uncomfortable with embracing uncertainty, ie, holding on to not knowing. When one does so, there is an urge to become declarative, “this is so!” even when one knows that it isn’t so.

    The most perverse prevaricator of “settled science”, besides Obama, is Al Gore. Neither he nor Mr. O could handle living with uncertainty, particularly with regards to the climate. Grasping at straws blown by the wind, they reached for something to hold onto; something that made sense to themselves; something they could hold high and say: this represents THE existential problem of out times. Both are wrong, not because there is some deep and hidden truth that negates what they believe, rather, they are wrong because they could not accommodate to a world where truths are not cut and dry. That science as a process, is best when scientists still don’t KNOW; there is still the: “yes, but…” in the back of their minds.

    When the collection of facts remains within a burlap bag, and one scientist after another reaches in and grabs some fact, to say: “a ha” until another scientist reaches in the burlap bag of facts, pulls another fact to say: “a ha” in rebuttal, the process itself leads to: “Hmmm, I wonder.” Without the wonderment of knowing: “I don’t know”, no steps further in science is possible.

    It turns out, the burlap bag is huge, leaving the participating scientists to wonder how to put the collection of facts already pulled out of the bag together with those remaining in the bag, into a comprehensive idea, with a wary eye on the bag of facts yet to be drawn. Then again, the scientist with the furthest reach may grab a fact that others could not quite grasp; hence, let remain behind and unknown.

    Am I saying that science is nothing more than a “grab bag?” a collection of disjointed facts that quizzical students try to collate into something recognizable just because it is so uncomfortable to have an incomplete idea? picture? hypothesis?

    • Life is change; uncertainty is the nature of the world. But most people aren’t comfortable with uncertainty, they’d rather latch on to a particular idea and close their minds to contradictory evidence. Many years ago, I concluded that most people sought in their lives an acceptable level of discomfort. Part of this is not getting over-involved in things which might affect you – such as emissions reduction policies – but which would take great effort to understand and form a view on. People in Australia are only now beginning to question emissions policies because of soaring electricity costs and widespread blackouts caused by the implementation of those policies – their acceptable level of comfort has been disturbed.

  25. The growth of unreason throughout the nineteenth century and what has passed of the twentieth is a natural sequel to Hume’s destruction of empiricism. It is therefore important to discover of there is any answer to Hume within the framework of a philosophy that is wholly or mainly empirical. If not, there is no intellectual difference between sanity and insanity. The lunatic who believes he is a poached egg is to be condemned solely on the ground that he is in a minority, or rather – since we must not assume democracy – on the ground that the government does not agree with him. This is a desperate point of view, and it must be assumed that there is some way of escaping from it.

  26. Excellent comments, as always, Faustino.

  27. The purpose of computation is understanding, not numbers.

    RW Hamming.

  28. Yes, Ms. Jasanoff provides an interesting perspective. Applying her principles of healthy skepticism to her own essay, however, I question the following statements of hers:

    “A foundational insight from social studies of science is that facts are not facts until they have gained acceptance in a community of belief.” I beg to disagree. A fact is a fact is a fact, even if no one accepts it. According to older dictionaries such as the Webster’s on my shelf, what we call a fact merely needs to correspond to reality, irrespective of any belief, consensus, or lack thereof. Jasanoff’s denying or diluting the correspondence of “facts” to reality will very likely foster muddled thinking in her students.

    “Democratic theory has spent thousands of years wondering what makes it legitimate for the few to rule the many.” Maybe so, but Jasanoff would serve her students well if she also reminds them that such “wondering” ceased in 1776 with the words in our Declaration of Independence: “Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.” That profound insight not only birthed the most prosperous and generous society on Earth, it also has practical application to today’s study of the interface between science and policy. If a scientist possessed all the knowledge in the world – even if that knowledge were 100% correct – that would not give that scientist one scintilla of entitlement to rule over us. If we are not to sink into technocracy, science can only inform policy; it can never create it.

    Finally, I hope Jasanoff devotes adequate attention in her class to the roles of subjective discernment and values. In everyday life we rightly, if unscientifically, weigh the character, motives, tone, even the deportment of our information-providers, including scientists. Then we or our representatives act on that information, not only in accordance with what we know, but also in accordance with what we value. That’s one reason many people today choose not to get alarmed about climate change. Besides the fact that climate has been changing since the Earth was formed, there’s too much life to live, too much duty in the “now” to worry about what might or might not happen in a hundred years according to imperfect computer simulations of something as “wicked” (to borrow Dr. Curry’s term) as the Earth’s climate. We simply ought not to live that way. Scientists should expect considerable pushback if they presume to instruct us not only on what’s true, but also what’s best.

    Science can often tell us what “is”, but never what we “ought”. That would be a great takeaway for Jasanoff’s students.

  29. “My students have learned since their early school days how to evaluate the facts the world holds out to them.”

    Her students may have learned what is more properly called critical analysis, but she certainly hasn’t. Every article she cites is an anti-Trump screed by one progressive or another. (I am shocked, shocked by the coincidence.)

    That NY Times article she cites as an example of “careful fact-checking” is a typical NT Times editorial, full of argument by assertion and “facts” courtesy .of other progressives, including primarily those in government. All facts should be checked, except those that confirm your own biases.

    I suspect that she finds the “facts” provided by the IPCC and Michael Mann adequately fact checked as well. She’s just another academic progressive, thinking she is engaging in critical thought by criticizing those with whom she disagrees. If she really wanted to teach her students how to analyze “facts”, she would teach them something about the abuse of statistics, which is where progressives create all the facts they want, on every issue from global warming to immigration, to gun control.

    • Roger Knights

      “There are science teachers who actually claim that they teach “a healthy skepticism.” They do not. They teach a profound gullibility, and their dupes, trained not to think for themselves, will swallow any egregious rot, provided it is dressed up with long words and an affectation of objectivity to make it sound scientific.”
      —Anthony Standen, Science Is a Sacred Cow

  30. Within my discipline (measurement) we require that instruments are tested by indepented laboratories that are accredited to perform that particular test.

    The competence and ability of these laboratories to perform that particular test is regularly verified by independent accreditation bodies.

    The laboratories are accredited to perform a particular test by the standard:
    “ISO 17025 General requirements for the competence of testing and calibration laboratories”.

  31. Geoff Sherrington

    The better scientists tend to avoid links between science outcomes and words like “truth” or “fact” with connotations of absolutism.
    In some ways, science progresses by having ahead of research many open possibilities, knowing that they might change in percieved importance over time.
    It might wise to encourage pupils to seek truth or fact in science.

  32. “The pretense of knowledge” was the title of Hayek’s Nobel-lecture. It dealt with economics, of course – but it refers to all fields of knowledge. Experiment and measuring only decide what is trash and what is valid knowledge.

    • Great reference, Wolf. F. A. Hayek wrote over 40 years ago as if he could foresee the state of climate science today. Two excerpts from his 1974 Nobel Prize lecture:

      “…even if the true scientists should all recognize the limitations of what they can do in the field of human affairs, so long as the public expects more there will always be some who will pretend, and perhaps honestly believe, that they can do more to meet popular demands than is really in their power.”

      “To act on the belief that we possess the knowledge and the power which enable us to shape the processes of society entirely to our liking, knowledge which in fact we do not possess, is likely to make us do much harm.”

      One need only reread the above excerpts substituting the words “climate science” for “human affairs”, and “Earth’s climate” for “processes of society” to appreciate Hayek’s prescience, not to mention his grasp of the concept of a wicked problem.

      Unfortunately, the deadly virus of intellectual conceit that Hayek wrote was fatal to socialism (“The Fatal Conceit”, pub. 1988) has apparently found another host in those who believe that we currently have the knowledge and power to control the Earth’s climate – if only the so-called skeptics and deniers would get out of the way. The full text of Hayek’s 1974 Nobel Prize lecture is available here:

      • Hayek’s lecture should have been circulated with all IPCC reports. His concluding paragraphs should give pause to all those megalomaniacs who think that they can impose on their fellow humans a “better” world than would spontaneously arise:

        “But in the social field the erroneous belief that the exercise of some power would have beneficial consequences is likely to lead to a new power to coerce other men being conferred on some authority. Even if such power is not in itself bad, its exercise is likely to impede the functioning of those spontaneous ordering forces by which, without understanding them, man is in fact so largely assisted in the pursuit of his aims. We are only beginning to understand on how subtle a communication system the functioning of an advanced industrial society is based – a communications system which we call the market and which turns out to be a more efficient mechanism for digesting dispersed information than any that man has deliberately designed.

        “If man is not to do more harm than good in his efforts to improve the social order, he will have to learn that in this, as in all other fields where essential complexity of an organized kind prevails, he cannot acquire the full knowledge which would make mastery of the events possible. He will therefore have to use what knowledge he can achieve, not to shape the results as the craftsman shapes his handiwork, but rather to cultivate a growth by providing the appropriate environment, in the manner in which the gardener does this for his plants. There is danger in the exuberant feeling of ever growing power which the advance of the physical sciences has engendered and which tempts man to try, “dizzy with success”, to use a characteristic phrase of early communism, to subject not only our natural but also our human environment to the control of a human will. The recognition of the insuperable limits to his knowledge ought indeed to teach the student of society a lesson of humility which should guard him against becoming an accomplice in men’s fatal striving to control society – a striving which makes him not only a tyrant over his fellows, but which may well make him the destroyer of a civilization which no brain has designed but which has grown from the free efforts of millions of individuals.”

        Matt Ridley’s book “The Evolution of Everything” bolsters Hayek’s conclusion, I’d quote from it if I could find it.

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