Open Thread #4

This is an open thread to discuss whatever your heart desires. I am preparing for a road trip and will not be able to do much blogging for a couple of weeks, although I will check in daily to see what is up and check for spam.

I did want to post a link to an article from DeSmog on PNS which claims that Climate Denial is not Postmodern.

Here’s an excerpt:

If our goal is to do something about the ever-growing problem of climate change denial, I believe we must first understand it—its forms, its motivations, its arguments.That’s why I recoil every time I hear the argument—made over the weekend in theNew York Times magazine by Judith Warner—that science denial used to be a left wing thing, centered on the so-called “postmodernists” of academia, but now things have flipped. Now it’s located on the right—witness climate denial. Or as Warner puts it:

That taking on the scientific establishment has become a favored activity of the right is quite a turnabout. After all, questioning accepted fact, revealing the myths and politics behind established certainties, is a tactic straight out of the left-wing playbook. In the 1960s and 1970s, the push back against scientific authority brought us the patients’ rights movement and was a key component of women’s rights activism. That questioning of authority veered in a more radical direction in the academy in the late 1980s and early 1990s, when left-wing scholars doing “science studies” increasingly began taking on the very idea of scientific truth.

This analysis is so wrong that one barely knows how to begin.


Continuing on with Chris Mooney:

First, the idea that conservatives would be strongly influenced by the abstruse arguments and wordplay of left wing academia doesn’t make any sense. Do we not recall that starting in the 1970s, conservatives created an armada of ideological think tanks—including many think tanks that now dispute climate change—precisely so as to create their own echo chamber of “expertise” outside of academia? To them, 1990s postmodernism would be the quintessential example of effete academic uselessness.

But that’s not even the biggest objection to Warner’s line of thinking. The biggest objection is that climate change deniers do not look, behave, or sound postmodern in any meaningful sense of the term.

As Warner herself recognizes, if postmodernism has any central theme (in relation to science) it is problematizing the idea that there is something called scientific “truth” that can be objectively discerned. The insights of “science studies” were thus deployed in order to show that scientists are quite subjective in how they do things, frequently engaging in personal battles and clinging to ideas that they should let go; that broader cultural and scientific trends color allegedly objective scientific discoveries (is it a coincidence that the phrase “survival of the fittest” was coined at a time of ruthless capitalism and imperialism in the British empire?); that scientists sometimes ignore or sneer at local or indigenous forms of knowledge that actually offer key insights about the way the world works (as in the story of the Cumbrian sheep farmers following Chernobyl); and so forth.

These are all valid insights. The trouble is that some more radical left wing thinkers appeared(for it was always hard to tell how much of it was mere scholarly flirtation and provocation) to take them an extreme, suggesting that science might not really be our road to truth. But that doesn’t follow at all from the insights of science studies. It’s one thing to ask that we more realistically understand how scientists behave, and note some of their shortcomings; it’s something else again to say that science isn’t the best method, in the long term, for figuring out how the world works. Of course it is—despite individual scientists’ shortcomings.

In any event, the idea that science is the embodiment of “truth” is something with which climate deniers blithely agree. They think that they are right and that the scientific consensus about global warming is wrong–objectively. They’re not out there questioning whether science is the best way of getting at the truth; they’re out there talking as though their scientists know the truth.

Can you picture James Inhofe citing Derrida or Foucault? The very idea is comical.

It is comical because deniers like Inhofe are probably incapable of the intellectual gymnastics necessary to work through Foucault or Derrida. Instead, I tend to see right’s denial of climate change and anti-science rhetoric as opportunist rather than steeped in the logic or rationality of Postmodern critiques of science. Some among the denier crowd seem to see PNS as a means of giving their side a voice in science through extended peers or extended peer communities and a convenient academic lustre to their denialism because let’s face it, Science Studies did really go off the rails when it comes to some of their depictions of science.  However, if one watches the response of many denizens of CA and Climate etc. and WUWT to Ravetz and PNS, one soon realizes they are divided on the whole PNS matter and that any alliance between PNS and climate denial is not at all clear cut and easy going.

I’ve made no bones about my dislike of PNS and post-modern critiques of science. There are some insights to be gleaned from PoMo — I would never throw the baby out with the bathwater, but the pickings are small, the pendulum has swung, and in my view, most of the value in PoMo is more of a reminder of things already known in Modernism rather than an antidote to its ills. IOW, the insights were already there in the more rational modernist approaches and understanding of science. If the founding fathers of science had thought that science was pure,  objective knowledge, untainted by the stain of human subjectivity and values, why then the focus on methodology that is designed to minimize the very same? Why the obsession with error and bias and why the need for peer review and skepticism, repetition and open access to methods and data if not because of a realization that human knowledge is and can be affected by our subjectivity? By our values and biases? To me, the whole scientific method is all about trying to address this very understanding of knowledge and finding a way to minimize it. It was an advance over the truncheon and torture chamber of the Inquisition with its claims of God-given truth.

I think PoMo critiques of science often create a straw man “Modernity” out of a sense of disappointment in Modernity’s failure to live up to its own ideals. This is much in the same way a teenager rejects its parents’ culture or ethos after realizing that “Dad” is actually a human being with flaws and not the Supreme Overlord that the child once thought he was way back when. The child magnifies differences between the two, imagine them to be more than they really are, and use that as a means of constructing a new identity in contrast to the imaginary father. It is reactionary rather than being based on a true appraisal of the object being rejected. It’s also probably a product of the need for something new and sexy in academe in order to distinguish yourself from all the others out to publish or perish.

But that’s just an off-the-cuff back of the napkin sketch of PoMo and of course, as are all such depictions, it is inadequate to both my own understanding and a proper one. But that’s for a different forum than this one. I welcome rebuttals of course.

Here’s an excerpt from the NYT’s article by Judith Warner, “Fact Free Science“.

That taking on the scientific establishment has become a favored activity of the right is quite a turnabout. After all, questioning accepted fact, revealing the myths and politics behind established certainties, is a tactic straight out of the left-wing playbook. In the 1960s and 1970s, the push back against scientific authority brought us the patients’ rights movement and was a key component of women’s rights activism. That questioning of authority veered in a more radical direction in the academy in the late 1980s and early 1990s, when left-wing scholars doing “science studies” increasingly began taking on the very idea of scientific truth.

This was the era of the culture wars, the years when the conservative University of Chicagophilosopher Allan Bloom warned in his book “The Closing of the American Mind” of the dangers of liberal know-nothing relativism. But somehow, in the passage from Bush I to Bush II and beyond, the politics changed. By the mid-1990s, even some progressives said that the assault on truth, particularly scientific truth, had gone too far, a point made most famously in 1996 by the progressive New York University physicist Alan Sokal, who managed to trick the left-wing academic journal Social Text into printing a tongue-in-cheek article, written in an overblown parody of dense academic jargon, that argued that physical reality, as we know it, may not exist.

Following the Sokal hoax, many on the academic left experienced some real embarrassment. But the genie was out of the bottle. And as the political zeitgeist shifted, attacking science became a sport of the radical right. “Some standard left arguments, combined with the left-populist distrust of ‘experts’ and ‘professionals’ and assorted high-and-mighty muckety-mucks who think they’re the boss of us, were fashioned by the right into a powerful device for delegitimating scientific research,” Michael Bérubé, a literature professor at Pennsylvania State University, said of this evolution recently in the journal Democracy. He quoted the disillusioned French theorist Bruno Latour, a pioneer of science studies who was horrified by the climate-change-denying machinations of the right: “Entire Ph.D. programs are still running to make sure that good American kids are learning the hard way that facts are made up, that there is no such thing as natural, unmediated, unbiased access to truth . . . while dangerous extremists are using the very same argument of social construction to destroy hard-won evidence that could save our lives.”

Maybe PNS and its followers among some denialists are akin to former Marxists disenchanted with their own program who moved to the right to form the “Neo-Conservative” movement (which was really Neo-Liberal but they’ll never admit as much).

Anyway, as I said, please discuss anything relevant you feel merits scrutiny or ridicule. I’m all for both. 😉

About Policy Lass

Exploring skeptic tales.

58 Responses to “Open Thread #4”

  1. Well, I thought the NY Times article was poorly informed.
    See comment.

  2. I doubt that the attack on climate science or right-wing attack on experts has its roots in Derrida, but it rhymes too well with the sort of talk I heard as an undergrad in the late 80’s to be pure coincidence. It’s a combination of superficial self-assuredness of “oh-ho, you *would* say that, you’re part of the problem” and a sense of injury and outrage that they could be just flat wrong about something, no gold star for effort or good intentions.

  3. The roots and Singer and company in the 90s. Most major theories in science have their fringe contrarians and some not so fringe contrarians. There is nothing unusual with climate science in that regard other than the megaphone offered them by politically motivated media.

    Dragging Derrida in is what happens when an arts grad tries to do a science story.

  4. I’m having a hard time wrapping my head around confidence intervals. I’m starting from the assumption that a 90% CI means that the probability of the correct value being in that range is p=0.9. Spence_UK at Curry’s points to the Source of All Knowledge which says, rather, that it means “If the true value of the parameter lies outside the 90% confidence interval once it has been calculated, then an event has occurred which had a probability of 10% (or less) of happening by chance.”

    Is there anyone here who understands this? Can you talk to me like I’m stupid?

    • Gavin's Pussycat Reply March 1, 2011 at 2:37 pm


      I’m afraid that Spence_UK has it right here. p = 0.9 means indeed that there is a 10% probability of rejection even if the null is true.
      It is empatically not the probability that the null is correct…
      Note, C.I.’s are about forward inference: determining how probable observations are given which hypothesis applies. Determining what the probability of the null being true, given the observations, is reverse inference (a very different beast requiring prior information on the null, and the Bayes theorem).
      Yes, thick text books have been written on this…

      • I know, I bought one… which is why I’m chagrined to have forgotten most everything I learned in Math 310. Thanks for the cluestick.

    • Gavin's Pussycat Reply March 1, 2011 at 10:52 pm

      PDA, one book that I found useful was Jaynes: Probability theory: the logic of science.

      Well, except for the (what I consider) nonsense on quantum theory (which sees to have a personal history).

  5. I’d say that, while the NYT article may be ill-informed etc., objectively the contra-science right are acting like PoMo science critics in saying that one’s scientific views, the theories which one tests (null models as well as hypotheses), what one considers as acceptable data, etc., all are informed by one’s political perspective. So we have junk science, which is advanced by leftists in order to enmesh us all in a regulatory nightmare and enable them to redistribute wealth by raising environmental bogies, and sound science, which is detached, objective, dispassionate, all those good things, and of course untainted by Marxism. Somehow sound science always advances the objectives of the right. The value of science is directly related to how effectively it does just this. That’s postmodernism, maybe not explicitly and certainly not in the name of Derrida or Lacan, but methodologically. The contra-science right doesn’t say that there are no privileged viewpoints in science – it just says that anything that doesn’t fit in with its world-view and underpins free markets, human inequality, indefinite economic growth, and all of the other rightist idols is configured by the political biases of its proponents. Everyone else but them is a postmodernist, in other words. A Lysenkoist. This is an important background note in just about all of the discussions that you read in CA, WUWT and all of those other centres of truthiness.

  6. WordPress breaks on double quotes; copy and paste into your search box.

  7. On previous Climate Etc. threads on attribution of 20th century climate change, we have pretty much debunked each of these arguments. Serreze’s weak arguments do not necessarily mean that anthropogenic CO2 has not warmed the planet during the 20th century, it just means that he has made weak arguments.

    No need to show Serreze’s arguments are week, just say they are. No need to show them debunked, just say they are.

  8. Barry Bickmore has a three part extended critique of Roy Spencer’s ‘Great Global Warming Blunder’ (H/T to Tim Lambert):

    Part 1
    Part 2
    Part 3

  9. Barry Bickmore is a geochemistry professor at Brigham Young University, an active Mormon, and an active Republican. From 2008-2010 he was a County Delegate for the Republican Party.

    Mmm. Interesting, For some who writes so well on climate science I wonder how long Barry will stay an active Republican

  10. Has it finally happened, has Graeme Bird joined in at Climate Etc?!

  11. Potholer54 vs Monckton part 4

    Many chuckles.

  12. WUWT has a new post up about Arctic Sea ice.

    Since Mr Watts appeared confused about the whole Arctic ocean thing I posted this comment:
    “What I find curious is the fact that NSDIC’s opening statement (below) in the press release has these words: “Arctic sea ice extent” but if you look at the NSIDC provided plot above, you’ll note that they include normal lines (in orange) for areas that are outside of the Arctic circle.

    Why are you talking about the Arctic Circle when the topic is the Arctic Ocean? See how how it’s defined

    “While perhaps a small point, it does speak to accuracy in reporting. “

    Of course! Best to start by accusing others of being inaccurate, maybe they’re wrong about that whole ice extent thingy too!

    When WUWT was reporting the grand recovery of Arctic Ice a year ago I don’t remember anyone being concerned about the NSDIC’s definition of Arctic.

    “It is important to point out that there’s a lot of ice up there”

    During the last cold winter it was still a whole bunch of degrees above absolute zero too.

    What actually showed up was:

    “[snip – rant]”

    So on sites like RealClimate you get moderated for posting various slanders against science and individual scientists, on WUWT you get moderated for…defining the Arctic ocean!

  13. An interesting analysis:

    > Based on internet averages, is visited more frequently by males who are over 65 years old, have no children, are graduate school educated and browse this site from home.

  14. Has anyone heard from Susan? I know she was going to be away for a couple of weeks but that was more than a couple of weeks ago.

    Hope everything is okay.

    • Hi, Sou:

      Thanks for your concern and apologies for not posing. I’m here but burnt out — both from work (we’re very busy as a new session of the legislature started and I am busy busy busy with briefings) and from climate politics. I think posting on Climate etc. and CA really turned my stomach. Sometimes you have to wonder if blogging is doing anything of value besides venting frustration.

      I have been following the BEST issue and might be writing a post on that in the next while. Otherwise, I’m reading the climate blogs and thinking, amazed that I can read such diametrically opposed news and blog artlcles on melting in the Arctic and the potential threat to the thermohaline circulation and at the same time, see denialist and skeptic sites argue that we are in for a coming ice age…

      • Thanks for letting us know how you’re going.

        The ‘burnt out’ bit I can well understand. It can be exhausting following the tortuous paths of the denialati. (I don’t know how you manage it and stay sane 🙂 )

        And I’ve been there, done that with the hectic briefing of new government ministers (and training them) in the distant past.

        All the best and do take some time to smell the roses – or at least remember to breathe 😀

    • Ooh. Goodo.

      Goes along with Bob Feguson earning a quarter of a million dollars in one year (from Idso’s outfit, not SPPI even), and Singer getting $143,000 for his contribution to the NIPCC Report. Then there was Roger Bate of American Enterprise Institute’s daily rate of £800 per day back in 1998 (£1100 today with inflation).

      I love it when the “climate science gravy train” crops up 😉

  15. (cross-posted at Eli’s)

    From DeSmog, on the Soon story, a 2003 email by Soon gained by Greenpeace under FOIA:

    “Clearly they [the AR4 chapters] may be too much for any one of us to tackle them all … But, as A-team, we may for once give it our best shot to try to anticipate and counter some of the chapters, especially WG1—judging from our true expertise in the basic climate sciences …

    Even if we can tackle ONE single chapter down the road but forcefully and effectively … we will really accomplish A LOT!

    In all cases, I hope we can start discussing among ourselves to see what we can do to weaken the fourth assessment report or to re-direct attention back to science …”

    So, before AR4 was even anywhere near completion, Soon was looking for ways to attack it.

    The Greenpeace report: Dr. Willie Soon, a Career Fueled by Big Oil and Coal

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