“A Combustible Mixture of Ignorance and Power”

Climate deniers and contrarians are always warning their audience of the dangers of appeals to authority and the importance of skepticism, but if you look at their published words closely, you find an absence of real skepticism (note how they glom onto every paper that appears at first blush to find the opposite of the consensus without adequate discussion of methods) and a failure to distinguish between skepticism in scientific debates and around scientific evidence in science and that of recognizing valid scientific authority in the public sphere and among policy makers.

The two are very different realms and sadly, operate on different principles. O, that pubic discourse was as skeptical and rigorous as scientific discourse! It isn’t, for a variety of reasons, primarily due to inadequate public education in science and reason.

In his last interview before his untimely death, one of my favourite science communicators, Carl Sagan, said the following:

Science is more than a body of knowledge. It’s a way of thinking. A way of skeptically interrogating the universe with a fine understanding of human fallibility. If we are not able to ask skeptical questions, to interrogate those who tell us something is true – to be skeptical of those in authority – then we’re up for grabs by the next charlatan political or religious that comes ambling along.

The development of science is an historically central development in our species’ history and civilization. Science is a method for producing knowledge about and understanding of the natural world in such a way that the knowledge produced is more likely to be accurate and valid. It’s also a stance towards knowledge, in that it demands that knowledge claims be put to the test and if they are found lacking, then they must be reconsidered.

One of the oft-repeated claims of the climate science contrarians/deniers is that climate scientists are not good scientists and climate science is not good science. Neither, they claim, follow the main precepts of science, primarily skepticism and rigour with methods and free sharing of data. This is McIntyre’s claim to fame and his entire focus in attacking the “hockey stick” and “team”, the IPCC and the temperature record.


Another contrarian/denialist claim is that climate scientists  not only do bad science, they are advocates of a particular political or ideological perspective (evil environmentalist liberal socialists statists) and as such their work cannot be called science.

James Hansen is the scientist most often slandered thusly, but also Mike Mann and others involved in publishing climate science papers or scientists who blog about climate science.

These contrarians/deniers often sound good, and to the unsuspecting and those who don’t know better or don’t want to know better, they can be convincing. There is a valid point to be made about the role of skepticism in science, and the rigour of scientific methodology and ethics, but the denier/contrarian arguments are disingenuous.

They’re bunk.

The Urban Dictionary puts it succinctly:

Bunk — nonesense, utter rubbish, BULLSHIT

That definition expresses my emotional response to such contrarian/denialist blather, but I find the following to be more complete definitions:

[Note: I’ve included a translation into the current situation for clarity]

Substances (Denialist nonesense) duplicitously sold (portrayed incorrectly) as illegal/illicit/recreational chemicals (as valid analysis) that do not produce the desired effect (that is bollocks).

Illegal/illicit/recreational chemicals (Scientific principles) cut to such an extreme (adulterated) that their effect is severely reduced (to create codswallop not fit for intellectual consumption.)

Science, as explained in a recent article in Scientific American, “…begins with the null hypothesis, which assumes that the claim under investigation is not true until demonstrated otherwise.” However, even rejecting the null hypothesis or failure to do so is not evidence of certainty about the claim being investigated.

This is also critical because science is never finished or complete. It is always provisional. New evidence can and often does overturn or result in revision of previously held ideas about the natural world and its processes. As Feynman wrote, “Scientific knowledge is a body of statements of varying degrees of certainty — some most unsure, some nearly sure, none absolutely certain.”

This is in complete contrast to belief systems such as religion and ideological approaches or traditions, in which there is a body of knowledge and claims about human nature that are considered to be true for all time, without revision, and completely certain. The whole purpose of religion or ideology is to not question, not to doubt but to accept the claims on faith, without evidence. Evidence isn’t necessary for religion or ideology. These systems negate the need for skeptical consideration of evidence. They provide useful templates through which to pass evidence and if the evidence fits it’s accepted, and if it doesn’t, it’s rejected.

Complete opposite of science.

In science, the null hypothesis rules. In politics, there is no hypothesis — there is a thesis and it is used to evaluate the evidence and select that which is kept and that which is jettisoned. Hence, a radical libertarian operating with the thesis that government is the enemy of freedom and the market its true expression rejects the best scientific evidence on principal.

The best scientific research and evidence is known as anthropogenic global warming. It suggests that greenhouse gasses produced through the burning of fossil fuels are leading to a warming of the climate and if the emissions continue, they will be a major threat to the global climate. Our civilization emerged in a relatively stable period of climate within a narrow range of temperature. A significant increase global temperature — which the best science says is above 2C – could possibly lead to climate upheaval.

This logically leads to the need for intervention of some kind to address the threat.

Given the global nature of the fossil fuel industry, this suggests logically that there is a need for global action, necessitating some kind of international governmental cooperation and intervention in the fossil fuel market and economy through actions such as taxation and regulation to address the threat.

For a libertarian of a certain bent, this is sacrilege because it goes against the most basic precepts of the ideology, that are taken on faith and accepted as dogma. So you see, political ideologies such as libertarianism are like religion in a previous era — they have their faith and anything that challenges that faith must be labeled as heresy and quashed.

This is anti-science. It puts political ideology ahead of evidence.

The development of science is the greatest human achievement. Science allows humanity to move beyond belief systems that are arbitrary and based on the use of force or threat of force to the production of knowledge of the the universe that is more or less objective. Not perfect truth, but much closer to it than had been achieved prior to its development.

Skepticism is a very important part of science.

Until the rise of science as a method for producing knowledge about the universe, we were all up for grabs, to put it in Sagan’s terms — primarily by those in authority and who had power. Religious leaders, the elites of all stripes, political leaders, and those who had skill in rhetoric or force of personality were able to impose their interests over the rest of us. Loosening the grip over truth held by religious leaders, political and economic powers by those demanding that evidence for claims be produced and verified, was perhaps what led to the flowering of human knowledge and the advancement of our civilization.

However, science is something that is separate from what most ordinary citizens experience or know much about. Research has shown that humans are by nature perspectival and inclined to select evidence to reinforce our own interests and support our biases. But our advancement from being merely another animal adapted to nature to a technologial being who shapes nature depends on our ability to understand nature as objectively as possible, how it works, and how our actions affect it and ourselves.

In other words, using science.

Sagan also said the following in that amazing interview:

We have also arranged things so that almost no one understands science and technology. This is a prescription for disaster. We might get away with it for a while, but sooner or later this combustible mixture of ignorance and power is going to blow up in our faces.

This is my big fear. I find Sagan’s point to be so very significant and cautionary, especially in these times and when we citizens must decide who will make decisions for us about issues such as climate and the economy. We have advanced technology and scientific knowledge such that we can re-engineer humanity, alter the climate and cause species that have been around for millions of years to disappear through our actions. Yet, the average citizen is largely ignorant of what science is and what it does.

They are open to whatever political or ideological charlatan comes along, spouting sciency-sounding bunk.

A combustible mixture of ignorance and power indeed.


About Policy Lass

Exploring skeptic tales.

6 Responses to ““A Combustible Mixture of Ignorance and Power””

  1. Highly relevant:
    (((((( Lauren Weinstein’s Blog Update: The Coming Fascist Internet ))))))
    November 13, 2011

  2. I wonder some times if the denialist arrogation of science is not a sort of cargo-cult thing – they don’t really understand what it is or how it works, as Susan has outlined above, but they need the appearance of being scientific – well, being all sciency – for validation.
    Rather than, as I’ve said elsewhere, understanding the strengths of science full well and doing their best to undercut it as an autonomous source of truth-statements that the political and financial powers on the Right can’t subvert (I’m thinking of the sorts of things that Watts and McIntyre do here – specious but plausible, looks good to anyone who really doesn’t want to know any better).

  3. Ironically, ‘skeptics’ go on and on about what they see as the ‘religion’ of AGW.

    President Obama’s science advisor, John Holdren, on skepticism.

    “We should really call them ‘deniers’ rather than ‘skeptics’, because they are giving the venerable tradition of skepticism a bad name.

    As my original reference to ‘the venerable tradition of skepticism’ indicates, I am in fact well aware of its valuable and indeed fundamental role in the practice of science. Skeptical views, clearly stated and soundly based, tend to promote healthy re-examination of premises, additional ways to test hypotheses and theories, and refinement of explanations and arguments. And it does happen from time to time – although less often than most casual observers suppose – that views initially held only by skeptics end up overturning and replacing what had been the ‘mainstream’ view.

    Appreciation for this positive role of scientific skepticism, however, should not lead to uncritical embrace of the deplorable practices characterizing much of what has been masquerading as appropriate skepticism in the climate-science domain.”

  4. > O, that pubic discourse was as skeptical and rigorous as scientific discourse!

    Is this from **The Will to Knowledge**, **The Use of Pleasure** or **The Care of the Self**?

  5. Willard, Pubic discourse could just mean we are getting screwed!

    To my mind the combination of excellence in science and in engineering are more than up to the challenges the climate problem has thrown in our laps. What is lacking is sufficient motivation and climate science denial is the strongest de-motivator around.

    My own view is that denialism’s very irrationality makes it the chink in the seemingly impenetrable armour opposition to action on emissions hides within. I’m dismayed that so many people fail to recognise – once those protective veils of freedom of speech and freedom of ideas a pulled aside – just how ugly, sickening even, the phenomena really is. It’s stolen 2 decades of opportunity to make the transition as painless as possible.

    For anyone within the denialist machine that knows that our scientists are almost certainly right but chooses – for any reason – to seek to extend that to that 3 decades or 4 or never at all… I’m struggling to to find adjectives strong enough.

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