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The nature of authority

Posted on 23 July 2010 by gpwayne

Guest post by Graham Wayne

In a recent post, John Cook wrote:

"When it comes to complex science, whether it be climate science or heart surgery or how a plane manages to stay up in the air, we defer to the experts who do this stuff for a living. Why? Because they know every nook and cranny of their area of expertise.

Well, I think there is another reason why we should defer to the experts, but we have to be clear about what that deference entails, for words can be misleading. Sometimes, the dual nature of a word leads us to confuse one thing with another. Consider the word authority, for example.

I started out as a musician. I remember meeting plenty of older players, and they would tell me things from time to time. They didn’t equivocate, nor did they leave any room for doubt in the way they put things. Frankly, they sounded just like my dad, and equally certain. Since he was usually wrong, I assumed these musicians were simply as dogmatic as my old man, and probably talking as much bollocks as he did. ‘Don’t tell me what to do’ I would say, mostly to myself. As far as I was concerned, what they knew was like what my father thought he knew – assumptions, dogma, convention. What right did they have to insist certain things were a particular way, and had to be? I was young, ready to rebel, to change things. The world didn’t have to be like they said, like my father said. I could reshape the world in my own image. I acknowledged no authority but my own, and anyone who told me what to do or how to do it could sod off.

Fast forward 20 years. I’m talking to some young musician, and I have that self-conscious experience of listening to myself, and what I’m saying. And bugger me if I don’t sound just like them, just like my dad. What on earth has happened? How did I become so bloody sure of myself?

The answer is that I did the work. In those intervening years, I paid my dues (rather over-paid, I suspect, due to a certain intransigence). I gained experience, I practiced, I learned from mistakes, I worked hard, and with each passing year my knowledge was improved by my education. Out of these experiences, I gained something unexpected: authority over the subject matter I had spent so much time studying. There are rules, and you cannot break them except at your cost (and the cost of your audience). These standards must be met, else you are doomed to be second-rate.

There are, it turns out, inviolable precepts. If you aspire to excellence and consistency, you are obliged to both acknowledge and obey the precepts that apply. Those who think they can get away with it, take a shortcut, cheat a little here and there; they always discover the same thing – exactly as I did. You can’t fool your audience, not for a minute, and it is equally hard to fool yourself. The work must be done and the dues paid, no matter what discipline you seek to acquire or what reasons you have for doing so. Success is built on the foundations of discipline and experience; once you have these attributes, there is nothing that can undermine them because you know they are not arbitrary, they are not personal. I know now, from discussion and experience, that all the people I admire have learned the same thing, and applied that knowledge uncompromisingly. They respect the rules of engagement and obey them, because they are not optional and you ignore them at your great peril.

So, in this personal example, we can use a synonym for authority: we can call it mastery. In art, in science, in business; in any sphere, if you do the work – all of it – and do it diligently, you gain mastery over your subject. Consequently, when I speak about playing or performing, I am not equivocal – I’m telling it like it is. I’ve had students who argued with me, but they lost every argument, because I had paid dear for my knowledge, as did all my peers, and what I gained was a profound certainty in that which I can be certain about, because this kind of authority is tested under fire - every single time we enter the fray. Since what I learned never let me down – not ever – it becomes more than a theory (and when I ignored the rules, I always got my arse kicked). It becomes like the rules of physics, unbending and subject to no negotiation whatever. When I talk about the knowledge I have gained from such effort and discipline, I may end up sounding like my dad, but it turns out he knew a thing or two after all.

***

The other kind of authority is the kind that children resent when they are told to go to bed or wash behind their ears. It is the arbitrary authority of those bigger than us, stronger than us, richer than us, more powerful than us. Teachers deploy this authority. So do bosses, policemen, higher ranks in military establishments; anyone whose position in the pecking order gives them the notion they have the right to tell us what to do. Sometimes, we work for a boss who is smart, so perhaps we don’t mind him or her telling us what to do (and the wages generally provide sufficient leverage to mute our dissent).

What we resent is the arbitrary notion that underlies this authority. Who are these people? How do they assume they are somehow better than us, when they offer nothing more than a bribe or a cuff round the ear? That isn’t authority, it is bullying. Isn’t it? Taking advantage, in other words; getting us to comply with their wishes whether we like it or not, making us do what they want just because they say so. Just like scientists and their bloody climate change theories, right? Who gave them the authority to tell us what to do?

Well, nobody gave them authority. They earned it, and it isn’t authority over us, it is authority over their subject matter. Scientists have to struggle up a learning curve so steep it is beyond the comprehension of most lay people. To start with – before they can lay a hand on a test tube or a microscope – they must learn everything that has gone before. This can take a decade or more, and the rewards are not only paltry, but often unreliable, since many will not ever make the grade or the salary commensurate with all that work they put in.

After what we might call a very long spell in boot camp, after they have negotiated the training courses comprising several centuries of highly detailed work; only then may the fledgling scientist stand upright on the shoulders of the giants who preceded them, and take a look around them. Only then may they start to work on a theory of their own, or collaborate with others whose theories merit investigation. Even to call yourself a research scientist, it is necessary to gain that mastery, that authority, that uncompromising discipline that is defined by the scientific method. And some of these scientists are studying climate change.

————————–

Scientific authority should not be confused with the authority of parents, or teachers, bosses or politicians. I am constantly amazed at the way lay people dispute science, by attributing to it some arbitrary notion of authority. When all other forms of authority seem to be arbitrary, perhaps it is understandable that, when science speaks with an authoritative voice, it seems equally subjective or capricious. When hierarchical authority is exercised in the pursuit of an agenda – political, legal, caring, educative or whatever – its aims may be equivocal, self-serving or arbitrary, where a different aim or agenda would be equally valid.

Science isn’t like that: it tests what it find ruthlessly and repeatedly, for there is only one right answer to any scientific problem, only one theory that is wholly correct. It is often overlooked that scientists cannot afford to promote myths, or self-serving results. Scientific knowledge is a hierarchy too, where the last paper on a subject becomes part of the next paper, through the process of citation. Nobody wants to do all the work all over again – reinventing the wheel – so all scientists have a vested interest in making sure all the work that is incorporated into the body of science is scrupulously accurate and solid, because they may well base their next research project on the same work, the same given, the same method. Bad science puts all scientists at risk, which is one reason why all scientists are so keen to root it out.

When science speaks with authority, we should respect it, not resent it. And we should not be afraid to accept that there are people who are smarter than we are. One common tone I find in discussions about science is generated by a strange notion of equality, a rather topical political trope where all people are rendered so damn equal there isn’t any individuality left. There are a lot of people smarter than me, and it does not demean me to recognize this, or acknowledge them and their achievements. Of all the branches of human endeavor, science is one of the most intellectually demanding and difficult. What these people do astounds and humbles me. That they are cleverer than me at science does not make me less important as a human being. It does remind me that self-importance is a vice we can ill afford, especially when we try to ignore those who speak with genuine authority.

Check out more Graham Wayne action at gpwayne.wordpress.com.

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Comments 1 to 50 out of 170:

  1. It's a shame it has to be intellectual, where people have to acknowledge others' superior expertise.

    It would be so much easier if it were more like tennis or basketball. The scores tell the world who won each match. The rankings show who's won the most matches.
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  2. Despite being part of what "we are to be clear about", there is no explanation about what "deference" entails? Without that, it is going to be hard to discuss about the practical meaning and consequences of "scientific authority".
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  3. Blooming marvelous, for a moment I thought I was reading the word's Ayn Rand's John Galt might have written in "Atlas Shrugged."

    I read all of John's comment "The nature of authority," I thought it excellent. However I wondered whether or not John has read Professor Ian Plimer's book.

    Michael on the Gold Coast
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  4. Graham's thinking on authority is more insightful than that of the teenage rebel (he admits he once was). But not by much. Not by enough.

    Indeed: most conspicuous in the failure of his thinking is the false dichotomy between the authority with which he now speaks about music and musicianship, and the parental authority kids hate when their parents tell them to go to bed.

    How did he miss his own error here? His own example of his father making dogmatic statements to him shows there is no such division. After all, when a parent tells their kid to go to bed by such and such time or take a bath, that decision too is based on experience: kids need to go to bed earlier than they want, or they don't get enough sleep, and end up cranky the next day; they need hygiene, which need they generally never appreciate, not even after its neglect leads them to serious skin diseases.

    There is some difference between scientific authority and other forms, but Graham's article does not head us in the right direction to figure out what it is.

    However, it does remind me of a conclusion I have been groping towards for some years now: that the 'skeptics' whether those who deny evolution or those who deny global warming, or even those who fantasize of disproving Einstein's Relativity have all confused "scientific authority" for the second kind Graham mischaracterizes.

    That is, rather than recognize that scientific authority is based on people doing their homework, so that their opinion really IS worthy of authority and respect, the skeptics turn up their noses and stamp their feet shouting 'no' just like the little kid who doesn't want to take a bath when his parent tells him he must.

    Unlike the little kid, they have an amazing variety of ways to hide the fact that this is what they are doing, stealing the honorable label of 'skeptic' and pretending that they are the only true scientists, avoiding debate, shouting down the real science...

    The real cause of the near end of civilization mediated by global warming is not the proximate cause, the recklessly excess carbon, but the fact that we have surrendered the major decisions in running the world to such ill-bred brats.
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  5. adelady... Actually, I think the scientific method has a pretty good rule book and has ways of keeping score. This is how we have accomplished as much as we have as a species in the past few hundred years.

    The problem now is there are elements who don't like how the score is turning out and they want to either rig the game or change how the game is played or try to reinterpret the score of the game through the media.

    If you look at peer reviewed, published science on climate the score is about 3000 to 7 (roughly). But the losing team is managing to convince the general public that the score is wrong and the game is wrong. And I believe they've been fairly successful at this because science is a game where the general public doesn't fully understand the nature of the rules.
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  6. Human nature is a fascinating subject all of its own.... But im not so sure i would blindly trust a politician, just because he has experience/authority. Or for that matter any other demographic, we are a very social animal, and are prone to conforming to group behaviors in all things...as can be clearly seen with an extremely rudimentary study of history... any era, and just about any group.

    There is nothing wrong with critical thinking, i encourage it in my children. Question everything. Understand the how and why. Then decide for yourself your own view... There are dangers in blindly following the herd. Our history is full of examples of it. And we are still the same little funny monkeys we have always been.

    Believe the evidence, not the man.
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  7. Adrianvance, you'll have a hard time explaining transitions between glacial and interglacial climates without CO2 being a major factor. Small percentage: red herring, chicanery, contrivance, knavery.

    Excellent post by the way. And there's another authority that can't be argued with: nature. Unless humanity decides to grow up and learn this lesson, nature is going to kick our collective arse.
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  8. Graham,

    I liked your article. As a further metaphor the aviation industry has a use for the word authority. The control surfaces such as rudders and elevators have authority in normal flight. Loss of authority due to turbulence or fault has the plane begin to loose control.

    The authority of science comes from it's accuracy of measurement and external validation of theories. Just as the aviation meaning has the connection with the real world so does the world of science.

    I have two areas of training first as a commercial scientist
    (R & D chemist) and as a hobby the art of counselling. This second area has the acceptance of equality. The use of unconditional respect as a tool. This is for the purpose of allowing the counselling client the safety and connection to feel and work through all sorts of painful emotions that once they are worked through allow the client to resume flexible intelligent interaction with the real world. (That is the aim!)

    Both are humbling endeavours. Logic applies to both. The place of the real world is also common but with counselling great departures from the real world are allowed as a temporary refuge only. The aim is to regain real functioning.

    Currently we have a political issue given solid climate science of AGW where policies based on science need to be adopted. A western world where fossil fuels have the centre piece in real power production. A developing world following and in some ways leading.

    Politics is about power and what appears to be real. Appearance is everything as a tool to get political power.

    At times of great change very large numbers of people go through periods of great pain. The past and all sorts of emotions and un-realities take sway in many minds.

    The coming period of mess from climate change will be over decades at the least!

    There is a kind of personal authority of a calm logical mind, warm connection with others, and a commitment to do what is right no matter what level of wild emotions and illusory claims are made that is needed for this coming period.

    Our scientists and activists will need to draw on this last point the personal authority of "being seen to be sorted" as the tussle for political power which is the main issue of "the day" plays out. The political leaders just follow what appears to be the most sensible way forward.
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  9. Who counts as an expert? And who decides who is an expert? Should paleoclimatologists be lstened to on any other subject?

    One could argue Steve McIntyre or even Monckton has been researching and banging on about their respective climate science interests that they have developed some level of expertise. Because they haven't gone down a formal academic process does not necessarily invalidate that experience. Is an earth science graduate with 5 years postgraduate experience more of an an expert?

    It's worth also considering a recent example when deferring to scientific experts went horribly wrong. The UK in the late 1980's probably saw the beginning of the recent hysteria around paedophilia. In those days a band of medical experts believed that had the tests that could definitively show that children had been sexually abused. These individuals published their work, disseminated their ideas and became the 'experts' to advise the police, social services, politicians and the courts. They pronounced on court cases and persided over the break up of families and jailing of parents. This period culminated in instances such as the Cleveland Child Sex Scandal and the final exposure of the 'expert' as wrong. It also worth considering the moral dimension of this example as well. Early critics of the experts were often portrayed as defenders of paedophiles when trying to question the experts. In this case a heady mix of expert authority and moral authority lead to some controversial scientific finding becoming unquestioned dogma with disastrous consequences.

    Another bad example of deferring to experts in the 'when science meets politics' arena might be MMR vaccine and autism controversy

    In general I have no problem deferring to expertise in science, I do it on a daily basis. Unfortunately climate science is no longer just science. When science collides with politics and social policy I think it's very much necessary to do plenty of questioning.
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  10. I think you’re leaving out a key concept: judgment—or rather good judgment. An experienced and well-trained musician has it. An experienced and well-trained pilot, comedian, scientist, philosopher, or home-builder has it – for those areas where she is experienced and trained.

    There are no rules or formulae for making most decisions. You don’t literally “weigh” the evidence for and against a proposition or theory.

    You have to use judgment. Those with training and experience generally have better judgment than those without it.

    It would be nice if the evidence were overwhelming on one side or the other. In the real world we are frequently required to make decisions when we don't have overwhelming evidence one way or the other. And when we don't have a simple logical formula for determining what to believe.

    In these situations, it would be wise to rely on those with good judgment -- i.e., experience and knowledge.
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  11. HR - your first example would indeed appear to case of policy guided by bad science but note the science did correct itself.

    Your second example is more like climate - unfounded claims published, examined and found wanting by main stream but STILL being pushed by cranks. Science worked as it should.

    As for McIntyre et al, well unwarranted aspersions cast on researchers of integrity are what raise ire. If you have some science to push, then publish it. You object to this "formal academic process"? Well it has evolved for good reasons and we will stick it. As for experts, well I am happy for the definition of those who made worthy publications in the field as a good definition. I wouldnt hold much to opinion of a paleoclimatologist on vaccines for instance. Of course, if they used their analytical techniques to make meaningful and published contributions into vaccines, then well maybe, but probably only by in the area of methodology unless they had really gone deep into it.
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  12. 11.scaddenp

    I don't object to the "formal aademic process" I was just trying to ask what is an expert? You fetishise the publication process too much. It is a very important if not dominant means of disseminating scienctific ideas but it is not the only one. I'm pretty sure McIntyre et al do not prioritize publication. Saying their ideas aren't published so aren't valid is just a way of avoiding those ideas. Many strains of science do not develop ideas primarily through peer-review, pharmaceuticals for example.
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  13. HR - Speaking as someone who's both published and patented, pharmaceuticals and industrial applications are an interesting example. There patents and trade secrets are an important factor, with the production of information a secondary (if that) product.

    However, patents and trade secrets run up against the very important filter of "that which works". If it doesn't work, and provide a competitive advantage, the company won't bother with patents, and won't use it as a trade secret. And competitors won't try to copy it, beat it with another technique, etc..

    In the production of information (the realm of science) the publication process is NOT a fetish. It's the product, the competitive arena! And if it's good science, if the publication provides useful, relevant information, it will get quoted, referred to, and used as the basis of additional work. That's the "that which works" test for science.


    Back to "What is an expert" - credentials are to a certain extent a license not to compete; if you have credentials you're assumed to have some familiarity with the subject, and people with credit you with some authority unless you prove otherwise. If you've contributed to the field, that adds to your authority. Even if you don't have credentials, if you contribute to the field using good technique (one of my issues with Monckton) then you can earn some authority.

    On the other hand, if you publish junk (Soon, Monckton, lots of others) - well, you've just discredited yourself.
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  14. HR #12

    "I'm pretty sure McIntyre et al do not prioritize publication"

    That's essentially because a lot this group's motivations appear political rather than scientific, which is why they end up in the mainstream (political) press rather than in the scientific press. When they do publish stuff (e.g. Carter's recent nonsense) it's always or at least very often rubbish in substandard journals like Energy and Environment. You can see this from McIntyre's point of view if you listen to the admittedly polite and softly spoken, but misinformation ridden statements at the Guardian's climategate debate. Plimer, Watts, Monkton et.al. are even worse.

    Another litmus test for this. Lindzen's recent writings have been misleading op-eds in the right wing press, not quality scientific reporting.
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  15. Peer reviewed literature exists for very good reason and McIntyre doesnt prioritize publication for sure - but then if not, why take him seriously? Calling it a "fetish" is ridiculous - why do you think it exists? Look at all the rubbish on internet of all manner of subjects - the filter of review makes progress possible without having to wade through the cranks. And what do you think of practitioners that say one thing to their peers and another to unsophisticated audience (eg politicians) because they can? Publication also creates the chain the reference that is vital in science. So no, I dont take stuff seriously unless it published. If everyone else did same, then we wouldnt be wasting a lot of time blogs defending science from the charlatans practising on those without the expertise to make a good judgments.
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  16. I've shared my ambivalence about the 'authority' of science on this site before.

    Oddly enough, the first book I ever read on global warming was Plimer's 'Heaven and Earth - the Missing Science.' It all sounded pretty convincing though sometimes a tad repetitious and circular - but I was slightly perturbed by the fact that a couple of graphs seemed to be unsourced. I was initially inclined to be charitable and put it down to oversight.

    I understood that the book had attracted controversy. I later linked into a video of the ABC debate between Plimer and Monbiot. Monbiot seemed a very angry young man - rather intense and zealous (he presents as much more genial in the recent Guardian debate). Plimer was rather pompous and seemed not to answer questions giving the interview a very disconnected quality.

    Significantly, Monbiot accused Plimer of misquoting a reference. Plimer simply ignored the question. I thought I'd do a little bit of homework and checked the reference. Plimer had in fact blatantly misrepresented his sources.

    I learnt incidentally that Plimer had been accused of misrepresenting references in his debunk of Creation Science. I didn't follow up that particular issue - however, after seeing what I had found in 'Heaven & Earth,' I would not touch anything by Plimer.

    I would normally have regarded Plimer as an 'expert.' He has higher academic qualifications and his book, whole not peer reviewed, seemed to fall broadly within his field of expertise.

    However, he lost any claim to 'authority' in my eyes because the scale of misrepresentation of his source was difficult to explain in terms of anything other than dishonesty.

    In trying to make up my mind about an expert, I look for 'coherence' or consistency (both internal and external - ie, with other sources), honest presentation of data, and where possible, consistency with personal experience of an issue.

    Personally, I think McIntyre has been much demonised. Interestingly, Monbiot in the recent Guardian debate described him as 'an information libertarian' rather than as a 'sceptic.' McIntyre's principal remit has been a critique of the statistics underpinning the hockey stick (which in fact lies well in his area of expertise). He can come across as worrying a bone to death (though this could be seen as dogged perseverance - pun intended). Of course, if I found out that he had done a Plimer with his sources, I would change my views very rapidly.

    It bears pointing out that much of what we rely on to form judgments in day to day life never goes through peer review - consider your daily newspaper or other media reporting. In the sciences, we use textbooks which again haven't been peer reviewed (though they are subject to non-peer reviewed reviews in the journals and praised or panned as the case may be).

    On this site, Spencer Weart is all to often cited as highly authoritative despite not being peer reviewed. I enjoyed Weart's introduction though I have to confess I found it slightly lightweight which is understandable given the book is intended primarily as an introduction for the layman (however, he certainly writes with coherence).
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  17. Great post. I get a little tired of having points I make dismissed as "arguments by authority" by the notty community. They seem to take equality of man a bit far, thinking that not only are all men equal, but so are all opinions.

    We are in the fortunate position of having a nice overall picture of AGW painted for us. But the reality is, of course, full of nooks and crannies which real climate scientists know about, and which we can remain blissfully ignorant of. I find the effort the notties put into trying to understand stuff which they just don't have sufficient background to properly appreciate quite strange.

    On the music theme, my ex-wife is a muso. One time at Rotto a group of us were arguing, and one of them (a very good arguer) was making points about music. Her arguments seemed convincing (although a bottle of red probably helped). My ex kept quiet at the time, but afterwards told me that the arguers musical points were total rubbish. I did not ask why, but just deferred to authority.....
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  18. Chris Canaris. It's worth noting that Plimer is an authority in Mining Geology-& if I ever needed to know *anything* about how to find & obtain minerals in the ground, he'd probably be the person I'd listen to. What I wouldn't do is say "well Plimer says that this is the perfect place to find copper ore, but my friend-the Botanist-says thats rubbish. So I'll just trust the Botanist". That would be completely *illogical*. Yet I see many people out there trusting the word of a Mining Geologist-one found guilty of fudging data-over the word of many Climatologists!
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  19. Some thoughts - I am extremely wary of books. I like them to have a good bibliography and footnotes so I can check anything that seems important. They certainly have their place in gentle introduction into an unknown field but I would check reviews before buying a book. Textbooks are slightly different. The publisher wants to make money, so they need to recommended to students by professors in the textbook field. For that reason, a textbook is generally strenuously reviewed. A well-used textbook in its 3rd plus revision I think is a good starting point.

    As to McIntyre - what about inappropriate use of ellipses ?
    Charges about withholding data that isn't a researcher's to give?

    And as to media - well seeing the reporting about anything you have been involved in should give you a healthy dose of skepticism.
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  20. Chris Canaris, I don't understand what your point was regarding Spencer Weart. Weart does not fashion himself as a practiced authority on climate science nor have I seen him described here as such. He is in fact a historian with a disciplinary background suitable for researching and narrating the history of topics involving physics, you can read his bio here if you're curious about his bona fides.

    As a competent and diligent historian Weart not only produces a remarkably coherent narrative of a very complicated topic but also offers his readers the Shovel of Authority in the form of extensive citations leading to authoritative sources. Choosing to exert the effort involved in using the Shovel of Authority is of course up to the reader; Weart has no means of injecting the material referenced in his citations directly into the heads of readers.

    For those scratching their heads and wondering, "Who is this Spencer Weart guy, anyway?" his history of climate science may be found here.
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  21. Marcus at 13:51 PM on 23 July, 2010

    Given the multiplicity of discipline that go into climate science, I don't think a mining geologist would be automatically disqualified. Plimer disqualifies himself through lack of coherence and dishonesty.

    doug_bostrom at 14:19 PM on 23 July, 2010

    I wasn't criticising Weart. I went and read this book because so many people on this site recommended him especially in response to posts by perceived 'sceptics' and 'deniers.' I regarded it as time and money well spent though I had hoped to find more of the nuts and bolts of the science.

    scaddenp at 13:55 PM on 23 July, 2010

    I followed up your link to Deep Climate on McIntyre - yes, it's food for thought and I'll try to give it more than the passing glance I can afford right now because of lack of time.

    As regards data supposedly covered by confidentiality agreements, I have heard so many versions that I don't know quite whom to believe.
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  22. John, we defer to experts in the complex sciences underpinning heart surgery or aerodynamics because they have a track record of successful analysis, prediction and application. This has not been achieved by scientists trying to predict future climates because the processes and drivers of global climates are horrendously complex (verging on the chaotic) and are presently very poorly understood. Reliable analysis and prediction of global climates is impossible due to the significant scientific uncertainties. All that is possible at present is speculation about what might happen using fictitious scenarios and unproven hypotheses.

    As you say, “Scientific authority should not be confused with the authority of parents, or teachers, bosses or politicians”. Unfortunately the authority of the scientists involved in researching those poorly understood processes and drivers of global climates has been thoroughly undermined by politics. That is why lay people are becoming increasingly suspicious of the claim that our use of fossil fuels is driving global climates towards catastrophe.

    Climategate and the subsequent IPCC-gates have started an avalanche of scepticism among lay people around the globe.

    Best regards, Pete Ridley
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  23. scaddenp at 13:55 PM on 23 July, 2010
    "Some thoughts - I am extremely wary of books...."

    We should all be extremely wary!

    Leader
    ….This study quantitatively analyses 141 English-language environmentally sceptical books published between 1972 and 2005. We find that over 92 per cent of these books, most published in the US since 1992, are linked to conservative think tanks (CTTs). Further, we analyse CTTs involved with environmental issues and find that 90 per cent of them espouse environmental scepticism. We conclude that scepticism is a tactic of an elite-driven counter-movement designed to combat environmentalism, and that the successful use of this tactic has contributed to the weakening of US commitment to environmental protection.....


    Summary
    ….Environmental scepticism is an elite-driven reaction to global environmentalism, organised by core actors within the conservative movement. Promoting scepticism is a key tactic of the anti-environmental counter-movement coordinated by CTTs, designed specifically to undermine the environmental movement’s efforts to legitimise its claims via science. Thus, the notion that environmental sceptics are unbiased analysts exposing the myths and scare tactics employed by those they label as practitioners of ‘junk science’ lacks credibility. Similarly, the self-portrayal of sceptics as marginalised ‘Davids’ battling the powerful ‘Goliath’ of environmentalists and environmental scientists is a charade, as sceptics are supported by politically powerful CTTs funded by wealthy foundations and corporations.....


    The organisation of denial: Conservative think tanks and environmental scepticism
    Jacques, Dunlap and Freeman

    Environmental Politics
    Vol. 17, No. 3, June 2008, 349–385

    http://tinyurl.com/Think-tanks-pseudoscepticism
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  24. Peter Ridley - but climategate stuff was spin. Just much easier to read cherry-picked quotes and say tut tut than it is to go to the hard work of getting the whole context.

    As to authority, you are agree you have to have skill to have authority but I fail to see how climate models have not earned that. Whether climate is chaotic is an open question - weather is - but regardless, we manage to navigate the solar system despite it being a chaotic system in the formal sense.

    "Reliable analysis and prediction of global climates is impossible due to the significant scientific uncertainties."
    This is an assertion that you must back with evidence. Sure, you cannot predict next new year's day temperature but that is not what climate is. Predicting a 30 year average within known limits for a given set of forcings is the what predicting climate is about.
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  25. 1. adelady
    It's a shame it has to be intellectual, where people have to acknowledge others' superior expertise.

    That acknowledgement requires humility. A striking characteristic of Climate change denialism is the certainty invested in opinions, for all denialism is driven by beliefs rather than evidence. Belief systems rarely engender humility because, by their nature, they require followers to 'know' they are right. The Dunning-Kruger effect is another manifestation of this problem.

    4. MattJ
    ...most conspicuous in the failure of his thinking is the false dichotomy between the authority with which he now speaks about music and musicianship, and the parental authority kids hate when their parents tell them to go to bed.

    It is because they are children that they confuse the nature of the authority, believing it to be arbitrary. It is the argument used by climate change deniers to debunk the science: that scientists have an ideological or economic agenda which shapes the results they give us, in order to exercise authority over what we do and how we live. My point is that this authority isn't like a parent, who gains it merely by copulating. It is earned, and the price is high to those who do the work we hear about, for they are the best in their fields.

    The sub-text, by the way, is anti-intellectualism or inverse snobbery - the demeaning conflation by fundamental ideologues of intellectual achievement and socialism/liberalism/humanism.

    That is, rather than recognize that scientific authority is based on people doing their homework, so that their opinion really IS worthy of authority and respect, the skeptics turn up their noses and stamp their feet shouting 'no' just like the little kid who doesn't want to take a bath when his parent tells him he must.

    Or go to bed. The weird thing about this remark is the deja vu quality, since it's exactly what I thought I said in my piece.

    6. Joe Blog
    You refer to issues of trust. I would like to add that the deference I refer to (and that was queried by omnologos) is a trust in the scientific method, not scientists. In any socialogical group you will find a statistical distribution of saints and sinners. The scientific method is designed to weed out the sinners and it works well enough - given time. That's the tricky bit with climate change - people say 'let's wait until we've got better data, more evidence...' but if any of the putative tipping points are reached meanwhile, we're screwed. In lieu of blind faith, I'll accept what the consensus and logic tells me - because I do believe they speak with authority, and I don't believe they have any reason to lie, since the lie will be discovered all to quickly in this fevered scientific climate.

    9. HumanityRules
    When science collides with politics and social policy I think it's very much necessary to do plenty of questioning.

    Sure, but principally one should question the politics and the social policy, not the science that catalysed the discussion. Remember too that denialists do not 'discuss' anything, they just tell us why we're wrong and have no authority to tell them what to do.
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  26. "Climategate and the subsequent IPCC-gates"? Oh that's just too funny for words. In spite of the attempts by the Right-Wing Media to get mileage out of the e-mails (obtained via a CRIMINAL ACT, I might add), the reality is that it turned out to be a massive storm-in-a-teacup. Even the most Right-Wing media outlets have since dropped the story-leaving just the Right-Wing conspiracy Websites to go on about it (which is essential for them given the lack of any contrary evidence to AGW). Similarly, all of the alleged errors of the IPCC-again highlighted by the Right-Wing press-have likewise proven to have precious little substance. The so-called "avalanche of skepticism" that you claim has actually ceased to materialize-all that happened was that the Denialists become even more convinced of the existence of this non-existent conspiracy. I'm just waiting to hear about when the hackers will be arrested & charged. I've almost no doubt that they have close links to the same organizations that give Oxygen to the likes of Watts, Plimer & Monckton.
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  27. I think part of the resistance to authority is the feeling that nobody's better than me.

    This strikes me as muddled. Better in what sense? I consider myself a better person than drug barons and paedophiles, so obviously I believe that some people are better than others. Since there's 6,700,000,000 people on this plant (give or take) I have to admit it's unlikely that I'm the best of the lot. I'm not likely to be the smartest, either. Or the most knowledgeable on any given subject.

    I think the point is that nobody has more rights than I do. That doesn't mean everybody is equally qualified to judge the science behind climate change. And 97% of the active climate scientists say climate change is real, serious, and caused by human activity.
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  28. scaddenp at 13:55 PM on 23 July, 2010

    As best as I can tell, the Deep Climate post deals with statistical issues as they relate to the Climategate emails and McIntyre's citation of these. A commentator writing in response to an earlier post indicated that discussion of these emails was off limits on this site. I don't know whether that is true or not. In any case the whole debate over who wrote what and why in response to what seems utterly Byzantine complexity and somewhat beyond the limited capacity of my prefrontal cortex :-).

    I hope I'm not violating rules by going over these issues but McIntyre's principal beef all along seems to have been with the validity of statistical methodology (very much his field of expertise) and reluctance to share data and code. The various enquiries have exonerated the folks at UEA of misconduct
    and upheld the integrity of their scientific work. However, some criticism of lack of interaction with the statistical community and willingness to share information seems a consistent theme in the enquiries.

    As far as I'm concerned, that's exactly where I would want to leave the issues. Indeed, my recollections of the Guardian debate if they serve me well suggest a consensus that in reality there nothing sinister to hide and that openness from the outset would have avoided an awful lot of unpleasantness.

    Incidentally, you say:

    'And as to media - well seeing the reporting about anything you have been involved in should give you a healthy dose of skepticism.'

    Incidentally, I've been involved in a number of matters which attracted substantial media attention (not much in recent years, thank God). The issues being reported on were not politically charged but related to some complex criminal matters. I was surprised at the time by the accuracy and fairness of some (obviously not all) of the media reporting.
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  29. I am not fully at ease with this, and I hope I can explain why.

    Yes, it is true that the scientific consensus is the place to start always when researching a topic. I am sure a large proportion of contrarians read McIntyre and Watts because they find them politically congenial. However, they are then unwilling to engage with the science. We are probably unduly influenced by the first person to explain something to us.

    However, science contains enough of the subversive and the rebellious to make us cautious about "scientific authority". I am thinking of the young Feynmann, James Watson or Einstein who were not afraid to challenge the establishment of their day.

    So we should never hesitate to question authority. However, at some point we must decide and put scepticism aside. As I once said in a response on WUWT (to which no one responded) "Even Doubting Thomas had a bottom line".

    Massimo Piglucci Nonsense on Stilts gives 5 very useful steps to check out expertise in fields where we ourselves have little or none:

    (1) Examine the arguments of the experts. Piglucci points out that we may not have the expertise to critique the fine points.
    (2) Look for internal consistency and agreement among the experts.
    (3) Seek independent advice that the expert is an expert!
    (4) Ask questions about possible biases.
    (5) Look at the track record of the expert.

    We could apply these to (say) a doctor who is recommending a particular course of treatment to a loved one or to ourselves.

    I think climate scientists measure up very well to Piglucci's criteria, while the contrarian "experts" do not do well at all.
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  30. "I think part of the resistance to authority is the feeling that nobody's better than me."

    But I think that links up with the anti-intellectualism, people really want to believe that they can read a magazine or a blog and *know* stuff as well as someone who's put in years. The intellectual stuff is the hardest because it's not like other activities.

    We all know how likely it is that we'll be seeded at Wimbledon or invited to perform at Carnegie Hall or produce a better chocolate cake than someone who's won every cake competition she's ever entered or all those other obvious external things. We can't kid ourselves so we yield to others' judgments about these people's expertise.

    When it comes to knowing things a lot of people seem to resent the fact that knowledge and skill (in something like maths) is difficult to acquire at higher levels. The perennial scorn for "ivory tower" academics seems to have exploded into a need, in some people, to show that they're just as capable as someone who's "wasted their lives with their head in a book".

    As for comparisons, many of these denier people are pretty clever. I think it's hard for some who've usually been among the cleverest people in their own circle to acknowledge that others are much, much cleverer and have done a lot of work to use and enhance their capacity. It's a bit like Monday morning quarter-backing. But it gets nasty when people really believe that the team should be following their instructions rather than the coach's.
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  31. Human imagination conceived of the myth Atlas, a human- like figure holding the entire world on his shoulders. With full knowledge of this impossibility, mankind now attempts to treat the entire planet as just one more device under test. The problem is not a lack of authority as much a lack of modesty, which when found will do more for this cause.
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  32. Gavin Schmidt once said: “if we are talking about global warming, I am probably the most criticized man in the world (...), why I stopped reading articles about me ...”

    Is this the reason (may be) that the theory of AGW is false?
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  33. Pete Ridley

    This has not been achieved by scientists trying to predict future climates because the processes and drivers of global climates are horrendously complex (verging on the chaotic) and are presently very poorly understood. Reliable analysis and prediction of global climates is impossible due to the significant scientific uncertainties.

    So what authority do you have for your claim regarding our very poor understanding of the drivers of global climate?
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  34. MattJ,

    How did he miss his own error here? His own example of his father making dogmatic statements to him shows there is no such division. After all, when a parent tells their kid to go to bed by such and such time or take a bath, that decision too is based on experience: kids need to go to bed earlier than they want, or they don't get enough sleep, and end up cranky the next day; they need hygiene, which need they generally never appreciate, not even after its neglect leads them to serious skin diseases.

    We would certainly hope that a parent would give instructions to their children based on such considerations, but not everyone is a good parent and sometimes people either don't have such a good understanding of, or simply neglect, their children's best interests. Ultimately a parent's authority is arbitrary because they posses it merely by virtue of being a parent and no one has to prove their fitness or suitability for parenthood beforehand (unless they are adopting I suppose) so I think it is fair for Graham to make the distinction.
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  35. tobyjoyce at 19:46 PM on 23 July, 2010

    Massimo Piglucci's five useful steps are eminently sensible. However, no matter how much we try, a subjective element enters into our evaluations of all situations. For example, one often speaks in science of an elegant experiment. RSVP's call for humility is thus timely indeed. Looking back over my career, I can think of all too many errors of judgment. I don't make quite so many now (I hope!!!!!).
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  36. adelady at 19:50 PM on 23 July, 2010

    I think you hit the nail on the head. How dare we tell the opposition that it would take them years of work to be qualified to understand this stuff well! It is very anti-democratic - isn't it?
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  37. Arkadiusz, I'm happy to see you posting particularly since we're talking about the nature of authority. A few weeks ago, you referred to Polish scientists/ scientific bodies who did not endorse the AGW consensus. Another poster put up a link to the December 2007 statement of the Polska Akademia Nauk (Polish Academy of Sciences) which they believed supported the consensus.

    I happen to be reasonably fluent in Polish despite my Greek surname, Ghanaian childhood, and Australian nationality (a long story - 1939 and all that). I naturally looked up the document - the document strongly endorsed the 'consensus.' I asked if you knew of any more recent statements or statements from other bodies supportive of your stance.

    I was disappointed by your non-response.
    0 0
  38. Arkadiusz, on this post #32 http://www.skepticalscience.com/The-nature-of-authority.html#19183. What logic you may use there escapes me.
    0 0
  39. chriscanaris, @35,

    I take your point, but the great scientists I mentioned (Feynmann, Watson, Einstein) would have been downright losers in a "most humble" competition. Einstein refused ever again to submit a paper to "Physics Review Letters" because it dared to send one of his 1930s papers for peer review.

    If you are talking about Newton's "standing on the shoulders of giants" type of modesty, then I think all great scientists partake of that. Every scientist needs to know that their theories are contingent and not final, and that type of modesty is a necessity.

    ALL of out judgments are subjective. Philospohers of science speak about observations being "theory-laden", something even Darwin admitted. Science makes effort to shrug off the subjectivity by statistical tests, by insisting on replication of experimental or model results, by peer-review, and by discussion.

    Science, like you (and me, a bit!), does learn from its mistakes. The fact is no Watson, Einstein or Feynmann has stepped up to defy the conventional climate science wisdom from within. That speaks volumes to me. Imagine the glittering prizes that would await the scientist who did that successfully - not to mention the sheer intellectual satisfaction.
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  40. Tobyjoyce #39

    I thought that Freeman Dyson was doing a pretty good job of: "stepping up to defy the conventional climate science wisdom from within".

    Interesting that the last 10-12 topics on this blog have strayed from discussions about the harder science and into all sorts of areas such as personalities like Monckton & Abraham , links to creationism, 97% of scientists in a room etc.

    I wonder what happened to the robust blockbuster arguments about the real effect of CO2, water vapour, aerosols, TSI, TOA, OHC, SLR, energy balance etc??

    Maybe it is because the deeper these technical discussions go, the more the lack of knowledge and robust measurement in vital areas of climate science are exposed.

    Several of these threads have petered out with a stalemate ending in something like: "we need better measurement and more years to find out what is really happening".

    When met with this situation, the fall back position of this blog and the 'AGW consensus' is to say we don't have all the answers, but need to take radical action just in case what we claim is right.

    The difficulty with this line is that public confidence has been damaged by Climategate, and the exaggerated claims by advocates like Al Gore are not being believed by the great unwashed who will have to pay for the radical changes to their energy sources.
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  41. Pete Ridley at 16:48 PM on 23 July, 2010 says,
    "Climategate and the subsequent IPCC-gates have started an avalanche of scepticism among lay people around the globe."

    That's a very strong statement. I'm skeptical, as you provide zero evidence to back up this extraordinary claim. Do you have extraordinary evidence which backs up your assertion that global skepticism amongst laypersons became an "avalanche" after the molehills you cited?


    @ Arkadiusz Semczyszak at 20:21 PM on 23 July, 2010
    I am with Philipe on this one. I simply don't comprehend the conclusion you have alluded to based on the out of context quote you cite. Could you elaborate?
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  42. Phil (Scadden) ref. comment #24, no, Climategate wasn’t spin, it was a scandal exposed by the leaked files and the enquiries held so far were simply whitewashes but they don’t lessen the scandal of the general public’s recognition of it. On th ematter of climatemodels, lets keep that to the debate on the “How reliable are climate models?” thread.

    Andrew (Adams), I don’t believe that I have ever claimed to have any authority with regards to global climate processes and drivers but if you think that I have then please show me where. I do have opinions on the subject after having read a lot about it and, like yourself, am at liberty to express them.

    Best regards, Pete Ridley
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  43. tobyjoyce @ 39:

    Some of the best portrayals of the subjective element in science have been described by the late great Stephen Jay Gould. He gives numerous examples of figures we now ridicule explaining how their views made eminent good sense from the perspective of their times.

    My favourite is his discussion of Archbishop Ussher's 1650 dating of the creation at 4004 BCE - Gould showers praise on Ussher's empirical approach to a difficult question, which apparently involved far more than mere extrapolation of biblical generations but included also cross-referencing to other historical data. He decries modern ridicule of what was excellent science for its time.

    Your reference to Watson and Einstein set me thinking. Watson's initial failure to give but the most marginal credit to Rosalind Franklin's critical role in the seminal Nature publication on the structure of the DNA molecule is perhaps more worrying than his lack of humility. Interestingly, this does not detract from the integrity of the science. Likewise, Franklin's seemingly much smaller footprint detracts not one iota from the scientific integrity underlying her pioneering work on RNA, an equally important molecule.

    Fortunately, the science of DNA and RNA however did not take placed in a highly charged socio-political context with major economic implications. However, AWG science does. Once money, politics, inflated egos, and plain cussed stubbornness enter the field, the equivalent of a culture war ensues in which truth is often the first casualty (pardon the cliche). In this context, I think some players (eg, Mike Hulme of UEA), are trying hard to rewrite the rules of engagement and move us into a more civilised space.

    I think their efforts deserve some recognition.
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  44. Ken Lambert, if you read the home page of this site you'll notice that Skeptical Science is here in large part due to the odd phenomena of so-called climate change skepticism itself; the properties of "climate skeptics" are a topic of investigation and discussion. Posts focusing on such specimens as Monckton are entirely in keeping with the mission of the site.

    Regarding threads reaching stalemates, I'd offer that we'd like better precision for many measurements while at the same time noting that such precision and harmony as we do have among various data is quite sufficient to inform us that we are looking at a significant risk of and from climate change.

    Your final points about public opinion and money are spot-on for this site.

    "Climategate" was a synthetic and hollow matter, as confirmed by multiple investigations, but is turning out to be an interesting topic for social science researchers and thus an appealing topic for those who perceive "climate skeptics" as an intriguing subject of perusal. Preliminary results seem to show that the dominant and more durable effect of "climategate" has been to harden existing beliefs among so-called climate skeptics. The same research indicates that surprisingly few persons were actually aware of the matter at all, with awareness being concentrated among those already following the subject of climate change. Acceptance of "climategate" as a valid matter of concern is strongly correlated with ideology. Research also indicates that fortuitous timing between "climategate" and heavy snowfall in parts of the U.S. and Europe last winter exaggerated the impact of the matter but this effect is not expected to be durable.

    Your connection between money, mitigation, uncertainty and fear of loss is whether by coincidence or not exactly as though it had been taken from the playbook of the political consultant Luntz in his memorandum of a few years ago to the GOP.
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  45. Basically, we have one easy way to tell whether someone is an expert in science and when someone isn't: whether they can make a risky prediction that turns out to be true. If someone did "the work" and ended up no better at predicting what's going to happen than a guy on the street, should we still be listening to him?

    Cheers, :)
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  46. Pete Ridley at 00:17 AM on 24 July, 2010 said,
    "Climategate wasn’t spin, it was a scandal exposed by the leaked files and the enquiries held so far were simply whitewashes but they don’t lessen the scandal of the general public’s recognition of it."

    Besides the ironic spin in your comment, I wanted to point out that, as a member of the general public having no ties to the scientific community (every bit the layperson), what I recognize as scandalous is that private emails were obtained without permission (generally recognized as "stealing"), and released to the general public. I find criminal activity to be generally scandalous. I tend to find, based on personal experience, the view expressed by Doug Bostrom to be much more accurate. Those who were already in-the-know with climate science generally fall into two camps. Those who are self-described "skeptics" tend to look at the the "Climategate" non-controversy as evidence confirming beliefs they already held. Those on the other side of the fence vary a bit from seeing some perhaps inappropriate comments that have little bearing on the larger picture, to being irate at the crime committed and the ensuing death threats, etc leveled at those involved. Those with no knowledge (people who have never heard of this site, WUWT, RC, etc) of climate science have probably never heard of CRU. At least that's my experience. Perhaps there are some facts and figures to back up your "avalanche" comment and subsequent similar assertions. I will continue to wait for them.
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  47. About this: "we need better measurement and more years to find out what is really happening".

    It applies only because skeptics insist on levels of certainty and a reductionist approach that are both incompatible with complexity. If the same standards were applied to medicine, all progress would stall. Open a pharmacology book and note all the substances for which it is reported "mechanism of action unknown."
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  48. Pete Ridley,

    The point I was making is that you made a specific claim about the state of our collective knowlege about what drives our climate, ie that our understanding in this area is very poor. But there is a large body of published science which shows that actually we do understand many of factors which influence our climate rather well. So if I'm to believe you and dismiss the scientific literature then I have to believe that you have some kind of authority on the subject.
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  49. It's unbelievable the way the so-called skeptics can't accept reality and continue to repetitively repeat and regurgitate what they were led to believe would be the final 'final nail in the coffin of AGW'. It used to be just the 'hockey-stick' graph and now it's 'Climategate' - both were promised (by the so-called skeptical gurus - their particular brand of acceptable authority, to whom the so-called skeptics give total obedience) as the final proof against AGW, and their followers are still hanging onto those faith-based promises because they can't face up to accepting that they were lied to/misinformed/used/shown up/gullible.
    But here we have them repeated again - twice from one poster, as if there was a need to make it appear more 'real' :

    "Climategate and the subsequent IPCC-gates have started an avalanche of scepticism among lay people around the globe."
    Pete Ridley (Part I)


    "Climategate wasn’t spin, it was a scandal exposed by the leaked files and the enquiries held so far were simply whitewashes but they don’t lessen the scandal of the general public’s recognition of it."
    Pete Ridley (Part II)


    "The difficulty with this line is that public confidence has been damaged by Climategate, and the exaggerated claims by advocates like Al Gore are not being believed by the great unwashed who will have to pay for the radical changes to their energy sources."
    Ken Lambert


    The difference now, I suppose, is that these so-called skeptics want to try to make it appear that the general public are on their side in their disbelief. The truth, I believe, is quite the opposite, but that will be hard to accept for some - especially those who think it was a 'scandal', followed by a 'whitewash'.

    For goodness sake, get over it (especially the Al Gore obsession) and move on to something else that might have more substance - if you can find anything...
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  50. andrew adams at 21:33 PM, I think it is obvious by which authority, from the scientists themselves.
    There are some issues that are most central to understanding how the climate works but are poorly understood, the most obvious being clouds.
    Scientists themselves declare it an area that is poorly understood, yet clouds are a major influence where a small change can make a large difference over any time frame.

    Clouds are not the only area of contention, but the most obvious, and likely the most important.

    That poor scientific understanding is reflected here on this site with virtually no one able to debate the issue, most contributors steer well clear of the subject, possibly because there is little credible data that can be used to support a pro AGW point of view.
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