Last weekend’s marchers claimed to be “political but non-partisan.” However, their protest was directed against “alarming trend towards discrediting scientific consensus” and President Trump’s proposed budget cuts at domestic agencies, notably the Environmental Protection Agency. Objectively, the non-partisan March for Science was in lockstep with the progressive wing of the Democratic Party.
Are the protest organizers disingenuous, or naïve? Probably some of both. Few are actually scientists, and besides, science and self-awareness are not the same.
A Socratic Perspective
Socrates was the first philosopher to investigate political matters. Prior to Socrates, all philosophers were natural ‘scientists,’ who pioneered such disciplines as geometry, astronomy, music theory, physics, and physiology.
Plato’s Theaetetus is the only dialogue in which Socrates converses with two “scientists”—an elder mathematician named Theodorus and his star pupil, Theaetetus. In real life, Theaetetus would go on to develop the theory of incommensurable magnitudes (“irrational numbers”), which became the basis for book X of Euclid’s Elements.
Although “What is knowledge?” is the theme of the dialogue, Socrates does not ask Theodorus about any of the sciences or “knowledges” he teaches. Rather, Socrates asks about the men who pursue such inquiries:
Socrates: [Philosophers] don’t know the way to the marketplace, or where’s a court, council house, or anything else that’s a common assembly in the city. And laws and decrees, spoken or written, they neither see nor hear, and the serious business of clubs for gaining office, and meetings, banquets, and revelries with flute girls—it doesn’t even occur to them to do them in their dreams. . . . And he doesn’t even know that he does not know all these things.
Theodorus: How do you mean this, Socrates?
Theodorus is so uninterested in non-scientific matters he does not even recognize himself in Socrates’ caricature of the self-forgetting theoretician.
Later in the dialogue, after citing geometry as an example of knowledge (episteme), Theaetetus defines knowledge as “sense perception.” Yet the building blocks of geometry are lines (“breathless length”) and points (“dimensionless space”)—abstractions that cannot actually be perceived by the senses.
At first glance, today’s activist scientists have nothing in common with Plato’s archetypal absent-minded professors. Activist scientists know all too well where the law courts are, relish political intrigue (think Climategate), demand conformity to politically-negotiated “consensus” statements, lobby Congress, endorse and oppose presidential candidates, organize protests, and march in the streets.
Nonetheless, lack of self-awareness—the occupational hazard of the professional egghead—remains an attribute of the tribe. Few have thought critically about the natures of science and politics. Hence, many naïvely assume they can combine activism and science with no risk of either politicizing science or puffing up raw political preferences with scientific pretensions.
Some still have no clue that when they lobby in the name of science, they undermine public trust in themselves as non-partisan experts. They are perplexed when their increasingly shrill demands for “consensus” fuel skepticism rather than quell it.
Even when invoking the scientific method, some activist scientists can’t seem to refrain from attempting to settle scientific issues by appeal to authority. Consider the letter American Meteorological Society (AMS) executive director Keith Seitter sent to House Science Committee Chairman Lamar Smith (R-TX) a few days after the Committee’s hearing on climate science and the scientific method.
Seitter unsubtly accused Smith of retailing unscientific denialism. Seitter implicitly denounced the testimony of University of Alabama in Huntsville atmospheric scientist John Christy. Why? Christy challenged the core “consensus” statement of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change—the IPCC’s claim to know, with greater-than-95-percent certainty, that more than half of all global warming since 1950 is due to human activity (AR5, p. 17).
We can now say with very high levels of confidence, based on literally thousands of independent research efforts and multiple independent lines of evidence, that most of the warming our planet has experienced over the past 50 years is due to human activity. Indeed, to suggest that humans are not responsible for most of the warming we have experienced over the past 50 years indicates a disregard for the scientific process and the vast amount of testable evidence that has been amassed on this subject. . . . Hypotheses have been developed and tested through scientific experiments (emphasis added).
A promising start—but with no follow through. Seitter does not go on to describe any of those “hypotheses” or the “scientific experiments” used to test them. He stresses that successful “prediction” is the hallmark of real science but then offers no example of predictive success comparable to astronomers’ ability to forecast solar eclipses (his example). He also does not acknowledge, much less address, Christy’s use of the scientific method—comparing climate model predictions with IPCC data—to test the validity of the IPCC’s “consensus” statement.
Christy found that the range of observed temperatures in the bulk tropical atmosphere during 1979-2010 fall within the range of model projections only when models are run with natural variability alone. When the models are also run with rising greenhouse gas concentrations, nearly all projections fall outside the range of observed temperatures. Yet the main evidence for the IPCC’s “consensus” statement is the supposed agreement between models and observations when the models are run with both natural variability and extra greenhouse gases.
So, while saluting the scientific method, Seitter actually serves up another “trust us, we’re the experts” argument from authority—and does so to discredit testimony that is actually based on the scientific method. William Shatner said it best: “I guess irony can be pretty ironic, sometimes.”
Those who most acutely lack self-awareness are the would-be punishers of climate heresy: the RICO 20 scientists, Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI), the Attorney Generals United for Clean Power, and the like. They accuse “the fossil fuel industry and their supporters” of perpetrating prosecutable “fraud” by downplaying the risks of climate change. The Climate RICO gang apparently have no idea how easily they can be hoist on their own petards.
If downplaying climate risks to enrich fossil energy companies is prosecutable fraud, so is exaggerating climate risks to enrich “clean power” companies. Similarly, if hiding climate risk is prosecutable fraud, so is hiding climate policy risk.
As explained in previous posts, achieving the Paris Agreement’s mid-century emission reduction targets would require developing countries to drastically curtail their current consumption of affordable energy from fossil fuels. Even though more than a billion people in developing countries currently have no electricity, and billions more have too little access to commercial energy to support development. Yet the Climate RICO squad pretends the world’s governments can put energy-poor countries on an energy diet and no one could possibly get hurt except some fat cat coal and oil industry CEOs. That’s about as fraudulent as it gets.
But why is it that unlike Plato’s Theodorus, so many of today’s scientists seem obsessed with politics? President Eisenhower diagnosed the root cause in his Farewell Address. After urging citizens to be on guard against the “acquisition of unwarranted influence” by “the military industrial complex,” Eisenhower warned of a related peril:
Akin to, and largely responsible for the sweeping changes in our industrial-military posture, has been the technological revolution during recent decades.
In this revolution, research has become central, it also becomes more formalized, complex, and costly. A steadily increasing share is conducted for, by, or at the direction of, the Federal government.
Today, the solitary inventor, tinkering in his shop, has been overshadowed by task forces of scientists in laboratories and testing fields. In the same fashion, the free university, historically the fountainhead of free ideas and scientific discovery, has experienced a revolution in the conduct of research. Partly because of the huge costs involved, a government contract becomes virtually a substitute for intellectual curiosity. For every old blackboard there are now hundreds of new electronic computers.
The prospect of domination of the nation’s scholars by Federal employment, project allocations, and the power of money is ever present—and is gravely to be regarded.
Yet, in holding scientific research and discovery in respect, as we should, we must also be alert to the equal and opposite danger that public policy could itself become the captive of a scientific-technological elite.
Eisenhower’s warning has come true. Nearly all U.S. climate change research, which totals billions annually, is “conducted for, by, or at the direction” of the federal government. The narrative of a “planetary emergency” underpins not only all federal climate research grants but also a policy agenda that envisions trillion-dollar “climate finance” wealth transfers from Western taxpayers to supranational bureaucracies and developing country elites, and a massive expansion of every government’s control over the allocation of private energy-related capital investment.
Given the huge economic and political stakes, it is utterly predictable that most federal funding of climate research goes to researchers who support the narrative rather than question it, that universities preferentially hire and promote researchers who toe the party line, and that the same researchers supply most of the editors and peer reviewers of academic journals, further skewing the peer-reviewed literature.
Trump threatens the climate industrial complex by questioning its certitudes, demoting its policy priorities, and proposing to cut its budget. He wants the U.S. government to put the welfare of Americans first, not that of a “scientific-technological elite.” A more accurate name for both the March for Science and the People’s Climate March is the Empire Strikes Back. The battle will rage for years to come.