It Would Be Really Nice If Science Was What Chris Mooney Says It Is (Plus: Climate Scientists Learn The Hard Way That Making Scientific Method Into Collective Identity Is A Bad Idea)

We used to call this the naive, self-congratulatory bench-scientist version of science. But we’re becoming inclined to think of it as the Chris Mooney version science:

It has fallen to those of us who oppose the direction the country has been heading to simultaneously champion a way of thinking that would have averted so many blunders and disasters: empirical thinking. Scientific thinking. Critical thinking. In other words, you might say that now more than ever before, we’re finally waking up to the fact that the practices of science themselves encode a set of values – a way of approaching the world, understanding it, and acting within it. At its core, it’s a world view that is humble about what we know and don’t know, flexible about what we do and don’t decide to do, and open about admitting past mistakes and listening to contrary opinion.

Patently silly. Humility is neither historically nor empirically science’s strong suit. Quite the opposite – circumspection and awe at nature’s veiled mysteries are religious values that have been, since the time of Bacon, used to oppose scientific progress. To believe that the scientific method embodies a unique and privileged fallibilistic hermeneutic requires a willful suppression of even basic historical knowledge. Some of this science-religion dialectic has certainly been sublimated into science – many scientists today are certainly driven by awe at the elegance of the natural world. But to suggest that the practices of science uniquely encode a sensibility of humility – that’s a gesture of such demonstrably false conceit that it could only work in front of a myopic and politicized audience eager for ideological back patting.

To give you an idea of how surreal the scientific-political landscape has gotten, pro-science forces are now claiming that science is valuable precisely because it’s not value-neutral while the advocates of Intelligent Design are holding themselves up as more rigorously scientific than scientists. The pro-science side is closer to the truth on this debate (science has never been what scientists used to say it is and what the ID people – having co-opted that rhetoric – pretend it is now). But the new description of humble and open science is still totally untenable. After the jump, why rhetorical theory makes nonsense of the Chris Mooney version of scientific identity and how empirical controversies bear rhetorical theory out.

An identity of openness and doubt is untenable as a theoretical matter. Identification – symbolic identification – simply doesn’t work that way. From Burke to Lacan, every claim to an identity of radical openness requires some constitutive act of exclusion. That exclusion often – although certainly not always – has downstream consequences.

The error to be avoided is the one that says “well that means all identities are equally good or bad.” No. There are better and worse – less dangerous and more dangerous – acts of exclusion. There are also better contingent checks on the consequences of exclusion. And here science does have a claim to some privilege. Scientific institutions are very good at checking the downstream consequences of identification – rigorous methods, peer-review, etc. But just like with any identification, the smugger the claim to scientific identity the more likely things will go awry. Climate scientists openly – and sometimes properly – denigrate skeptics. But their political insulation has allowed them to institutionally circle their wagons when it turns out that scientific congeniality and circumspection would have been more appropriate:

This is really big news, and a fabulous example of why two-way scientific discourse is still valuable, in the same week that both Newsweek and Al Gore tried to make the case that climate skeptics were counter-productive and evil. Climate scientist Michael Mann (famous for the hockey stick chart) once made the statement that the 1990′s were the warmest decade in a millennia and that “there is a 95 to 99% certainty that 1998 was the hottest year in the last one thousand years.”… Anyway, McIntyre suspected that one of these adjustments had a bug, and had had this bug for years. Unfortunately, it was hard to prove. Why? Well, that highlights one of the great travesties of climate science .Government scientists using taxpayer money to develop the GISS temperature data base at taxpayer expense refuse to publicly release their temperature adjustment algorithms or software (In much the same way Michael Mann refused to release the details for scrutiny of his methodology behind the hockey stick). Using the data, though, McIntyre made a compelling case that the GISS data base had systematic discontinuities that bore all the hallmarks of a software bug. Today, the GISS admitted that McIntyre was correct, and has started to republish its data with the bug fixed. And the numbers are changing a lot. Before today, GISS would have said 1998 was the hottest year on record (Mann, remember, said with up to 99% certainty it was the hottest year in 1000 years) and that 2006 was the second hottest. Well, no more.

Should every scientist have to answer the rantings of every wide-eyed skeptic on every issue? Absolutely not. The moon landing happened and evolution is the basic framework for all legitimate biological inquiry. Anyone who says otherwise may be doing interesting stuff, but they’re not doing science and scientists are under no obligation to engage or placate them. Institutional consensus is a reality and a necessity in science (although this is already in tension with the naive and individualistic “we always follow the facts no matter what” self-image of scientists on the bench – a view that, as perpetual motion inventors who never get hearings can tell you, is simply untenable).

But sometimes the skeptics have the right of it, and they are denied access to data because they are the excluded outside that of the ostensibly open-minded scientific identity. Beware when method becomes identity.

References:
* Report From Yearly Kos: The Intersection of Science and Progressive Values [HuffPo]
* Breaking News: Recent US Temperature Numbers Revised Downwards Today [Coyote Blog]

Previously:
* The Things We Can Do – 20 Years Of Technological Progress
* Particle Physicists Do It Transparently Through The Rumor Mill (Plus: Promote NCA Open Bar Transparency!)
* Pre-Darwinian Empiricism Read Through Peirce

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