I have watched with fascination, as no doubt many of you have, the development of the debate on climate change. It is strange that science, promoted by its major adherents as being objective, dispassionate (and using that awful but now ubiquitous term) “evidenced based” could result in such subjective, passionate and unsubstantiated claims by both the believers and the deniers in the debate.
The study of the mind has drawn to our attention some of the most compelling evidence for the existence of a wide range of unconscious processes that are extremely powerful. They impact both on how we behave and how we think. Scientists, like the rest of us are fallible, often insensible to their own mythology, prone to unwitting (and even occasionally quite deliberate) bias in what they do. In their work, their enterprise is the honourable one of trying to observe the world in a way that is relatively free of bias unconsciously manifested from their own personal hopes and fears. Unfortunately when we have committed a large part of our lives to something, be it a theory, a process or a body of knowledge, we have a vested interest in ensuring such things are not challenged. Our beliefs in these things become part of who we are. It is a huge trauma to then be deprived of something that we believe underpins our sense of self.
We are reliant on scientists, philosophers, mystics and poets to keep society from being lulled into a false sense of complacency. We need their challenging ideas to continue with the advance of society. We need to have them to keep reminding us of our unfounded assumptions and our taken-for-granted popular misconceptions. We need to be prompted every now and then to remember that much of what we believe is based on human constructions and not timeless and absolute truths.
However there is an attendant danger.
Guy Claxton wrote:
“Sometimes, in a temporary fit of grandiosity (succumbing to one of the pervasive myths about science itself) these people offer their researches and their theories as if they were ‘reality’. They become mesmerized by the siren’s song of Ultimate Truth and Unified Theories of Everything, forgetting that the best they can do is offer a view that works perhaps just a little better, and which recaptures a part of the inscrutable whole that the previous dominant myth had excluded.”
The prevailing orthodox approach to science was enunciated by Karl Popper in the 1930’s. Popper’s philosophy of science is dependent on the notion of falsifiability. He stated that there was no reason for example to prove that the sun will rise every day but if it does not rise on some particular day then the theory will be falsified (that is, proven to be untrue).
One of Popper’s most influential critics was Thomas S Kuhn. Kuhn published a hugely important book which he titled The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Kuhn argued that scientists were not in fact particularly objective, but, as we intimated above, were normally supporting one scientific paradigm or another. They tend to discount data that conflicts with their chosen paradigm and emphasise that which supports it. (I suspect you have seen some evidence of this in the climate change debate!)
Critics of Popper have pointed out that it is almost impossible to falsify an hypothesis, for example, like “for every metal there is a temperature at which it will melt.” We are limited by technical constraints by the temperatures we can subject the substance to. We can subject the substance to the highest temperature we can produce and not have the substance melt. However we have no idea what might have happened if we could have achieved a higher temperature.
One of Popper’s students, Paul Feyeraband reputedly said, “The Philosophy of Science is as useful to scientists as ornithology is to birds!”
Nevertheless, whilst I believe we are largely dealing with Kuhn’s issues of paradigms here, it is almost impossible to utilise the notion of falsifiability in the climate change debate. To begin with climate effects are hugely complex. They are currently dealt with using complex models based on chaos theory. Because climate change is necessarily about deviations from long term cycles the evidence isn’t compelling because the data we have at hand is reasonably short term.
So what are we to make of all this? We have a highly complex system under surveillance. The science is at best uncertain. There are many vested interests, those protecting scientific paradigms as well as those promoting political positions. The impacts are long term and our evidence is reasonably short term. The difficulty we are facing is that the worst predictions have dire consequences.
If we can’t be guided decisively by our scientists, is it time to consult our mystics, philosophers and poets? (Perhaps we could do worse!)