An Orwellian example…

I’ve spent the last day or so reading the responses by Dr Paul G Bain to the various emails and such he received in reply to the letter to Nature – “Promoting pro-environmental action in climate change deniers” (Paul G Bain et al) 
The gist of his response is that he regrets the word “deniers”, which is commendable, and also feels he ought to have made it clear that by “global warming” he meant us to understand “man made global warming”.

Fair enough.

But it’s the terms in which he explains his real purpose in writing the original letter that really interests me. Here, for example is a section from his comments on WUWT:

the paper is not about changing anyone’s mind on whether anthropogenic climate change is real. There are also skeptics insisting that the issue is ONLY about the state of the science – whether AGW is real – but on this point I disagree. I am approaching this as a social/societal problem rather than as an “AGW reality” problem. That is, two sizeable groups have different views on a social issue with major policy implications – how do you find a workable solution that at least partly satisfies the most people?

..the social/policy issue remains whether you believe in AGW or not. So if policies are going to be put in place (as many governments are proposing), what kinds of outcomes would make it at least barely acceptable for the most people?

Overall, the findings suggest that if there was closer attention to the social consequences of policies, rather than continuing with seemingly intractable debates on the reality of AGW, then we might get to a point where there could be agreement on some action….

To my mind this is incredibly interesting, and explanatory – but possibly not in the way Dr B intended.

Dr B makes the claim that AGW can’t be addressed in simply scientific terms; that it’s become a thing he calls a “social/societal problem.” And he further asserts that this “social/societal” problem exists independently of whether or not AGW is objectively “real,” and that therefore approaching the problem on a scientific basis – looking for evidence or proof – is in some way missing the point.

He sees (possibly quite correctly) a situation in which some sort of unspoken collective decision has been made to treat AGW as if it were physically real, even if it should turn out not to be. He thinks skeptics need to realise this, stop distracting themselves talking about the science, and find a way to agree with the “mainstream” on some kind of action they at least don’t find repugnant – because the action (or policy as he terms it) is going to happen regardless.

The point being, apparently, that AGW as a “social/societal problem” is no longer constrained by requirements of physical proof, but can still be legislated for as if it were real. So, it’s reality is simultaneously by-passed and established as some sort of absolute fact.

Which is as near to Doublethink as makes no difference.

Absent the constraint of required scientific validity, the policy becomes inevitable, like death and taxes. And all science can do about it is find a version of the policy that is least bad to endorse.

I tend to think in saying this Dr B has actually isolated something very important, and possibly very true. And he should be applauded for what is in fact a very astute and honest analysis. Crucially, though, it seems not to occur to him to question the validity, or even the sanity, of  the thing he is analysing. He seems not to see the problem of a situation in which policy is dictating to science and demanding it get inline and offer up some form of negotiated approval. He doesn’t manifest any discomfort with the idea and doesn’t once ask – wait a minute, why isn’t this about “whether AGW is real” any more?

To be honest it’s hard to critique such a standpoint, because its fundamental assumptions are not easily accessible to rational analysis. Dr Bain probably doesn’t intend it, but his assertions about AGW, taken altogether, amount almost to a kind of mysticism. The reality he assigns it is logged with no cause and no limit and adjudged all but inaccessible to debate. In the reality he circumscribes AGW simply is because it is, and all anyone can do is adapt to the new reality.

How to respond? Is it useful to interrogate the assumption? How can one interrogate the assumption when anything that questions it is – de facto – excluded as irrelevant?

What avenue of approach is left within this framework for posing any limit on the assumed reality of this “problem”?

The worrying thing is there doesn’t seem to be one. The only means of communication offered by Dr B on this involves some form of a priori acceptance that AGW does exist in its new incarnation as a “societal/social problem.” But to require someone to accept the reality of a thing before being permitted to debate it is almost too ironically Orwellian.

I think Dr B needs to consider this.  In science – and in normal rational discourse – every claim, belief, theory, whatever must be capable of refutation. Once we surrender that and begin using muddled reasoning to claim this or that scientific theory is not ONLY about the science, that it has some ill-defined property of reality that can’t be easily refuted and  means it can continue to be legislated for and worried about even when the evidence for it is under question – well, we’re in danger of enshrining irrationality as a totem.

I think the attempts to move the discussion of AGW theory beyond the constraint of scientific debate, and the extraordinary claim that we need to accept it in order to usefully discuss it, should be rejected entirely, as being essentially opposed to everything that is good and useful in the scientific method, and I  sincerely hope Dr Bain can appreciate this and realise the question of “whether AGW is real” is indeed the ONLY one that signifies in this issue.

4 Responses to “An Orwellian example…”
  1. Sundance says:

    Two things. How is this any different thinking than children who believe there are monsters under their bed? Why are we funding such nonsense?

  2. Foxgoose says:

    Exactly like Adam Corner.

    Discussion of the truth or otherwise of the original assertion is pointless – the only discussion worth having is how to implement the consequences.

    It’s like a bunch of junior priests in a seminary discussing their religion. They can discuss any aspect of it except whether the underlying assertion is true. If they question that – they get kicked out (“lost their vocation”).

    It is a belief system – and we have to face up to the fact that we now have a generation of “scientists” whose education has put questioning the consensus beyond the pale.

    Feynman must be chuckling in his grave.

  3. Bernal says:

    A late refinement in the edifice of post-normal science and well caught on your part. Contemplating Dr. B’s proposal has me feeling a bit like Eve in the Garden wondering if I might not look good in that fig leaf bustier instead of my innocent bare flesh. Isn’t Dr. B’s proposition just a rather crass invitation to join in the “process.” And isn’t process the raison d’etre of the entire liberal project; the destination is presumed, process is all. All in all isn’t it better to have a seat at the table? Maybe us unbelievers can get grants to study our own sick minds.

    I, like Dr. B am less and less interested in reasonable discussion. The environmental movement is vastly un-reasonable. Prince Phillip wants to be reincarnated as a deadly virus (or was it a killer tampon I forget). There is that Finnish knucklehead wants to whittle the human race down to 500M, or was it 500,000 or was it 5? Him first.

    Makes me want to be post-skeptical. Makes me want to come back as a virus that attacks only the process driven.

    #rant-off. Sorry to befoul your fine post.

  4. Chuckles says:

    Yup, Sums it up rather nicely, ‘settled science’ and all. Good article.

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