Saturday 30 December 2023

"What the Science Says"

For context, in philosophical terms I am (approximately) what is termed a scientific realist, meaning that (a) there are objective truths about the physical world, whether we know them or not - 'Realism' - and (b) science is our best tool for edging towards knowledge in that realm.  I say 'edging' because there's nothing linear, predictable, or even inevitable about how scientific knowledge advances.  Arguably, it sometimes even goes backwards.

There are complexities along the spectrum which we may identify as stretching from maths & formal logic at one end, to "social science" at the other.  Maths and logic advance ratchet-wise: since the late 19th C, what constitutes a proof is not in contention, and new results layer atop old ones in an ever-growing edifice built on firm foundations.  It's fair to say there are some philosophical challenges in figuring out the 'meaning' of some results in formal logic: but results they are.

At the far end of this continuum, use of inverted commas is essential: how much of "social science" really deserves the moniker?  Even linguistics has thus far disappointed, for all the claims that Chomsky's work is a science.  But formal logic sets the standard; physics and chemistry, at least, reckon to be bound by it, and I think we broadly know what we mean by (real) Science.

That said, professional scientists frequently let the side down in a big way, with weaknesses in several dimensions (not necessarily all at once):

  • they tend to forget that, Newtonian physics having been well and truly shown to be in error (even though admirably and formidably consistent mathematically), almost any current theory is up for revision.  They sort-of know this, but often don't behave accordingly.
  • many, if not most of them are cowards (i.e. 'just human'), and won't go against the prevailing dogma - whatever their own results and reasoning suggest.  The dominant dogma in question might be the current scientific paradigm, or some crazy political diktat, but they ain't gonna be the ones to rock the boat.  This makes their claims to objectivity and purity of method particularly galling.
  • many are venal (i.e. 'just human') and money speaks very loudly, in science as elsewhere ...    
We are living in a ba-ad time for science, which betrays all of the above shortcomings aplenty.  Exhibit 'A' is "climate science", and I give you two concurrent headlines from the Graun today: 
Climate scientists hail 2023 as ‘beginning of the end’ for fossil fuel era 
World will look back at 2023 as year humanity exposed its inability to tackle climate crisis, scientists say
OK, it's possible to force-fit a ropey kind of reconciliation onto these two statements.  Conversely, it's possible to retort they prove that scientists are indeed capable of disagreeing in public.  But what interests me more is how (i) "scientists say" can be enlisted to make any point that suits the writer; and thus (ii) how ridiculous it is for anyone to say that "we should follow the science", as if that would result in an unique course of action.

Personally, I strongly suspect that climate scientists (in inverted commas, if you prefer) are in agonies right now, not daring to admit that when they say "it's almost too late to save the world from ... [fill in favourite apocalyptic prediction here]", their own calculations - right or wrong - tell them it's actually wa-ay too late.  I say this with due respect for their earlier pronouncements - in fact, complete respect because, for the sake of argument, I accept them as valid.  My suspicion is a self-contained observation about those scientists' agonised state of mind, an observation that requires no judgement on, and makes no comment on, the Realist "right-or-wrong" aspect.  And why the agony?  Because they fear that if the world knew they really think the game's up, there wouldn't be quite as much appetite for their next project or policy proposal, be that an altruistic fear or one motivated by self-interest.

Exhibit 'B' is of course the disgraceful way in which many university biology departments are allowing themselves to be strong-armed into pernicious, arrant nonsense about sex and gender.  But that one's for another day.

Notwithstanding the foregoing ... Happy New Year!  The tradition 'NY predictions' compo to follow in a day or two.



Matt said...

Just recently I've noticed more of the counter-narrative to the climate emergency being discussed. Not yet in the settled science BBC but its definitely getting more air play. Almost like they know that that the jig is up.

dustybloke said...

When I see what happens to “deniers” it’s so reminiscent of what happened to Galileo when he said the earth was not at the centre of the universe that I immediately become a sceptic. Then I read Curry and John Christie and they seem so much more like the scientists I respected when was growing up. The fact that we have a clock in Times Square ticking down the seconds when life finishes just seems laughable.

dearieme said...

Comment by roonaldo at John Derbyshire's blog:

Happy days are gone for good
No more oil or gas, no coal or wood
Power outages, expensive food
Happy days are gone for good

All together give up now
You are powerless to stop us now
We control your whole world anyhow
Happy days are gone for good

Your cares and troubles are fun
There’ll be plenty more from now on

Happy days are gone for good
We would silence you all if we could
Get it through your thick skulls–understood?
Happy days are gone for good

AndrewZ said...

What does "the Science" say? When it comes to climate change, the politics says "jump" and "the Science" says "how high?".

Jeremy Poynton said...

"social science" is a contradiction in terms

Newton has his place.

I'm still waiting for anyone to point me to formal proof that CO2 controls temperature. Not holding my breath. Long and short term, the only correlation is for statistically short periods. Not to mention that CO2 levels are historically low.

If this stuff interests you - as it does this lay person - suggest you checkout Nir Shaviv & Henrik Svensmark, both of whom have videos on YouTube on the totally ignored effect of cosmic rays on climate.

As matters stand, the PMI & AMO are flipping to cool phase, obliquity doing the same. Many scientists say we have cooling on the way has links to thousands of peer-reviewed papers which rebut CAGW. All ignored of course.

jim said...

Well, I would defend poor old Newton. I did not notice any odd spacetime effects on the ski slopes and the travel time from Grenoble may have been a picosecond or two out but my watch did not notice. Perhaps ND you overdo the 'science as approximation' notion. Not of course for your own purposes.

You do point to the usual human weaknesses and indeed the old alchemists knew a thing or two about science funding. But times have changed and I note that the UK now has more lawyers and accountants per capita than even the USA or the EU. I think we might usefully look there for a hint or two as to our problems. As is well known, lawyers never lie, they just don't tell the truth, as for accountants...

I do feel science has a problem. The hard sciences seem to be hitting the end stops, knowledge let alone applicable knowledge seems harder to find. The ambitious are forced to look for softer targets, that Freud fellow has a lot to answer for. The big money is not made at the laboratory bench but selling conferences and in the publicity office.

Now 'scientists' make up about 150,000 in the UK out of 33 million workers. Our Nobel prize winners amount to 138. Compare with 210,000 lawyers and 275,000 accountants and about 3.2 million admin bods. Let us hope the 'scientists' are all pulling in a positive direction.

As for climate, I would agree the game is up, I am doing my bit. The only issue being how slowly Mother Nature will make her disappointment felt. My suspicion is fairly slowly, conveniently so.

Jan said...

Scientific endeavour has been completely corrupted like every other aspect of human existence. The minute money comes into the equation you can kiss the truth goodbye.

As you say, when people are dependent on a certain point of view for their career or even more to the point, to put a roof over their heads then the truth will fly out of the window.

electro-kevin said...

My rule of thumb

Real science delivers a better standard of living.

Fake science takes it away.

"social science" is political and ONLY political. It is not science in ANY way. But it wins because of the Tossers. And we all know who they are. David Cameron the biggest at the moment.

Anyway. Happy New Year. (Before we get right royally Starmerred.)

Anonymous said...

What Jan said.

"when people are dependent on a certain point of view for their career or even more to the point, to put a roof over their heads then the truth will fly out of the window"

This of course applies outside science as well, but when putting a roof over your head is harder than ever (thanks, 7 million net immigration since 2000) it's a lot more important. Chatting to people who were at university in 1970-odd, the house prices were wonderful, and as I know myself, even dropouts with poorly paid jobs could afford somewhere. People bought houses in Manchester, say, for five or six hundred pounds.

As some Guardianista puts it

"Junior doctors’ leaders seem intent on driving change within their institutions and shifting broader attitudes to public services, but their battle has also become emblematic of a wider struggle among young professionals in seemingly good jobs to buy a house, cover the nursery fees and build the kind of life that used to come with a graduate salary."

My son didn't take my advice to go for the (available) money in his chosen field, and so is living with 5 other grads, all around 30-odd, in a shared house as we used to between 18-23 or so.

And on the 7 million? It's only when a tragedy occurs that you find out how easy it is to get to the UK.

"Originally from Otse, a village in south-east Botswana, Keotshepile Naso Isaacs, 33, is understood to have had three sons and been living in the UK since last year. A neighbour in North Berwick, an affluent seaside town popular with holidaymakers and day trippers, told the Sun: “This kind of tragedy never happens in North Berwick – it’s shaken the whole town. The police arrived here on New Year’s morning and they haven’t been away since. She was a loving mum to her boys who must be absolutely devastated with that happened.”"

Very sad, but what was she (and her 3 boys) doing here in the beginning? She'll be down to Boris or Rishi.