Philosopher Philip Kitcher just reviewed several books on climate change in Science magazine. I meant to get to this earlier, but Ben Hale got there first and stole some of my thunder. He even has a snappier title than me. Alas! I won’t repeat what Hale said, and I recommend you go over there and read his post. Needless to say, you should also read the (pretty long) Kitcher piece. I’ll have more to say soon, but for now I’ll highlight this:
Captured by a naive and oversimplified image of what “objective science” is like, it is easy for citizens to reject claims of scientific authority when they discover that scientific work is carried out by human beings.
While expanding would have diverted from the main analysis, I wish Kitcher had dwelt on this a bit more. Why exactly is the public captured by naive and oversimplified images? Surely the scientific community has played no small role. We’re nothing if not advocates for an overly simplistic view of science. Though I’ve sharply criticized a monolithic view of both science and scientists, this is one instance where it’s warranted. Pretty much all scientists are perfectly happy uttering crudely simple phrases like “replication is the ultimate test of truth in science” when speaking to the public. Encouraging naivety and oversimplification is par for the course in these situations.
This is something mildly (deeply?) hypocritical about such messaging. We never stop hyperventilating about the importance of science and scientific reasoning: Be rational! Look at evidence! Use the scientific method!
And yet, properly applying these principles conflicts with the account of science promoted by scientists themselves! If people actually looked at evidence and used “the scientific method”, there’s no way they’d believe some of the bullshit we say. You can either be rational or you can accept scientists’ description of science. But you can’t really be both at the same time. We welcome rationality and evidence-based reasoning except, ironically enough, when talking about science. Here it seems we want nothing more than mindless, uncritical adulation.
Now there are much worse sins than hypocrisy. For the most part it doesn’t really kill anyone. But Kitcher suggests that global warming deniers succeed partly because the public adopts an oversimplified view of science. Given that scientists themselves promote such views, and also given some of the dire predictions of a warming world, hypocrisy might be a bit more costly in this case.