Paper review – The ‘Alice in Wonderland’ mechanics of the rejection of (climate) science: simulating coherence by conspiracism

Stephan Lewandowsky, John Cook, Elisabeth Lloyd

Published in Synthese on the 19th of September, 2016

DOI 10.1007/s11229-016-1198-6

Abstract: Science strives for coherence. For example, the findings from climate science form a highly coherent body of knowledge that is supported by many independent lines of evidence: greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from human economic activities are causing the global climate to warm and unless GHG emissions are drastically reduced in the near future, the risks from climate change will continue to grow and major adverse consequences will become unavoidable. People who oppose this scientific body of knowledge because the implications of cutting GHG emissions—such as regulation or increased taxation—threaten their worldview or livelihood cannot provide an alternative view that is coherent by the standards of conventional scientific thinking. Instead, we suggest that people who reject the fact that the Earth’s climate is changing due to greenhouse gas emissions (or any other body of well-established scientific knowledge) oppose whatever inconvenient finding they are confronting in piece-meal fashion, rather than systematically, and without considering the implications of this rejection to the rest of the relevant scientific theory and findings. Hence, claims that the globe “is cooling” can coexist with claims that the “observed warming is natural” and that “the human influence does not matter because warming is good for us.” Coherence between these mutually contradictory opinions can only be achieved at a highly abstract level, namely that “something must be wrong” with the scientific evidence in order to justify a political position against climate change mitigation. This high-level coherence accompanied by contradictory subordinate propositions is a known attribute of conspiracist ideation, and conspiracism may be implicated when people reject well-established scientific propositions.

This article is ostensibly on conspiracism, but as conspiracism is never explicitly defined in it (the authors, it would seem, take conspiracist ideation to be where people have psychological – not epistemic – reasons to accept some claim of conspiracy over a non-conspiracy – and by extension – epistemically warranted theory), really it’s an article on the incoherence of certain arguments against the thesis of anthropogenic climate change. Indeed, there’s little about conspiracies in the paper, despite the reference to conspiracism; it’s as if the term ‘conspiracism’ is being used here as a pejorative for a kind of irrationality directed against scientific theories (whilst it is true many climate change denial theories also include auxiliary hypotheses about a conspiracy to cover up the truth, this is not a focus of the authors’ work here).

The basic thrust of the paper is that the arguments of anthropogenic climate change deniers are incoherent; they tend to believe mutually contradictory views, and – as such – that is a reason to prefer the standard scientific account of anthropogenic climate change over that of the deniers. There are some excellent examples of incoherent views in the climate change denier camp, and – in this respect – the paper is a good primer for anyone interested in debating such sceptics. However, the paper also suffers from a general problem found in most conspiracist-style critiques, which is conflating the beliefs of certain prominent deniers (the paper takes Australian climate change denier Ian Plimer to task quite extensively) with deniers in general. Now, the authors are aware they might be critiqued for this, saying:

It is possible, therefore, that individuals within this community would only hold one or the other of two incoherent views, and that each person considered in isolation would not be incoherent. In that case, one could argue that there is merely a heterogeneity of views in the “community” of denialists, which might in turn be interpreted as being an indication of “healthy debate” or “scientific diversity” rather than incoherence.

But they reject the idea of making an appeal to diversity, arguing that the best explanation is really some account of epistemic vice (my term, not theirs), with that vice being some account of how the views of climate change deniers generally are incoherent. Yet there are two problems here.

The first (and relatively minor) problem is that the authors present something of a false dilemma: either the views of climate change deniers as a group are incoherent, or they indicate the existence of a healthy debate. There are other options; the debate need not be healthy, or scientifically diverse. It just needs to be a debate in the climate change denier camp. I feel the authors salt the pot (so to speak) here.

The second issue is the more serious. In defence of what they construe to be the scientific method, and the corpus of scientific theories, they have to gradually concede ground. As they argue later in the paper, there is disagreement by scientists about the inclusion of some scientific theories, and thus there is some incoherence in science proper. However, they downplay the significance of such debates because ‘any incoherence contains within it an impetus for reconciliation’.

They are trying to have it both ways; there is incoherence in the Sciences. For example, look at the debate in Physics and the central role of string theory in particular. Whilst it’s true there is an impetus for reconciliation, that reconciliation has a) not yet happened, and b) might not happen (and, c) certain sides are antagonistic in this debate). So the happy picture of the scientist and her chums working together that the authors describe does not quite resemble what really happens in the real world of scientific research.

This also means that claiming the climate change deniers are incoherent is a little rich. Surely what the authors should be claiming is that the level of incoherence in climate change denial theories generally is a problem for their views. It’s not that climate change deniers are incoherent. Rather, it’s the kind of incoherence that we find in them which is a problem.

Maybe they would be better off talking about climate change denialism as being a degenerating or stagnant research programme (ala Steve Clark), rather than with respect to incoherence, because the more they paint the consensus, the more they have to excuse it’s form of incoherence as being epistemically virtuous in some sense.

Indeed, I think their critique really is on the fact there aren’t that many scientists in the climate change denial camp, rather than the incoherence of their particular views. Then authors make frequent reference to the fact that when you investigate the credentials of the supposed rebel lot who promote climate change denialism, you find few scientists, and even fewer active researchers. The low number of actual scientists in climate change denials entails greater incoherence, because whilst there will be some incoherence in the Sciences (even the anthropogenic climate change camp), such incoherence will be washed out by the sheer number of scientists agreeing with one another.

I’m really not sure what to think of the paper generally. It’s a good primer on weird arguments in the climate change denier camp, but its portrayal of both climate change deniers and scientists as groups makes me worry the authors are misrepresenting both sides to get to their conspiracist-style conclusion.

An inside job?

News hit me earlier today (because I’ve been very lazy in keeping up to date with my correspondence) about a recent article proposing that the destructions of the Twin Towers and Building 7 on September the 11th, 2001, were the result of a controlled demolition. What makes this article notable (since 9/11 Inside Job hypotheses are not notable in my line of work) is that it was published in Europhysics News, which – while not a magazine that everyone knows about – is prestigious enough to cause waves. Even the editors are aware that they are publishing something outside their usual mix of news stories and research, adding the following caveat to the article:

This feature is somewhat different from our usual purely scientific articles, in that it contains some speculation. However, given the timing and the importance of the issue, we consider that this feature is sufficiently technical and interesting to merit publication for our readers. Obviously, the content of this article is the responsibility of the authors.

And who are the authors? Well, Steven Jones (the most notable name), Robert Korol, Anthony Szamboti, and Ted Walter. Quite the collection1

The piece itself is a fairly standard ‘The official theory about the destruction of the Twin Towers and Building 7 looks flakey; the best explanation is that it was a controlled demolition (something denied by the official theory)’. It certainly does not say anything particularly new or exciting; if you’ve read blogposts about the controlled demolition hypothesis, then you’ve read what the authors chose to present. What is curious or fascinating about the piece is its place of publication. Europhysics News is not a clearing house of matters conspiratorial (like, say, the Veterans Today website, or InfoWars). It’s a ‘proper’ magazine, with a circulation of 250000 actual print subscribers. Thus the noteworthiness. Thus the caveat at the beginning of the article.

Indeed, if one were to be critical, you’d accuse the authors of a few pieces of sleight of hand throughout the rather slight piece. For example, they talk about the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) report about the collapse of the Twin Towers and Building 7 as being largely the result of fires, noting that no other large building has collapsed in a similar way prior or since. The way they introduce the issue in the article, you would think the fires weren’t caused by two massive airliners flying into the towers, and the idea said plane impacts both caused damaged to the fire-cladding on the affected floors, as well as causing some structural damage is really only half-hearted admitted later on in the paper.

Then there’s this:

[A] growing number of architects, engineers, and scientists are unconvinced by that explanation.

That explanation being their presentation of NIST’s conclusions (which is already a fairly suspect disingenuous portrayal). But, really, what does a ‘growing number’ mean here? Surely they do not mean ‘growing number’ in the sense that ‘More and more people have joined Architects and Engineers for 9/11 Truth because that’s meaningless. Unless they can show that the growing number of dissenters from the official theory outpaces the number of adherents to the orthodoxy, or that such dissenters now make up a plurality of views on the matter, the fact people keep joined some organisation tells us very little. It’s a nice rhetorical move, but little else.

Then there’s Jones’ pet theory, the presence of nano-thermite in the debris of Ground Zero. The article states:

Meanwhile, unreacted nano-thermitic material has since been discovered in multiple independent WTC dust samples.

However, that’s a really quite contentious claim, and it’s a recognised controversy within the 9/11 Truth movement. None other than James Fetzer has argued that adherents of the nano-thermite ‘charge’ might well be overstating their case.

Still, the most interesting part of the article has to be the call to arms for an(other) investigation into the destruction of the Twin Towers and Building 7.

Given the nature of the collapse, any investigation adhering to the scientific method should have seriously considered the controlled demolition hypothesis, if not started with it. Instead, NIST (as well as the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), which conducted a preliminary study prior to the NIST investigation) began with the predetermined conclusion that the collapse was caused by fires.

Yes, and no. There was an obvious (and I would say primary and plausible) hypothesis, which is that the destruction of the Twin Towers was likely due to the impact of the planes, and the resulting damage. The idea that widespread fires lead/contributed to the collapse came out of initial explorations of that thesis.

Now, should NIST have at least entertained the idea that the collapse was the result of demolition charges? Maybe. Perhaps you could run a line where you accept the official theory about who caused the destruction of the Twin Towers and Building 7, but think that the apparent cause of the collapse of the buildings – the impact of the planes – was a cover for setting off charges in the building. In this version of the story you don’t need to even suggest it was an inside job; all you have to do is say ‘The collapse of those structures looks weird, so I wonder if there was anything else going on…’

Now, I feel I must note that the authors of the Europhysics News piece do not advance any claim of conspiracy. They do not insist the destruction of the Twin Towers has been covered up. They do not make accusations about certain parties having an agenda. All they do is argue that the official theory about the collapse of the Twin Towers and Building 7 is at odds with their expert opinions. It is both a very measured piece in this regard, and somewhat odd. We all know where this argument is meant to lead us, but the authors do not seem to want to admit to it.

Still, I can see why NIST chose not to explore a controlled demolition story at all; they had a proximate cause (the impacts) which seems plausibly-related to the event in question. Why cast about for another explanation, especially if the first one bears fruit upon examination? You don’t need to think NIST were incompetent or negligent in their investigation (or that there was a conspiracy to cover something up). They simply focussed their attention on the most plausible hypothesis available to them at the time.2

Still, this gets into the interesting aspect of the ethics of investigation into claims of conspiracy (my current project in Bucharest). Should there have been another committee, charged with exploring the alternatives? On some level it seems ludicrous to suggest a different conspiracy here. On another, if there are experts raising questions, surely a parallel investigation was – or is still – warranted?

I’m not going to answer that question. At least, not just yet. This post is long enough as it stands. But it’s an interesting question, and 9/11 might well be the best contemporary example (feel free to chime in with even more recent examples). Given the scale of what happened on the day, let alone what happened afterwards, surely asking ‘Was this quite what it seemed?’ is a question some people not only should be asking, but should be able to ask without public opprobrium.

Notes

  1. Interestingly enough, Walter is the director of strategy and development for Architects & Engineers for 9/11 Truth; the rest of the writers have some background in engineering, whilst Walter’s background is public policy. I’m thinking he actually wrote the article (thus the by-line) or he’s been added to for citation’s sake.
  2. A hypothesis, one should add, that was considered plausible by a lot of people at the time. ‘Growing number’ or not, the official theory has a lot of supporters.