Stephan Lewandowsky, John Cook, Elisabeth Lloyd
Published in Synthese on the 19th of September, 2016
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.