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“It suddenly struck me that that tiny pea, pretty and blue, was the Earth. I put up my thumb and shut one eye, and my thumb blotted out the planet Earth. I didn't feel like a giant. I felt very, very small.” – Neil Armstrong (1930-2012)

Fresh Reads from the Science 'o sphere!

Saturday, May 24, 2008

An Anti-Scientific Mind

An article written by British economist Robert Skidelsky is featured in the Straits Times today.

The header blurb on the Saturday section of the newspaper reads:

Cults of distortion

Environmental alarmists like Al Gore have infected science with a doomsday spirit that distorts debate.

That sounds provocative enough, but you wouldn't believe how shocking the actual article is.

You can read the full article from the Guardian website here.

Its original title is "The Apocalyptic Mind." The Straits Times has re-titled it "Beware Of Doom Merchants" and removed part of paragraph two, which I will discuss later.

But first, a quick summary of the article.

At first glance, it seems to be advocating skepticism against the media exaggeration of the negative effects of global warming, which might be counterproductive and lead to an economic disaster instead.

But more careful reading reveals the article to be a thinly-veiled and vicious attack on rational thought and the scientific enterprise.

Here at Fresh Brainz, we feel it's our responsibility to the public to encourage rational thinking and discourage obfuscation and disinformation.

Hence it is imperative that we scrutinize this article in great detail to highlight the numerous problems that it contains:

The Apocalyptic Mind

It was only to be expected that former US vice-president Al Gore would give this month's Burmese cyclone an apocalyptic twist. "Last year," he said, "a catastrophic storm hit Bangladesh. The year before, the strongest cyclone in more than 50 years hit China ... We're seeing the consequences that scientists have long predicted might be associated with continual global warming."

Surprisingly, Gore did not include the Asian tsunami of 2004, which claimed 225,000 lives. His not so subliminal message was that these natural catastrophes foreshadow the end of the world.

Right from the beginning, the author immediately conflates the term "apocalyptic", which is a religious term to describe prophesies revealed by divine revelation, with scientific prediction, which is developed using evidence.

In addition, a more accurate reading of Al Gore's message is that global warming will have severe consequences to humanity, not that it will somehow "foreshadow the end of the world".

It is one thing to claim that Gore was making an exaggeration to hammer home his point about global warming; it is entirely another to cast doubt on the essence of his message - that global warming is real and constitutes a significant threat to our future. More on this later.

For now, let's look at the second paragraph, especially the first sentence. Professor Skidelsky is "surprised" that Gore did not mention the Asian tsunami of 2004.

I am not surprised by this - because the tsunami was caused by an earthquake, a geological phenomenon. Al Gore may exaggerate but he certainly did not claim that global warming can cause earthquakes.

Is Prof. Skidelsky claiming that global warming can cause earthquakes?

However, I am surprised that the Straits Times chose to omit this sentence completely. It is likely that they noticed that this sentence alone would utterly undermine the credibility of the author to talk about climate change and thus they removed it.

Apocalyptic beliefs have always been part of the Christian tradition. They express the yearning for heaven on earth, when evil is destroyed and the good are saved.

In their classical religious form, such beliefs rely on signs and omens, like earthquakes and sunspots, which can be interpreted, by reference to biblical passages, as portending a great cataclysm and cleansing. Thus, apocalyptic moments are products of a sense of crisis: they can be triggered by wars and natural disasters.

Classical apocalyptic thinking is certainly alive and well, especially in America, where it feeds on Protestant fundamentalism, and is mass-marketed with all the resources of modern media. Circles close to the Bush administration, it is rumoured, take current distempers like terrorism as confirmation of biblical prophecies.

In secularised, pseudo-scientific form, apocalyptic thinking has also been at the core of revolutionary politics. In his latest book, Black Mass, the philosopher John Gray discusses how political doctrines like Marxism colonised the apocalyptic vision in prophesying the destruction of capitalism as the prelude to the socialist utopia. But political messianism was an offshoot of 19th-century optimism. With the collapse of optimism, contemporary apocalyptic belief lays more stress on catastrophe and less on utopia.

Clearly, the author likes to talk about the concept of apocalyptic thinking, devoting a number of paragraphs to describe its historical background. Unfortunately, he also enjoys using this concept as an over-extended analogy to everything else, eg. Marxism and science.

Skidelsky is claiming that biblical apocalyptic belief, Marxist vision of the destruction of capitalism and scientific predictions of environmental disaster are conceptually identical.

It boggles the mind what sort of detailed parallels you can draw regarding these three disparate fields to allow anyone to conclude that they are one and the same.

The only thing they have in common is: "before something really big happens, there are some symptoms."

So if somebody detects intensifying tremors and predicts that a volcano is about to erupt, is that an example of "apocalyptic belief"?

If I feel nauseous and predict that I might throw up soon, is that an example of "apocalyptic belief"?

For example, in his book Flat Earth News, the investigative journalist Nick Davies reminds us of the millennium bug panic. Newspapers everywhere carried stories predicting that computer systems would crash on January 1, 2000, causing much of the world to shut down. The subtext was familiar: those who live by technology will die by it.

It is certainly true that the Y2K problem became overhyped by the media, which underscores the importance of critical thinking and basic fact-checking in journalism. However, this does not mean that we should dismiss the possibility that obsolete computer codes can cause real problems.

In any case, what does this analogy have to do with global warming again?

Misreporting of science is now so routine that we hardly notice it. Much more serious is when science itself becomes infected by the apocalyptic spirit. Faith-based science seems a contradiction in terms, because the scientific worldview emerged as a challenge to religious superstition. But important scientific beliefs can now be said to be held religiously, rather than scientifically.

And so the attack on science starts. This entire paragraph is so absurd that it reads like bad satire.

The claim that science itself has become infected by the "apocalyptic spirit" is patently false.

Scientists don't believe that environmental disasters will destroy the evil, save the good and result in some sort of paradise - the negative effects of climate change will simply strike anyone who is unlucky enough to be at the wrong place, at the wrong time.

In fact, scientists very rarely even use the term "apocalyptic" in research publications: a quick search of the words "apocalyptic" or "apocalypse" in PubMed yields 101 articles, of which only one is remotely related to environmental science.

In striking contrast, the word "disaster" brings up 27,050 articles, "climate change" 4,573 articles and "climate disaster" 657 articles.

The only article of any sort that I have ever read that mentions "apocalyptic" so many times is this one by Skidelsky himself.

Also note that this article does not have a single reference to any actual scientific paper, indeed not even a brief mention of any environmental scientist or scientific organization at all.

And what in Justice Bao's name is "faith-based science"?

Science is based on evidence; faith is not. If the "faith" is based on evidence, it ceases to be faith.

Alternately, if the "science" is based on faith, it ceases to be science.

Scientific ideas are developed by testing hypotheses: acquiring physical evidence to support them.

Some people may find a scientific idea more convincing than others, so they would believe it more strongly, but I'm not sure what is the meaning of the phrase "important scientific beliefs can now be said to be held religiously, rather than scientifically".

Perhaps Skidelsky is trying to say that scientists should not be too confident of their ideas if there is insufficient evidence to support them. That is a valid point, but most scientists are well aware of this.

This brings us back to Al Gore and climate change. There is no doubt that the earth became warmer over the 20th century (by about 0.7 deg C), which most climate scientists attribute largely to human carbon dioxide emissions. If nothing is done to restrict such emissions, global temperature will rise between 1.8 and 4 deg over the next century. At some "tipping point", the world will be subject to floods and pestilence in classic apocalyptic fashion.

This is the second doomsday scenario of recent decades, the first being the Club of Rome's prediction in 1972 that the world would soon run out of natural resources. Both are "scientific," but their structure is the same as that of the Biblical story of the flood: human wickedness (in today's case, unbridled materialism) triggers the disastrous sequence, which it may already be too late to avert. Like Biblical prophecy, scientific doomsday stories seem impervious to refutation, and are constantly repackaged to feed the hunger for catastrophe.

I don't know if this is genuine confusion or deliberate obfuscation, but it is a mess.

The author insists (sarcastically?) that there is "no doubt" that the Earth is getting warmer and much of this is due to human activities. He thinks that the scientific prediction is that widespread floods and "pestilence" (again a religious term that is rarely used in science) will occur.

He then interjects the discussion with what he considers to be an example of an inaccurate scientific prediction: the Club of Rome's report in 1972. Ignoring the fact that the Club of Rome is think-tank, not a scientific organization and that they later gathered better data and improved their predictions - even if the Club of Rome is absolutely wrong, what does this tell us about global warming?


The tortured logic employed here is remarkable:

A. Some predictions I consider to be "scientific predictions" are wrong.

B. Therefore scientific predictions are likely wrong.

Well, since Newton was wrong about alchemy, Darwin was wrong about blended inheritance and Einstein was wrong about quantum theory, all of science must be inherently unreliable, right?

The author next claims that: "Like Biblical prophecy, scientific doomsday stories seem impervious to refutation, and are constantly repackaged to feed the hunger for catastrophe."

If this is true, maybe the environmental situation is really as bad as it is portrayed.

Alternatively, the appeal of doomsday stories could be mainly due to media hype rather than the scientific facts themselves. "Stories" may be impervious to refutation, but scientific ideas ought to be revised with improved data.

In any case, Skidelsky doesn't think that scientists are exempt from the responsibility of exaggeration:

Scientists argue that the media and politicians are responsible for exaggerating their findings as promises of salvation or warnings of retribution. But scientists themselves are partly responsible, because they have hardened uncertainties into probabilities, treated disputable propositions as matters of fact, and attacked dissent as heresy.

Excuse me sir, but what is the meaning of "hardened uncertainties into probabilities?"

A probability of 0.9999999999 is pretty hard while a probability of 0.0000000001 is not quite so hard.

Is the author trying to say that by switching a descriptive term (uncertainty vs probability) you can transform eg. a feather pillow into a brick wall?

And, if there are disputable propositions that bother him so much, why not discuss the scientific details in the article, so that we can examine them?

Scientists are notoriously loath to jettison conclusions reached by approved scientific methods, however faulty. But their intolerance of dissent is hugely magnified when they see themselves as captains in the salvationist army, dedicated to purging the world of evil habits.

Conclusions reached via the scientific process are scientific conclusions. These conclusions are supported by the best evidence and the most accurate models available at the time, rigorously checked for precision and reliability.

Of course scientists are not supposed to "jettison conclusions" on the basis of their personal convictions, no matter how counterintuitive the results may be.

That would be an act of professional misconduct.

If Professor Skidelsky personally believes that what he considers as "approved scientific methods" (testable predictions? repeatability? peer review? WHAT?!??) to be so fatally flawed, then my question for him would be:

What other method would give you better results?

As for his complaint about intolerance of dissent, I can't speak for all scientists, but here's an alternative explanation: I'm quite sure people in general would be annoyed if they were confronted with unsubstantiated arguments and baseless accusations that they are "intolerant".

Today it is the west that foists an apocalyptic imagination on the rest of the world. Perhaps we should be looking to China and India for answers about how to address environmental damage, instead of using climate change as a pretext to deprive them of what we already have. How do the Chinese feel about their newfound materialism? Do they have an intellectual structure with which to make sense of it?

Without missing a beat, Skidelsky over-generalizes his apocalyptic thinking to all the Western nations. Perhaps he feels qualified to represent all of them as the "captain of their salvationist army".

Well, he is probably right that a whole new generation of environmental solutions, including economically viable green technologies, will arise from Asia.

I can't speculate on the intellectual structure that will be employed to achieve this, but if China and India succeeds in this endeavour, I think it won't be due to the efforts of people like him, but in spite of them.

The best antidote to the doom merchants is scepticism. We must be willing to take uncertainty seriously. Climate change is a fact. But apocalyptic thinking distorts the scientific debate and makes it harder to explain the causes and consequences of this fact, which in turn makes it harder to know how to deal with it.

OK, so skepticism is good and Skidelsky accepts that climate change is a fact. Apocalyptic thinking is bad (you don't say!) because it distorts the scientific debate.

Although the consequences of climate change are real, the extent of the problem is debatable - he appears to have taken an entirely reasonable stand.

The danger is that we become so infected with the apocalyptic virus that we end up creating a real catastrophe - the meltdown of our economies and lifestyles - in order to avoid an imaginary one. In short, while a religious attitude of mind deserves the highest respect, we should resist the re-conquest by religion of matters that should be the concern of science.

Wait a sec, now Skidelsky says that global warming is imaginary and we should carry on with our lifestyles as if nothing has changed.

What is his real stand?

Does he even have a stand?

In addition, he turns 180 degrees around from saying that "apocalyptic thinking distorts science" to "a religious attitude of mind deserves the highest respect" in the space of just one sentence!

So is apocalyptic thinking good or bad?

Does he even care?


To sum up, this is the most appalling article I have read this year.

At Fresh Brainz, we are in awe of how all these over-extended analogies, tortured reasoning, vacuous arguments and self-contradictions can possibly fit into one article.

Despite this, we strongly agree with the last line in Professor Skidelsky's article:

We should resist the re-conquest by religion of matters that should be the concern of science.

Global warming is a scientific matter and we must resist the attempts by anti-scientific individuals, such as Prof. Skidelsky himself, to dismiss a real problem as an "imaginary catastrophe".

Would you like to know more?
Beyond the Ivory Tower: The Scientific Consensus On Climate Change (Science Magazine)


Lab Rat said...

Yeah, pretty much my reaction too when I read that piece of dreck, especially that bit about "uncertainties into probabilities".

Like, wtf?

Still, I'm not too surprised by his overall stance. I think there was some survey a while back that showed that economists tend to be climate change denialists; they transform scientific evidence into disputable propositions, treat probabilities as hard certainties, etc.

Edgar said...

I was rather appalled when I read that article. Beautiful rebuttal of his facetious claims.

I'm still rather disturbed by the the number of such articles appearing in our local papers.

Lim Leng Hiong said...

To Lab Rat:

Whatever his belief is on climate change, there are much better ways of articulating his stand than this muddled mess of an article.

Focusing on those "disputable propositions" would be a good start.

To Edgar:

Thanks. Lately I sense some kind of inner conflict in the newspapers - some journalists are dropping hints in their articles that they are not writing what they really want to write.