Cynicism about motivation in science - An inappropriate approach to climate change

Default cynicism is only slightly less lazy than pure naivety.

As I'm on the science end of things, I'll call it arts-student skepticism. The basic idea is that, when you hear someone's opinion, you question why they're saying it, based on their vested interests. "You can tell when a politician is lying - his lips are moving." In finance, you expect people to "talk their book" - say things that will encourage the markets to move in a way that profits them. This is certainly an improvement on taking whatever people say at face value. People who spot conflicts of interest often seem terribly proud of their cynical insight.

However, discarding whatever others say when it's convenient to is just broken too. It's a huge mistake to confuse the person saying something from the actual message, even if the correlation in general is huge. Idiots can hit on the truth, and geniuses can make mistakes. So, discarding messages based on 'Well, they would say that, wouldn't they? It's in their best interests' is pretty awful. It's laziness, rather than addressing the issue based on actually understanding the topic, and evaluating the speaker's argument.

Of course, it doesn't really help if the speaker doesn't actually provide much in the way of a logical argument. In the public sphere it's probably rather foolish to do such a thing as it's a) boring, b) opens you up to someone pointing out any mistakes you've made.

Public arguments are transmitted by journalists, who will mangle anything of consequence. Applying the cynical framework, their job is to get readers, not identify and transmit Platonic truth. And even if you're not cynical in that regard, journalists are non-experts who are trying to make what they're saying as accessible and interesting. If you ever read an article in an area you're an expert on, you'll see how wrong they get it. It's the same for whatever they cover, whether you know it or not.

And this is the world that climate change has to deal with. Handling climate change is politics. So, when a bunch of scientists say something, the default response is 'They're scaremongering to get themselves on the gravy train.'. Aaaaargh. Climate science is the messy end of science. It's a really complicated system we don't fully understand, and it's not like we can do controlled experiments. It's almost as bad as social science. However, it's still science. Go look at the evidence. Understand the issues. Skepticism is an important part of science, but it's about the ideas and evidence, not people.

Science has to meet politics, too. The evidence has to somehow eventually become policy, policy that won't annoy the electorate too much, and is internationally acceptable. Scientists in general are poor at this, and have to work hard to get their message across.

However, deliberate ignorance through a carefully selected diet of poor information and assumption of cynical motivation is repulsive. As Feynman said, "For a successful technology, reality must take precedence over public relations, for Nature cannot be fooled."

Posted 2013-06-27.