Opinion, Objective facts, and the Science March

In the social media and professional bubble in which I live at the moment, it’s hard to miss the outrage and upset that many scientists (primarily in the US) are feeling at the proliferation of untruths in the media. The ‘March for Science’ on April 22nd will no doubt be a huge outpouring of grievances by many individuals. I’ve been trying to figure out for myself exactly what I feel about the ‘assault on truth’ that has concerned so many. A common theme is the dismissal of the science surrounding climate change; the founder of 350.org Bill McKibben noted that protesters are even attaching footnotes to their signs1:

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twitter.com/billmckibben

Once presented with these facts, it is often hard to see how there can still be so much inaction and repeating of lies. What I want to address here however is the disconnect in this message – while the first 3 points here are statistically significant findings supported by the weight of evidence, the suggestion that ‘[Climate Change is] Bad’ is a value judgement that depends entirely on your viewpoint. Short version – the impacts of climate change will be terrible for people living in low-lying or less economically developed countries, but will benefit those working in the disaster insurance industry (for example). I should stress at the outset that I fundamentally believe we should do everything we can to prevent dangerous climate change, but I’m trying to be careful to point out to people I discuss this with that this is my own opinion. My feeling is that we’re seeing less division between the search for truth and opinions as the the actions we should take to address contentious societal problems given scientific facts – but I think with careful delineation we can craft more hard hitting message.

Part of this cognitive dissonance, I think, relates to the way in which we view the goals or aims of science. Here, it’s informative to make the link to historiography. A widely discredited view of history – often termed ‘Whig History’ – is the notion that social changes have been moving inexorably forward to a democratic, liberal, and peaceful version of the world. Historically this was used as a justification for imperialism, but it is now outmoded. In the latter half of the 20th century, a number of structuralist authors and philosophers found alternative ways of explaining the evolution in social mores that have occurred throughout human history. Writers like Roland Barthes and Michel Foucault rejected the notion of directed evolution in civilisation. Foucault in particular stressed that even specific individuals don’t tend to drive history; their own viewpoints (and ideals for the future) are informed by the times in which they live (their ‘epsiteme’). Instead, civilisations evolve as the result of a multitude of small factors, that gradually shift views. The broader lesson is that this is not a directed process.

The same point can be made about science, but perhaps even more strongly. The accumulation of knowledge has no final goal. The generation of this knowledge ideally results from the testing of hypotheses about unexplained observations, but more often we see the words ‘We have set out to prove’ or ‘I seek to show’ in use by scientists. This is a fundamental difference – in seeking to prove a hypothesis, an author (knowingly or not) has a goal in mind. Science should be objective – but it doesn’t have an objective. Aligning the March for Science with Earth Day links the two, suggesting that a march for science is a march to protect the environment – but scientific data alone don’t require us to be for or against mitigating climate change.

Some scientists have expressed that they are planning to march for science so that political decisions can be made with clear facts and data. While I agree this is an important goal, I do think it arguably betrays a certain level of naiveté. A great example: it’s becoming more clear that internal research at Exxon showed the potentially dangerous effects of anthropogenic climate change before the UN panel on climate change even existed2, but at the same time Exxon donate significantly to political interests3. The head of the US Congressional Science Committee, Lamar Smith, has received more campaign funding from the oil and gas industry than any other4, and the current US Secretary of State is the previous CEO of Exxon. Given that penalising the oil companies or related polluters is thus hardly likely to be in the interests of such politicians, it should not come as a surprise that even if they are fully aware of the scientific facts about potential dangers of climate change that they wouldn’t act to mitigate pollution. These vested interests are a prime example of places we as scientists can conflate the facts with the action that should follow; we are often obliged to declare that we have no conflicts of interest when we publish material, but the same is almost never true of stakeholders outside of academia.

Another laudable goal that some have advocated for the science march is to increase the dissemination of facts to the general public, which would facilitate a better understanding of the issues at large. This is, for me, admirable; the wider public hold stakes in a whole range of environmental or economic aspects that relate to climate change. In a democracy, they ultimately hold sway over politicians (ignoring for a second the influence of lobbying). But what if, when presented with unabridged factual information, non-academic stakeholders come to alternative conclusions about the appropriate actions? For example, the impact of climate change is unlikely to fall equably between all nations; clearly, some countries have a lot more to lose than others5 (the Notre Dame Resilience Index gives a good rundown6), and it’s notable that those at greatest risk are primarily poorer countries in the third world. Some research has even shown that some western countries may become better off in a warming world7 When nationalist politics is increasingly prevalent in the West, a refusal to mitigate climate change is tantamount to reducing foreign aid to these vulnerable countries; it’s not unimaginable that this could appeal to some voters, at least in a cynical, zero-sum version of politics. A truly objective – and thus scientific – approach would be to present all facts as equal, but nobody is immune from confirmation bias; a fact that fits one’s view is more appealing than one that upsets the apple cart.

Protest movements almost invariably take a moral stance, whether advocating for equal rights for all, or protesting about perceived injustices in society. Arguing for increased appreciation for facts and data doesn’t necessarily strike me as a moral stance. Instead, I’d argue we should state strongly what our opinions are as to the data at hand; for example, even if my country would be demonstrably better off economically in a world affected by dangerous climate change, I still believe we should aim to limit climate change to reduce the impact on ecosystems and those most vulnerable. Some might disagree with taking a moral stance8, but I would suggest embracing one’s own values and expressing them loudly. Separating fact from opinion allows others the option to come to alternate conclusions; at the same time, if it’s clear that you’ve based your opinion on a range of facts, that seems to me more powerfully persuasive than an opinion based on ambiguity or guesses.

1 https://twitter.com/billmckibben/status/808791393569243140?lang=en

2 https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/exxon-knew-about-climate-change-almost-40-years-ago/

3 https://www.opensecrets.org/lobby/clientagns.php?id=d000000129&year=2016

4 https://www.opensecrets.org/politicians/industries.php?cycle=Career&cid=N00001811&type=I

5 https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2007/04/global-warming-who-loses-and-who-wins/305698/

6 http://index.gain.org/ranking

7 http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v527/n7577/full/nature15725.html

8 https://www.theguardian.com/science/political-science/2013/jul/31/climate-scientists-policies

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