The fact illusion: Objective truth is elusive in (climate) science

Summary

Science is the best system humans have ever created to address questions about how the world works and no other paradigm is better at moving us towards objective truth. However, contrary to a popular notion, science can rarely be thought of as an authoritative body that simply swoops in and declares various statements as fact or fiction, true or false. Instead, science is a loosely-defined activity, conducted not by a central authority but by a myriad of competing organizations and individuals all over the world. Thus, our collective confidence in various scientific conclusions inevitably has to result from the subjective weighing of evidence rather than deference to a supreme authority.

The central reason why science has a hard time giving us the “facts” that we desire is that the world is immensely complicated and the available data is generally insufficient to allow us to rule out all alternative explanations. Another reason is simply that scientists are people and people can be swayed by internal emotions and/or external social forces that can lead them towards misplaced conclusions.

When it comes to predicting the future of the Earth’s climate and society we know the least about the things that we care the most about. A survey of predictions of the future, even (or especially) by experts, reveals that prediction is perhaps the most difficult task that humans routinely engage in.

All sides of any debate should acknowledge the fundamental limitations of our knowledge and embrace humility. If we were able to do this it would diffuse some of the tensions and move us from impasse to productive discussion that could lead us closer to the truth.

We want simple, we want “facts”

It may essentially be the case that science can tell us that it is a “fact” that water is made of hydrogen and oxygen. There are many other claims that can, for all intents and purposes, be considered facts as well. However, in contemporary discussions on contentious issues, we generally imagine that science can provide us with facts that are just as authoritative as ‘water is made of hydrogen and oxygen’. This is not the case.

The notion that science would be able to provide us with facts and definitive prescriptions on societally-relevant issues is a very attractive one. It is attractive because humans tend to be ‘complex-world-phobic’ and ‘simple-world-philic’. We are all attracted to simple models of the world that are built on unquestionable facts.

As an example of this simple-world-philic aspect of human nature, consider the relationship between people’s perception of the severity of human-caused climate change and their perception of economic benefits of green energy policies. In principle, these should be independent issues and a person’s opinion on one should not necessarily predict their opinion on the other.

Many people argue that human-caused climate change will have a catastrophic negative impact on the earth and thus human well-being and many people also argue that green energy policies (e.g., taxing carbon emissions) will have a catastrophic impact on the economy and thus human well-being. However, these arguments are hardly ever heard coming out of the same person’s mouth (quadrant D below). Similarly, many people argue that the concern over climate change is overblown and many people argue that green energy policies will be a boon to the economy by creating clean-tech jobs. But again, these are hardly ever the same people. Why is this? I think it is just a manifestation of people wanting the world to be simple. We don’t want conflicting information, nuance or shades of gray. We want nice neat conclusions, in other words, we want “facts”.

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Is science the Vatican or The Wild West?

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Since people desire facts and since most important contemporary issues rely to some degree on scientific conclusions it was perhaps inevitable that a notion of “Science” (proper noun with a capital S) would emerge where Science is thought of as the official arbiter of facts. Many people imagine that Science is an authoritative body that can swoop in, perform its magic, and definitively deem some controversial statement to be fact or fiction, true or false. I think of this view of Science as being somewhat Vatican-like in that it conceptualizes science as a hierarchical, centralized authority that should not be questioned.

This Vatican notion of Science not only comes from our innate simple-world-philia but is also taught to us in our education system. People tend to be taught science in school as if science is simply a catalog of conclusions that have been deemed to be true rather than a way of looking at the world and asking questions.

When I was in high school, I held this Vatican-like view of science. The more I learned about science the more confident I was in science’s ability to produce facts (I was moving from A to B in the diagram below).

Once I reached graduate school, however, I started doing science and I realized how messy the process is and just how complicated the real world is. I realized that the idea that Science is magic and can swoop in and declare facts was extremely naïve. This realization has caused me to move from point B to point C in the diagram below.

 

fig3

Going through graduate school also revealed to me that the Vatican notion of Science is a very poor model. It turns out that science is not governed by high priests who can authoritatively separate fact from fiction. In reality, the scientific process is decentralized with groups and organizations around the world competing with each other to come up with the best and most complete descriptions of reality. There are not strict rules that constitute how scientific questions should be framed and there are fundamental disagreements between groups and individuals on how to go about asking and answering questions. In this way, science is much more like the lawless American Wild West than it is like the Vatican: decentralized authority, no definitive rules, everyone free to make their own argument.

At first glance, it may seem like a weakness that science is more like a free-for-all than a definitive authority. However, this aspect of scientific inquiry is actually one of its greatest strengths. The world is simply too complicated, and human beings are too cognitively flawed, for some central organization to play the role of arbiter of truth. It is much easier to arrive at the truth through a free market of ideas where everyone is able to put forward their description of the world. Eventually, the descriptions that survive the most attacks from others are the ones that we have the most confidence in.

So, it may be the case that science has an over-rated ability to produce unquestionable facts, but this hardly means that science can’t tell us anything. Many ideas have been shown to be robust to so many attacks, that they can be considered to be true beyond any reasonable doubt. For climate science these include the fundamentals that the greenhouse effect exists, humans are increasing greenhouse gasses which are warming the planet substantially, and there are substantial negative impacts associated with this warming.

I find that the Vatican notion of Science is commonly held on both the political left as well as the political right in the United States and that this model frames how the politics of climate change get discussed. The primary difference between the right and the left is not on how they conceptualize science but how much legitimacy they give Science. The far left tends to articulate that imminent catastrophe from human-caused climate change is a Scientific fact. Given the perceived legitimacy of Science on the left, it is thought to be either insane or evil to question this (panel A below).

The political far-right, however, does not grant that Science has legitimately earned its authority. Rather, they tend to think of Science as a corrupt organization, built and populated by their ideological opponents (panel B below). In this view, it is quite noble to push back against fraudulent, ideologically-driven Science and doing so makes one comparable to Galileo.

The conversation regarding climate change could be defused quite a bit if people realized how flawed the Vatican notion of Science is. The left would have to discontinue the strategy of using “facts” as a bludgeon to end debate and the right would have to admit that conspiracies and collusion are simply not possible in such a decentralized process (panel C below).

Screen Shot 2017-07-31 at 3.30.14 PM

“Facts” about the future

Many aspects of climate science revolve around projections of what human and natural systems might be like in a century. It would be ideal if we could agree on “facts” about what will happen in the future but this is just wishful thinking. Much of the problem comes from the things we care most about suffering from compounding uncertainty.

Also, projections of the future are most prominently promulgated by the relevant experts and Interestingly, uncertainty may be underappreciated by experts precisely because they are experts. People often assume that there is a monotonic relationship between knowledge on a given subject and ability to predict outcomes related to that subject (i.e., people imagine going from A to B to C in the diagram below as they gain expertise/knowledge on a given subject).

fig6

However, a lot of subjects suffer from fundamental uncertainty that you simply cannot get around by increasing your expertise/knowledge. This causes the ability to predict to ‘saturate’ (point B to C’ above). Therefore, an expert may imagine that they are at point C when they are really at point C’ and thus be especially overconfident in their ability to predict.

A salient example of this phenomena is seen in sports analysts, like the American college basketball analysts that are featured prominently every March on CBS and ESPN. These analysts almost certainly have much more expertise/knowledge of American college basketball than the general public. After all, these analysts generally grew up playing countless hours of basketball, being exposed to many playing/coaching styles. Most of them played and/or coached college basketball themselves and thus they have intimate knowledge of what goes on behind the scenes. Many of them have personal connections with current players or coaches. Finally, it is their full-time job to watch games and discuss various team’s strengths and weaknesses.

You might think that all of this knowledge/expertise would translate into a supreme ability to predict the Final Four of the NCAA basketball tournament. However, every March this experiment is conducted every April we find that the predictions from the analysts scarcely do any better than the average person who casually submits a bracket to their office pool.

It turns out that for college basketball a little knowledge goes a long way and all the additional knowledge that the TV analysists have only moves them from B to C’ rather than from B to C. This is because after a little bit of knowledge you run up against fundamental uncertainty that expertise cannot help you defeat. We see this overconfidence of experts over and over again in a variety of fields (See Nate Silver’ The Signal and the Noise: Why So Many Predictions Fail–but Some Don’t and Philip E. Tetlock’s Expert Political Judgment: How Good Is It? How Can We Know?).

It may be objected that the above analogies are irrelevant to climate science since the climate system is a physical system and is thus less complicated than a basketball tournament or political elections that involve predicting human behavior. For one thing, the effect of policy prescriptions for the mitigation of climate change do involve predicting human behavior. Regardless, even if we restrict our analysis to predictions of the physical world, it is simply not clear how much trust we can put in these predictions. This is because we have never made, for example, a 75-year-out regional drought forecast before and thus we have never had an opportunity to be humbled by poor predictions.

All this is to say that predictions of the future have to be taken as very uncertain guesses that are only loosely constrained. Of course, this also applies to any forecast of economic calamity that would supposedly come about due to a proposed green energy policy.

Ideology and “fact” finding

Science being more like The Wild West than The Vatican makes it much more difficult to corrupt since there is no central authority from which decrees are produced. However, the collective sociopolitical attitudes of the scientists themselves can influence scientific thinking on a subject and can be another obstacle for finding the truth.

Many climate scientists are open about their environmentalist views. Most of these scientists would claim that their emotion/advocacy fundamentally stems from the science itself (panel A below). Of course, the exact opposite claim is made by opponents of climate action who assert that most mainstream climate scientists are simply liberal activists and that their scientific results spring from their ideology, not the other way around (panel B below).

fig7

The problem with this contrarian view (panel B) is that it ignores two of the most fundamental driving forces in science:

  • To ultimately be proven correct by history. Nobody wants their legacy to be that they were part of an epic scientific blunder.
  • To advance one’s career by showing the errors of other scientists

Wild West science works as free-market endeavor in the sense that everybody is essentially free to question everyone else’s work. The best way to make a name for yourself in science is to show that some established conclusion or paradigm is incorrect. Therefore, there is actually a huge incentive to challenge any idea that makes it into the mainstream. This is why you see high-profile research that purports to find ‘no relationship’ or less of a relationship between human caused climate change and various other phenomena:

fig8

Articles with titles that contain phrases such as “little change”, “no increase”, “unlikely to increase” would be impossible in Vatican Science and would be unlikely to come about if scientists felt that their primary thrust was to advance a political agenda.

Having said that, scientists are humans and humans are social beings who are influenced by the zeitgeist of their proximate culture. Unfortunately, as political polarization has increased in the United States, many of us are becoming more and more hermetically sealed into our ideological bubbles where our ideas are not challenged and we only hear from other people who agree with us. I do worry that this phenomenon has the power to influence the collective research output and communication of climate science.

Climate scientists tend to be overwhelmingly on the left end of the political spectrum and tend to be ideologically attracted (or at least unopposed) to policies associated with climate change mitigation. For example, I have seen the following cartoon used by climate scientists to defend their advocacy for climate action policies:

fig9

The way the bullet points are phrased it is difficult to disagree with them but in reality, there are legitimate concerns about potential deleterious effects of variously proposed climate policies. This is primarily because everything we materially value is made possible through affordable energy and many climate-action policies have the effect of increasing the price of energy. Much is made of various hockey-stick like charts that show negative impacts of climate change but an honest discussion requires grappling with the positive hockey sticks that affordable energy from fossil fuels have produced (like the amazing increase in lifespan, increase in food availability, reduction in poverty, reduction in infant mortality, reduction in a myriad of diseases, ect., that has been achieved).

The primary problem with the above cartoon is that climate-action policies might not lead to a “better world” by themselves (i.e., regardless of the consequences of human caused global warming). Thus advocates of this cartoon seem unaware that part of their sympathy for climate-action policies could be due to their ideological alignment with more progressive policies in general. People on the political left tend to have more biophilic tendencies than those on the political right. They tend to be more distrustful of corporations and capitalism as a means of distributing resources. Finally, they tend to have more faith in the ability (and right) of central or governments to regulate the private sector and to redistribute resources. None of the above values have anything to do with the pure science of climate change or the severity of climate change but these values make it more likely that people on the political left will support climate-action policies that protect the environment via government regulation.

The fact that climate scientists tend to be overwhelming on the left end of the political spectrum then leads to a social situation among scientists where it is very easy to agree with the political-ideological norms of the left and it makes it more taboo to question the severity of human caused climate change. It means that scientists will feel some pressure (at least subconsciously) that their work should support the “good side”.

The attack on climate science from explicitly political organizations and individuals makes the situation even worse. In a purely Wild West science, scientists would feel no reservations about attacking the mainstream scientific view within a community (panel A below). Constant attack from the inside is what makes the mainstream view robust and gives us confidence that it is indeed correct. However, attacks on climate science from prominent politicians and outspoken political commentators have the effect of reorienting climate scientists such that they feel it is their duty to defend (rather than attack) the mainstream view (panel B below).

This is an unfortunate situation because scientists are smart enough to construct persuasive arguments in defense of most things. Thus, orienting scientists in defense of the mainstream view gives the outward appearance of enhanced legitimacy but in reality, it makes us less confident that the conclusions are correct (because the conclusions are being subjected to less scientific attacks).

fig10

 

Thus, in Wild West science, there is a tug-of-war between wanting to conform to social norms/ideological convictions and the desire to advance your career by challenging established conclusions (figure below). I believe that desire to be proven correct and to advance one’s career by showing others to be wrong is ultimately stronger than the desire to conform to the “good” side and this is ultimately why we can have confidence in the findings of science in general and climate science in particular.

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To conclude, there is no Vatican Science that can swoop in and declaratively put controversial statements into binary categories of true or false. This is especially the case for predictions about the future. Science has its flaws (as all human endeavors do) but its decentralized nature and its incentive structure make it very difficult to corrupt. Ultimately, we must all exercise our own best judgment when weighing evidence and trying to better understand the world. If we could appreciate these things, it might make our public conversations about controversial issues a little bit less toxic and a little bit more productive.

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4 Responses to The fact illusion: Objective truth is elusive in (climate) science

  1. anng says:

    Framing the question affects the answer e.g. “the greenhouse effect exists, humans are increasing greenhouse gasses which are warming the planet substantially, and there are substantial negative impacts associated with this warming.”
    SHOULD read “the greenhouse effect exists overnight, humans are increasing greenhouse gasses which are warming the planet substantially overnight, which will therefore increase average temperatures. We don’t know enough about day-time warming to understand what will happen to maximum temperatures.”

  2. anng says:

    Unfortunately, people of different beliefs fail to understand the other-sides arguments e.g. where you state “People on the political left … tend to be more distrustful of corporations and capitalism as a means of distributing resources”, the framing misses that the political right argument is ” the free market has fewer downsides than dominant governments or corporations” i.e. against monopolies and power.

  3. gyan1 says:

    The problem is that the mainstream media ignores the empirical measurements and current research that show CO2’s impact on climate has been overstated. A free market of ideas would have exposed the serious flaws of catastrophic warming long ago.

    The personal identification with ideology causes cognitive dissonance as the ego dismisses information contrary to its programmed world view.

  4. Dan compton says:

    Dr. Brown inadvertantly proves his own point on bias by citing three incontrovertible “facts” two of which are opinion: that humans are warming the planet “substantially” and that there are substantial negative impacts from GW. Both disputable and both value judgments. Finally, he seems to imply that scientist GW proponents are circling the wagons due to right wing political attacks when it could just as easily be shown that “deniers” have circled the wagons due to consensus enforcement from the left. Dr. Brown’s opinions, which show a laudable willingness to discuss opposing views, shows just how entrenched our own bias can be.

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