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"...public opinion deserves to be respected as well as despised" G.W.F. Hegel, 'Philosophy of Right'

The Australian, global warming & Thomas Kuhn « Previous | |Next »
December 13, 2006

Alex Robson, an economist at ANU, has an op-ed in The Australian, where he argues for scepticism with respect to global warming. He warns us about the academic consensus of Leftist critics because they often get their predictions wrong. He gives a couple of instances of this, then asks: What lessons can we learn from these sad, embarrassing episodes? The most obvious one is that the predictions of left-wing economics professors have very little credibility. He makes his case:

Academics are like everyone else; we often get things wrong. Economic predictions do not suddenly become more accurate - and policies do not suddenly become more desirable - if more professors sign a letter saying so. Indeed, the evidence seems to suggest the opposite is true. Academics can make an important contribution through teaching and research, not by demeaning themselves and their chosen discipline by petitioning the government and trying to influence policies by the sheer weight of numbers.

It's a reasonable point. Politics is different from research. But that is not to deny that academics cannot act politically. Robson then goes on to say that there 'is an important lesson for climate change policy here:'

Geoff Pryor

Robson says that we are regularly bombarded with news that there is a scientific consensus on the human causes of global warming. Groups of scientists have circulated petitions (and opponents have circulated counter-petitions) in an attempt to sway politicians and public opinion. He then makes an arguement that pits science against mob rule:

But consensus (otherwise known as rule of the mob) is an irrelevant concept in the sciences, just as it is in economics and other disciplines. Scientific progress is - and should continue to be - a thoroughly undemocratic process. It is the quality and logic of arguments - and the soundness of the theory and empirical methods used to generate predictions - that matter.....A petition does not constitute scientific proof of anything.

That' s right --a petition does not constitute scientific proof. That is not the end of the matter, however. We still need to consider Robson's positivist understanding of science.

Robson's understanding of science is flawed. As Thomas Kuhn argued, consensus is part of the workings and paradigm of normal science. Robson presupposes a positivist philosophy of science in which scientific progress develops by the addition of new truths to the stock of old truths, or the increasing approximation of theories to the truth, or the correction of past errors. Such progress might accelerate in the hands of a particularly great scientist, but progress itself is guaranteed by the scientific method. Kuhn contests this traditional view in that he argued that normal science can succeed in making progress only if there is a strong commitment by the relevant scientific community to their shared theoretical beliefs, values, instruments and techniques, and even metaphysics. As the Stanford Encylclopedia of Philosophy states:

This constellation of shared commitments Kuhn at one point calls a 'disciplinary matrix'....although elsewhere he often uses the term 'paradigm'. Because commitment to the disciplinary matrix is a pre-requisite for successful normal science, an inculcation of that commitment is a key element in scientific training and in the formation of the mind-set of a successful scientist....The unusual emphasis on a conservative attitude distinguishes Kuhn not only from the heroic element of the standard picture but also from Popper and his depiction of the scientist forever attempting to refute her most important theories.

So consensus is not mob rule in politics. It is a part of normal puzzling solving science. And that is what we have with respect to the understanding of climate change by natural science: a consensus that it is partly caused by human actions and has negative consequences for Australia in terms of wilder weather, increased heat, less rain, and rising sea levels etc.

Robson's argument for scepticism on global warming is not persuasive.

| Posted by Gary Sauer-Thompson at 6:10 AM |