That’s a Fact

That’s a Fact October 20, 2014

Climate Change Denial Cartoon

From Joe Heller via Open Parachute. I don’t think the scientist does a good job of conveying scientific knowledge. It is rarely “just the facts.” We sometimes choose to speak that way, but when we do, it is often unhelpful, because denialists regularly think that they are looking at the facts, too. And so one needs to emphasize that merely insisting one knows or that one doesn’t believe does not make one right, and the collective judgments made about the facts, the data, by qualified experts, get us closer to the truth than anyone has ever managed to working just on their own. Even radical changes to our thinking consistently result from those who have not only unique but persuasive insights, which they have achieved while standing on the shoulders of those who went before them.

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  • Paul E.

    In the vast majority of cases, laypeople will accept uncritically a scholarly
    consensus and use it as a legitimate proxy for “knowledge.” But there are always going to be controversial cases (climate change as in the cartoon, or the mythicism discussions on this blog) where laypeople will have some skepticism (legitimate or not). I agree, the bare assertion “it’s now a proven fact” is often unhelpful in the controversial cases, but the cartoon also fails to give a specific basis for the denier’s denial. In the controversial cases, I think it’s often incumbent on the scholarly community not only to explain their collective judgments but also to counter specific, relatively wide-spread bases for skepticism. Too often, imho, such bases are either ignored or dealt with in an overly mocking or polemical fashion that can actually lead to a hardening of the skeptic’s position.

    • WillBell

      Problem being, a scientist’s job description rarely involves PR and even if it did, the ‘basis for skepticism’ is usually so clumsily assembled that it is a wonder it hasn’t tripped over itself.

  • Michael Wilson

    Facts are objective things, so if one is so inclined they can see for themselves the evudence. So in a hypothetical situation, I can say over the past ten years temperature readings at the north pole have been increasing, and I can point to the records of the readings to show these are a fact. Climate change science is a proven fact is a meaningless statement though because there is no specific claim to check. Unfortunately this is sbout as deep as any one discusses the issue. Its a weird short hand statement without much relevance, its just a statement to show what party your a part of. No one agrees what the climate is changing to or what to do about it, only that if you vote Democrat you must believe climate change is a fact and if you vote Republican you don’t, what anyone actualy belives about those things is irrelevant.

    • Actually, there is lot’s of agreement about what to do about climate change in the scientific community. Reduce carbon dioxide emissions.

      • Michael Wilson

        And that makes action so hard. If all it takes to stop it is reduce emissions, we can buy some efficient light bulbs Say we saved the world and oh buy an SUV with a clear conscious. It is more complicated than reduce emissions

        • Certainly reducing emissions will be difficult.

        • arcseconds

          clearly if you’ve installed efficient light bulbs and rewarded yourself with an SUV (that you drive frequently) you haven’t in fact reduced emissions.

          • Michael Wilson

            Exactly, but as soon as you tell people doing something about climate change will cost something, support drops. Our current programs aren’t reducing emissions just making a tiny reduction in the rate emissions increase. There is good news, did anyone hear Lockheed-Martin’s announcement on fusion power?

          • OK – I would love it if the Lockheed-Martin reactor works, but I also laughed out loud when I read how one MIT prof described the announcement:

            “It seems purely speculative, as if someone has drawn a cartoon and said they are going to fly to Mars with it.”

            Dr. Ian Hutchinson, professor of nuclear science and and engineering, MIT

          • Gary

            I would not sell Lockheed Martin and the Skunk Works short. Likely scenario, although I am guessing…they do not do Technology Development for the fun of it. I’d bet that they had a black contract with the government to do technology development on small device fusion, maybe through DARPA, since their lab is obviously expensive.
            Their program was probably cut, and they are now looking for investors to continue the program. So they left the black world, and produced a slick marketing video to stir up interest outside of the Pentagon. Don’t sell them short, since they have a huge military history of hot stuff. MIT has RADAR from WW2, but probably not the lead in anything else military since.

          • More power to ’em! (literally)

          • Michael Wilson

            That’s risky though if they can’t deliver. Their a company with a reputation, not two guys trying to make cold fusion in their basement. Im skeptical, last time ibloojed into ut people were thinking fusion might be 50-100 years off if ever, and every time I heard talk about “we’re 5=years away” it would not materialize. But if they are saying ten years, and a bunch of people invest and they crap out, that’s going to cause them problems right?

          • Gary

            “That’s risky though if they can’t deliver”… Not really. The whole point of Technology Development with people like DARPA is, as I think they said in the video, “high risk, high reward”. But these types of things, when the reward is far off, are the first to be cut if the Air Force is faced with cutting aircraft, or the Navy is faced with cutting ship numbers. And for Lockheed Martin, they are there for profit, and not research for the academic sake of research. Lockheed Martin has had enough cost overruns on their major Pentagon contracts, to not worry too much about reputations on high risk projects. That’s why I said it was likely that they had a black contract to pay for their lab facilities on fusion research. They would not invest that much money on a high risk, without the government picking up the tab. And if they did make a breakthrough, they certainly would not share it in a published paper, at least not until they had patent rights to it. Even then, the government would probably make the program black again, if they had a small fusion reactor for an aircraft carrier or aircraft. Lockheed Martin does good work, but they don’t do it for fun, it’s for profit. They are probably just trying to keep their team and lab together till the Defense Budget loosens up again, or DoE or someone else comes up with more Technology Development money. Everything goes in cycles.

          • Michael Wilson

            If this statement came from academics or someone else doing it for fun or science, I wouldn’t have paid attention to it. If they say ten years, but its all a hoax, they will have that baggage to carry when they try to get a contract with government for a plane or what have you. It is because people have big money riding on it that gets my attention.

          • Gary

            Seems like I remember reading they have a staff of 10. Although the lab is probably expensive, it and a staff of 10 is small potatoes compared with the rest of Lockheed Martin’s weapons systems and platforms. Patriot, AEGIS, Cruise Missiles, etc…fusion has potential, but success or failure won’t make a ripple in their other, or future contracts. I’d still bet on Lockheed Martin being successful over MIT. Applied Physics Lab (APL) has a better reputation of producing real results.

  • Max S. Cannon

    It would be helpful to note that to classify someone a denialist simply because they don’t agree with the conclusion being presented is, at the very least, somewhat pejorative. Often the doubt is predicated not on the facts supporting the statement but on those that are discarded because they fail to coincide with the conclusion. This may bring into question the credibility of the argument and introduce an element for consideration that appears to challenge whether the initial statement was comprehensive in its methodology.

    • If someone is rejecting mainstream scholarly conclusions, other than because as a scholar themselves they are trying to offer a new argument and thus to persuade their colleagues in the academy, then what is inappropriate about using the label “denialist”? No one who is not a historian, or a physicist, or a biologist, or whatever, ought to be saying “The overwhelming consensus of experts is wrong about this.” And anyone who is not a historian, or a physicist, or a biologist, or whatever, ought to simply throw in their lot with someone who is one of the above, but is insisting that they are right and their peers unanimously wrong.

      • Paul E.

        I think, though, that a distinction should be made between rejecting a scholarly consensus outright and assessing whether it is sound to defer to the consensus as a legitimate proxy for knowledge. Saying “the consensus is wrong” suggests an actual study/analysis of the subject itself (a “scientific” conclusion), whereas saying “I’m not sure I can defer to the consensus to make a life decision, policy decision, etc.,” is more an assessment of what’s going on within a scientific field (a “social” conclusion). Laypeople are going to be in a far better position to do the latter than the former (even if only in rare cases).

        • MattB

          But don’t you think that if experts reach a consensus there is good reason to trust them? I mean sure, any lay person can believe a consensus is wrong. But then what would make a lay person qualified to say so?

        • Do you think that laypeople should ever reject a solid consensus of experts in a field?

          • arcseconds

            Well, we probably shouldn’t give any consensus a probability of 1, and some consensuses are surely markedly less certain than others, so even if many are so nearly 1 as to make little difference others are not. And if they’re not so certain as to have very nearly a probability of 1, there’ll be some payoff or some cost so great as to make it worth betting against the consensus. So yes, it may be worth rejecting a consensus in the sense of betting against it.

            And in fact you could see funding fundamental research as doing exactly that, to a large extent.

          • Paul E.

            Interesting comment, thanks.

          • Researchers are constantly trying to challenge a consensus view, come up with new evidence and new approaches, and so on. Most of those don’t pan out. And so my concern is not with researchers doing what researchers are paid to do. My concern is with the general public who may not understand how research works, and so may think that the existence of an article proposing something is a sufficient basis for thinking that what the article proposes is secure knowledge.

          • arcseconds

            Right. But the general public funds the consensus-challenging research. Why would they do that if they’re to simply accept the consensus?

            I mean, let’s say Bernier goes ahead with his idea that the Gospels are really written a lot earlier than the consensus says it is. Let’s say for the sake of simplicity for some reason I’m the one footing the bill for this. I’m not an expert, so I have to accept the consensus. The consensus is that they’re written a lot later than Bernier says they are. So I shouldn’t believe Bernier is right about this. So why should I fund him?

          • Because testing the consensus and seeking to break new ground are the best way, if not the only way, to either confirm the validity of the consensus or to make progress towards greater accuracy in our knowledge.

          • arcseconds

            Right. So if the payoff is good enough, it makes sense to back activities based on the consensus being wrong.

          • It makes sense to fund ongoing research, if that is what you mean. But I don’t think it makes sense to back new proposals in the sense of embracing them as the truth simply because the proposal has been made. That’s the difference between Richard Carrier writing a book on mythicism trying to persuade academics, and Richard Carrier writing a book trying to bolster or bring about a rejection of mainstream conclusions in the general populace, even if he can’t persuade scholars.

          • Paul E.

            Almost certainly not. But again, my comment was directed at distinguishing between outright rejection and other levels of decision-making. Regardless, the devil in your comment is “solid” consensus. Laypeople need to have ways of assessing whether a claimed consensus, once clearly and specifically defined, is in fact “solid.” Otherwise, we are simply the audience of the cartoon scientist. From a legal decision-making standpoint, Boaz Miller has done some recent interesting philosophical work on this issue.



          • Right, a key element of information fluency is being able to tell whether there is a consensus, and if so what it is, and if there isn’t, what the major views are, and to understand why there is a lack of consensus. But another key element is understanding that research involves trying to break new ground, and so most new studies will not pan out, hence the need to look into the consensus.