Reader Peter Beattie contributed a short essay inspired by watching Neil deGrasse Tyson on Bill Mahrer’s show. It’s apophatic in the sense that Peter tells us what we should not say when defending science.
How not to defend science
by Peter Beattie
While we are discussing how (or even whether) to justify scientific knowledge, here is a prime example of what the relevant points should be—and how one should not go about defending science. On a recent episode of Real Time with Bill Maher, science champion Neil deGrasse Tyson got into an exchange with former GM executive and climate denialist Bob Lutz:
Maybe you’ll agree that the discussion at the end— in which both participants are smugly convinced that they’re right and the other is wrong—was pretty much a waste of time and of the opportunity for something to be learnt. Or you won’t, in which case you’ll probably stop reading just about now. But if you do, you may be asking yourself what could be done to prevent such a discussion from becoming an exercise in futility. And to this end, I’d like to make three suggestions.
Understand your own arguments so your opponent cannot steal them
If you want to cite certain weather phenomena in support of climate change, you’d better make sure you actually understand what it takes to make that connection—and that your example is representative of the point you’re making. Maher’s point about the tornadoes in the mid-West was easily brushed aside by Lutz with the superficially correct statement that weather is not the same thing as climate. This makes Maher look bad and Lutz look good, and completely needlessly: there is a fresh paper by Hansen et al. (albeit not yet peer-reviewed) that ticks all the right boxes. Hansen et al. look not at a singular event, but at a weather pattern; they explain what the relevant comparable patterns are; and they give the statistical measures on which to base their assessment that the heat waves in Texas in 2011 and Moscow in 2010 are very likely due to climate change. All it takes is for the host, or a scientifically trained guest, to be prepared to cite specific sources and to briefly explain the salient points.
The second opportunity for Lutz to get away with his superficially correct (but evasive) arguments was handed him on the same silver platter. When Maher brings up the “overwhelming consensus of climate scientists”, this gives Lutz a great line: “Science doesn’t operate on consensus”. Which is the simple truth: The signatures of a thousand climate scientists professing their “belief” in climate change are scientifically as irrelevant as another thousand non-specialist scientists professing their skepticism. Tyson hinted at the right answer when he said, “It operates on a consensus of experiments”—but how many people in a lay audience are going to understand exactly what that means? If you cannot explain that it is only the qualified opinions of scientists working in the field—i.e. their argued, evidenced, and independently checked empirical results—which counts towards a consensus, then you’re losing a big part of both the argument and the audience.
Be careful with your metaphors
The first point here is really obvious. If you know a memorable saying that you can offer in support of your scientific position, make sure to pick one that has a deeper point that directly addresses the point at issue. Depicting your opponents as misguided fools and yourself as being in possession of a “great truth” may be a good applause line, but as a defence of science it is both pathetic and counterproductive. Science pursues truth, but it steadfastly denies owning the Truth.
Second, if you want to propose a bet as a great metaphor for what science is about, make sure not to leave out the one point about bets that prevents them from becoming a childish stunt. Making a bet is a pretty good way to represent a central aspect of science, viz. a competition between ideas that can be resolved by empirical evidence. But as any schoolchild knows after having made at most three bets, the whole exercise becomes a farce if you do not in advance specify the conditions under which either side would have to admit defeat. It might still happen that your betting partner openly reneges on his promise and simply digs in, but then you can at least call him a liar. That way, any onlookers are left in no doubt as to which idea is likely to be less well supported.
Don’t let grandstanding get the better of data and arguments
When Lutz says, “Name me one prediction of the IPCC [Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change] that has come true”, that could have been the most telling point of the whole discussion. What Lutz suggests is that one genuine counter-example would be enough to shake his conviction—which on the face of it would be admirably falsificationist thinking. But nobody seriously takes him up on it. And it would have been so easy: Let him spell out exactly what kind of data would count as a counter-example to his assertion and then either have the relevant data to hand or let someone in a control room give it to you once they have Googled it—and maybe throw up a graphic to strengthen the point. Very soon, nobody would make the mistake of blustering without backup again.
Finally, a point about sources and checkability. Maher very sensibly asks Lutz, “What are you reading that I am not reading?”, but again fails to follow through. One simple question would have sufficed to stop Lutz in his tracks: “Which study specifically shows that measured sea levels have not risen?” The point, again, is to at least be able to show that your opponent is inconsistent and cannot support his claims. But then, that is the best you can do anyway. Even hard logic never forces you to accept the truth of X; logic can only force you to make choices. But these choices have to be made as clear as possible.