Under Fire

In Climate Science and a few other fields massive attacks on scientists have become commonplace. They keep the victims from work and slow down progress – which is exactly what the aggressors want. Philosophers of science are now debating how to expose the detrimental objections

(originally published in Süddeutsche Zeitung on Nov 23, 2015; mildly updated in time references to include results of Paris summit) 

shaunamurray_0059_finalPortrait of Shauna Murray from Nick Bowers’s series „Scared Scientists
with kind permission of the artist.
All rights: Nick Bowers

Matthew England looks traumatized. Shauna Murray is at a loss for words, and in Tim Flannery’s eyes there is pain. The black-and-white portraits of the renowned Australian climate researchers are disturbing. A compatriot, the photographer Nick Bowers, captured them. He laid it on thickly: dark background, sparse lighting, harsh contrasts. The facial expressions, however, are no effect of fancy camerawork. They mirror the feelings the subjects in the pictures had after talking to Bowers about their experiences with the public. Until recently Australia had a prime minister who aggressively doubted basic tenets of climate science and also media ruled by the Murdoch group and hampered by few inhibitions. „Scared Scientists” is what Bowers called his photographic essay.

In English-speaking countries climate research has long ceased being a field suitable for sensitive characters. Scientists are routinely attacked by lobby groups and so-called think tanks financed by coal and oil interests. Networks of private citizens who organize themselves over the internet join the hunting season. They all strike at the academic work and qualifications of researchers, but often also just resort to character assassination.

Historians and philosophers of science are only just beginning to look at this phenomenon. Openly dealing with and responding to objections is a core process of science. It’s often called organized skepticism, and taking up critical remarks is an integral part of the process of insight. At the same time, says Justin Biddle, a philosopher of science at Georgia Tech in Atlanta, „objections and criticism can stop the production of further knowledge and thus be detrimental”. That may happen when scientists downplay their own results so as not to be seen as alarmist. „Even the IPCC has consistently understated CO2 levels and numbers on sea level rise”, Biddle adds.

To be able to differentiate between helpful and detrimental criticism, Anna Leuschner of the University of Hannover puts in, „could clarify when progress in science is being willfully hindered”. Last fall she organized a meeting in Karlsruhe on the subject. Philosophers and ethicists from the US, England and Germany discussed whether to and how to draw up criteria for detrimental criticism.

Answering that question might even help to wrestle back the word skepticism from the so-called climate skeptics. That moniker is frequently used to categorize and taken up by people and organizations that routinely question results of climate research. As opposed to English the German language and history leave little room for other expressions like denialists or contrarians. But the label concedes a core virtue of scientists to their nemesis. „To talk about climate skeptics is a unacceptable badge of honor for these people”, says Jochem Marotzke, director at the Max-Planck-Institute of Meteorology in Hamburg. „I wish somebody could come up with a way to get that word back.” Other terms, however, seem to have little chance of universal acceptance. That goes as well for the cumbersome „radical opponent of climate protection policy” which John Schellnhuber, the director of the Potsdam Institute on Climate Impact Research, coins in his latest book.

The quarrels researchers are drawn into get especially messy where economic interests are concerned. The climate debate is just one example because by latest calculations huge quantities of oil, gas and coal should remain buried in the ground to spare the atmosphere the greenhouse gases emitted when the resources are burnt. Whoever draws his income from those fossil fuels or ties his lifestyle to them, usually wants to stop such restrictions from becoming reality. But instead of taking up the fight in the political arena, lobby groups stage make-believe controversies in science.

And climate research is only the most prominent example. Biologists can have the same experience studying genetically modified plants if they get in the way of the seed industry. The same happens with economists looking at the consequences of US gun laws targeted by the powerful gun lobby. And then there are the cases of organized parent groups spreading warnings of approved vaccines or politicians negating the connection of the virus HIV with the disease Aids.

All these example share the fact that contradicting settled scientific results can have grave consequences. They start at fatal side effects of preventable Measles infections and spread to delays in climate protection measures that make stabilizing life circumstances much harder and costlier. But initially the philosophers like Leuschner and Biddle are only concerned with the consequences spurious objections have for researchers and the process of knowledge accumulation. These can be grave and manifest if the scientists are bullied into silence. And even if the attacked don’t buckle their stories will make many promising young academics think twice about which field to enter.

Michael Mann of Penn State University for instance had to answer to a hostile committee of the US Congress acting in the best McCarthy tradition. He describes the experience in his book „The Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars“ as „the best-funded, most carefully orchestrated attack on science the world has ever known“. His colleague Phil Jones of the University of East Anglia went through a fire storm of press campaigns and official investigations after thousands of emails were stolen from his computer and made public. He later reported on death threats and suicidal thoughts.

Climate researchers even let their critics dictate their research agenda, say the psychologist Stephan Lewandowsky of Bristol University and the Harvard-historian Naomi Oreskes. The phrase they coined is „seepage“ because the constant attacks penetrated deeply into the fabric of science. Many researchers, they claim, tried to rebut the content of objections they could have rejected on formal grounds. Doing that they implicitly accepted the premise of the attacks and gave it legitimacy.

Lewandowsky, Oreskes and co-authors document their hypothesis by analyzing the research around the so-called hiatus of warming. For many years contrarians had asserted that earth wasn’t warming since the record year of 1998. Never mind that facts contradicted the claim: During that interval 2005, 2010 and 2014 and 2015 each set new records. And generally speaking a time span of 18 years is not enough to prove or disprove climate trends beyond doubt. Some studies even showed that there has not even been a slowdown in warming worth mentioning. Still, the IPCC declared in 2013 that the development of temperatures was lagging behind expectations. „Seepage happens, when scientists adopt expressions that were coined outside of science for political reasons“, the psychologist from Bristol says.

Such detrimental consequences for science can happen if objections do not allow for „Socratic progress“, says the philosophy professor Torsten Wilholt from the university of Hannover. The term refers to the questioning technique the Greek scholar employed to guide his pupils to insight. To put it more plainly: An objection is unproductive and therefore detrimental for Wilholt if it doesn’t point out a blind spot so far ignored by science in an hypothesis. Wilholt’s condition immediately unmasks many objections to climate research as unproductive. These are the simple cases where criticism is brought forward again and again even though it has long been conclusively answered. Such answers are catalogued at skepticalscience.com. The website is also an attempt to reconquer the word „skepticism“.

But in more complicated cases it might be tough, Wilholt admits, to transform the condition into a measureable entity for a formal test. To close this gap, Justin Biddle from Atlanta and Anna Leuschner from Hannover earlier this year drew up a list of four criteria which could help classify objections. They are deemed detrimental if first they don’t adhere to established standards of research. Second: There has to be something important at stake in society, so that there could be severe consequences if the hypothesis in question should be falsely rejected. Third: The risk involved needs to be unevenly distributed between the industry concerned and the public, and fourth: Critics of the hypothesis must decry risks for companies but accept the ones consumers face.

This four-step-procedure clearly takes its inspiration from the structure of the quarrel in climate science instigated by the contrarians. In this debate there are serious consequences ahead should the world cast science’s warnings to the wind. The danger the public faces is a loss of elementary premises of life while the companies of the fossil fuel industry would forgo their profits. And while this consequence is anathema for conservative American think tanks they continue to declare the threats poor farmers in Africa or even coastline dwellers in Florida face as regrettable results of natural processes.

Even Anna Leuschner recommends that scientists should continue to deal with objections, however, even if the four-step-procedure identifies them as detrimental. This way they avoid being painted as arrogant and supplying free ammunition to their critics. Apart from that pragmatic advice it is not quite clear whether the method is easy to implement. When Michael Mann and his co-authors got into the crossfire for instance, their critics proved there were some minor mistakes in the famous Hockey Stick paper. The researchers had to print an addendum in the journal Nature. The rest of the objections hurled, however, were themselves faulty in many aspects. In a situation like that it becomes debatable whether the criticism as such is unscientific and detrimental – hardly what one would wish for in a clear-cut criterion.

The debate on the so-called hiatus shows some of the same muddiness. Lewandowsky and his co-authors allege that science let itself be bullied into the topic without any good reason. But the multitude of research papers published so far could indeed represent Socratic progress. „If there hadn’t been the dull drumbeat of the contrarians, today we would know much less than we do about the places where heat can hide, in the ocean for example“, says Mathias Frisch, a German philosopher of science at University of Maryland. And Max-Planck-researcher Jochem Marotzke sees the work the community put in as neither lost nor motivated by the wrong reasons. „It gave us the opportunity to talk about natural variability in the climate system without being yawned at.“

All in all the philosophers seem to have started their discussion somewhat late if their primary goal was to look at what happens in climate science. After all, it seems the time has passed when governments could point to alleged controversies to justify their lack of political reaction to the threats of global warming. Even the negotiations in Paris, which culminated in the first global climate accord this December, were not about science anymore, but about politics. „There are many tough issues for negotiators but the basics of climate research are not among them“, said Harvard-economist Robert Stavins on Climate Central before the conference. „The so-called climate skepticism is irrelevant for the outcome.“