Morano Analysis #7: Scientific consensus
This mini-debate between Maslin and Morano first caught my attention because of Morano’s “accusation” that Maslin was using an “appeal to authority,” and Maslin’s assertion of something like a scientific consensus in reply. Claims that the IPCC represents an authoritative “consensus” have been prominent in representations of the IPCC’s reports since the very beginning, and in one of my current projects I’m trying to figure out how consensus claims work (or don’t). The example here, though small, is worth examining closely.
Here’s what the debaters say, minus the overlapping speech–which means minus a lot, since the interaction between the two men has definitely gotten heated by this point near the end:
Morano: You can’t get away with this professor. Climategate has shown it. And your idea that five thousand UN scientists?–you need to apologize and retract that immediately. The biggest number you can come up with if you include delegates is 2800.
Maslin: Absolute rubbish. Oh. You know, I’ve been, I’ve been having this debate for the last twenty years. The key thing is every single intelligent person, every key politician in the world, listens to the key scientists, they actually look at the data.
It’s pretty obvious what’s happening here. Maslin is dividing the world in two:
- the “key scientists,” and the “intelligent” people and “key” politicians who “listen” to them.
- the non-intelligent people and non-key politicians, and perhaps some non-key scientists as well, who go against what the #1 people think.
Maslin, of course, thinks of himself as a #1 person, while Morano has got to be a #2.
Let’s face it: Maslin’s remarks here are a great example of what Randy Olson has called “rising above” one’s speech partner. Listening in to scientists during the evolution/intelligent design, Randy found:
The voice that came through in all of these blog posts, and even more intensely in the comments of fellow evolutionists, was not just offensive; it was also incredibly condescending and arrogant. . . . [T]he single biggest impression [high school students watching one group of scientists] walked away with was not that the intelligent design advocates were dishonest, which they clearly are in the movie, but that the evolution professors were arrogant, condescending, and irritating (Don’t Be Such A Scientist, p. 126-7).
Morano recognizes he has another ‘gotcha’ moment, and rubs it in by responding: “Oh, intelligent people!”
Authority as “blackmail”
Maslin’s frankness is useful, since it makes apparent one aspect of how all appeals to authority work. An appeal to authority really does put the audience in the position that, if they don’t go along, they’re going to appear to be a bad sort of person. Consider:
If a police officer says stop, and you don’t, you’re now seen as a disobedient person.
If your reverend great aunt tells you not to blow your nose on your sleeve, and you do, you’re now seen as a disrespectful person.
If your investment advisor tells you that a stock is a terrible bet, and you invest anyhow, you’re now seen as an imprudent person.
The last example is an appeal to epistemic (knowledge-based) authority, like Maslin’s. Unless you have some really good reason why, not “listening” (to use Maslin’s word) to what your investment advisor, your doctor, the librarian at the reference desk, the safety engineer, or whatever other expert–not “listening” to them is going to make you appear un-“intelligent.”
Nobody–in particular, no citizen in American democracy–likes to be “blackmailed” like this. So we are clever in coming up with reasons for why not “listening” is really excusable. One common technique is to seek a second opinion; if the experts themselves disagree, it frees us up to choose our own path, without being seen as un-“intelligent.”
That’s where the idea of a “scientific consensus” comes in. It’s not just that 2 or 5,000 or even Morano’s “100,000” scientists will tell us the same thing about climate change. If there is a scientific consensus about climate change, then whatever scientist we ask, we’re going to hear the same answer. So we’re not going to be able to wiggle out from under the “blackmail” that the appeal to epistemic authority creates (at least in this way).
Authority as “bond”
But what if we find someone who says he’s a scientist, but tells us something different? If there is a scientific consensus, well, then that person just isn’t a legitimate–or as Maslin says, a “key”–scientist, at least on this point.
This is the other side of the appeal to authority: the “bond” that the authority is offering us to back up what he says. An ordinary expert “bonds” his statement as his best expert opinion; if we find out later that he was really giving us self-interested advice, we legitimately feel outraged that he’s broken our trust. When scientists get together and say that there is a scientific consensus endorsing anthropogenic global warming (AGW), they’re promising us that the scientific case is so strong that they’re willing to bind themselves collectively to it.
There are such things as scientific consensuses: things that all scientists in a field are obligated to accept (as Bill Rehg has recently persuaded me). (Note that the emphasis here is on the legitimate obligation to accept; it doesn’t matter whether every or even most scientists actually accept an idea–what matters is that they ought to.) Scientists take on an enormous burden when they identify such obligations, however. The scientific process by which some idea becomes a matter of scientific consensus had better be pristine. Otherwise, the declaration of consensus will be deeply unfair to those people (and there will be such people) who are going to get removed from the ranks of scientists because of their failure to go along.
And from the outside, to us ordinary folk, scientists forcing on us an imperfectly formed consensus will appear to be just another elite interest group attempting to exercise power under the guise of legitimate authority. Their alleged misuse of knowledge will mean that Science will be joining Big Business (alleged misuse of financial power), The Press (alleged misuse of media power), The Government (alleged misuse of coercive powers) and others on some Americans’ lists of corrupt institutions to resist.
Maslin’s appeal to a scientific consensus comes right after Morano’s second reference to climategate–poor timing, that. I do not think that anything revealed in the CRU emails does significant damage to the scientific case for AGW. But they, and the recently revealed series of IPCC mistakes on dramatic points, do weaken the public’s ground for trust. The force of an appeal to expert authority–it’s “blackmail” power over the lay audience–is proportional to the credibility of the “bond” the expert can offer to gain our trust. When scientists are no longer able to say “trust us–this is good science,” they are no longer able to require politicians and persons to “listen.”
Leaving some wiggle room
So, what could Maslin do? Probably not salvaging the authority of the IPCC by fighting the battle of climategate in this small space, especially since the five minutes is almost up and the moderator is about to try to close things down. But there are lots of things the institutions he’s representing could have done in advance, that would have helped him out.
Scientific consensus is a WMD among rhetorical appeals. Holders of such appeals can therefore expect massive pre-emptive strikes from their opponents. To head off such strikes, why not try a bit of unilateral disarmament? The appeal to scientific consensus locks scientists into speaking with one voice and layfolk into “listening.” Giving each side some wiggle room might lighten things up.
Instead of representing “the” scientific consensus, what if the IPCC represented the range of views in the peer-reviewed literature? That would mean including both some more catastrophic figures for temperature and sea level rises, as well as some on the more skeptical side.
Instead of demanding that citizens “listen,” what if those deploying the IPCC report in public discourse explicitly adopted what I’ll call the Pielke Principle, offering citizens an expanded range of choices which it is their sole power (and responsibility) to make? That would take the focus off the purity of the IPCC process, and put it instead on the crafting of policy.
Of course, building in more wiggle room does decrease the authority of the IPCC; that’s the point. It’s either that, or making sure that everyone involved in the IPCC is so holy that their feet never touch the ground. Otherwise, those that are sending spokespeople like Maslin out into the world, are hanging them out to dry.
For more: see bibliography: appeals to authority.
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