Environmentalism: a faith or a fad?

2009-01-13

in Politics, Rants, Science, The environment

Guitar and other instruments

If you want to seriously annoy environmentalists like me, there are two assertions that will rarely fail:

  • Environmentalism is a new religion.
  • Environmentalism is just a fad.

The first view generally arises from fundamental confusion on the part of the person making the assertion. Since they are used to seeing arguments about the morality of individual action presented in religious terms, they assume that anything that involves such arguments must be religious. The faulty syllogism is roughly: religion tries to tell me how to live, environmentalism tries to tell me how to live, therefore environmentalism is religion. This isn’t the case – both because the syllogism is fundamentally invalid, and because there are key differences in the basis for religion and environmentalism, respectively. The second argument does have some evidence to support it, but there is an overwhelming case for hoping it proves untrue in the long term.

Starting with the religion argument, the first step is to establish the nature of religion. The key element of ‘faith’ is a willingness to accept something without empirical evidence: whether it is the existence of a god, the existing of karma, or whatever. Religious beliefs of this kind cannot be empirically disproved. By contrast, virtually all claims made by environmentalists are dependent on their empirical correctness for strength. If mercury didn’t actually poison people, we would be wrong for avoiding it on that basis. The only non-empirical claims behind environmentalism are about what has value. If we didn’t value human life or the natural world, we would have no reason to be concerned about pollution or climate change, and we would have no reason to take action to prevent them.

Every environmental position and argument is open to as much empirical and logical scrutiny anyone cares to apply to it. Everyone is free to perform whatever experiments they like and, if those experiments produce interesting or unexpected results that can be reproduced by others, they can expect them to eventually become part of the body of scientific knowledge. Likewise, people are free to argue about the moral and logical premises of the ‘what should we value’ debate.

Moving on to the ‘fad’ argument, it is certainly the case that public interest in the environment waxes and wanes. Sometimes, catastrophic events draw special attention to the issue. At other times, people find their attention drawn to other happenings. That being said, I think Denis Hayes is right to argue that: “If environment is a fad, it’s going to be our last fad.” Right now, humanity is living with the following assumptions at least implicitly made: (a) the planet can support six billion of us, with more being added daily (b) at least for most of those people, material consumption can continue to rise at several percent per year. Even if we came up with some miracle machine to solve climate change tomorrow, some new issue would arise as the ratio between the total available mass and energy on the planet and the fraction used by human beings continued to fall.

We live in a finite world and, in at least some cases, we are starting to brush against the physical limitations that exist. For that simple reason, environmentalism is important and likely to be enduring. Thankfully, unlike religions which tend to get tangled up in their own history (witness all those trying to prove that the Bible is somehow historically accurate), environmentalism is generally scientifically grounded. As such, its content and prescriptions have the potential to improve as our understanding of the world deepens. For that, we should all be thankful.

{ 85 comments… read them below or add one }

Tristan January 13, 2009 at 9:17 am

“Everyone is free to perform whatever experiments they like and, if those experiments produce interesting or unexpected results that can be reproduced by others, they can expect them to eventually become part of the body of scientific knowledge”

This isn’t how science works. If your experiment produces results which contradict basic assumptions that science currently makes, you throw your results out and do it again. Problems with Mercury’s orbit never made the scientific community seriously question Newton’s theory of gravity.

Milan January 13, 2009 at 10:10 am

That is a simplification, but the key point holds true.

People are free to subject scientific theories to whatever kind of scrutiny they wish. Indeed, it is a key part of the scientific method that this take place. It is an important element that distinguishes science from religions.

Magictofu January 13, 2009 at 12:38 pm

What if by saying that environmentalism is the new religion people simply suggest that:
1) Religion does not govern people’s live anymore
2) Most people put their faith in scientists (as opposed to science itself) to understand the world and tell them how to behave.

I guess what I am suggesting is that the phrase itself does not necessarily dismiss environmentalism.

That being said, many people would act out of faith when they are told to do something for the environment. How many people would compare life-cycle studies of option X and option Y before making a decision? Most of them will do as they are told. We then get people using plastic bins to replace plastic bags when they do their groceries without thinking about the number of time they would need to use these bins to equate the same amount of plastic that would be wasted on bags.

Ruhh January 13, 2009 at 2:29 pm

Interesting article.

Majictofu said: “…many people would act out of faith when they are told to do something for the environment. How many people would compare life-cycle studies of option X and option Y before making a decision? Most of them will do as they are told…”

Although used interchangeably, I would prefer to call this ‘trust’ as opposed to ‘faith’. I don’t think this is really the same as ‘faith’ unless you believe being nice to the environment will get you to heaven.
That being said I think many people don’t just act out of faith but in trust that scientists have provided them with proper facts to steer their decisions. We are not all scientists and we don’t have time to research every decision so we trust those who are.

However you define environmentalism and to whichever set of scientific data you choose to trust it remains true that we live on a finite planet and mismanaged human activity is a threat to the resources needed for all life here. Individuals have the choice (and responsibility to other life forms) to minimize their negative effects on our environment.

BuddyRich January 13, 2009 at 9:07 pm

I think it gets lumped into the “faith” category because many look to it as a spiritual problem, as one of the comments on a prior post pointed to a book review on slate that kinda showed the Mother Earth/Gaia side as compared to the climatologist side.

Sadly its a PR problem the environmentalist camp hasn’t quite got around to dealing with.

Magictofu January 14, 2009 at 9:42 am

I think a point that is worth mentioning is that all environmentalists are not scientists and that all scientists are not environmentalists.

Much of the options offered to people as being environmentaly beneficial have not been subject to intense scientific scrutiny.

Milan January 14, 2009 at 10:11 am

It is certainly true that there is a lot of non-scientific environmentalism out there. There is indeed an annoying overlap between people intensely concerned about environmental problems and people who subscribe to notions like ‘life forces’ and ‘crystal healing.’

Perhaps rather than asserting that environmentalism is scientific, it is fairer to say that it can be when it is at its best.

Magictofu January 14, 2009 at 10:44 am

Milan, I think we can even go further and look at the way environmentalism is being used to sell products from bamboo clothing to the shopping plastic bins I mentionned earlier.

Milan January 14, 2009 at 10:49 am

It can certainly be open to manipulation.

The most egregious example I can think of is the US Air Force claiming want to make ‘green’ fuel, using a coal-to-liquids process.

Clearly, it is necessary to be skeptical about environmental claims.

Ruhh January 14, 2009 at 11:10 am

I think what happened here throughout the years is that back in the day the environmentalists were the hippies. Some of them were flaky and that made it easy for mainstream to dismiss any concern for environment or risk wearing patchouli.

Now that science has taken a broader interest and/or at least mainstream media is covering the issues the rest of the hoopleheads are beginning to pay attention. Those that don’t seem to want to take on some personal accountability on the state of the environment and go on with their over consumptive lives continue to debate the science. Whatever their intentions, I do believe that scientific data should always be challenged before making drastic policy changes.

There is still a lot of debate on the science and causes of climate change and/or global warming. I personally don’t care what comes of the debates as long as it creates a paradigm shift to make people realize that our lifestyles are unsustainable on a finite planet.

If only everyone was forced to watch The Story of Stuff

Milan January 14, 2009 at 11:22 am

There is still a lot of debate on the science and causes of climate change and/or global warming.

This is simply untrue. Take a look at this joint statement from the national science academies of the G8 nations and Brazil, China and India.

Similarly, read about some of Naomi Oreskes’ research into the state of the scientific consensus.

More on climate change deniers:

Ruhh January 14, 2009 at 12:36 pm

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not trying to argue about climate change and/or global warming but I don’t understand how you say that statement is untrue. One only needs to do a quick internet search and finds all kinds of (mis)information on climate myths. Some seem sincere on studying the actual science and some are obvious misinformation campaigns to perpetuate the status quo.
There is so much information out there on both sides. I’m not a climatologist or atmospheric physicist nor do I aim to be one. I personally don’t even care to read any of it. I think whatever comes out we’ll come to a realization that we have to cut ALL emissions. Not just greenhouse gasses. The best way to cut emissions is to curb their production/consumption. The only way to do this is with a change in lifestyle. Convincing people to make lifestyle changes is our greatest challenge. Some are using science to do so and naturally some are also at least trying to use it to justify preserving unsustainable lifestyles.

Milan January 14, 2009 at 12:43 pm

There is a lot of chatter, certainly, about climate science, but there is no longer and legitimate debate about the fact that climate change is happening, that it is caused by human beings, and that it is dangerous.

It is, in fact, far more dangerous than any other environmental problem we have faced or are facing now, with the possible exception of a massive nuclear war. Dealing with climate change is far more important, and far more urgent, than advancing an environmental agenda in general.

Tristan January 14, 2009 at 1:00 pm

“People are free to subject scientific theories to whatever kind of scrutiny they wish. Indeed, it is a key part of the scientific method that this take place. It is an important element that distinguishes science from religions.”

No. This is just wrong. For example, after a paradigm shift, you are “free” to continue on under the old paradigm, but no one will pay the slightest attention to you – because you aren’t practicing science anymore (even though you are subjecting theories to whatever scrutiny you wish). There is no experimentation without some theory taken as a given beforehand, and if you take the non-current theory as given, no one will take you seriously, you cease to be a scientist.

Milan January 14, 2009 at 1:07 pm

Tristan,

Again, this feels like an aside of limited relevance.

Is environmentalism a new religion? If so, why? If not, why not?

In slightly more abstract terms: what defines a religion?

It is frustrating how our debates so often go off topic, wandering back into territory that has been covered to the point of exhaustion in past conversation threads.

. January 14, 2009 at 10:57 pm

I don’t think we’re going to make it,” John Doerr proclaims, in an emotional talk about climate change and investment. Spurred on by his daughter, who demanded he fix the mess the world is heading for, he and his partners.”

Tristan January 15, 2009 at 12:34 am

The particular manner in which you mis-represent the activity of science is relevant to the question “is environmentalism a religion”. Mainly because, Science is very much like a religion – there are certain tenants that you can question, and other ones which you can’t question or you don’t count as a scientist. For example, if you do some experiment, and to explain the results declare that gravity doesn’t function the same at different periods of time, you will be called non-scientific – and not because your theory doesn’t explain the data (assume for a moment that it did, and it even seemed clever).

This is all relevant because what it means for climate change to no longer be a question of debate in the sense of whether it is happening or not and whether it is human caused or not, is that when this debate is over (as you declare it is), that means roughly that scientists who question that are pushed outside the mainstream and are not counted as scientists. Science is a homogonizing force (which you would probably say) moves towards the truth. That’s fine, you can say that – the point is you can’t at the same time hold that Science is completely free and open in the way you declare, and make claims like “the debate about whether humans cause climate change is over” – these are contradicting tensions in describing how science as an activity functions.

Milan January 15, 2009 at 10:13 am

The particular manner in which you mis-represent the activity of science is relevant to the question “is environmentalism a religion”. Mainly because, Science is very much like a religion – there are certain tenants that you can question, and other ones which you can’t question or you don’t count as a scientist. For example, if you do some experiment, and to explain the results declare that gravity doesn’t function the same at different periods of time, you will be called non-scientific – and not because your theory doesn’t explain the data (assume for a moment that it did, and it even seemed clever).

As a scientist, you can question anything as long as you have some data. You can’t question the relativistic conception of gravity on the basis of a hunch or a purely logical argument. I think that if you had an experiment that showed gravity to be variable, as well as a theory explaining it in a way that seemed credible, you would get a lot of attention from the scientific community.

This is all relevant because what it means for climate change to no longer be a question of debate in the sense of whether it is happening or not and whether it is human caused or not, is that when this debate is over (as you declare it is), that means roughly that scientists who question that are pushed outside the mainstream and are not counted as scientists. Science is a homogonizing force (which you would probably say) moves towards the truth. That’s fine, you can say that – the point is you can’t at the same time hold that Science is completely free and open in the way you declare, and make claims like “the debate about whether humans cause climate change is over” – these are contradicting tensions in describing how science as an activity functions.

Part of the problem here is that people mean different things by ‘debate.’

Obviously, there is still a debate in the media. Largely, that is because of professional skeptics who exist only to cloud the issue. They do so primarily at the behest of those who do not want to see greenhouse gasses regulated.

Within the scientific community, there are certainly debates about climate. For instance, there are very active debates about how clouds interact with other elements of the climatic system. That being said, there is no scientific debate about the fact that human beings are releasing greenhouse gasses and that these gasses warm the planet. Likewise, there is no debate that some past states of the planet’s climate would have been profoundly hostile to human life. As such, it seems fair to say that there is no debate about the possibility that climate change will be dangerous.

There are certainly plenty of people out there who have a claim to being scientists but who also have unjustified or even outlandish views. Look at all the doctors tobacco companies were able to use to obscure the link between smoking and lung cancer. That being said, there is a difference between the existence of some dissenting scientists and the existence of a real scientific debate. On the core aspects of climate change, the only debate remaining is one akin to professional wrestling: artificial, and intended for popular consumption.

Magictofu January 15, 2009 at 10:17 am

Tristan, any scientist is welcome to debate climate change and many do. However, as Milan pointed out, it is wrong to argue that there is n0 concensus on a few general point:
1) Climate change is happening
2) It is caused by human activity
3) Its effects are in general disruptive and potentially catastrophic

Things like the rate of changes ion temperature and precipitation, effects on huricanes and cloud cover, etc. are still subject to some debates.

Milan January 15, 2009 at 10:29 am

The question remains of what ‘environmentalism’ is.

While it can have a scientific basis, it is not just a subset of science. That is largely because of the value judgment it includes. Science doesn’t tell you to protect the last bits of old growth forest remaining in your country. At best, it tells you: “If you want to protect species X, you need to maintain this old growth habitat.”

At the same time, environmentalism clearly isn’t a religion. It doesn’t demand that you take anything on faith, and most strands do not make metaphysical claims.

Environmentalism is a social movement, as well as a kind of secular ethical system. A more poetic description would be welcome.

Milan January 15, 2009 at 11:15 am

Another way of looking at the end of the debate is saying that nobody has an alternative hypothesis that is supported by the data. We have direct observations of rising concentrations of greenhouse gasses, as well as rising global temperatures. Alternative theories (sunspots, etc) lack supporting evidence and conflict with evidence that supports anthropogenic global warming.

Ruhh January 15, 2009 at 11:52 am

Can’t we just find a way to push the greenhouse gasses out through the hole in the ozone layer? ; )

Tristan January 15, 2009 at 1:41 pm

“As a scientist, you can question anything as long as you have some data.”

This just isn’t true. What do you think the relation between data and theory is? No amount of data that put into question Newton’s theory of gravity made it possible to propose a replacement – only when contradictions between the theory of electromagnetism and gravity appeared, was pit possible to question gravity. There was plenty of data – but usually anomalies in data are considered to be “problems” that need to be solved within the current theoretical structure, not evidence that the current theoretical structure is wrong.

Another thing, what do you think data is? You can’t have any data without theory – you need to make theoretical assumptions to collect any data at all. So this hard opposition between “theory” and “data” just has no basis in the activity of scientific practice.

Milan January 15, 2009 at 2:00 pm

All I am saying is that openness to scrutiny, on the basis of empirical observations, is one major element distinguishing environmentalism from religions. Whereas environmentalism takes into account new information about the world (say, the discovery that CFCs destroy atmospheric ozone), religions often need to find ways to save pre-existing beliefs in the face of contradictory new data (say, on the age of the world or the nature of evolution).

What would you say environmentalism is?

Tristan January 15, 2009 at 2:31 pm

MagicTofu,

“Tristan, any scientist is welcome to debate climate change and many do. However, as Milan pointed out, it is wrong to argue that there is n0 concensus on a few general point:
1) Climate change is happening
2) It is caused by human activity
3) Its effects are in general disruptive and potentially catastrophic”

What this means is that at some point, although perhaps that point has not arrived yet, that Scientists outside this general concensus will be excluded from mainstream scientific practice. There are practical consequences to this – they won’t get grants from the major organizations that fund science.

Although, since there is such a special interest in the form of oil companies, etc, it’s actually not difficult for dissenting scientists to get funding. However, at some point, the fact that scientists outside the consensus can only get funding from special interests will signal that they are no longer part of the scientific community.

Since the “consensus” is not some individual piece of data-theory correspondence which can be tested and confirmed or falsified, but rather a social fact about the practice of science. So, the thing that makes it un-scientific to hold certain positions is a social fact, not a testable fact. So, it’s the same kind of exclusion that we see in the history of religion – such as where Christians who believed something about Jesus were excluded from religious communities where the opposite thing about Jesus had been declared dogma.

I think the question “is Environmentalism a religion” is extremely confused. Science is in some ways like a religion, and in many ways not. It’s not entirely dissimilar as I’ve pointed out, but again, in the way it proceeds by social consensus and excludes on basis of social fact, it is in an important aspect almost the same.

But of course, “Environmentalism” is not the same as Science. Science is meant to be value-neutral, but environmentalism has as its declared value to protect the environment. Science, if it is value free, is just evidence, facts, which combined with values, give imperatives for action. Right?

Ruhh January 15, 2009 at 2:49 pm

Ehhhh….?
So should environmentalists be Scientologists then?
?-This conversation is going nowhere-?

Environmentalism, however you define it, has become a fad.
Give any movement a decent amount of media coverage/spin and the hoopleheads will flock to it.

Anon January 15, 2009 at 3:16 pm

Usually, when people say that environmentalism is a religion, they are arguing that it is equally lacking in factual support.

The idea is that burning the rainforest is no more likely to have bad consequences than committing a sin would. In this sense, the idea that environmentalism is a religion is clearly false. While you might argue that the consequences of burning the rainforest aren’t all that bad, you cannot claim that they are non-existent, like Hades or Hell.

Magictofu January 15, 2009 at 3:42 pm

Tristan, Milan’s point was that there IS a fairly concensus and that claiming otherwise is wrong. Your point seems to be that when a concensus exists people who do not share the same ideas are necessarily excluded from the debate. I don’t agree fully with it but it does reflect some of my very unscientific feelings about human psychology. That being said, the problem is not the concensus itself but the way we interpret it.

Tristan January 15, 2009 at 11:41 pm

“. I don’t agree fully with it but it does reflect some of my very unscientific feelings about human psychology. That”

What don’t you agree with? I’m not making a moral argument, I’m just describing how the activity of institutionalized scientific practice actually proceeds. What do you mean the problem is not the consensus? I didn’t say the consensus was a problem – I said consensus is how a theory in Science becomes calcified and stops being something you’re allowed to question without being excluded from Science. What do you mean the way we interpret the consensus? Why does it make a lick of difference how I interpret the consensus on climate change in Science – I’m not a Scientist? I’m not going to be excluded from my peers of I don’t accept something that is a Scientific consensus – I’m not a Scientist.

My point was that yes, there is a consensus – and this is exactly the way in which Science is like a religion – because after the consensus is reached it is every bit as difficult to question it or destabilize it as it is to say something heretical about Jesus. So, in other words, not impossible but difficult and not something a single person can achieve entirely on their own.

Magictofu January 16, 2009 at 11:03 am

Tristan, I think you are making extremely bold assertions, and this is where I am not sure I totally agree with you.

I do not think censensus necessarily become dogma. After all, we live in a culture rich with tales of scientists who defied past consensus; sometimes with difficulty, sometimes with great success. In fact, I actually believe that questioning the consensus is a big part of a scientist’s education.

I agree that group mentality is a very important psychological aspect that we have to consider here but it is not the only one that is of importance. Rationality and a desire for great achievement certainly play an important role in avoiding group-think and self-censorship.

We should not conflate our psychological and sociological tendencies with their outcomes in different fields: science and religion for instance.

Milan January 16, 2009 at 4:12 pm

‘Environmentalism’ is a term broad enough to incorporate many different viewpoints. Peter Dauvergne and Jennifer Clapp, for instance, identify four major strands distinguished by their core beliefs and the types of policies they advocate:

  • Market liberals – basically people who see environmental problems as externalities to be internalized
  • Bioenvironmentalists – a lot like neo-Malthusians
  • Institutionalists – also concerned with incentives, but more focused on the structures that produce them
  • Social greens – often, people who see social and environmental issues are inescapably intertwined

You can certainly categorize the environmental movement in many different ways. My point here is that all of these views have a connection with science. At the same time, they all have different non-scientific assumptions and put forward policy suggestions on the basis of different information and reasoning.

While none is subsumed within science, it is equally clear that none are religions. I think the key reason for this is openness to scrutiny and the absence of appeals to metaphysical concepts. The modes of discourse within the scientific community are a bit of an aside here, since it is the modes of discourse within schools of this kind (within environmentalism) that distinguish the environmental movement from a religion.

Tristan January 16, 2009 at 4:34 pm

MagicTofu,

I’m just describing the role consensus plays in the activity of Science. Kuhn is the authority on this, not me. I’ve never seen a convincing rebuttal to the main thrust of his analysis. You can read Structures of Scientific Revolution and develop your own opinion, but it’s pretty difficult to see how your idea of Science as the practice of questioning consensus could be possibly true.

Milan,

Your comments presume that Science can be opposed to religion, but this discussion has not reached a consensus concerning what distinguishes Science from religion. Specifically, you haven’t responded to my point that consensus plays a similar role in Science as it plays in religion with regards to what counts as Truth (that which you can’t question and remain a member).

Milan January 16, 2009 at 4:41 pm

In science, you can’t question the consensus without evidence and remain a member of the scientific community. Say you think light is a wave because of the double-slit experiment, and I think it is a particle because of radiometers. We are engaged in scientific debate because we both have a theory and some evidence.

If I say the moon is spherical on the basis of evidence and you say it is a flat disc on the basis of none, you have excluded yourself from the scientific debate. Likewise, if someone claims that observed temperature trends are caused by sunspot activity, an examination of the empirical evidence can show them to be wrong.

Key religious questions do not involve evidence and cannot be arbitrated on its basis.

Do you think that science and religion are the same thing? If not, what sets them apart?

Magictofu January 16, 2009 at 4:50 pm

Tristan, Khun was mandatory reading for one of my PhD seminar… I don’t think you actually read it seriously.

Tristan January 16, 2009 at 4:56 pm

MagicTofu,

I took a course on Khun as an undergrad, and also covered it in an MA seminar, maybe we should have a more extended debate about the role of consensus in Science, and the difference between problem-solving and revolutionary scientific change.

Milan,

“In science, you can’t question the consensus without evidence and remain a member of the scientific community”

Ok, and yet – any Scientist in the 19th century who had plenty of data to question the current theory of gravity, wouldn’t have been taken seriously.

There is no theory neutral data. Do you not understand what that means? It means there is no such thing as evidence without consensus – any scientist must make use of some consensus for his data to be considered scientific. He therefore can’t challenge that consensus with the data.

Emily January 16, 2009 at 5:08 pm

I’m not an expert on scientific theory, but isn’t the difference between religion and science laid out in the scientific method?

All religions claim to point you towards, and deliver you the ‘truth’. The ‘truth’ is the end, and the end is conclusive – not open to debate.

The ‘truth’ in science is merely a carrot before the horse, a motivating factor, but an end that should never be considered to have been reached. At best, after you provide enough evidence you may form a scientific ‘law’ which is necessarily open to challenge and modification, when differing evidence and results beg for it.

Emily January 16, 2009 at 5:30 pm

Though, I think I understand that at some point Tristan is debating the reality of this ideal scientific approach.

I think the reality is that we often colour particular science according to our personal agendas, and our tendency to be hesitant to change. In this way, science is manipulated, like, say, the scriptures, to prove particular things for particular reasons.

I don’t think that religion and science are the same, but you can certainly draw parallels between the followers of religion and science.

Just like you could draw parallels between a whale and a ship, you can recognize similarities, but it seems absurd to claim they are fundamentally the same thing.

Tristan January 16, 2009 at 10:34 pm

Emily,

Your concerns about Science being controlled by personal (probably more important social agendas) are real – the Edinburgh school of SSK (sociology of scientific knowledge) did a lot of work on this.

But my concerns are more basic. First of all, there is no such thing as the scientific method, that’s a simplification cited by charletans – You won’t find any philosophers of science after Popper declaring that such a method exists. Popper is no longer considered a serious choice amoung philosophical (read: considered) understandings of scientific activity.

What I’m saying is, what it means for something to become scientific truth, is to be the content of a concensus. In other words, to be the kind of thing that can’t be questioned – not simply which contingently isn’t questioned, but which neccesarily isn’t questioned if you want to remain a practicer of Science. In that sense, Science is very much like religion whenever it reaches a conclusion. Of course, Scientific consensus is not reached in the same way religious consensus is – Scientists are concerned with problem solving with theory and data (which is already theoretical). Where as, theologians are concerned with, well, I don’t really know what drives debates in revolutionary theology – presumably it either has a structure and we can describe its metastability, or it doesn’t and we shouldn’t both. Anyway – my point is that Science is by practice “dogmatic” in a way very similar to religion – so the comparison is meaningful, not just “you can draw parallels between anything”.

Magictofu January 17, 2009 at 10:11 am

Tristan’ I’ll take your word for it but I find your reading at odd with my own and incredibly lacking in subtlety.

Regarding consensus:

1) A consensus does not have to become a dogma, it can simply be the sum of people’s understanding… I believe most consensus is of that nature in science. Most articles that get to be published in decent journals have to bring something new to a debate… if they merely state what has been said before, they are often left aside.

2) I accept your point that there can be some level of sociological aspects to consensus which would limit the expression of different opinions. However, my argument is that we have numerous cultural mechanisms that counterbalance this. All those tales about heroic scientific discoveries, from Galileo to Darwin and others, serves exactly that purpose. Even what you might take as the myth of the scientific method can serve that purpose.

Tristan January 17, 2009 at 10:24 am

“Most articles that get to be published in decent journals have to bring something new to a debate… if they merely state what has been said before, they are often left aside.”

Are you paying any attention – I’m not talking about what gets discussed in articles. I’m talking about what’s presumed, what isn’t discussed – what there isn’t discussion about is what consensus has already been reached concerning. E.G. when consensus is reached concerning whether humans started climate change, we stop seeing articles which ask “do humans cause climate change?”.

All those tales of heroic scientific discoveries are largely fairy tale fabrications – if you actually look at the history, as Kuhn bothered to (I’m not saying I have, I just read a few books and pretend to be an expert), you see that certain “sociological” conditions had to hold for people to be taken seriously concerning their “new discoveries”.

What does the Scientific method have to do with the acceptance of the theory of Oxygen, or Heliocentric, or Relativity?

Magictofu January 17, 2009 at 12:46 pm

Tristan, what’s presumed and not discussed is not synonym with consensus. To get back to your climate change example, we now have very strong evidence that climate change is caused by human activity but we still see a number of articles and debates about the various and sometimes contradicting ways human activity is changing the climate. Here, few things are actually presumed and even the details behind the main mechanism supposedly so consensual is still being discussed.

As for “fairy tales” they are very powerful cultural icons, they deeply influence the way we conduct our lives.

New evidences forces people who follow the scientific method to accept new theories. If someone came up with strong evidences that climate change is not caused by human activity, I am sure people will be very interested in them. There might be some disbelief at first but I can guaranty you that the work presented will get a fair amount of attention.

I think an important distinction to make, and it relates to the main issue here, is that there is a distinction to make between science and scientific discourses and the larger societal discourses about science. Environmentalism is not science but a discourse based on a scientific understanding of the world, its limits and relations between species and their environment.

Tristan January 18, 2009 at 3:05 am

MagicTofu,

You continue to resort to the notion of “evidence”, without responding to my point that “evidence” or “data” does not exist in a theory-neutral environment – and the theory which is “neutral” enough to pass ubiquitously as data is theory which is accepted by consensus.

If you don’t address this issue, please don’t pretend to respond to my points.

Magictofu January 18, 2009 at 9:30 am

Tristan, although data is often informed by theory, it is generally obtained through a method aimed at testing the theory. As such, it is not necessarily supportive of the theory. Also, evidences can be found in other fields and investigations.

And by the way, your own comment did not emerge in a theory-neutral environment, should it then be discredited?

Tristan January 18, 2009 at 1:46 pm

Are you actually are pulling the “but you’re own comments are subject to the anti-falsifiability critique you are subjecting other things to” line? Do you think that’s a relevant criticism, or something I wouldn’t immediately concede and then point out that it’s a irrelevant non-sequitor? Yes of course my comments come from a culturally informed background which I’ve received specific training and not other training and I’ve adopted and rejected various positions based on what I thought of them at the time and at subsequent times – but those kind of reasons why anyone holds this kind of point of view are irrelevant to whether their view should be adopted or not.

To make a really stark example, it’s possible to explain why I believe OSX to be a better OS than Vista which is entirely chemical or physical – where every judgment I’ve made can be reduced to something about the scientific unviserse, and therefore, you could have an entirely complete set of reasons “why” I believe X rather than Y. But no one in their right mind would expect these reasons to be convincing – if I want to formulate convincing reasons I do so in language appealing to shared values (and, perhaps in other ways, I don’t pretend to have figured out the relation between action things and value).

You say you’ve read Kuhn, and yet you just iterate Popper’s doctrine of falsifiability over and over again. No one believes this anymore – Positivism is dead. It’s almost as if you refuse to distinguish between the theory which is presupposed from the theory which is being evaluated in a piece of data – it’s a pretty simple distinction and if you had read Kuhn “seriously” as you challenged me to not have done, it’s hard to see why you would find this distinction so elusive.

Magictofu January 18, 2009 at 4:30 pm

“Positivism is dead”

You really take the idea of paradigm shit to a weird extreme ;-)

I read Kuhn but do not reject the idea of falsifiability for that matter. Contextualizing falsiability is not entirely rejecting it Tristan. And arguing that scientific progress is not linear at the macro-scale does not mean that it is not at the other levels.

Now to answer your first objection, yes I did just what you accused me of doing, I applied the same logic you were serving me to your own argument. I admit that its a bit low but this conversation does not seem to go up anyway (I’ll admit my own share of the blame here).

Also, we can talk epistemology as much as we want but it won’t change the way science is being practiced, and here falsiability and evidences are still central to the way scientists organize their work.

Tristan January 18, 2009 at 4:59 pm

MagicTofu.

You know, you’re alias becomes stranger the more times I read it. Anyway, my main difficulty here is that you continue to assert something like micro scale linear progress, which itself is something I wholly agree with, but without acknowledging my quite simple point about how consensus is a social fact, or at best, a macro fact about experiments (you can’t prove climate change with any one experiment, but after enough people doing enough experiments, certain facts about climate change stop being questioned). It is in the “not questioned anymore” status of certain questions about climate change that I am concerned with – their consensus status makes them enormously more difficult to challenge with some piece of evidence it is to challenge something about which there is still lively debate. As debates get settled, they “harden”, and become difficult and in certain cases impossible to challenge.

I don’t know if it would be impossible for a single study to throw the human-caused agreement on climate change into question, but I kind of doubt it. If a single study could come out today and all of a sudden all scientists would change their mind about climate change being an environmental problem or being human-caused, that would seem to indicate they are much less certain about their current convictions than I’ve been told to believe.

It seems to me that the positivist-types try to have it both ways with science – they try to say that both “there is no more debate on some issues in climate change”, and at the same time “all scientific questions are open to contrary evidence”. But it seems like certainty comes in degrees – and certainty over a consensus can be roughly translated in how much contrary evidence would be required to de-stablize it. If the consensus is strong and that amount of hypothetical evidence is greater than the amount of evidence which could be practically procured given financial constraints (and taking into account the fact that scientists trying to disprove climate change will likely not get a lot of funding from the national science funding associations), then it’s unclear how you can still say “any theory can be falsified with evidence” when it’s quite clear that practical constraints make certain theories impossible to falsify with the amount of evidence that can actually be produced.

This is of course an different kind of “consensus becomes truth” than revolutionary science, because the constraint against falsifiability is practical rather than ontological.

Emily January 18, 2009 at 10:44 pm

Tristan,

Can you cite an example where this ‘hardening’ of consensus has occurred, and where the scientific community refuses to cede to reasonable evidence? I agree that this happens, especially when there are special interest parties involved. But, I can’t call any to mind outside of the pharmaceutical or medical field.

The sense that I keep getting from your posts is that the entire scientific community moves altogether homogeneously once something is ‘proved’.

I doubt that this is the case. It seems to me that the reason that every time we pick up a paper and get a conflicting study on the proposed healthy/unhealthy nature of salt in our diets we are observing the kind of unending skeptic vs. proponent duality that the scientific community is always duking out.

Also, can ‘scientist’ can be considered as an appropriate umbrella term for everyone who practices inquiry in the field of science?

‘Scientists’ are men who appear in white lab coats in 60’s pulp sci-fi. The field of scientific inquiry has fractured off into a number of factions geo-physicists, bio-chemists, neurologists, etc. etc.

Maybe we are discussing ‘scientists’ as a homogeneous body that no longer exists. Though, it’s possible that there is a strict cultural aspect of the serious scientific community that conforms all of the fields of science into something similar to that.

Do you see the global scientific factions and communities as all operating under the same philosophy of science?

Tristan January 19, 2009 at 12:13 am

Emily,

My point is that once consensus has been reached on something, it becomes a pre-supposition. In other words, a piece of theory that becomes part of facts – because in the gathering of further facts, that theory is presumed in the methodology of fact-gathering.

An example of theory becoming part of a fact is actually quite simple. Say in pre-consensus land, you study all the different emmiters of C02 – looking for an increase which might be causing global warming. You know Humans are the cause of only 2%, so you have no reason to think humans are the most likely cause of this increase – you will look at humans, but also at changes in other eco systems for the cause of the increased C02 in the atmosphere. But, in post-consensus land, it’s pre-decided that the shifts in Co2 outside the 2% are caused by an increase in the 2% – so everywhere you look for how increased human Co2 production might be causing equilibriums in other places to fail. In other words, the consensus on the theory changes what kind of facts you look for – the decision about the human-causedness of climate change is “built into” your data.

Scientists who remain out-side the consensus are marginalized in ways I’ve already described – they will find it increasingly difficult to be published in mainstream journals, and they will be ineligible for mainstream funding. This isn’t a “conspiracy of the coorperations” – if anything, it’s oil company funding that keeps the Scientists in this case who are outside the consensus funded, so they actually do have the cash to produce the data they can try to use to convince the mainstream that humans are not the cause of climate change.

Magictofu January 19, 2009 at 9:40 am

Tristan, concerning my alias, it’s just an old one that I kept using over and over. It comes from a bad joke not even worth mentioning here.

I’m sorry if I did not make it clear before, I do not oppose your main point that consensus are often used rhetorically to suppress alternative views. My contention relates more to the fact that you seem to conflate consensus themselves to this sociological aspect of sciences. I also question what appears to me as the extreme conclusions that you draw from this particular view. It strikes me that you failed to integrate other aspects of scientific inquiries in your reasoning. I also question your use of labels (e.g. positivist) in that these relates to idealized epistemological point of views or approaches to the study of science and not necessarily to real world practices.

To get back to your example of climate change. What produces the consensus here is not the simple acceptance of certain ideas but also the vast accumulation of evidences pointing in the same direction. It is probably true that a new piece of evidence pointing in the opposite direction will not, by itself, change peoples opinion on the issue; however I don’t think this would be caused by the strength of the current paradigm but because of the sheer amount of evidences pointing in the other direction. Of course, these things reinforce each other (hence my point about enlarging the debate to get a better scope at the real world), I’ll admit that easily. However, I am pretty certain that the new evidences will be scrutinized and tested. Anomalies in a model are very important to scientific enquiries and often lead to new discoveries. Scientists know that and are often looking for such anomalies.

. January 19, 2009 at 10:12 am

“There is no smoking gun for global warming. Instead, there is mounting evidence that when you put it together, it’s hard for people to come up with another explanation.”

Tony Broccoli
Rutgers University

Tristan January 19, 2009 at 10:38 am

1) “Anomolies” only have the kind of force they do specifically because it is to such an extent the scientists job to explain them to not be anomolies.

2) Anomolies are not often treated as counter examples, but merely as things we cannot explain with current tools, not proving anything fundamentally wrong with current theories. I.e. the orbit of Mercury.

3) I was never talking about the rhetorical force of the consensus, but the structural force. In other words, the force it has without anyone specifically trying to use it for anything – it’s “by accident” force.

4) Positivism is the generally accepted term for the practice of rationally reconstructing the accrual of scientific data through evidence, theory testing, etc… Brands of positivism still held, i.e. Putnam, acknowledge that the project is strictly speaking impossible – but claim that the structure of the project is still more fruitful than more stringently sociological ones.

5)

“It is probably true that a new piece of evidence pointing in the opposite direction will not, by itself, change peoples opinion on the issue; however I don’t think this would be caused by the strength of the current paradigm but because of the sheer amount of evidences pointing in the other direction.”

This is, again, the kind of positivist statement that ignores the theory-laden-ness of “evidence” or “data”. It’s not really defensible position. It’s quite clear that you can’t have a single piece of data without having made some theoretical presuppositions – roughly speaking it’s the commonality of those presuppositions which make up the paradigm. (That’s not strictly true because paradigm doesn’t actually mean body of theory, but “a striking example”, and Kuhn is very aware of this point his readers tend to ignore).

. January 19, 2009 at 10:45 am

“We live, we breathe, uncertainties, caveats. The thing that distinguishes us from our critics is that they have no error bars. They have certainty about the way the world works. That’s the big difference.”

-Jeffrey Peck Severinghaus
Scripps Institute of Oceanography

“When you deal with very complex science that has undergone well established vetting, new stud­ies don’t change the big picture much. It’s the equivalent of a mi­nor veer in a big super tanker of information that is steering along. Nuances are new, but the basic ideas about the cause of climate change haven’t changed in 40 years.”

—Stephen Schneider
at a University of California, Berkeley workshop

Magictofu January 19, 2009 at 11:37 am

Tristan:

1) Agreed
2) Partial agreement, I would prefer a more nuanced language but I can live with it.
3) You’ll have to explain what you mean by structural force of consensus. If it is based on socio-psychological factors, I guess I’m fine with your comment; I have been trying to highlight this in an earlier post.
4) Here, I would step back and say that labels such as positivism are generally recognized and useful to the study of science but that they are still labels. They describe ideal-types, not real world entities or projects. We might disagree here but I feel that too much theory blinds more than illuminate, hence my previous comments.
5) I think we’ll have to agree on disagreeing on this one. Scientific activities are much broader than a simple theory validation exercise. Often data precedes theory or is derived from other fields of enquiries. Statistical analysis for instance is being used to discover new relations between variables in many fields; this ultimately leads to new theories, etc.

. January 19, 2009 at 3:35 pm

Nature Reports Climate Change
Published online: 18 December 2008

What we’ve learned in 2008

Amanda Leigh Mascarelli looks at how far our understanding of climate change has come in the past twelve months:

  1. Other greenhouse gases are also worrying
  2. Arctic summer sea ice is in rapid decline
  3. Warming is already having an impact
  4. The hockey stick holds up
  5. Sceptics are still out there

And what we’re still working on:

  1. How much warming and by when
  2. Where to stabilize
  3. Where the missing carbon is going
  4. Whether warming worsens storms
  5. How fast Greenland is melting
Tristan January 19, 2009 at 5:18 pm

4)

Positivism is not a branch of science – it is a project in Philosophy of Science, or you could say “Epistemology” if you prefer that term. It refers to, well actually to 2 groups, but what they share in common is the idea that what philosophers should do with respect to Science is try to give a logical reconstruction of what they’ve done. But, it turns out, Science doesn’t actually proceed so as to give easy work to the rational-re constructors, and although it was never “proven” impossible, somewhere in the 60s people stopped believing the project possible.

However, almost every time reasonably intelligent people try to give an account of Science, they give a positivist one. This can be extremely irritating to those who wish that progress in the academy should result in progress in common thought.

Magictofu January 19, 2009 at 8:55 pm

4) Please Tristan, don’t treat me like an idiot. I never argued that positivism is a branch of science. I have argued that it is a label used by people sudying science and that, as such, it is an ideal-type, not a true description of the way science works. I would even argue that it really does not matter to the debate here. “Evidences”, either fact based and “pure” or the subject of sociological bias is still treated the same way by scientists who probably have very little to care about what ivory tower philosophers think.

Tristan January 19, 2009 at 9:34 pm

Positivism isn’t a description of how science works! It’s a description of a group of people who say divergent things about how science works. Positivism, logical positivism anyway, is explicitly an attempt to “idealize” science – at least that’s how I understand “rational reconstruction”. Positivism is dead not because it is an idealization but because it is an ultimately un-useful and fundamentally misguiding idealization.

It doesn’t matter much to Philosophers of science if what scientists believe about the evidence they use is misleading to someone trying to understand how science operates as a discipline. Kuhn spends a fair amount of time talking about exactly this – why the teaching of Science is full of necessary lies and it should not be in any way blamed for this, nor should we try to remedy the lies Science teaches scientists about evidence or theory change.

Magictofu January 20, 2009 at 12:22 am

Was typing fast… positivism is a label used to describe presuppositions of a group of persons, we can certainly agree on that. The rest of my argument remains unchanged.

Tying to idealized science is what I would call a positivist agenda, but that does not matter much here… it is not about science, its about philosophy. The way we understand the history of scientific knowledge or the way it tends to evolve has very little effect on the way scientists work. In the best scenario, it simply allows them to contextualize their work.

Science does not work like religion because it is meant to be questioned raionally. People have bias, sure, but scientists still do their best to avoid the most obvious ones.

Consensus only emerge when a plurality of evidences converge on a paricular issue. Consensus are not absolute nor eternal however… we certainly agree on that… but they are not simply self-replicating monsters, they are grounded on evidences, and yes these evidences can be biaised, but as long as these bias are not exposed, they are considered valid.

New evidences and the identification of said bias are scrutinized and weighted against other evidences, models are refined, theories adjusted and somtimes past consensus ejected. Call this whatever you like, it is the way we, as a society, peform science. That there can be obstacle to this is obvious, as you mentioned funding can be difficult for certain type of research, but it does not alter entirely the whole process…

I think I’ve spent enough time discussing this issue. We do not need to agree on this.

Tristan January 20, 2009 at 1:01 am

“The way we understand the history of scientific knowledge or the way it tends to evolve has very little effect on the way scientists work. In the best scenario, it simply allows them to contextualize their work.”

Nope. It matters – if we want to support Science, it would be quite useful for people in a position to aid the activity of Science to know how it actually works, rather than what Scientists think about how it works.

Tristan January 20, 2009 at 1:04 am

“New evidences and the identification of said bias are scrutinized and weighted against other evidences, models are refined, theories adjusted and sometimes past consensus ejected.”

Again, no one really believes this anymore. Neither verifiability (logical positivism) nor falsifiability (logical empiricism) are endorsed by any mainstream current philosophers of science or sociologists of scientific knowledge – Quine’s holism for the most part is dominant. Personally, I think both sides are full of hogwash, but anyway, it’s not very important what I think.

Magictofu January 20, 2009 at 9:31 am

I feel I’m back in CEGEP having juvenile arguments. Let just stop it there and simply that we do not agree with each other.

Tristan January 20, 2009 at 1:18 pm

I’ll agree to stop debating the point if you want – but I won’t concede that I’m not right, nor will I concede that doesn’t make a large difference to the world we live in that positivism’s death has been ignored so thoroughly outside of, and even inside of, philosophy. This is one of those cases where people just start ignoring each other rather than respecting a standing disagreement. It’s the end of thinking, maybe that’s why it reminds you of CEJEP arguments.

Magictofu January 20, 2009 at 1:54 pm

It reminds me of my own experience in CEGEP because I spent countless hours discussing and debating mindlessly on almost anything. It was not productive and often lead to tensions among my friends that I would have prefered to avoid.

Milan January 20, 2009 at 1:59 pm

It seems quite possible that “mainstream current philosophers of science or sociologists of scientific knowledge” aren’t terribly important or influential, given how nobody cares to discuss their ideas.

It may be that people in general have an understanding of science that is, in some ways, superficial. Nonetheless, it seems to serve them better than bewildering criticisms from the philosophically-minded do.

Magictofu January 20, 2009 at 3:15 pm

Only partially related to this discussion but immenselly funny unless you have very strong opinions one way or the other: the Sokal affair

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sokal_affair
http://www.physics.nyu.edu/faculty/sokal/

Tristan January 20, 2009 at 5:52 pm

Milan,

“Nonetheless, it seems to serve them better than bewildering criticisms from the philosophically-minded do.”

Did you actually find Kuhn’s book “bewildering”?

Magictofu January 20, 2009 at 6:52 pm

Not to answer for Milan but it appears from our conversation that different people made very different reading of that book than others…

Tristan January 20, 2009 at 8:43 pm

Maybe we should just have a post about this book, and we can debate what it “means”. I’ve been trying to not cite large portions of text pretending to be “.”, but in a different forum…

Not to say the book has something like a “standard reading”, but personally I’d be very interested to see what different people read out of this book. It’s very repetitive, and I don’t see where large divergence in readings would come from.

Magictofu January 21, 2009 at 7:05 am

I think our reading differ in how much a break it is from other line of thought (i.e. Popper). I see Kuhn’s thesis as an attempt to contextualize the way science progress while I believe that you see a clear opposition to a more narrow positivist position . As I tried to mention earlier, I feel labels like “positivist” exaggerate philosophical cleavages and are useful only in that they are ideal-types which facilitate abstract thinking… the problem is that the further you go in abstraction, the further you go from real world issues, which tend to be much more subtle and complex. At least, this is how I understand the issue at this point.

Tristan January 21, 2009 at 9:46 am

So, you think abstraction just distorts and distracts one from “real world issues”. Is there a non-abstracted form of “real world issues” which we abstract for academic purposes? I always thought the point of abstraction was understanding that which was not at first explicit.

Magictofu January 21, 2009 at 9:57 am

I think that we can only understand the world through abstraction. That does not mean that I do not believe the world to be infinitely more complex at the same time. Abstraction allows you to negate the real world its complexity to understand sub-systems and sub-mechanism. At least, this is how I understand things.

Milan January 21, 2009 at 10:21 am

Did you actually find Kuhn’s book “bewildering”?

Kuhn’s book, no.

The conversation above, somewhat.

Tristan January 21, 2009 at 12:25 pm

“Abstraction allows you to negate the real world its complexity to understand sub-systems and sub-mechanism.”

So, you’re a reductionist?

Magictofu January 21, 2009 at 2:26 pm

We are all Tristan. But honestly, I have had enough of this discussion.

Tristan January 22, 2009 at 12:19 am

We’re all reductionists? Maybe you should speak for yourself.

Magictofu January 22, 2009 at 7:23 am

Yawn!

. March 27, 2009 at 3:55 pm

The Green Religion
March 27, 2009

“My professor obliquely suggested that ‘greening’ is the new religion cast in scientific terms. Certainly, it garners enough internal, emotional hostility in the average green-er to set off warning bells that perhaps our beliefs are religious-like in how we manifest and defend them.

Climate change, he ventured, is yet another scientific delusion. It is the Satan in the good, neighbourly religion of nature-loving ecological science.

And, hearing this, the haunches of the class were visibly agitated. The whole class mobilized emotionally. In my eyes, the professor suddenly lost credibility.

I think he proved his point, as irritating as it is to admit.”

Swampfox June 3, 2009 at 10:31 pm

I think you do a very good job describing ecology (the study of organisms’ interactions with their environments) while labeling it environmentalism. Ecology makes sense and has been going on for thousands of years. Environmentalism is relatively new and most definitely has religious overtones and is practiced by many as a religion.

Take a look: http://tinyurl.com/p7fhzq

Milan June 4, 2009 at 10:43 am

As you identify, ecology is a form of scientific study. As such, it does not have an explicitly prescriptive agenda.

Environmentalism, by contrast, is an ethical and political position based on the idea that we should protect the physical and biological systems of the planet, for the benefit of humans and other living things. For the reasons identified above – such as not involving faith – it is not a religion.

Milan June 4, 2009 at 10:47 am

Incidentally, I discourage the use of TinyURL for several reasons:

1) It makes it impossible for people following the link to know where they are going in advance.

2) If TinyURL shuts down, the links will be useless.

3) Such services disrupt attempts to map the connections that exist on the web.

Here is your link in a much better form:

Environmentalism as Religion

Milan June 4, 2009 at 2:28 pm

Often activists become so zealously involved that they revere environmental concerns above all else.

I don’t think this is an accurate categorization. What is accurate is that all human activities depend critically on services provided by the environment, such as breathable air and food. Environmentalism is partly about recognizing that the economy is a physical subsection of the environment, and can never grow beyond what the planet can sustain.

And while they might not believe in a supernatural being, their devotion is no different than the Muslim pilgrim, born-again Christian, or Buddhist monk. Of course, some activists do believe in the supernatural. To them, god is in everything and therefore nature is sacred. Nothing can be harmed – even slightly.

This is also a misrepresentation and exaggeration. It is not as though the current world economy is just doing small and manageable amounts of harm to natural systems. A quote from Gus Speth sums it up well: “How serious is the threat to the environment? Here is one measure of the problem: all we have to do to destroy the planet’s climate and biota and leave a ruined world for our children and grandchildren is to keep doing exactly what we are doing today, with no growth in the human population or the world economy.”

You don’t need to revere nature to be seriously concerned about how much damage we are doing to the natural systems that sustain us, or the effect that will have on the future of humanity.

Because the zealous activist thinks of only one priority, balanced thinking vanishes. Additionally, because environmental beliefs become so strongly held, contradicting facts and realities are ignored. Thinking without balance and ignoring facts is, of course, no way to develop environmental policies.

In a situation where the key messages of sustainability are commonly expressed but rarely acted upon, it is quite justifiable to try to push society towards paying more attention to its own environmental impact. Focusing only on economic prosperity, without considering the things that come along with it or the prospects for sustaining it, is not an example of intelligently balancing different priorities.

In the end, environmentalists have more in common with people who anticipate big future problems and urge action on them than they do with people of faith who cling diligently to a particular dogma.

. July 31, 2009 at 12:22 pm

‘Global warming as new religion?’ Give me a break — climate change is serious
By Jim Hoggan, Special to the Vancouver SunJuly 30, 2009

There is a strange conviction, in certain circles, that the world’s environmental community has grown superhumanly strong — an idea that, with the cock of an eyebrow or the curl of a lip, any leading environmentalist can strike fear into the hearts of academics, politicians and businesspeople around the globe.

As the chair of the David Suzuki Foundation, the leading environmental organization in Canada, I wish that it were so. To borrow the fiery rhetoric of Vancouver Sun columnist Jonathon Manthorpe, I would be delighted, if only for a day, to be one of the “ayatollahs of puritan environmentalism” or the “Torquemadas of the doctrine of global warming.”

. November 9, 2009 at 1:55 pm

It isn’t godly being green

It is an insult to science to rule that belief in man-made climate change is a religious conviction

A British judge has decided that belief in human influence on climate has the status of religious conviction. This is being celebrated as a success by some activists. As a scientist who works on climate change, I find it deeply alarming. Is Jeremy Clarkson similarly entitled to protection if he declares himself a conscientious objector and wants to keep his 4×4?

It is yet another symptom of general confusion over the status of science among the public, politicians, the judiciary and, indeed, just about anyone who is not a practising scientist. I don’t ask anyone to believe in human influence on climate because I do, or because thousands of other scientists do. I ask them to look at the evidence. As Einstein is said to have reacted to an article entitled 100 scientists against Einstein: “If I’m wrong, one would be enough.”

The scientific case for human influence on climate is not a political opinion, made stronger simply by lots of people signing up. Nor is it a religious conviction, made stronger, in Mr Justice Burton’s phrase, if it is “genuinely held”. It is based on evidence and understanding that has withstood some of the most intense scrutiny in the history of science.

If I could come up with convincing evidence that greenhouse gas emissions do not cause dangerous climate change after all, evidence that similarly withstands the scrutiny of my peers, I would get, and deserve, a Nobel prize (and for physics this time, not peace). If a scientist finds something that appears to conflict with mainstream opinion, she or he publishes it like a shot – this is not the behaviour of an adherent to a “genuinely held philosophical belief”.

_ January 17, 2010 at 5:43 pm

My my, wouldn’t a discussion like this make a great short film?

As the patient lies dying on an operating table, a group of people stand around looking down at them trying to decide what to do. A doctor and a shaman are on standby. (The patient’s body jerks as though in agony.) The doctor suggests an anesthetic. The shaman suggests calling a plant spirit. Which practitioner is really more qualified to take charge? Most of the group has sided with the doctor. But one stands in staunch opposition, proposing a much more thorough analysis of the situation. Are these two really so different? The doctor cites his scientific knowledge and medical experience. The shaman cites the stories of his ancestors and his miraculous healing powers. Are scientific “truths” really any better than religious ones? How can we really know? Hmm… (The patient’s life continues to drain.) What is this thing we call science really? How do we know what’s really true? Is this patient really even dying? What does dying really mean? The discussion continues as the patient dies.

Personally I would hope that in *reality* the group wouldn’t take too long to dismiss philosophical nuances and shamanism, focusing instead on what actually works more often than anything else. But maybe I’m just too small-minded to grasp the importance of such thorough philosophical analyses and their existential implications.

Milan January 18, 2010 at 12:31 pm

Simon Singh’s Trick or Treatment is a very good book on evidence-based medicine.

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