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‘Truthiness’ and ‘factiness’ in politicized scientific debates

By Judith Curry | Climate Etc. | December 3, 2016

The trappings of science can be decoupled from the actual rigor of science.

The trigger for this post is a recent article in the Atlantic, entitled How Will Trump Use Science to Further His Political Agenda? The article provides some important insights, that are worth discussing in context of the climate debate and the politicization of climate science. Excerpts:

Of all the memorable lines from this year’s election, the one I keep returning to months later is from Hillary Clinton’s acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention. “And I believe in science,” she said, as she pivoted to climate change. She giggled. The crowd roared. Isn’t it absurd she had to say she believed in science?  And most smug of all: Hillary, science is not a belief.

Clinton’s appeal to science as a partisan rallying cry . . . was clearly in response to the mockery of Trump and his supporters as “anti-science.” But “anti-science” is a dangerously simplistic label.

The trappings of science can be decoupled from the actual rigor of science. Stephen Colbert, who famously coined “truthiness,” less famously also came up with “factiness.” If “truthiness” is a feeling of truth with a disregard for the facts, then “factiness” is using actual facts to paint a misleading truth.

Factiness is the taste for the feel and aesthetic of “facts,” often at the expense of missing the truth. From silly self-help-y TED talks to wrapping ourselves in the misleading scientism of Fivethirtyeight statistics, factiness is obsessing over and covering ourselves in fact after fact while still missing bigger truths.

I’ll suggest that factiness doesn’t actually cleave neatly across the left and the right. It’s an outgrowth of our cognitive biases. We often make decisions emotionally, sometimes based on tribal affiliations; then we marshall the facts that prove us right while discarding the ones that prove us wrong. As such, throwing more facts at climate deniers hasn’t convinced them.

Factiness is why using the veneer of science to rationalize an idea is dangerous, making the idea appear more justified than it really is. It is pro-science in appearance, but anti-science in spirit.

In theory, science provides an objective framework for finding truths about the world. But in practice, science is conducted by humans with biases, often blind to them. To ignore how the practice of science is intertwined with politics is to be blind, in turn, to the coming changes. As a President Trump pulls the discourse in his direction, the ground will shift slowly but surely shift underneath our feet. It’s harder to recognize in the very beginning, when the ground has only shifted ever so slightly.

[read the Atlantic article for a fascinating and disturbing example of how science was used to support the Bush administration’s torture program in the early 2000s.]

JC reflections

I’ve previously used the concept of ‘truthiness’ in discussing why climate modelers believe their climate models [link]. But before delving into truthiness and factiness in the climate debate, a digression is needed to provide a context for understand what science is, and what a ‘fact’ is.

I’ve written many previous posts on Scientific method  and Sociology of science. Why so many posts on these topics? Because these are exceedingly complex issues, especially in context of the huge scientific complexity of global climate change.

As per the Wikipedia (which has good summary on this topic):

A fact is something that has really occurred or is actually true. The usual test for a statement of fact is verifiability—that is, whether it can be demonstrated to correspond to experience.

Fact is sometimes used synonymously with truth, as distinct from opinions, falsehoods, or matters of taste. Fact may also indicate findings derived through a process of evaluation, including review of testimony, direct observation, or otherwise; as distinguishable from matters of inference or speculation. Facts may be checked by reason, experiment, personal experience, or may be argued from authority.

In science, a fact is a repeatable careful observation or measurement (by experimentation or other means), also called empirical evidence. Facts are central to building scientific theories. Various forms of observation and measurement lead to fundamental questions about the scientific method, and the scope and validity of scientific reasoning.

In the most basic sense, a scientific fact is an objective and verifiable observation, in contrast with a hypothesis or theory, which is intended to explain or interpret facts.

Scholars and clinical researchers in both the social and natural sciences have written about numerous questions and theories that arise in the attempt to clarify the fundamental nature of scientific fact. Pertinent issues raised by this inquiry include: the process by which “established fact” becomes recognized and accepted as such; whether and to what extent “fact” and “theoretic explanation” can be considered truly independent and separable from one another; to what extent “facts” are influenced by the mere act of observation; and to what extent factual conclusions are influenced by history and consensus, rather than a strictly systematic methodology.

What are the facts in the climate science debate?

  • Average global surface temperatures have overall increased for the past 100+ years
  • Carbon dioxide has an infrared emission spectra
  • Humans have been adding carbon dioxide to the atmosphere.

That is pretty much it, in terms of verifiable, generally agreed upon scientific facts surrounding the major elements of climate change debate.

Human caused global warming is a theory. The assertion that human caused global warming is dangerous is an hypothesis. The assertion that nearly all or most of the warming since 1950 has been caused by humans is disputed by many scientists, in spite of the highly confident consensus statement by the IPCC. The issue of ‘dangerous’ climate change is wrapped up in values, and science has next to nothing to say about this.

Truthiness and factiness abounds in the climate science debate, and the greatest proponents of truthiness and factiness are the climate ‘alarmed’ – their opponents are mostly calling b.s. on their truthiness and factiness. In slinging around terms like denier, anti-science etc, the defense of climate alarmism in terms of ‘science’ and ‘facts’ starts to become more anti-science than what they are accusing their opponents of.

From the Rational Wiki:

The term “antiscience” refers to persons or organizations that promote their ideology over scientifically-verified evidence, usually either by denying said evidence and/or creating their own. Antiscience positions are promoted especially when political ideology and/or religious dogma conflict with actual science.

The most glaring ‘factiness’ and anti-science strategy is the linking of extreme weather events to human caused climate change. Roger Pielke Jr has an eloquent op-ed in the WSJ (unfortunately behind paywall, which I will have more to say about in another post next week).

So . . . who fits the definition of ‘anti-science’? Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump?  Ignoring science (Trump) does not qualify him for ‘anti-science’. Science does not prescribe public policy. The political dogma of Obama, Clinton and Pope Francis surrounding climate change seems like more of a recipe for ‘anti-science.’

December 3, 2016 - Posted by | Deception, Science and Pseudo-Science, Timeless or most popular |

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