Saturday, April 29, 2017

Climate of Complete Certainty, or: Nice Knowing You, Bret Stephens

I thought this bit was pretty great:
When someone is honestly 55 percent right, that’s very good and there’s no use wrangling. And if someone is 60 percent right, it’s wonderful, it’s great luck, and let him thank God.
But what’s to be said about 75 percent right? Wise people say this is suspicious. Well, and what about 100 percent right? Whoever says he’s 100 percent right is a fanatic, a thug, and the worst kind of rascal.
— An old Jew of Galicia
 
There's obviously a slip there from is right n% of the time to claims to be right n% of the time...and that might turn out to be the whole ballgame...but I like it and am insufficiently caffeinated at this point to make myself think about it too hard.
   Also: I'm not sure what to make of the 2016 election. The mighty Kevin Drum has said that the explanation is the Comey dog-leg... Which maybe matters here and maybe doesn't.
   So anyway, I'm sympathetic to this piece. But remember: I know nothing about climate change. So who cares what I think? Nobody, I hope.
   Here's a dynamic I saw during the height of the dust-up about creationism, lo, these twenty years ago or whatever:
Scientists: We're surprisingly sure about x
Nay-sayers:  Oh, so not totally sure then...there's a good chance you're wrong!?
Scientists: No, no...we're saying that we're really pretty darned sure about this.
Nay-sayers: There you have it, folks: they're not completely sure.
Scientists: You're not listening to what we're saying: we've very sure.
Nay-sayers: So, what with them not being completely sure and all...
Scientists: WE SAID WE WERE UNUSUALLY SURE. WE'RE VERY SURE. WHAT'S WRONG WITH YOU?
Nay-sayers: Well, obviously you're more certain than science has any right to be.
Scientists: Kill me
   It's this sort of thing that, IMO, led scientists / popularizers / science groupies to make up that thing about how "theory" has always meant a well-confirmed hypothesis. Yeah, that's bullshit. It was an ad hoc rhetorical counter to the creationists' "It's just a theory" argument. I kinda enjoyed seeing the creationists get a dose of their own medicine...but it was a mixture of dishonesty and delusion that alarmed me, coming, as it was, from the good guys. The true response is: evolution is a theory--but it's a very well-supported theory with no known, serious competitors. (And creationists mostly disagree with that last bit.) 'Theory' doesn't mean well-confirmed...or maybe it does now, but that's a result of tactical meaning-change. It didn't mean that when the claim was first deployed.
   As for the climate stuff: I worry that the same thing is going on. Politics is probably slanting things because environmentalism, internationalism, etc. are in the mix. Climate scientists say probably. Conservatives say maybe not. The left jumps in and says, roughly: YOU MUST BELIEVE THAT PROBABLY...and so on. Ultimately we end up with something like: If you're more than nominally skeptical about the UNDENIABLE AND LOOMING CLIMATE APOCALYPSE THAT WILL END MANKIND,  you are an evil, conservative political/moral/epistemic criminal. 
   And that's the point at which I start getting worried...er...well...actually I started getting worried at the stuff about the end of civilization...but you know what I mean.
   Part of the problem is scientists and science groupies and liberals trying to have it both ways on science--both (a) it's always provisional and uncertain and (b) you must believe the current theories and predictions. But that's only part of it. Another part, of course, is conservatives just doing that thing where they cover their ears and go la la la la la.
   I say it doesn't help that there is just so damn much "progressive" interference with science, broadly construed. Conservatives have a really strong case here. There's the progressive push in anthropology and sociology to propagate race nominalism for political reasons. There's the facepalmerific train wreck about transgenderism, and the further push to pretend that it's science. There's the medicalization of gun control efforts... And don't forget those campus rape statistics. (And that's not even yet to mention my own crackpot hobby horse, the miraculous conformity of nutrition science (or sometimes: "science") to upper-middle-class tastes.)
   It's kinda funny to me that academicians on the intellectual left obsess over political bias in science--by which they almost always mean: rightward bias. But the really notable bias in science and semi-science today is almost all leftward, so far as I can tell. Personally, I just expect that "science" will crop up to support whatever the progressive cause du jour is.
   Whelp, that's it. I'm tired of typing. 
   No real conclusion I guess.
   [Oh, yeah...except for the point of all this, of course, which is: Bret Stephens, we hardly knew ya... I hope you've got a Plan B ready, career-wise...cause this column is not going to go over very well with the NYT crowd.]

3 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

You are so right about nutrition science. I feel like anyone with an IQ greater than their lapdog realizes that stuff is self-justifying trendy garbage.

Corollary: most yuppies are no smarter than their lapdogs.

11:54 AM  
Blogger Pete Mack said...

A theory is a cohesive explanation about how the world works--like Newton's theory of Gravity. It has to have verifiable predictions (which is where Darwin had trouble for the first hundred years.)
And yes, people today consider Newton's theory of gravity mostly correct: it's good enough for rocketry, but not for GPS or astrophysics.
I am having a hard time understand where the theory of global warming is so wrong. It predicts extreme warming near the poles: check. It predicts a strong global excess in local record highs over record low: check.
The two things that is not fully explained is just how much amplification of the effect there is from water vapor and secondary emissions (like methane and CO2 from permafrost.)

But yes, this is a theory with high confidence. It's not complete, but that's no surprise for something less than 100 years old (see Darwin above.)

12:24 PM  
Blogger Winston Smith said...

If you're asking me...I don't think it's wrong. I think it's being pushed dogmatically.

And, if you put a gun to my head and made me guess, I'd guess that things are not as bad as one might think just by watching CNN or whatever. Roughly: the more wide-eyed certain views of the matter get, the safer a bet it is that they're erring on the side of pessimism.

My $0.02, and nothing more.

12:29 PM  

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