The Lewandowsky Affair

It has been impossible to miss the significant amount of attention that had been given to a paper by Lewandowsky which essentially claims that climate ‘deniers’ are a bunch of conspiracy nuts. Climate Audit has taken the research, the analysis and claims made in the paper to pieces, and pretty well all the skeptic bloggers have piled in to discuss the problems with the paper. I will ask forgiveness for not linking to the many discussions of the problems of the paper, but there is simply too much. However, I will link to one discussion which was in turn linked to from the Climate Conversation Group. The post in question is William Briggs, a statistician:

One day a terrific psychological study is going to be written on the madness and mass lunacy which arose after climate change swam into the public’s ken. I don’t mean the actions and thoughts of the man-in-the-street, which were and are no different in this area than they were and are in any political matterhe . No: the real curiosity is what happened to academia, inside departments which haven’t anything to do with climatology.

There, surrounded by people eager to agree with each other and fueled by infinite estimates of their own intelligence, great hoards of degreed non-experts, people who couldn’t derive the Omega equation if you threatened to remove their tenure and who think Vorticity is a town in Spain, lectured all of mankind on why The End Was Near, Unless…

Unless they, the non-experts, were hearkened to, esteemed, feted, moneyed, and just plain listened to, dammit.

What I really liked about the post was the idea that Lewandowsky, who is not a climate scientist, claims enough expertise to claim (in effect) that the science of climate change is settled, and settled on the ‘alarmist’ side of the debate. His argument is one which implicitly suggests that we should listen to the scientists, and just accept their findings. This is how William Briggs put the point:

  • Mistake 1: Lewandowsky is not a domain expert, and by his argument is not qualified to speak on matters climatic, yet speak he does.
  • Mistake 2: His opinion about how to consider the science of climate change is therefore no more valuable than any other non-domain expert’s (about the physics), but he considers by this act of publishing that it is.
  • Mistake 3: He conflates voting with truth. His fallacy is to suppose that because the majority of domain experts say X, X is therefore true.
  • Mistake 4: He conflates numbers with weight of evidence. His fallacy is to suppose the minority of domain experts who do not agree with the majority are not to be listened to because they are only a minority.

I actually agree with William, but I think he misses an essential point. He discusses the point about domain expertise, but is there actually a climate change domain of expertise? For example, if we look at psychology, it might have been considered a distinct discipline in the early days of study, such as when James was publishing, but it is now increasingly tangled up with neuroscience, which is in turn tangled up with other disciplines such as chemistry and so forth. A psychologist may specialise in a particular area and draw on the expertise of other related but distinct disciplines.

For example, evolutionary psychology draws on a diverse range of disciplines, such as anthropology, archaeology, and ethology. An evolutionary psychologist can reasonably claim to be an evolutionary psychologist, but their domain of expertise is fuzzy, and the title is a convenience. Some evolutionary psychologists will specialise in religion, some in kin relationships, and so forth. Each sub-specialisation in turn draws upon different fields of science to different degrees. Evolutionary psychology is a lumping together of a group of people who draw upon a range of domains to try to explain human behaviour. Whilst there is expertise in some respects, the nature of that expertise is ‘fuzzy’.

If we think of climate change scientists, it is a similar picture. It seems that many people who are given the title ‘climate scientist’ have a narrow domain of genuine expertise, but draw upon the expertise of other groups of scientists. The question that needs to be asked is where a domain of expertise starts and stops. It is a question that matters. For example, were an evolutionary psychologist to pronounce that human psychology is founded in the process of evolution, this would be a reasonably (I guess) uncontroversial thing to say. However, if an evolutionary psychologist were to pronounce with absolute certainty that all human behaviour is only the result of evolution, they might find many colleagues that disagree. Quite reasonably, the said colleagues would identify the complexities of causation of human behaviour.

Our confident pronouncer might have a particular area of expertise, and that area of expertise and their own studies might indicate the primacy of evolution in their particular area of study. Here, I am stretching somewhat, but I hope I will be forgiven as it is an analogy. However, even if finding that there is a primacy of evolution in their area, it does not qualify them to make the general pronouncement; that all human behaviour is only the result of evolution. However, the equivalent is taking place in climate science. Said ‘climate scientists’ are making these kinds of pronouncements.

A riposte might be that there is a consensus amongst evolutionary psychologists that human psychology is founded in human evolution. This is no different to the so-called scientific consensus on climate change; this is equivalent. However, even if there were such a consensus, it is not equivalent. Human behaviour is complex, and attribution of causation of behaviour is an issue of complexity. In psychology, they are self-critical over the issue of attribution. For example, Henrich, Heine and Norenzayan’s (2010) highlight that many studies that present generalisations about human psychology may be studying the narrow psychology of one culture i.e. cultural influences are being ignored. As such, in evolutionary psychology they increasingly proceed with caution. The difference with many climate scientists is that they offer no such caution, and make pronouncements with certainty in the face of equivalent complexity.

We can present a consensus that might be equivalent to the consensus in evolutionary psychology, but it is a consensus that many will not accept. In studies  of evolutionary psychology and climate, attribution and causation are complex, and uncertainties abound. In both disciplines, caution is needed before making pronouncements of certainty, regardless of what is found in the narrow domain of a particular scientist’s expertise. A real and valid equivalent to the consensus in evolutionary psychology might be something like this; carbon dioxide is a factor in determining the climate of the planet, but the complexity of climate and climate change make the degree of influence of carbon dioxide on the overall climate an open question. It seems that this is something that should forge a consensus.

So we return to the Lewandowsky affair. He commences his paper with a belief that there are a body of ‘climate scientists’ that are able to pronounce with certainty; they may be specialists in one area of climate science, but that in no way qualifies them to pronounce on the whole field of climate science. They may pronounce that, in their narrow area, they find evidence of attribution of factor x, but it is in their narrow area, and the findings of others who study climate need to be considered. That they lack this modesty and acceptance of the scope of their findings is a problem. That they can pronounce certainty in a complex system is a problem. They may be scientists engaged in the study of the climate, but the field of their study is limited and they are studying an area of complexity.

Whilst some climate scientists and their supporters claim a consensus, it is apparent that the consensus fails to acknowledge the limitations of their field of endeavour and the scope of the huge field of climate science. Moreover, it should be remembered that consensus, even if it exists, does not make science. In the case of evolutionary psychology, it is a field that has overturned the standard social science model of human behaviour in which human behaviour was seen as the product of learning and culture. Evolutionary psychology provides an exemplar; it recognises that human behaviour can be attributed to our evolution as well as culture and learning. It recognises that attribution in the face of complexity is a task that requires caution. Lewandowsky makes the error of believing that a ‘climate scientist’ might pronounce on their own field of study, but this in no way carries the weight to pronounce over such a wide domain of study.

Henrich, J., Heine, S. J., & Norenzayan, A. (2010). The weirdest people in the world? Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 33, 61–83

Update: I have just visited Jo Nova’s blog and found that it is showing that the account has been suspended. Anyone know what is going on? It is a worry, as her blog is often very good value. It is quite strident in some respects, and I wonder whether this is a hacking attack, as I am aware there has been a similar problem before.

Update 2: I just visited Watssupwiththat, and it appears that Jo’s site has been hacked again. An interesting approach to debate; seek to shut down the voice of those who disagree with you……

2 responses to “The Lewandowsky Affair

  1. There is a follow-up paper by Lewandowsky (the “recursive fury”) which Ben Pile pulls apart

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