New Age Prophet


I rouse myself from my leisured sloth to comment on the latest pronouncement by the prophet of doom, Naomi Oreskes.  Today the New York Times, that newspaper “of record,” has seen fit to give her a lot of space to continue her attack on the scientific method:  Playing Dumb on Climate Change.

Ms. Oreskes has a Ph.D., and is a professor at Harvard, so she is instantly given credence as a reliable expert, but her work, on which I have commented extensively, is pretty much at the level of hack polemic as far as I am concerned.  From her sylvan altars – doesn’t she just look the part of the serious, concerned, and not to be trifled with Mother Nature? – she makes some of the most outrageous pronouncements to be heard from the academic realm on the topic of global warming.  Okay…let’s see what she said this time.

Her gripe is that scientists are too conservative about the risks of global warming – they should be ringing alarm bells, as she does, warning us of the horrors to come and pushing for the solutions that she supports.  Note that there is significant scientific controversy about many of the claims that Ms. Oreske makes, e.g. that recent extreme weather events are clear evidence of the negative impacts of burning fossil fuels, and that her argument is, therefore, neatly circular.  It amounts to this:  scientists who are not screaming about the coming End of Days are too conservative, period!

She goes on to discuss a central notion of the scientific method:

We’ve all heard the slogan “correlation is not causation,” but that’s a misleading way to think about the issue. It would be better to say that correlation is not necessarily causation, because we need to rule out the possibility that we are just observing a coincidence.

This is typical of her method.  She doesn’t say that correlations always indicate a clear causal chain, but she doesn’t want to rule it out, either. Who would?  But she wants to make it seem that scientists that won’t jump on the bandwagon of this or that theory simply because they are not more than 95% sure that the correlation is not chance are missing essential risks.  But how do you decide when to jump on, and when not to?  When she thinks you should?  When you’re scared enough to ignore evidence and jump to conclusions?

She’s very worried about Type 2 errors:   being too conservative and missing causes and effects that are really there.  I would ask, too conservative for whom or what?  Here we are moving from the realm of science to that of policy and politics.  It is certainly true that when one creates policy, the scientific standard is too strict – policy makers cannot always wait for better information.  But then, one must make a case for the preponderance of risk warranting action now, rather than later.  Ms. Oreskes won’t do that:  she simply avoids having to make the case by attacking the scientific method.  Circularity again.

The dilemma that this opinion piece presents us with is obliquely indicated by Ms. Oreskes here:

When applied to evaluating environmental hazards, the fear of gullibility can lead us to understate threats.

Clearly, we can make the converse argument that lack of caution can lead to overestimating threats, wasting money, disrupting lives, ordering medical tests with high likelihood of false-positives…all sorts of bad stuff.  She doesn’t consider this.  When we face this obvious fact, we are back at Square One:  Ms. Oreskes, prove your case with facts!  This is exactly the discussion she seeks to short-circuit.  Because she knows she’s right.  She sees.  She is a Prophet.

7 Responses to New Age Prophet

  1. troutsky says:

    Getting a bit desperate with this one, my walrus friend. Perhaps as an “academic” she should balance the sylvan with a Promethian glint in one eye? Maybe there should be a smokestack in the background? C’mon. Clearly, “you can make the converse argument” and the NYTimes prints those, but she has no duty to do so. I thought her point about the those who “valorize skepticism” quite astute. You can believe all those scientists have been “scared” into “jumping” on a “bandwagon” (fairly polemical terms) but it is actually your “significant scientific controversy” that needs citation, not her opinion.

  2. Lichanos says:

    “…and the NYTimes prints those…”

    The NYTimes consistently supports the views of Oreskes and her group. Others are generally dismissed.

    Maybe her sociological “arguments” about scientific culture strike a chord with you, but that still leaves the question open of how to avoid too little caution as well as too much. You both don’t want to deal with that: she, because it interferes with her crusade; you, because..?

    Strange to hear a left-wing critic of authority attacking skepticism as a value. I guess Marcuse would have understood. And after all, Lenin might have dismissed it as one of those infantile delusions of the bourgeoisie. 🙂

  3. troutsky says:

    I’m willing to try to deal with this question, but it is philosophical and will remain “open” ( to ideological interpretation). Let’s start with power, with understanding power relations and weighting our skepticism accordingly. If this is about the 95% threshold and climate modeling ( as opposed to medical diagnosis), then we have to look at the metrics for determining “preponderance” AND the metrics for determining “risk”. What kind of gamble would you be be willing to take, what odds for betting? A sharp gambler ( with a lot of skin in the game) might bet that by the time the 95% threshold is reached it will be too late for policy. So we are back to the precautionary principle as it relates to gambling.

  4. Lichanos says:

    The precautionary principle is fine with me. (Policy making is not science.) That’s where I started over twenty years ago with this topic: Maybe, maybe not, but why risk it? That’s what I thought.

    Reading about it constantly, and lots of chats with scientists and journalists has so degraded my confidence in these alarming predictions that I just don’t take them seriously anymore.

    Note, I still think limiting carbon discharges is a good thing for many reasons I have discussed elsewhere, but the apocalyptic pseudo-science of Oreskes and those like her makes it difficult to plan rationally.

  5. troutsky says:

    And where do you and these scientists and journalists see the methodological flaw? In greenhouse theory as such? In the predictive ability of modelling? In the measurements?

    Also, while I see the correlation between those (such as myself, Naomi Klein, etc) who want to see market ideology discredited and belief in man-caused climate change, the connection to New Ageism is less obvious. In my experience they don’t see humans as having that much agency.

    • Lichanos says:

      The scientists and journalists I chatted with mostly agree with you: I like to seek out those who do not agree with me. They degraded my confidence in their own views because they could never answer any of my questions and they were evasive.

      The flaw is in the predictive power of the models and in the measurements.

  6. oogenhand says:

    Reblogged this on oogenhand and commented:
    “It amounts to this: scientists who are not screaming about the coming End of Days are too conservative, period!”

    Does Ms. Oreskes fear eternal damnation, i.e. makes she the Wager of Pascal?

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