Wednesday, 23 March 2016

Irrational men, women, and everyone in between

Revisiting climate change and Clive James, with guest appearances from Woody Allen and Galileo's Middle Finger.


I take a dim view of most faiths, but faith in human nature is the worst of all, because I can’t seem to shake it off. My only consolation is that there is always a plentiful supply of indisputable evidence to nudge me away from delusion, at least for another few hours, like a diabetic taking a regular shot of insulin.

More correctly, it is my instinctive faith in the human intellect that needs -- and always gets -- a regular clobbering. 


Last week I was at a LIGO meeting in California. It was our first big meeting since we detected gravitational waves. With everyone delirious and disoriented from success, it was easy to find examples of fine minds going screwy. But it wasn't until the end, when I was packing to leave and catching up on my web browsing, that I got my real insulin shot for the week. 

It came from my old hero Clive James. Two years ago I used this wise old man of letters as an excuse to write a little about the workings of science, and in particular about scientific expertise. You see, I had admired Clive James for many years as an extremely clever and perceptive writer, not to mention a superb humorist, but he had more recently made a stand as a climate-change sceptic. I was all in favour of scepticism, but in the end, given a choice over what to do and what to support, surely the broad consensus of the expert scientific community took precedence? 

I wanted to believe that his view was merely a simple misunderstanding, which I suspected was common among many smart people who denounce climate-change science in the name of healthy scepticism and independent thought. That is why I wrote a long series of posts on the subject. (With only a few digressions…)

The alternative explanation, of course, was the fallible human intellect. An individual mind, no matter how sharp, cannot on every subject reach the truth alone. Not only had he made a mistake, but he was incapable -- and would always be incapable -- of seeing it. 

I did not want to believe that. I had to hold out a little hope. Clive could see the error of his ways at any moment. He has not written explicitly about climate change for the last year, so perhaps that moment has already come. He has instead had a huge late-career success with poetry, and more literary writings. In fact, I had his new book "Latest Readings" in my bag for the flight home. 

Then I checked his most recent Guardian column, and my hopes were dashed.

In an otherwise typically clever and insightful review of this year’s Oscars ceremony, he responded to Leonardo DiCaprio’s acceptance speech with a speech of his own. 

Along the way, he aired precisely the complaint I have against him, and of course put it much better: “People can harbour an irrational belief and still be rational in other respects. That’s what I would like my critics to think about me, so I strive to think the same about them.” 

Yes, that is exactly what I think about him -- but I can't let go of the possibility that it's not irrationality, just, once again, a misunderstanding. His argument against climate change never falls to the science, but to the stridence and closed-mindedness of the activists. On that point I have to agree with him. (He also has a rather odd argument about their poor grammar, but let’s not tumble down that rabbit hole.) If he mistakes the most extreme nut-job crusaders for the scientists, then of course he's going to conclude that the science is all wrong.

I didn't open "Latest Readings" on the flight home. I thought it would be more instructive to watch a film I found that was called "Irrational man". It turned out to have nothing to do with science, but I thought it was delightful anyway -- when the romanticised sun-drenched college farce veered off into Dostoevsky territory (while remaining romanticised and sun-drenched), I was hooked. The director was good old Woody Allen, who is certainly very old but reputedly far from good, but I decided that loving the film was only a small variant on Clive's dictum: "People can harbour appallingly criminal sexual proclivities and still be admirable in other respects." Or something like that. 

As it happens, I had already postponed "Latest Readings" to read instead Alice Dreger's "Galileo's Middle Finger", which is all about science activism. What is wonderful about the book is that the author moves from the role of activist against researchers, to an advocate of researchers beset by attacks from activists, and then back again. On the way she decries the same activist tendency as James does: to see the cause as more important than facts, and to believe that the fight has to be won at all costs and by any means — including personal attacks on the enemy, aimed at destroying their careers, their personal lives, and their families.

The topics make up a far larger and more dangerous city of science than the cosy village of gravitational waves that I live in — medical interventions of intersex children, transgender issues, societal versus biological causes of rape, and controversial studies of indigenous peoples. My view that controversy and political shenanigans are rife in my field is now revealed as laughable compared to the adventures that Dreger describes. Arguments over the false-alarm rate of a signal can become heated, but no-one is ever labeled in national headlines as a rape apologist or accused (in The New Yorker, no less) of implementing a campaign of Nazi eugenics. No embattled gravitational-wave astronomer has ever told me, as one researcher told Dreger, "Things were so bad that the police told me to take some precautions, like checking my car for car bombs every morning."

Dreger argues for activism based on evidence, with the goal of reasoning with the “enemy” and, if the evidence accumulates differently to how you expected, then perhaps also conceding to them. That approach relies on just the kind of rationality that I refuse to have faith in, but just because it is not infallible doesn’t mean that it never works. Sometimes it does, and it is surely better than ignoring or suppressing facts, or behaving like a shit. 

Dreger and friends display an admirable enthusiasm for charging headlong into political minefields. Put another way, when she sees the intellectual equivalent of an innocent hiker being savaged by wolves, instead of running away with barely a pause to take a selfie, she strolls in and tries to pull them off. She makes clear that this is just as dangerous as it sounds, and not all of the battle scars are scars of victory. 

The book is a thoughtful, spirited, and very personal defence of a scientist's right -- indeed, obligation -- to ask and then try to answer any damn question they want. The argument appears again and again, but never more powerfully than when Dreger experiences a euphoric epiphany and asks, "Is there anything too dangerous to study? Should there be any limits? What if, in order to prove how important truth-seeking is, we made a point of studying the most dangerous ideas imaginable?" And a few lines later, "What if we came together in the ivory towers, barricaded the doors, and looked at the skies?"

Dreger’s book does not include any examples of scientists who think that climate change is a sham, and have been hounded from their jobs as a result. Perhaps Clive James will have to write about them himself. If he did, and if they were for real, I would echo his support of them — we need dissenting opinions, and we should welcome data that challenge our views. If the facts are going to eventually overturn the current consensus view, then I hope that they are uncovered as soon as possible. But for now all we can do is act on the facts we have. To refuse to accept them just because some of the people who voice them are tossers -- that truly is irrational. 

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