Back in June I wrote about the way French Theory could be used to undermine evidence. I received a challenge among the comments to provide some evidence for this. Well, at the time, I didn’t have much evidence (as I thought I had made clear), but now a small aliquot has arrived courtesy of Arts & Letters Daily, which pointed out a wonderful example by Ron Rosenbaum from Slate.
Rosenbaum frames the debate as one between Consensus and Dissent—Consensus being the belief among most climate scientists that humans are causing global warming by pumping out industrial quantities of carbon dioxide, and Dissent being the belief among a much smaller number of qualified scientists that humans and carbon dioxide have very little to do with climate. The main thrust of Rosenbaum’s argument is that dissenting voices need to be heard in the mass media. I agree with that naturally, and I agree with him that the Columbia Journalism Review has not kept to its own philosophy very well on this particular matter, but Rosenbaum makes no attempt to decide what counts as reasonable Dissent, for of course the mass media are under no moral imperative to publish every voice of Dissent. But what really interested me was Rosenbaum’s flamboyant display of Thomas S. Kuhn in defence of global warming dissent.
Indeed, the century’s foremost historian of science, Thomas Kuhn, believed,…that science often proceeds by major unexpected shifts: Just when an old consensus congealed, new dissenting, contradictory reports heralded a “paradigm shift” that often ended up tossing the old “consensus” into the junk bin.
So far so good. In fact, it goes without saying that at some point every successful scientific theory started out as a minority position and every successful scientific theory consigned an older consensus theory to the dustbin. But then Rosenbaum bites off more than he can chew.
If it hadn’t been for the lone dissenting voice of that crazy guy in the Swiss patent office with his papers on “relativity,” we still might believe the “consensus” that Newtonian mechanics explained a deterministic universe. And what about Ignaz Semmelweis and his lone crusade against the “consensus” that doctors need not wash their hands before going from an infected to an uninfected patient? Or the nutty counterintuitive dissenting idea of vaccination? The consensus was wrong. In fact, science proceeds by overturning consensus.
The number of errors in this one paragraph is extraordinary. First of all, I don’t think anyone believes that we would still consider Newtonian theory the gold standard of physics. By the time Einstein wrote his paper on special relativity in 1905, classical physics was already in deep trouble. Newtonian physics was at odds with Maxwell’s equations and the Michelson-Morley experiment and thermodynamics was so at odds with the observed spectrum of black-body radiation that physicists called the problem “The Ultraviolet Catastrophe.” Special relativity would have arrived without Einstein, and Einstein agreed, saying, “There is no doubt, that the special theory of relativity, if we regard its development in retrospect, was ripe for discovery in 1905.” Rosenbaum is also incorrect in implying that special relativity undermined the determinism of Newton. For a start, relativity is actually much older than Einstein. It goes back to Galileo and is often referred to as “Galilean relativity” and this is why Einstein called his theory “special” relativity to distinguish it from the prevailing theory. Even more importantly, special relativity is just as deterministic as the Galilean relativity it replaced. Most scientists consider special relativity to be a classical theory of physics because it deals in precise points in space and time and is utterly absolutist. Einstein did notÂ demolish absolutism but substituted one absolute term (length of space and time) for another (the speed of light). And even then, special relativity still represents space and time in absolute objective terms. The death of naÃ¯ve determinism came not from relativity but from quantum theory and chaos theory.
Now all of this goes to show that Rosenbaum is not particularly knowledgeable about the history of science. But of all his mistakes, the worst is in misrepresenting Kuhn, who never made a statement as sweeping as that science proceeds by overturning consensus. Kuhn himself was appalled that his work was continually misused by the postmodern movement to imply such a thing.
Under normal conditions the research scientist is not an innovator but a solver of puzzles, and the puzzles upon which he concentrates are just those which he believes can be both stated and solved within the existing scientific tradition.
As Kuhn pointed out, “frameworks must be lived with and explored before they can be broken.”
Even more importantly, what Rosenbaum fails to appreciate is that, just as in journalism, overturning consensus is not a goal in itself. What really matters is the quality of the consensus view versus the quality of the dissenting view. In Einstein’s time there were dozens of competing theories proposed to explain the increasingly glaring problems with classical mechanics; some of them were quite unfeasible, for instance the attempt to redefine the properties of the luminiferous Ã¦ther which resulted in the proposition that Ã¦ther was a massless, frictionless, perfectly compressible fluid that moved at different velocities to propagate different wavelengths of light. Needless to say, this view did not please many scientists. Likewise, just because there are dissenters from the global warming consensus does not mean that their views deserve widespread attention. (There are respected scientists who are informed global warming skeptics such as Freeman Dyson, but I leave it as an exercise to the reader to figure out why these prominent, scientifically-astute skeptics are rarely found in the company of those who generate media time for the anti-warming platform.)
What it all depends on is evidence and argumentation, which Rosenbaum seems not to give the slightest indication of addressing. He’s aware of the problem…
But which arguments? It’s a fascinating subject that I’ve spent some time considering. My last two books…were, in part anyway, efforts to decide which of the myriad arguments about and dissenting visions of each of these figures was worth pursuing. For instance, with Hitler, after investigating, I wanted to refute the myth (often used in a heavy-handed way by anti-Semites) that Hitler was part Jewish. The risk is that in giving attention to the argument, one can spread it even while refuting it. But to ignore it was worse.
But having decided that it’s a fascinating subject, Rosenbaum has concludes the best solution is to ignore the problem.
But I’d argue that journalists should be on the side of vigorous argument, not deciding for readers what is truth and then not exposing them to certain arguments.
Except that journalists and editors make decisions every day about what arguments to report and not report. And even if they report on an argument, they decide how much space to give and how much prominence. And I can’t see how you can be in favour of “vigorous argument” if you make no decisions about what is vigorous and what is frivolous. In the end, Rosenbaum is all about Consensus versus Dissent, not the quality of the consensus or the dissent views. And he has drawn on Kuhn (erroneously as it turns out) to promote the uncritical reporting of Dissent. I think it speaks to his blindness on this matter that he refers to vaccination as one of the Fruits of Dissent without seeming to understand that it is the anti-vaccinators who are today’s Dissenters and who thrive on the undeserved attention of the media and the courtroom.
And that prompted me to look for some more examples. Here we go…
The blog Contratimes contains a long article in favour of Dissent. It starts with Mark Twain and ends with Thomas Kuhn. This writer, one Bill Gnade, at least gets Kuhn right thank goodness. And his point is perfectly valid: consensus does not demonstrate truth. But he makes little effort to discuss the evidentiary value of consensus versus dissent and ends up using Twain and Kuhn simply to praise himself for being a dissenter as if that was a cardinal virtue. I also note in another of Gnade’s articles that he uses (without naming it) semiotics to argue that there are such things as “racist facts” and that any attempt to define racism in a way that doesn’t suit him can be dismissed because “dictionaries only list how words are used and not how they must be used.” In other words, we channel Saussare to defend “racist facts” in public discourse.
And there’s more. I stumbled upon the website for Channel 4′s provocative documentary The Great Global Warming Swindle. Whatever one thinks of global warming, this particular documentary is misleading and deceptive and promotes an alternative theory to anthropogenic global warming that is just not really “vigorous.” And what do you find on its website? A list of four recommended books: three anti-global warming polemics and…The Structure of Scientific Revolutions by Thomas S. Kuhn.
I will keep reporting as I find instances of postmodernism being used to undermine evidence in a way that supports powerful interests.