How we fool ourselves. Part II: Scientific consensus building

Excellent post by Judith Curry on her Climate, Etc. blog.

The objective of scientific research is to find out what is really true, not just verify our biases. If a community of scientists has a diversity of perspectives and different biases, then the checks and balances in the scientific process including peer review will eventually counter the biases of individuals. Sometimes this is true—but often this does not happen quickly or smoothly. Not only can poor data and wrong ideas survive, but good ideas can be suppressed.

However, when biases caused by motivated reasoning and career pressures become entrenched in the institutions that support science – the professional societies, scientific journals, universities and funding agencies – then that subfield of science may be led astray for decades.

16 thoughts on “How we fool ourselves. Part II: Scientific consensus building”

  1. A few potentially / hopefully useful thoughts upon skimming the article, the source, and the comments section on the linked blog. Disclaimer: Note that I’m trying to engage with the article and the audience of the article on its original page, not anyone specifically posting here! I think the context of the blog and its commenters makes it more interesting, and potentially more troubling.

    Overarching thesis: The point that consensus alone cannot be relied upon is a reasonable caution, but not much more than that, as a consensus could also be a truth-oriented consensus. The point that consensus alone is an insufficient proxy for truth doesn’t do the work the author intends to do with it, which appears to be casting doubt on the usefulness or validity of climate science and policy choices based on it.

    Additionally, while I doubt that this is/was the intent of the author, the comments section of the post evidences that this point is primarily taken by its audience as a convenient veneer for right-wing political views to seek out a claim of having the “actual” scientific support when science is shorn of it’s supposed left-wing capture. This in turn demonstrates a profound irony that a little bit of evidence of someone else’s supposed motivated reasoning can become an invitation to defend your own reasoning as somehow bereft of ideology.

    Not being an expert on the IPCC I don’t specifically say this to defend the IPCC, but to say that I think this article argues philosophical points better made by (some of) the authors cited, such as Thomas Kelly, and appears to do so in support of opposition to policy choices made on the basis of current climate science.

    So below, a few points directed at what I find problematic about the article (granting the basic point that consensus alone is not the sole proxy for truth) and would be interested to see discussed.

    1. Consensus and motivated reasoning. This is a perennially useful point but always a double edged sword for the person making that point. The nature of this is always particularly evident when the person making the point is a self-proclaimed “heterodox” “skeptic” and the like. It often boils down to “the ‘big guy’ / ‘gov’t’ / etc. is guilty of motivated reasoning but I’m not. That sword always cuts both ways in reality, however.

    1a. Consensus and truth. The article avoids a relatively obvious follow up regarding the potential for consensus and bias that should be asked, namely, is the consensus towards which the group becomes biased itself a consensus that reflects an accurate (i.e. true) judgement about reality? The article takes a loose stab at implying the IPCC evidences groupthink and therefore is defending some kinds of falsehoods? I didn’t quite track the point the author was making there but I’m not familiar with their work at large.

    But, if the consensus around climate science is largely well-supported, which there are independent reasons to believe that have relatively little to do with the IPCC specifically, then one would expect both consensus and a bias towards defending that paradigm as the best explanation.

    This is particularly applicable when a good portion of the attacks on that paradigm are *distinctly* motivated by financial interests. I don’t want to come across as claiming that all industry is bad, etc. or some easily stereotyped straw-man point often attributed to the environmental community, but the relationship between underlying financial interests at odds with climate science and their motivation to push narratives against that science should be obvious.

    1b. The IPCC as authoritarian / or suppressing the truth? “Professional success in climate science has become more tied to the acceptance of the IPCC’s pronouncements than with the exploration of contrary possibilities.” This is a really telling statement, as it relies on the judgements of the IPCC an economist affiliated with the right-wing Ludwig von Mises institute. Long story short, an economics approach affiliated with von Mises / Hayek can hardly be cited as a solemnly objective judgement (not that other economists can either, it’s a pretty ideological “science” from the ground up!)

    2. Some obvious political rhetoric, even if slightly coded in presentation.

    3. The comments section. Yeah, I know comments sections can be a sewer anywhere. Not making any commentary on these positions, just noting them as a follow-along to the claims about motivated reasoning.

    As a quick exercise, skim these and note what other positions are roped in along with the vague climate skeptic attitude of the post in general – again, not opining here, but lots of declarations of the problems of “the Left” (so often capitalized) and many invocations of personal liberty in discussions ranging from personal liberty to covid-19 protocols. The point of this observation is that the folks capitalizing on this particular discussion of motivated reasoning clearly demonstrate the motives underlying their own reasoning.

    Anyway, hopefully food for thought!

    • One definition of blowing smoke is “to deliberately confuse or mislead someone in order to deceive them.” I do not think Curry is lying or trying to deceive anyone. She offers interesting perspectives that are worth considering and discussing. Debatable? Of course! Untruthful? No.

      • Thanks for that check on my phraseology; I didn’t mean to say she is lying, but deceiving maybe – by distraction. More like “Anonymous” says below: “her discussion of motivated reasoning is itself designed to direct attention from biases that could underlie her positions.”

        • Based on that idea, it seems like no one could discuss motivated reasoning without being accused of “directing attention from hizzer own biases.”

          So let’s take something simpler and more down-to-earth. Say, “the Forest Service is only doing fuel treatments to send logs to the mill.”
          So now we can say to the people who write this:
          “you’re only saying that to direct attention from your own biases”?

          It seems to me that that doesn’t get us anywhere except in a circle of bias, because people do have biases, and what’s wrong with talking about whether they exist or not and how much, and how we could tell, and all that?

          • I would pay more attention to arguments about motivated reasoning from someone with training in that field than from a climatologist who is motivated to distract from her biases. (I don’t see the logic of your analogy. If the person complaining about logging started lecturing us about motivated reasoning, then I suppose we could say that is a distraction from their bias.)

            • So let’s try another example. Back in the day, genetic engineering of forest trees was a big scientific funding revenue source. If I suggested that people getting funded by this revenue stream were more likely to consider it a good idea, would I be saying that to distract people from my “this is not going to work in practice for a number of reasons” bias.

              • I’m not sure where this is going, but it is sounding a lot like, “If you don’t like the outcome, attack the process.” Or the motivation. Or whom the other side is associated with. This isn’t unusual, especially when your arguments on the merits have already been rejected and all you can do is blame the ref. But maybe “distraction” isn’t the right word, especially when your biases are so well-known that it’s not going to work.

  2. Anon, I believe in judging people by their arguments, not by the views of the people who comment. I think all she is saying is that consensus is not a friend of science; rampant skepticism, diversity of views, and a robust peer review system (she seems more sanguine about our current system than I am). That is what I remember best from being in research at various graduate schools, questioning and challenges of each others’ work, that made it better. In my experience, in the Forest Service, as an institution giving out $ and with internal politics, a person had to be more sensitive to being critical of others’ approaches and views. It’s really about the culture of challenge and disagreement. In the old culture, not asking questions or criticizing meant that you were not paying attention (not serious about your work) or not taking the person’s work seriously enough to challenge them (in effect, dissing your peers). I’m thinking seminars here, as in “have you thought about doing this?” or “why didn’t you do it this way?” or “couldn’t you conclude this instead?”, or “why do you think Jane et al. found different results?”

    And we all believe that incorporating diversity (of kinds of people, disciplines, views) making our efforts of whatever kind better? Or sometimes yes, sometimes, no.

    • To your first point – I probably muddied the water by including that bit, but I just found the audience and comments striking. Looking at the audience someone gathers is not exactly a way to gauge the value of an argument, but the context is not useless. Specifically, I think that context can remain suggestive of where someone argues from, and in turn inform someone’s judgements about an argument. That matters at least a bit here because it suggests her discussion of motivated reasoning is itself designed to direct attention from biases that could underlie her positions. Her audience is intensely skewed in a particular ideological direction, in a way that at least indirectly suggests that her arguments flow from that same ideological direction. Which isn’t a problem in itself, but it’s something the article in question is cagey about.

      To the other points, I did want to tap into the arguments made. My overarching take on this was that her argument effectively equating consensus with groupthink is flawed.

      Is there rhetoric around climate that demonstrates the characteristics of groupthink, such as denouncements in public rhetorical spaces like the opinion columns of major newspapers? Absolutely. Are consensus-building processes around current climate science therefore groupthink? Much harder claim to substantiate, and I don’t think it could be effectively substantiated, at least not to the degree I read the author as suggesting (see her last paragraph for an ever so subtle suggestion of a vast and malign influence behind the current scene).

      Evaluating this argument specifically, the sole support of the groupthink claim is that “Many defenders of the IPCC consensus − both scientists and consensus entrepreneurs − show many if not all of these symptoms” which is in turn supported by citations right-libertarian economists who are opposed to most if not all government-funded or driven climate change mitigation policy on ideological -not scientific- grounds. As I want to make clear, having an ideological bias is fine, just claim it, and argue for it on the appropriate grounds (perhaps by discussing competing ideologies or approaches, not by claiming it is in the name of “better science”).

      This ties into my point above. If the audience, cited sources, and position of an individual demonstrate a clear ideological tendency, then it is not unreasonable to evaluate their argument in that context, namely as one designed to advance that ideological tendency. And that’s fine! But don’t claim try to the mantle of objectivity by suggesting that it’s just the other guy who is letting ideology influence judgements. Which is strongly implied to be the case in this article, in fact I’d say that is as close to a thesis as it gets unless you like reading strung-together quotes.

      As for the claim that “better science” ostensibly incorporates a diversity of views. This is true so far as it goes, just like not taking consensus as the sole proxy for truth. But, the problem occurs with the associated point, namely that some sort of self-censorship is preventing people from questioning the climate science consensus at present. This happens when you quesiton the idea that consensus is not a friend of science. This is only true if you collapse the definition of consensus and groupthink into the same thing, as is done in the article in question. I’d appeal generally (hopefully not pretentiously) to work in social epistemology. A consensus need not represent the degree of homogeneity at least implied by the author. A consensus can simply represent the generalized and subject-to-change outcomes of the relevant community of experts at a given point in time. Diversity is important but some views get more initial credence than others because of how they represent the outcome of relevant communities communities of experts aggregating the results of their work.

      Why does this matter? “Climate skeptic” has emerged as a fringe view not because of someone like the author being maligned for standing up for their convictions, but because it is ideologically motivated (like we all are!) but also distinctly empirically questionable. Much like vaccine skeptics, ghost hunters, and the like. At the end of the day there’s much uncertainty but that’s not a good enough reason to turn against the best tools we have.

      Decent nuggets of social epistemology in the philosophy of science arena:

      Bright, L.K., Dang, H. & Heesen, R. A Role for Judgment Aggregation in Coauthoring Scientific Papers. Erkenn 83, 231–252 (2018).

      Muldoon, Ryan (2013). Diversity and the Division of Cognitive Labor. _Philosophy Compass_ 8 (2):117-125.

      • “Those Who Cannot Learn From History Are Doomed To Repeat It”

        Climate change requires thinking about the world we are leaving to generations of people who will be alive centuries after we have already died, though people who are short-sighted or have ideological biases (eg Christians who expect the apocalypse and the second coming to magically reset the biosphere) will irresponsibly deny accountable for their opinions and behaviour.

        One recourse to remedy this is to also recommend reading about how in the past civilizations have destroyed their environment.

        This is the link to, and review of, an excellent book on our ability to alter the ecosystems that sustain us:

        The Environment and the Collapse of Great Civilizations [Author: Clive Ponting] published on (December, 2007)
        Review by Hrvoje Butkovic:
        ” It is very difficult to walk away from this book thinking that our civilisation is anywhere but on the course to total collapse triggered by the breakdown of the biosphere that supports us. Ending on such a desolate note is all too likely to leave the reader feeling helplessly depressed over our inevitable self-destruction.
        Taken together, these shortcomings are surprisingly effective at accomplishing what I suspect were Ponting’s aims. Presenting reams of data from all time periods and parts of the world places the current ecological problems in a larger context that cannot be acquired from reading about the problems themselves. This broadened perspective is critically important when considering potential solutions. That the book doesn’t suggest what these might be feels reflexively disappointing, but I consider it a strength. One pattern that emerges from the book is human capacity for sticking our heads in the sand as the world burns and continuing with business as usual well past the point where corrective action was urgently needed.”

  3. Judith provides a reasonable explanation about how forest science and the Forest Service are so pro-logging. “Collective rationalization” sounds about right. We used to call it “group think” or even “conspiracy of optimism.”

    People within the agency and within it’s orbit must pledge allegiance to logging or find themselves on the outside. Science publications routinely make passing reference to forest management (aka logging) that has no relevance or support within the confines of the study being published.

    • I know many Forest Service foresters, wildlife biologists, and others, and I don’t see any broad pro-logging attitude these days. Pro active management, maybe, and that sometimes means logging.

      FWIW, Judith Curry recently posted “How we fool ourselves. Part III: Social biases,” in which she discusses “motivated reasoning” — which is not unique to any particular “side” in disagreements over forest management:

      Psychologist Brian Nosek of the University of Virginia claims that the most common and problematic bias in science is ‘motivated reasoning’. People that have a ‘dog in the fight’ (reputational, financial, ideological, political) interpret observations to fit a particular idea that supports their particular ‘dog.’ The term ‘motivated reasoning’ is usually reserved for political motivations, but preserving their reputation or funding is also a strong motivator among scientists.

      The embedding of political values into science occurs when value statements or ideological claims are wrongly treated as objective truth. Scientists have a range of attitudes about the environment; the problem occurs because there is the presumption that one set of attitudes is right and those who disagree are in denial. This results in conversion of a widely shared political ideology about climate change into ‘reality.’

      • So you’re saying that the weight of scientific evidence merely produces a “presumption that one set of attitudes is right,” and climate change is only a figment of our political ideology?

        • No, I did not intend to say that the weight of scientific evidence merely produces a “presumption that one set of attitudes is right,” and that climate change is only a figment of our political ideology. Not at all. And I was not addressing climate change specifically. But I do think that it is prudent to examine claims purported to be based on science — is it some science, carried out or selected through sort of bias? Or is it a balanced look at the body of science on a subject? — to determine if ‘motivated reasoning’ might be at play. As the psychologist Brian Nosek says, this is characterized by “People that have a ‘dog in the fight’ (reputational, financial, ideological, political) interpret observations to fit a particular idea that supports their particular ‘dog.’ It can apply to all parts of the spectrum on climate change, forest management, and so on.

          Some may find fault with Judith Curry’s essays, but I think she at least offers food for thought.

      • Not the same anon as above, FWIW, but I see that we have – once again – returned to “I’m not biased but you are”. It’s notably a stance that only (superficially) works when you adopt the posture of being a heterodox protestor against the oppressive mainstream.

        Two quotes of particular interest:

        1. “Scientists have a range of attitudes about the environment; the problem occurs because there is the presumption that one set of attitudes is right and those who disagree are in denial.”

        At a nominal level, Curry is correct. Sanctimonious invocations of “Science Says…” are used uncritically throughout the climate conversation among other political hot-buttons as a way to shut down opponents.

        Here’s the thing though, if the community of scientific practitioners holds a set of attitudes as a result of their work, then it is at least worthwhile to incorporate those into policy until such attitudes are falsified / made problematic in practice. Those who argue that climate change is, say, not anthropogenically driven, are, on the basis of extensive scientific evidence, in denial. This is a straightforward understanding of what denial means. It’s not simply gaslighting an opponent to point out that their position involves denial. That being said, the contribution of humans to climate change also doesn’t entail just one given set of policy positions, e.g it doesn’t mean that policy informed by that science is free from debate.

        But like all of these posts, Curry’s discussion comes across as an attempt at muddying the water in an intellectual guise, i.e. it doesn’t say that climate science is based on lies it just strongly implies it with some citations of loosely-related material. Does everyone have a moral / social / cultural dog in the fight? Yeah we’re not automata, many thanks for the freshman philosophy seminar. It’s relatively plain in context that Curry is providing a justification, at the least, obfuscation of human contributions to climate change.

        2. “Motivated biases become particularly problematic once these biases are institutionalized, with advocacy statements made by professional societies, editorials written by journal editors, and public statements by the IPCC leadership.”

        With this quote, I really struggle to follow what is actually meant. Is advocacy thereby impossible on the basis of a scientific consensus? Or for that matter any kind of consensus? Does the problem only emerge when it is institutionalized? When is it institutionalized? Do scientific data not have moral bearing? Are we in non-overlapping magisteria here when we discuss conclusions of studies and policy in related fields?

        I don’t do the rhetorical question thing to be a smarta** as I think some of these may have legitimately defensible answers, but to problematize what Curry is doing here. It’s not at all clear why scientific institutions should avoid wading into moral waters. You can say science is objective or supposed to be, etc. etc., but the dilemma Curry appears to be advocating for is either 1) a nearly impossible quandary that leaves us with perplexity, we just can’t say anything about the policy implications of science lest it be taken giving science a political slant or 2) this one branch of environmental sciences is hopelessly waterlogged by ideological biases (which, I believe, might require a bit more work on her part to substantiate)

        Additional interesting discussion that I don’t have time for – why is it an “institutionalized bias” as opposed to an “predominant opinion within the institution” ? Is there a difference? Is it just a bias because you don’t agree / like it?

        Again this discussion simply seems to boil down to a basic if useful cautionary heuristic where one is aware of their own biases, or more problematically, a discussion designed to marshal uncertainty around climate science into full fledged denial of human responsibility around climate change and thereby alleviate the need to choose among unpopular policy choices

        But – and this is the crux –


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