“We Need Scientific Dissidents Now More Than Ever”

This brilliant short essay, posted on The Chronicle of Higher Education website two days ago, is written by Eric Winsberg is a professor of philosophy at the University of South Florida and a visiting professor of history and philosophy of science at the University of Cambridge.

Winsberg absolutely nails the problems scientists create for themselves when they become “captured” by political or ideological interests, something that I write about in Chapter 3 — “Are the sciences climatist?” — of my new book ‘Climate Change Isn’t Everything: Liberating Climate Politics from Alarmism‘.

For example, I write there (pp.77-78) …

“[Steve] Schneider’s double ethical bind has led some philosophers to advocate that scientists embrace the equivalent of Plato’s ‘noble lie’, the knowing propagation of falsehood or deception by an elite in order to maintain social harmony or to advance an agenda.  In other words, the cause justifies the lie.  For example, the veteran philosopher of science, Philip Kitcher, advances such an argument specifically with respect to climate science.  In his 2011 book, Science in a Democratic Society, Kitcher puts forward this scenario:

An atmospheric scientist makes a discovery that seems to challenge a particular model of sea-level increase due to global warming.  She expects her discovery will be refined through further research and that, in the end, it will not refute the mainstream view.  In the meantime, she wants to avoid giving ammunition to climate skeptics, so she postpones publication.  But an ambitious postdoc surreptitiously informs the media about her discovery.  The media accuse the scientist of a cover-up and report that key evidence for anthropogenic climate change has been refuted[i].

Kitcher concludes that the atmospheric scientist was justified in withholding her discovery from the public.  In other words, being ‘economical with the truth’ is fine.  For Kitcher, the hypothetical scientist “wisely foresaw the danger that [her discovery] would be deployed in misleading ways and attempted to do her bit for the promotion of public freedom”.  

This is a dangerous position to espouse.  It justifies the suppression of scientific findings for fear that, at the least, they would reveal to the public the provisional and uncertain nature of the scientific enterprise. [This is exactly the accusation Winsberg makes of the scientists who wished, very early in the COVID story, to suppress the possible ‘lab-leak’ origins of COVID]. At worst, such findings might undermine the ‘good cause’ that a scientist may believe their work is seeking to sustain.  Either way, such a justification for the noble lie subverts professional scientific norms and practices.  It runs the risk of ‘bringing science into disrepute’ for the sake of protecting what may be believed to be a higher ethical objective.  Under this scenario climate science reveals itself to be climatist: it defends the ideology of climatism rather than upholds the ideals of science.”

Mike Hulme, 12 August 2023

[i] See p.184 in: Kitcher,P. (2011) Science in a Democratic Society. New York: Prometheus Books.  I thank Mark Brown for this paraphrase of Kitcher’s scenario.