There was once a minor low budget panel program on television somewhere, I can’t recall where, perhaps it was PBS, perhaps the CBC, called “This Week in Science” or something to that effect. I guess it had responded to demands from the public for more science news. The panel all seemed to be journalists of some middling TV-safe stripe or other. You know, not stupid but somehow reliably noncontroversial just the same. (To my way of seeing things this is a very odd form of intelligence.)
And to see this crowd discussing the weeks events in science was comically lame, because from their point of view, what happened in science in the previous week was precisely and exactly nothing. Essentially nothing changes in science from week to week. Nothing of any importance occurs that changes the scene from one week to the next. Occasionally a major study is released, of course, but everybody interested in the topic already knows what it will say by the time it is published.
Compare this to what happens in politics. The strutting, the striving, the gaffes, the bons mots, the triumphs, the tragedies, the legislative victories, the judicial defeats, the tarnishing of old heroes, the vindication of villains, the arrival of fresh new warriors… It’s positively Shakespearean.
Yet come back ten years later.
The politicians, with some shifts in dramatis personae, will be making almost exactly the same bleats and whinnies in almost exactly the same order. The problems will be the same, perhaps slightly changed in emphasis. The disagreements on what to value will be the same. Perhaps the disagreements on actual, substantive facts will have worsened. Perhaps the choices of which facts are salient will have even further diverged.
Meanwhile the scientists will be discussing completely different things, most of their questions from a decade ago having been addressed to general satisfaction!
How is this possible?
It is possible because science learns. There is a consistent direction to it. It always marches, slowly, ponderously, but steadily onward to deeper understanding. It rarely backtracks, and almost never on matters of importance.
Politics is almost impervious to learning.
And once a scientific field gets swallowed up by politics, it gets a strange double character. Within its core, it continues to make progress, but at its fringes, the progress is successfully concealed, obfuscated by people who will never get the point of anything. A spectacular example is the recent raising of the DeFreitas/Baliunas/Soon vs von Storch et al fiasco by Anthony Watts. This is one of the most embarrassing incidents in the history of denialism, wherein Hans von Storch, a genuine skeptic about the urgency of climate change, was considered reliable enough to be the editor of a journal which was intended to whitewash denialist nonsense of the sort that Soon and Baliunas have been peddling for some considerable time. Von Storch was having none of it, and after some argument, resigned as editor and convinced much of the rest of the board to leave with him.
Now the Baliunas & Soon paper is a good example of “postnormal” process in science. Their purpose was not to get a robust result in press. Their purpose was to get a result, no matter how dubious, which was embarrassing to the consensus into print, so that they could trumpet it to a senate committee. Which they proceeded to do.
Now stolen emails reveal considerable discomfort among actual scientists about this. But the end result was enormously embarrassing to the perpetrators. Furthermore, although clearly von Storch wants to put the matter behind him and get back to the more entertaining business of genuine disagreement with the consensus, he is still around to testify to the inadequate nature of Baliunas & Soon’s work and de Freitas’s editorial judgment if pressed. Why on earth would Watts want to bring this up again?
Because in politics no victory need ever be conceded. After enough time passes, a new garbling of the story can be proposed to advance the cause. Nothing is ever settled. Despite von Storch’s vigorous and repeated assertions that nobody pressured him and that he was simply defending the quality of science, sinister implications can be drummed up, waters can be muddied, progress can be prevented.
It is into this dreadful context that we find ourselves injected if we have the misfortune of making a discovery with consequences for governance. And here we are presented with bounties of stupid advice, advice that is appropriate for the day to day battles of groups that expect to make no progress, to battle to an endless dysfunctional stalemate, to win some and lose some.
What we need is a politics that makes progress. What we need is a way to build a social contract. What we need is a politics of consensus.
In the climate change matter, it is of vanishingly small consequence if the Democrats prevail in 2012, for their opponents will surely prevail in 2014 or 2016 or 2018 or 2020. What we need is to win over their opponents, so that we proceed from a social consensus. And indeed, we need a consensus that is not merely national but global.
The talks at Durban are a charade. The COPs will continue their charade-like existence until the world understands our predicament and swallows the obviously needed medicine. What happens in the Republican party or the Democratic party, or comparable organizations elsewhere, is of modest consequence. The only hope is in what happens in the minds of the voters; all of them.
There is no feasible alternative to the smokescreen of denial other than a deliberate and clear presentation of reality in a way that is, if possible, encouraging and life-affirming and liberating, but regardless of sales techniques, is actually true.
Without reviving a shared vision of progress to a brighter future we can only attain more atrophy and more acrimony and more decay.
Progress no longer means more and more and more stuff. But it can be progress toward a brighter and more humane future just the same. The solution to our woes is not that science should become more like politics, but the other way around.
Image of the Lorenz manifold – University of Vermont Take it holistically as emblematic of intellectual progress, or take the trajectories as symbolic of political futility.
(Despite the caption which wandered here along with the visualization, I think it is incorrect to call the structure fractal, by the way.)