October 30, 2015, by Brigitte Nerlich

Anchoring doubt

For five years now I have been interested in how doubts about climate change are expressed by whom and how. To be honest, I very much doubt I have found out anything new. However, when reading some blogs recently, something struck me. But before I come to that, lets start at the beginning.

Science and doubt

Scepticism and doubt are fundamental to science. Referring back to the motto of the Royal Society, Nullius in Verba, J. B. S. Haldane wrote in 1927 that scientists have “a duty to doubt”. He argued against both blind faith and blind doubt. A year later Bertrand Russell wrote an essay, later incorporated in his book The Will to Doubt (1958), ‘On the value of scepticism’ and said: “The scepticism that I advocate amounts only to this: (1) that when the experts are agreed, the opposite opinion cannot be held to be certain; (2) that when they are not agreed, no opinion can be regarded as certain by a non-expert; and (3) that when they all hold that no sufficient grounds for a positive opinion exist, the ordinary man would do well to suspend his judgment. These propositions may seem mild, yet, if accepted, they would absolutely revolutionize human life.” People sometimes forget that agreement or consensus are as fundamental to science as scepticism.

One might not want to go as far as Sherlock Holmes in saying (in 1893): “Any truth is better than indefinite doubt”, but there is something in that. At any given point in time, our scientific knowledge about the world is based on an (always overturn-able) agreement or consensus and when that agreement is strong (when there are strong levels of confidence), the ordinary person normally suspends judgement and puts a bet on trust. This does not mean that one should throw doubt and scepticism out of the window or never reserve judgement. However, infinite doubt is not a fruitful way to go. Science has to be contestable but also consensible.

Climate science and doubt

While doubt is, of course, and will forever be, a useful attitude in climate science as in all science, climate science has gradually established a body of knowledge about anthropogenic climate change on which the majority of scientists agree. There are still doubts (in the sense of uncertainties) about lots of aspects of  climate change, especially its impacts, and discussions around these will go on for a long time.

At the same time as doubts and uncertainties are being whittled down in climate science (and, at the same time, more precise and, in a sense, better and more interesting uncertainties are being found), some doubts seem to have become uncoupled from the science and taken on a life of their own. They seem to have drifted away from mainstream science and the mainstream scientific process and anchored themselves, one could argue, more in politics than in science. To think about this issue, it might be useful to introduce two concepts: anchoring and objectification.  I should stress that using these concepts in the context of discussing climate scepticism is a bit of an experiment. But I think it’s worth while, as it made things a bit clearer to me at least, about what’s going on out there.

Anchoring doubt

Scholars from various disciplines have been exploring the way that people anchor new knowledge in old knowledge or the unfamiliar in the familiar. According to social representations theory, “[a]nchoring involves the ascribing of meaning to new phenomena – objects, relations, experiences, practices, etc. – by means of integrating it into existing worldviews, so it can be interpreted and compared to the ‘already known’. In this way, the threat that the strange and unfamiliar object poses is being erased.” (Wikipedia)

Five years ago, during the ‘climategate’ affair, I first became aware of what is generally called ‘climate scepticism’. Although having quite a long history, with roots in environmental scepticism, this type of doubt was still relatively new at the time and quite unfamiliar to the general public (and me). After private emails between climate scientists had been made public without consent, so-called ‘climate sceptics’ began to make doubts about climate science more familiar by anchoring them to climategate. A few selected quotes from emails were chosen to buttress older stereotypes of climate science (and scientists) as untrustworthy, a ‘scam’ or a ‘hoax’. Older doubts about the main tenets of climate science, which had been circulating for some time, could, by anchoring them to the new phenomenon of ‘climategate’, be more easily integrated into existing world views.

Five years on, climate scepticism has become familiar and the original climategate is receding as a useful anchoring point. Interestingly, another anchor is now emerging, namely, the scientific consensus itself. Since the 1990s, when climate politics emerged in the wake of advances in climate science, surveys have tried to show that there is general agreement amongst a large majority of scientists about certain aspects of anthropogenic climate change and that, therefore, mainstream climate science and mainstream climate scientists could, indeed, be trusted. (It should be stressed that this agreement exists independently of these surveys; there is ‘established’ knowledge about climate change ‘out there’, just as there is established and reliable knowledge about plate tectonics, quantum mechanics etc. out there; this is a ‘consensus of evidence’ and this consensus should ‘count’ even without being ‘counted’)

Just as the climategate emails were used to shore up doubts about the integrity and credibility of mainstream climate scientists, so the consensus surveys are  being used to create doubt about the integrity and credibility of mainstream climate scientists. This became apparent to me after reading a blog post entitled “The Tyranny of Consensus” which was published last month. Here consensus is framed as “conscious, premeditated tyranny” imposed by a cabal of scientists, that is to say, consensus is framed here as a consensus of belief rather than as a consensus of evidence that has emerged in the process of science. Consensus surveys have probably, unwittingly, contributed to this anchoring of doubt in consensus, as they are being used to communicate the existing consensus.

Objectifying science and doubt

In both cases, when anchoring doubt in ‘climategate’ or when anchoring doubt in the ‘consensus’, the abstract notion of doubt has been made concrete or ‘objectified’ through the use religious metaphors – and this brings us to ‘objectification’. According to social representations theory, ‘objectification’ is another important process through which social representations are formed. Objectification is the process whereby unfamiliar and abstract objects are transformed into concrete and ‘objective’ common-sense realities – most notably through the use of metaphor. In framing climate science as a religion, cult, dogma or, indeed, tyranny, and climate scientists as priests, zealots or true believers, doubting climate science becomes a much more concrete enterprise. Doubt is not directed at abstract ‘science’ but at a more concrete object: ‘science as religion’.

In this way, mainstream climate science is given a rather negative spin and positioned as abandoning the fundamental ethos of science (its ‘duty to doubt’), while ‘climate scepticism’ is positioned as upholding the scientific method and saving climate science from being used for nefarious political and economic ends. Mainstream climate scientists have, quite naturally, begun to argue that climate scepticism is not true scepticism but is itself politically and economically motivated. Is there a way out of this impasse?

Active scepticism to the rescue?

I’d like to point back to what Russell said about scepticism and, looking back even further to something Johann Wolfgang von Goethe said in the early 19th century and ask: should one perhaps engage in what Goethe called ‘active scepticism’? According to one of his aphorisms (number 340, posthumously published in 1833 and translated into English in 1893): “An active scepticism is one which constantly aims at overcoming itself, and arriving by means of regulated experience at a kind of conditioned certainty.”

‘Infinite doubt’, as Sherlock Holmes might have argued in 1893, is not scepticism in this sense. By adopting active scepticism, one can remain true to the scientific ethos of ‘organised scepticism’, while at the same time acknowledging that one can reach points of ‘conditioned certainty’.

I also think we need to subject doubt itself to doubt. In the context of climate science, we need a better type of doubt. We need better evidence (better anchors) for doubt than quotes mined from private emails or misgivings about how surveys about an existing consensus are being used. Doubts rooted in rhetorically framing science as organised religion look particularly suspicious to me and need to be submitted to critical and sceptical inquiry. Ever heard about ‘herding cats’?

Image: Old ship’s anchor (Wikimedia commons)

Posted in Climate ChangeClimate Politics