Re: [asa] IPCC

From: David Opderbeck <>
Date: Thu Feb 15 2007 - 23:18:21 EST

Randy, I think I agree with your overall point here. True, a contrarian
book or article can't be taken as a controversy within the scientific
community without having some sense of the state of the field, particularly
as reflected in the publications recognized as significant within that

My concern isn't really about whether there's a controversy within the
scientific community. It's more whether / when / to what extent the
judgment of a particular community of science should be taken as
authoritative for the purpose of formulating public policy. I would agree
that the extent to which a contrarian has been able (or not able) to chip
away at a consensus view within a community of science can be a useful
filter through which lay people can evaluate a contrarian's claims.

However, a robust approach to policy formation, IMHO, also has to understand
the limitations of communities of science and the types of consensus they
are able to form. Doing some reading about this for other purposes, I
picked up "Social Epistemology" by Steve Fuller, which includes an
interesting chapter on the varieties of consensus formation in science.
Fuller notes that

"science is distinguished by its rapid consensus formation and
dissolution.... what [epistemologist Larry] Laudan would call a rational
consensus reveals itself historically to be a much more superficial
phenomenon than he suggests -- perhaps merely an agreement to talk in a
certain way or to use certain equations in one's calculations. And if the
consensus is relatively superficial, then it is fundamentally unstable, and
for that reason alone it would tend to form and dissolve quickly, much like
the consensuses that pollsters find in the electorate." (Social
Epistemology at p. 226).

In other words, consensus in science is a social construction at least as
much as it is a reflection of the extent to which a research program has
uncovered reality-as-it-is. In another article, Fuller noted the

The historical tendency in the West has been to connect the Enlightenment
image to what Karl Popper called "the open society," in which everyone is
called upon to use their critical reasoning abilities, and the Positivist
image to a more "closed society" in which public decision-making is
increasingly delegated to experts whose judgement is supposedly less
error-prone and more efficient than the ordinary citizen's.

(Fuller, The Science Wars: Who Exactly is the Enemy,

In this paradigm (which I think Fuller critiques as too bipolar), I'm more
Popperian than Positivist.

(And yes -- I do realize Fuller is a bit of lightening rod because of his
role in the Dover trial -- but I do think he frames some of these issues
concerning knowledge / truth claims, authority, and public policy well.)

On 2/15/07, Randy Isaac <> wrote:

> Dave,
> Maybe it would help if I approached it from a different angle.
> Interpreting and understanding an article about science is in many ways
> analogous to interpreting and understanding a biblical passage or a
> theological article. The analogy isn't perfect by any means but there are
> interesting parallels. Elementary principles of hermeneutics apply to some
> extent to scientific articles.
> 1) First, what is the genre of this passage? Biblically, that means is
> it poetry, is it history, is it prophetic, is it pastoral, etc.
> Scientifically, it means is it about a new research field, is it an opinion
> piece, is it new data, is it a new interpretation of old data, is it about
> an established field having theories verified by data, etc.
> 2) Who is the author? What are his/her credentials? Who is the
> audience? What is the context? What is the cultural setting? What is the
> motivation? Very important for biblical passages. For scientific articles,
> Rich Blinne's note a few days ago in this thread was an excellent guide for
> getting a perspective on this
> 3) Based on the above, what is the level of reliability and
> credibility? For Christian literature there's a very sharp demarcation
> between the writings accepted as a part of the canon and all other
> literature. The origin of the canon is a valuable study in its own right for
> informational purposes. All other writings must be tested for consistency
> with the canon. In science there isn't a canon but there is a body of
> literature upon which future work depends. All work does need to be tested
> against that literature. Does it add to it? Support it? Contradict it?
> 4) The above is only a beginning and doesn't tell us whether a
> particular article is right or wrong but it helps put it all in context and
> provide a framework for understanding.
> So now let's consider your comments. "...Smolin's book on string
> theory should be binned?" First of all, it is an opinion piece on a new
> field of research where there is no established theory verified by data.
> That means the field is wide open for input. Secondly, the author has
> published numerous papers in the field. Also notable is that his work is in
> opposition to string theory and we need to take his vested interests into
> account. Finally, his opinion doesn't contradict any technical literature
> that is verified with data. All of this tells me that his book is a valuable
> contribution to a debate about how to fund research into new fields. He may
> or may not be right but the opinion is credible and worthy of consideration.
> "... the measure of a publication's value within the relevant
> scientific community." I'm not sure what you mean here. From a scientific
> point of view, the above process is done routinely, almost automatically
> within a technical field. I'm suggesting that this process has some merit
> for the public to interpret the avalanche of articles coming at them on
> controversial topics in science.
> "...malcontents and misfits often have valuable things to say " I
> didn't deny that at all. I'm merely trying to provide a template for ways in
> which scientific claims can be put in perspective and filtered. If there
> really is something of value, it will work its way into the scientific
> literature sooner or later. If not, it will die. Well, maybe not. It might
> persist forever in some forum.
> Let's consider the article Wayne suggested which started this round.
> Rich took it apart technically but even without that and before digging
> deeply into it, it can be readily seen that the work is not published in the
> technical literature but in book form. It is a contrarian view that offers
> an interpretation of data that has previously been explained in a different
> way. That doesn't mean its wrong. It just means that the bar is pretty high.
> I could go on but I think you get the point--articles such as this shouldn't
> be trumpeted by anyone as justification for the existence of "controversy in
> the scientific community." It needs additional supporting evidence.
> Randy
> ----- Original Message -----
> *From:* David Opderbeck <>
> *To:* Randy Isaac <>
> *Cc:* ;
> *Sent:* Wednesday, February 14, 2007 12:47 PM
> *Subject:* Re: [asa] IPCC
> *I would suggest that it might help to ask ourselves the following
> questions when coming across such an article:*
> So Lee Smolin's book on string theory should be binned? It doesn't seem
> to pass any of these tests.
> I agree that these tests are useful and that they are the measure of a
> publication's value *within the relevant scientific community*. It
> probably is helpful for the general public to understand how
> public arguments made by a scientist stack up against the norms of the
> scientific community.
> However, I'm a little nervous about using these norm as a general test for
> what the public should regard as truthful. Mavericks, malcontents and
> misfits often have valuable things to say -- sometimes precisely because
> they are outsiders. (I can imagine what the Pharisees said about whether
> reasonable people should believe Jesus.)

David W. Opderbeck
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Received on Thu Feb 15 23:18:57 2007

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