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The question of Sovicille

Siena landscape: Image above by Martin Siena landscape: Image above by Martin

My job often casts me the role of public speaker and that gives me a chance to visit very interesting places. Not long ago, I gave a talk in the small town of Sovicille, near Siena, in the beautiful countryside of central Tuscany. At this presentation, a member of the audience posed a question that gave me the occasion to elaborate on something that I had been thinking on for a while; that is, about why there is so much disagreement on so many issues, from resource depletion to climate change. In theory, the scientific method should lead us to find an agreement, in practice we seem to be engaged in an endless cycle of arguments that never goes anywhere. Why is it so? What follows is related from memory, but it is close to the actual debate of that evening. 

The question:

Professor, I liked your talk, but I am perplexed. You told us many interesting things about fossil fuels, energy and climate. I tend to agree with you and your conclusions seem to make sense. But I can't avoid noticing that I have heard other scientists arriving to different conclusions. I heard someone saying that people were predicting the end of fossil fuels already 20 years ago and they were wrong, of course, and therefore there is nothing to worry about today. And it is the same about climate; I heard someone saying that scientists were expecting an ice age in the 1970s, and they were wrong, of course. So, I am surprised that experts can have such different positions while, theoretically, they all have the same data. You see, professor, I used to teach philosophy in high school and I know that there are different philosophical schools and different ideas. And, of course, when we discuss religion or politics, people have different ideas and there is no way that one can demonstrate who is right and who is wrong. That is normal. But I expected that in science things would be different. So, why is that?

My answer:

First of all, thanks a lot for this question. It is a very interesting problem that goes to the core of the matter and perhaps it is funny that I had to come all the way to Sovicille to discuss this subject. So, you are right in noting that there is something wrong with the debate on many important issues, from resource depletion to climate change. We discuss and discuss and we don't seem to be going anywhere; people just remain entrenched in their positions. This is surprising under many respects because we are not discussing religion - these issues are not based on dogmas or on divine revelations. We have data and we have the scientific method that tells us how to interpret them. We should arrive to an agreement or, at least, to identify the areas of uncertainty. But, for some reason, it doesn't work that way. So, is this a failure of scientists, of the scientific method, or of what?

One thing that I can tell you is that I am often amazed to see how well the scientific method works. I'd say wonderfully well. There is the agreement that facts are the basis of consensus. Then, if new facts challenge the old view, well, the old view is abandoned. There are many cases in the history of science when at some moment there was some consensus on a wrong idea. But science always found the right course when new and better data became available. The scientific discussion may be harsh, tempers may flare - scientists are human beings, after all - but, in the end, it finds the right way. One of the beautiful things of science is that there is no humiliation involved in changing your mind. You have new data, you change your interpretation and nobody says that you are a flip-flop.

You see, the essence of the scientific method is about managing uncertainty. You want to reduce it as much as possible, but never exactly to zero. You want to leave always open the possibility to review and change even the most strongly established ideas. That is a bit subtle - many people don't understand it. That's very evident in an issue such as anthropogenic climate change, AGW. If you say that there remains a certain degree of uncertainty about AGW, then some people will tell you that, if it is uncertain, there is no need to do anything about it. But if you tell them that you are sure that AGW is real, then they tell you that you are not a good scientist, because a good scientist should know that in science nothing ever is absolutely certain. A nice trick to make sure that the debate never goes anywhere. 

So, this beauty of the scientific method is also, in a way, a problem. Because of the uncertainty that is supposed to remain in any issue, there is always a possibility to argue just about anything. Sure, it would be weird today to seriously argue that the Earth is flat, even though I think there is, somewhere, a "flat earth society." But other subjects, and I was mentioning resource depletion and climate change, are uncertain enough that there is plenty of space to argue. Which is fine, in principle; the problem is that the discussion should be about reducing this uncertainty, whereas some people seem to be interested only in keeping it as large as possible; if possible in enlarging it. And some people engaged in this task are scientists; and that is bad because the have the cultural resources to keep arguing and arguing and always stay away from a conclusion. This is, in a way, human, but you wouldn't expect this attitude from people trained as scientists. So, I think this is the core of your question and let's see if we can answer it.

One first hypothesis is that people take this attitude because of money. Maybe you heard that say which has that, "you can't expect someone to understand something if his or her salary depends on not understanding it." That sounds wise and it raises a question: can we explain the behavior of some scientists with corruption? Money corrupts, as we all know, and scientists are human beings. You probably read in the newspapers not long ago that the vote of an Italian senator can be bought for couple of hundred thousand dollars. I don't know if that is true but I am afraid it might. And if a senator can be bought for two hundred thousand dollars, why not a scientist, who makes much less money than a senator?

Indeed, scientists can be bought and have been bought, at least occasionally. There is a good book that you can read on this point; it is titled "Merchants of Doubt." It is written by Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway. It tells you, among other things, of the debate about the effect of smoking on people's health and how some scientists were on the payroll of the tobacco industry. That is, they were paid to lie to people telling them that smoking is not bad for health. And you can read in the same book how, later on, some of these scientists moved on to work for fossil fuel companies and they were paid to cast doubts on the science of climate change. We can call these people "scientists" and, unfortunately, some of them have the right credential to claim to be that. Scientists, maybe, but also criminals of the worst kind. They kill people for money. Money corrupts, as I said.

But let me say that there are very few corrupt scientists in the sense of being paid money to tell lies. You can see that because, in the end, the tobacco industry lost the battle on the health effects of smoking. If it were easy to buy scientists, the tobacco industry could have bought enough scientists to build a totally different consensus. By now, we would be all convinced that smoking is good for health; we would be all smoking right now! So, it seems to be very difficult to buy a scientist for money; it may be much more difficult than buying an Italian senator. And that makes me happy because I am a scientist and not a senator; but, of course, this is not the point we are discussing.

So, scientists are not - normally - corrupt, in the sense that they are paid money for telling lies. But there is still a problem related with money: many scientists are "embedded" in the industrial system. It doesn't mean that they get money in their pockets directly from industry. But to be a good scientist one must do research and doing research costs money. Suppose you are a scientist who works on petroleum. Suppose you have been involved in estimating oil resources and making scenarios for future production. Then you discover that peak oil is real and coming soon - that is, production will start declining in the near future. But these are not good news for the industry. You know, if peak oil is really coming soon, people might decide to stop investing in oil and invest in renewable energy, instead. That would be horrible news for the oil industry and surely it is hard to think that you would get a grant from an oil company to publish such results. Without grants, no research. Without research, no career. The life of the whistle-blower is difficult, as everyone knows.

So, you see, in the end money counts; as we all know. But I think this is not the whole story - there are factors that go beyond money in determining the behavior of people. Let me make another example. You may have heard of Freeman Dyson, he is a famous physicist. He wrote an interesting book where he tells of his experience in working with the British Bomber Command during the second world war. The task of Bomber Command was to carry out bombing raids against Germany and Dyson reports that he found himself working for a huge organization dedicated to killing people and not even doing the job well. But he could not disengage himself: he describes how he slowly retreated from one moral position to another until he had no moral position at all. The problem was that he felt that it was morally right to fight that war, but he found that, step by step, that moral stance led him to a position in which he was embedded with Bomber Command and because of that he found himself inventing justifications for burning alive German men, women and children. And, of course, on the other side there were surely people who were trying to find moral justifications for exterminating Jewish men, women and children. If people were unable to twist their morals in this way, nobody ever would fight wars.

In modern times, this mechanism, let's call it the "embedding trap" works just as well. It is for this reason that you rarely find a scientist working or doing research for the coal industry who is also active in promoting the need of reducing greenhouse gas emissions. That doesn't mean that the scientists working for the coal industry are evil or corrupt, just that they are human beings, just as we are. The insidious power of the embedding trap lies in the fact that it proceeds step by step towards a certain direction and the embedded person may not even realize that. There are many people denying AGW, scientists or not, who don't work for the coal industry and are not paid by the fossil fuel lobby. They are just embedded in an environment of like-minded persons who have led them to take positions from which they can't back off any more.

This is a major problem. As long as the situation stays as it is, there will always people who will exploit the natural uncertainty of science to bend or ignore facts and find "scientific" arguments against inconvenient truths, such as climate change and resource depletion. So, how do we beat the embedding trap?

This is a good question, again. My impression is that there have to be ways to avoid the trap. The main one is not to fall into it from the very beginning. I believe you can do first of all by sticking to the scientific method. But perhaps it is more important to use that quality that I could call "empathy". In order to avoid the embedding trap, you have to have a certain "feeling" about the world, the people, nature, everything. If you feel empathy towards your fellow human beings it is much more difficult to think that you'll find yourself justifying killing large numbers of them by carpet bombing or by the emissions of coal plants. But you have to avoid the trap from the beginning. If you fall into the embedding trap, it is extremely difficult to come out

I do think that it is possible to avoid the trap. When I read that 97% of climate scientists support real science in the face threats, intimidation, ridicule and legal harassment, well, that makes me proud of being a scientist or, at least, to be doing what I can to be one. So, I think that, as long as we stick to the scientific method, as scientists we'll always have something to say that is useful to the world and I believe that the world will have a good reason to trust us. So, there is hope to advance even in the face of the difficulties we face today.

In the end, there are many things that money can't buy - one is the Tuscan landscape around us and the kind of life that one can live here; even without a lot of money. And, perhaps, if we look at that, we can understand what I meant as "empathy" for nature and for human beings and that is a good way to avoid the embedding trap.

I wish to thank Marco Rustioni and Alfredo Camozzi for having invited me to speak in Sovicille in March 2011

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