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3. Ethics of Truthful Representation in the Climate Crisis

6th Criteria Set:  Truthful, Sober, and Complete Representations of Fact, Intention and Statistical Probability

As commonsensical as it may seem and perhaps insulting to some, demanding that in the climate protection process, speakers, analysts strive to represent the real world, their own or their group’s intentions with regard to the climate protection process and/or their projections of future events as truthfully, soberly and completely as possible might be a help in insuring that all participants, including those who are opponents of that process are reminded of their ethical duties.  Natural scientists are already bound through the scientific process to truthful representations of the scientific data, an aspect of that process that self-anointed climate science “skeptics” seem to overlook.   Similarly we expect leaders and social scientists to do the same but here there is more room for representations to be flavored by the intentions of leaders or social scientists to represent the more fluid and “perspectival” social world in ways that are narrowly self-interested, either covertly or overtly.  (The sixth criteria is located at the intersection of the philosophical disciplines of epistemology, the study of knowledge, and ethics.)

Ethical Rules of Communication and the Fight with Climate “Skeptics

The recent controversies surrounding the public presentation of climate science are largely a distraction from the far more serious task of bringing together those who work in good faith on the climate crisis but have varying views on which goals to achieve and how to achieve climate protective or adaptive goals at all.  Warding off the bad-faith efforts of those who attempt to pick apart small details of the climate science data or how that data is communicated can be taxing and can lead to efforts to simplify rather than elaborate.  The bad-faith efforts of opponents of climate action will succeed if those who discuss and act in good faith on climate significantly alter the content of what they present or the actions they recommend in response.

There are clear differences in the ethical rules of communication and presentation used between opponents of climate action and those who defend the majority view within climate science of anthropogenic warming.  “Skeptics” subscribe to the following rules of discourse:

  1. It is ethically permissible to ignore, misstate or misrepresent large swaths of scientific data (implicitly in the service of some unstated “good” deemed to be higher by climate “skeptics”).
  2. There are no neutral utterances and assertions (by other people); every utterance and assertion serves the personal economic or political interest of its speaker.  For the purposes of political disagreements there is no “mind-independent world”.  This leads to cynicism about truth-seeking and truth-speaking of any kind.
  3. Scientific hypotheses about controversial or unpleasant topics such as human-caused warming must be “proven” rather than be subject to confirmation, refinement or falsification by successive empirical studies of the data.  Scientific assertions that are not inconvenient to the lifestyles of residents of developed countries and the business interests that support those lifestyles do not need to be “proven”.  (Even established scientific theories like the theory of relativity or Newtonian physics are not “proven”, they advance from hypothesis to theory by successive confirmation and lack of credible falsifying results.)
  4. Ad hominem references and attacks are as valid as any other utterance in arguments.  The criteria for “winning” an argument can include any proportion of ad hominem attack in relationship to topical references and assertion.
  5. It is a sign of personal weakness or weakness in the argument you represent NOT to engage in ad hominem attack and bullying.  “Bad and weak people make bad arguments” so if you imply or perform in such a way that your opponent is made to appear bad or weak, their argument must be bad or weak.
  6. The views of scientific specialists cannot be accorded greater authority than either scientists from outside that specialization or non-scientists in interpreting (climate) scientific data.  Anybody can have an equally weighty opinion about (climate) science.

By contrast those who are engaged in efforts to study and/or protect the Holocene climate implicitly are following or should be the following these rules of discourse:

  1. The views of climate scientists have greater authority in interpreting climate data than non-scientists or scientists from other disciplinary areas.
  2. Descriptions of climate change or arguments for climate action should be based to a maximal degree upon climate science data or its analysis by climate scientists.
  3. In addressing the climate crisis, scientific descriptions and analysis of events in the geophysical world come prior to and are independent of political and economic concerns of individuals (they are part of a mind-independent world even though we may only know them through our experience).
  4. Ad hominem attacks on climate “skeptics” have a lesser place and priority in arguments than logical or content-based arguments.  Ad hominem attacks are either excluded from or subordinated or ancillary to a logical or content-based argument.
  5. Scientific data often may contain statistical probabilities, while its interpretation almost always uses statistical tools.  Good science can contain uncertainty especially in studying complex systems like the climate.
  6. Action in the real world requires tolerance of uncertainty under many circumstances, including in the area of climate.  Uncertainty does not contradict the need to act.
  7. Secondary benefits of climate action (oil depletion, local pollution, general sustainability, economic stimulus) can weigh into considerations of whether to undertake climate action.

There is no ethical comparison between these two positions.  One, that of climate “skeptics”, invents self-justifying premises and shies from confrontation with uncomfortable realities while the other hews to scientific standards of argumentation and representation of fact.  The former shows disregard for past and present and future harm to our species and other species while the former shows reasonable concern for these and preparation to redress these harms.  However the “skeptic” position has gained traction in the media and in public opinion out of proportion to its moral standing, so a response of some kind is necessary.

The result to date has not been a debate of any substance but a series of skirmishes in the public sphere that unfortunately distract from the much more serious tasks of designing climate policy and deploying mitigation technologies.  Additionally, these attacks interfere with the ongoing work of climate scientists in deepening our understanding of the climate system.  As there is no intellectual weight to one side of this debate and it appears that none will be forthcoming in the immediate future,

Possible Methods to Clear Away Distractions from Conflict over Climate Science

I believe it is useful to view the skirmishes around climate science as sketched above as stemming from a gap between the different sets of ethical rules of discourse adhered to by either side.  There may be a real and substantial disagreement somewhere between the two sides, but the current debate does not reveal that disagreement.  Some of the “skeptical” position does not merit attention on ethical grounds but there may be some real human reasons for their influence beyond wealthy backers.  Bill McKibben makes the point in his recent piece on Grist that we are all complicit in resistance to climate action of which these “skeptics” are only the loudest exponents; McKibben’s point is that we are comfortable in our lives.  Despite this complacence our ethical duty is to fight on.

Response 1:  Tit for Tat and Pre-emptive Ad Hominem Attack

Tit for tat is one of the evolutionarily stable strategies in “game” like situations where there is the potential for both competition and cooperation.  If one side inflicts some damage the other side will respond with an equal and opposite response which may lead to either further escalation or a return to cooperation.  Another strategy is pre-emption (or in game theory “defection”) where you strike first anticipating a strike.

For instance, one response to opponents that outmatch you in volume is to turn up the volume yourself.  Another is to adopt cutting ad hominem attacks in the same vein as your opponent.  Or one might pre-empt these by simply starting out at a loud volume and opening with a cutting attack.  The climate blogger Joe Romm employs both these tactics in efforts to expose and lambaste climate “skeptics”, deniers, and a news media that in his estimate, as well as others, gives too much credence.

The problem with both pre-emption and tit for tat is that one is departing from the ethical high ground in the area of communicative strategy.  On the other hand, showing “fighting spirit” indicates to listeners and readers that you either believe passionately in what you are saying or you have at least a strong wish to defeat your opponent.  Neither of the latter two concerns have ethical standing though they also not violate any ethical rules either.  Nevertheless, those who feel they represent the ethically correct position with universal impact are also ethically obligated to persuade those who are opposed to that position as well as bystanders of their ethical obligations.

Response 2:  Clarification of/Reframing Terms of Argumentation

The “skeptic” position is most vulnerable if it is attacked via its standards of representation and argumentation.  I believe that those who present climate science results, either climate scientists or others, would do well to point out that those who are bombarding them with “arguments” are standing on faulty ground that is also highly unethical in terms of the representation of reality.  While some will not be impressed by the generic accusation of being “unethical” (being “bad” is “good”) when the specifics of that unethical form of argumentation are exposed, many listeners will discount their utterances more than they would otherwise.

Primarily this means pushing to the forefront the assumptions that advocates of climate action are operating under (most likely those outlined above) and point out differences between the approach of those representing the mainstream position in climate science and geophysics and that of opponents of climate action.

A) Ad hominem variant

The ethically faulty methods of argument and representation can be attributed to the speakers or writers themselves and by implication their characters.  This is a more sophisticated continuation of “Response 1”:  they are ignorant of the scientific method, are deceitful, are unable to face unpleasant realities, are moral cowards, etc.

B) Restatement of incompatible positions variant

A version that is more consistent with a focus on ethical standards and is more welcoming of eventual agreement at some future date is to simply highlight as above the incompatible nature of how opponents approach claims of truth and deal with uncertainty.

Example 1:  Climate “skeptics” attempt to isolate data points from the mass of data that has been collected and derive hypotheses from these data points that contradict the trends in the dataset as a whole.  As a climate scientist or defender of the work of climate scientists, the view is to the contrary that we should look for trends in the ENTIRE dataset rather than isolate portions of it.  The public and those who are looking to the future are probably more interested in the trend of the data as a whole rather than in a jagged line drawn through the data that excludes most of it.

Example 2:  Opponents of climate action attempt to suggest that the data of climate science is distorted by the personal interests of those who warn of impending climate change.  This is “shoot the messenger”:  it is difficult for the messenger at that moment of attack to decide whether to defend the message or him or herself.  Rather than a series of “stories” by self-interested individuals, defenders of climate science and those who rely on it see their views as part of a self-correcting system which substantiates or falsifies their claims.  Their personal interests are made irrelevant by the self-correcting nature of the scientific process.

Ultimately a focus on the views of climate “skeptics” is a diversion of energy from more important endeavors.  However, it should be possible to pay attention to two or more “fronts” in the complex and massive challenge of meeting the climate crisis.

Truth in Representation in Climate Policy and Technological Development

While the fight against opponents of climate action with regard to the results of climate science is indeed wearying and troublesome, at least the natural sciences have a fairly clear cut system by which hypotheses are tested:  at least in the end we can turn to temperature measurements and ice records to arrive at a consensual truth, however painful and alarming.

Less clear-cut is data from the social sciences or from efforts to apply science in the area of technology.  In the social sciences, there are issues of differing values that color the results and the proposed mechanisms:  how much are people motivated by self-interest and how much by duty to others?  Who will benefit more from climate policy and who less?  Is one configuration of climate policy at all effective or is another more effective?  Is one configuration more fair and just than another?   Is the most effective plan more or less fair and just than a less effective plan?  Is there a tradeoff between one set of ethical criteria and another?

Technology, because it applies or utilizes natural science principles, would at first appear to escape the slipperiness of social scientific representation of reality.  However, individual technologies apply these principles to human needs and wants in specific ways that are not value free, additionally their production and commercialization also contain values that are part of the relatively changeable fabric of societies.  Many marketers of technologies try to draw as straight a line as possible from basic science to their utilization of those principles but elements of choice and value-judgment become difficult to overlook, especially for specialists in that domain of technology.  Very naïve “technologism” sees it as an extension of science but those in the know realize that technology development and production are social processes constrained by specific physical, chemical and biological realities.  The engineering disciplines are the academic and professional homes of people who work directly with technologies.

Commitment to Truthful, Sober, and Complete Representations of Fact, Intention and Statistical Probability

There is a long way to go in developing widely accepted methods of determining what is a true, sober and complete representation of reality in the area of the social sciences and in engineering.  To develop these principles now on the spot on the occasion of the climate crisis is too much to ask of unruly disciplines like economics, psychology, sociology, anthropology, and political science.  Likewise, individual engineers deal with circumscribed problems related to one technology or another and are often employees of non-engineers who direct them to serve the purposes of a business that may want to control propriety secrets.

Still, in the face of the climate crisis, I don’t think it’s too much to ask for individuals involved to commit themselves to as complete, truthful and sober representations of social or technical facts as possible and to reveal as much as possible how they constrained NOT to do so by binding relationships and obligations.  I don’t think of those active in climate as particularly remiss in these matters, only that this enterprise requires the evaluation of many alternatives in as sober and truthful a light as possible.

The harangues of those who want to stop climate action are particularly distracting and misleading in this discussion.  They are the not the reason for placing this ethical demand upon participants in the process of determining climate policy. The question is not WHETHER to take climate action but HOW to take climate action.  To do so in the optimal manner, involves knowing the domain of action in as much nuance as possible; that domain of action is society and the technologies that social actors employ to meet their needs and wants.

A development of an ethic of at least personal commitments to truthful representation (not the use of oaths and other legal devices) and perhaps a culture of doing so is an evolutionary step as we, by necessity, become a species that attempts to halt a global catastrophe.


1. Donald Brown - February 4, 2012

This is a great post and quite helpful. Don Brown Penn State

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