War on Science: Science Strikes Back

by John Q on September 21, 2006

The war on science driven by a combination of Republican* ideology and corporate cash has been ably documented by Chris Mooney (see the Crooked Timber seminar here). Now, finally, science is striking back at one of the worst corporate enemies of science, ExxonMobil. As evidence of human-caused global warming has accumulated, leading energy companies like BP have seen the need to respond, with the result that industry groups like the Global Climate Coalition have broken down, leaving ExxonMobil to carry on a rearguard action through a network of shills and front groups. Now the company is finally being exposed by a major scientific organisation.

In an apparently unprecedented move, the British Royal Society has written to Exxon, stating that of the organization listed in Exxon’s 2005 WorldWide Giving Report for ‘public information and policy research‘, 39 feature

information on their websites that misrepresented the science on climate change, either by outright denial of the evidence that greenhouse gases are driving climate change, or by overstating the amount and significance of uncertainty in knowledge, or by conveying misleading impression of the potential impacts of climate change

(full copy of the letter here)

I haven’t found the list of organizations noted as engaging in misrepresentation yet, but from reports I’ve read they include the International Policy Network, the George C Marshall Institute, and the Competitive Enterprise Institute. Reading the Exxon list, it’s easy to identify other consistently dishonest groups like the American Enterprise Institute, the National Centre for Policy Analysis, the Pacific Research Institute and so on.

In the letter, Bob Ward of the Royal Society writes:

At our meeting in July … you indicated that ExxonMobil would not be providing any further funding to these organisations. I would be grateful if you could let me know when ExxonMobil plans to carry out this pledge.

With rumors swirling about that Rupert Murdoch has also seen the light on this issue, some professional denialists could find themselves out of work before long.

The unequivocal tone of the letter leaves no room for ambiguity here. Either the Royal Society (along with the dozens of scientific organisations cited in the letter) is lying about Exxon, or Exxon and its front groups are lying about science.

More from Think Progress

* this kind of destructive irrationalism is specifically associated with the US Republican Party and its partisans in other countries, and should not be dignified with a philosophical label such as “conservative”



roy belmont 09.21.06 at 3:12 am

“one of the worst corporate enemies of science”
I’m sorry but Exxon Mobile is science.
In the vernacular. It’s the extraction and manipulation of chemicals and minerals, and their transmutation into seductively useful products that cause long-term harm while giving short-term payoffs.
Doing stuff because we can!
Doing stuff until somebody stops us!
You maybe don’t mean “science” so much as you mean “truth”. Inconvenient science gets in the way of whatever it is that’s driving the limousine Exxon Mobile’s hierarchy rides.
Anti-truth but yet scientific Exxon Mobile. Otherwise, what is it? A religion? A philosophy?
There’s a parallel with the slip-and-slide definition of Christianity where the good stuff is “us” and the bad stuff is some other bogus unofficial version.
But petrochemical industrial processes are science if anything is.
Gasoline is science in action. Exxon Mobile is gasoline.
They’re not anti-science, they’re anti-truth.


daelm 09.21.06 at 4:29 am

they are indeed anti-science – they’re just also pro-technology. you’re conflating the two. many people do.


soru 09.21.06 at 4:56 am

This is the equivalent of the head of the CoE going up to the newspapers and saying ‘you know those guys you keep quoting in your papers, Reverend Jones and Archbishop Murray? Nothing to do with me. I can’t stop them using those nicknames, but can I ask you to point out to your readers they are not ordained, dropped out of seminary after 3 weeks, and ‘the Jews run the world’ is not actually official Anglican doctrine?


soru 09.21.06 at 4:56 am

This is the equivalent of the head of the CoE going up to the newspapers and saying ‘you know those guys you keep quoting in your papers, Reverend Jones and Archbishop Murray? Nothing to do with me. I can’t stop them using those nicknames, but can I ask you to point out to your readers they are not ordained, dropped out of seminary after 3 weeks, and ‘the Jews run the world’ is not actually official Anglican doctrine?


example 09.21.06 at 5:10 am

You lost all credibility at “leading energy companies like BP have seen the need to respond.” BP’s “Beyond Petroleum” scheme is a farce, even for oil company propaganda. I didn’t know about XOM’s propensity to fund deniers, but if not them, who? If this is not acceptable, what kind of regulation would be? Should we require everyone who stands up to yell “fire” in a theater to provide proof or cite possible conflicts of interest first?

I’m a scientist with generally liberal tendencies, but I still favor open discussion. Not to feed the flames, but the thing that I find most telling here is that no two climate alarmists will point out the same reasoning, just like no two Christians seem to acknowledge the same doctrine.


ajay 09.21.06 at 6:00 am

roy belmont: “I’m sorry but Exxon Mobil is science.
In the vernacular. It’s the extraction and manipulation of chemicals and minerals, and their transmutation into seductively useful products that cause long-term harm while giving short-term payoffs.”

Roy, in our world we call that “industry”. “Science” is something very different – it is, and follow me closely here, the use of observation and experiment to find out about the universe. As a courtesy to the rest of us, please refrain from the debating tactics of Humpty Dumpty.


Hugh 09.21.06 at 8:18 am

‘Science’ is one of those words like ‘love’ ‘ecology’ or ‘anarchism’. It has taken on mutiple meanings in use, which is what counts for words. Unlike love and like ecology and anarchism, individual folks often strongly believe they mean one thing or another, but won’t accept that they have come to mean both.

‘Science’ as John Quiggin was using it in this article probably does mean something like “understanding of physical phenomeon through observation”, but it’s striking that in this case it’s the British Royal Society who are championing it. I don’t know much about the BRS, but I do think that Victorian-era attitudes to the cultural centrality of the “scientific endeavor”, which presumably gave birth to the Society, were as much as anything responsible for conflating ideas of ‘science’, ‘progress’, ‘technology’ and ‘enterprise’.

Now ‘truth’, roy belmont, there’s a word that can really get you into the deep end.


P O'Neill 09.21.06 at 9:23 am

Iain Murray, “senior fellow” at the “competitive enterprise institute” managed to pop up at the Corner yesterday without mentioning the emerging news that they had been de-funded by Exxon, but did manage to lodge a complaint re California’s new legal action against emitting industries:

The shakedown of the industries that have done the most to contribute to American freedom and prosperity is beginning. This’ll make the tobacco suits look like Judge Judy.


Andrew R. 09.21.06 at 9:24 am

Well, it’s obvious that the Royal Society is just another part of the vast left-wing plot to undermine capitalism by environmental regulation. Or something.


garymar 09.21.06 at 10:01 am

Took me a while to figure out what “CoE” meant. College of Engineering? Corporation of Edgeborough? But finally I saw that context made it “Church of England”. I am so proud of myself!

However, on “Jones” and “Murray”, I’m still drawing a complete blank.


B. 09.21.06 at 10:52 am

Not to jump on a bandwagon here, but I want to make this clear:

1) Gasoline is a processed hydrocarbon.
2) ExxonMobil is a corporation
3) Science is, er, what ajay said.

There can be no identity among any of these objects. A hydrocarbon cannot be a field of study, etc. A corporation can make use of technology without “being science”, whatever that means. And if part of that corporation — even a corporation that makes use of technology — finds its ends best served by quarreling with parts of science, the world won’t vanish in a puff of logic.


C. L. Ball 09.21.06 at 11:34 am

“Science” is not striking back. Indeed, the Royal Society is not striking back. The Guardian‘s correspondent misrepresents the letter. Ward is one PR guy writing to another PR guy. Ward never claims that he is writing on behalf of the Royal Society or that the Royal Society’s members have voted or approved a condemnation. Ward is merely following up on pledges that ExxonMobil made (to cut funding to groups that mislead).

And keep in mind the precise language of “science” that human activity is only the “likely” cause of greenhouse gas concentrations, which itself is “likely” the source of global warming.

What would be “science” striking back is to point out the utter stupidity of ExxonMobil’s idea that valid and reliable models will tell you whether human activity is or is not the cause of global warming. “Expert judgment” in this context is about interpreting the objective models. Does ExxonMobil take print-outs of raw data from survey equipment, plop them on the CEOs desk, and a then say “Aha! Sesmic sensor #70 tells us objectively that there is oil right here.”

This is not the case of “expert judgment” as clinical judgment v. actuarial judgment.


roger 09.21.06 at 11:34 am

Hugh, the British Royal Society is not exactly a Victorian institution. Go back two centuries. Here’s a apposite quote from its first historian, Thomas Sprat:

“THough it be certain,
that the promoting of Experiments … cannot
injure the Virtue, or Wisdom of Mens minds, or their former Arts, and
Mechanical Practices; or their establish’d wayes of life: Yet the
perfect innocence of this design, has not been able to free it from the
Cavill of the Idle, and the Malicious; nor from the jealousies of Private Interests.”

Sprat got the injuries to their establish’d wayes of life wrong, but he was on the money about those Private Interests.


Shelby 09.21.06 at 12:48 pm

Re your footnote, John:

I think it’s wrong. Conservative elements in both the Republican and Democratic parties are the “anti-science” crowd, or the crowd willing to distort, ignore and misrepresent science to serve a political agenda. For example, there are plenty of Democrats in the American South and Midwest who support teaching creationism (by whatever name you want to call it). Most Republicans I’ve dealt with or seen/read also are not hostile to science in the ways you suggest.

To complicate things further, not all conservatives are “anti-science”. John Derbyshire, for example, may not always get his science quite right but doesn’t seem to torture it. In general, though, the people you’re complaining of are more in the conservative camp than the Republican one. It’s just that Republicans control the federal government, and conservatives are the largest single constituent of the GOP, so they have a lot of influence on how Washington deals with scientific matters. Dammit.

I’m not trying to dispute your main point; I just think saying Republican ideology is to blame is no more accurate than saying climatologists have not reached a consensus on mechanisms for global warming.


JR 09.21.06 at 1:15 pm

It’s not only conservatives who are anti-science. The universities are full of English professors who deny the possibility of meaningful knowledge gained from empirical experience. You may think this stuff is nonsense but a lot more humanities majors become journalists and lawyers than physics majors do. The highest point of their intellectual experience has been to read Derrida or Lyotard – or more likely their alcolytes toiling in the fields of cultural studies. There is an entire generation of the cultural elite who, if they ever think about science at all, believe that it is a cultural artifact with no greater claim to truth than any other system of knowledge.


George 09.21.06 at 1:57 pm

If by “The universities are full of English professors who” you mean “I’ve heard people say that some English professors,” then sure. Otherwise, you’re just making stuff up, which is not, you know, really an empirical way of going about things.


Walt 09.21.06 at 3:05 pm

It’s okay, george. For reasons of balance, one commenter is required by law to bring up those imaginary English professors. We should be grateful to jr, because otherwise we could have been subject to large FCC fines.


asg 09.21.06 at 3:46 pm

Is denying the existence of the cultural studies movement intellectually equivalent to denying global warming?


marcel 09.21.06 at 4:09 pm

asg asks:

Is denying the existence of the cultural studies movement intellectually equivalent to denying global warming?

I’m not certain about this, but I strongly suspect that cult studs emit greenhouse gases in unusually large amounts.


george 09.21.06 at 5:19 pm

asg: Is denying the existence of the cultural studies movement intellectually equivalent to denying global warming?

No, it’s equivalent to denying the existence of “greenhouse” gases. Everyone seems to agree that these gases exist. The disagreements come in when the discussion turns to their prevalence and their effect.

Are there English professors of the type jr describes? Sure. Are English departments “full” of them? I doubt it. But I’m willing to consider any empirically gathered data to support this assertion.

marcel: I’m not certain about this, but I strongly suspect that cult studs emit greenhouse gases in unusually large amounts.

Okay, reasonable people may disagree about things, but we all must admit that this response is far superior to mine.


John Quiggin 09.21.06 at 6:42 pm

More interesting to me is the increasing acceptance that the approach to science taken by the dominant groups in the Republican Party is the same as that of the caricature version of cultural studies.

However many or few English profs actually adhere to this version, the most important epigones of Derrida and Lyotard are to be found in the Bush Administration, and its supporting apparatus of shills and thinktanks, not to mention the vast majority of the pro-Bush blogosphere.


Walt 09.21.06 at 7:32 pm

Do you ever think that the conservative commentators who show up on this board are people who never got over college? College seems to loom larger in their imaginations than anyone else. It’s hard to imagine a group in the world more powerless than English professors (elementary school children? butterflies?), but their mere existence seems to torment conservatives.


John Quiggin 09.21.06 at 8:08 pm


C. L. Ball 09.21.06 at 9:12 pm

Re #23, why think that people who doubt leftist or academic culturalist commitments to science as much as rightist or societal reactionaries commitments are “conservative commentators”? When Sokal — an old-school lefty who volunteered in Sandanista-ruled Nicaragua — showed that Social Text editors were unable to tell wheat from chaff, the reaction was to condemn Sokal for being tricky. Few on the social science, humanist, or cultural studies side (Jay Rosen was an exception) said: crap, we really need to take scientific arguments more seriously.


Marc 09.21.06 at 9:43 pm

Au contraire, c.l. ball. A lot of us science types found the Sokal affair to be immensely instructive and amusing. However, we now see the same postmodern tactics adopted by the Republican party in its day-to-day governance. Which is rather different from English professors spouting high theory to graduate students.


Walt 09.21.06 at 10:04 pm

Sokay was the total victor in the Sokal Affair. Social Text’s defence was that they simply took Sokal’s word for everything was saying because he was a physicist. That’s supposed to be a sign of not taking science seriously?


c 09.21.06 at 10:53 pm


roger 09.21.06 at 10:58 pm

I wrote an impassioned defense of SST (which included a parenthetical remark that obviously, jr. had so little idea about what Derrida or Lyotard wrote about that he confuses Bruno Latour with the two, on the most generous interpretation), but then thought — who cares? The myth that mainstream philosophy of science, of any variety you care to name, corresponds to naive positivism is way too important to let the ‘truth’ — as in something corresponding in some way to a claim – get in the way of it.

Derrida and Lyotard, those frisky outlaws, were nothing in their skepticism compared to, say, Ernst Mach. And guess what? Einstein found Mach’s work, in spite of the skepticism about atoms, useful. I wonder why. I wonder if there is a relationship between philosophy of science and science that does not consist of simply saying, ain’t science wunnerful. But of course, it is pointless to argue with people who repeat, like sleepy zombies, some dim and unsubstantiated canard originated long ago by Paul Gross, and repeated by people who have an ignorance of the philosophy of science that is capacious enough not to know a single name in the field.


bi 09.22.06 at 12:44 am

Walt: More precisly, because Sokal was a physicist, and his spoof agreed with the postmodernist types. So it’s not really “taking science seriously”, or even taking scientists seriously — it’s just good old name-dropping.


bi 09.22.06 at 12:55 am

Walt: For proof of this:

“The members of that collective knew very little about physics … and they didn’t bother to ask an expert. They didn’t do so … because ‘professional’ standards ‘are not finally relevant to us, at least not according to the criteria we employed’. … But still, why did Social Text publish this particular article?

“Because … ‘[we] concluded that this article was the earnest attempt by a professional scientist to seek some kind of affirmation from postmodern philosophy for developments in his field.’ In plainer words: We publish Sokal not because he is interesting, but because he says we are.”

The editors can squirm and waffle, but it’s all there. They’re just engaging in name-dropping and ego stroking.


Walt 09.22.06 at 1:41 am

That gets back to my claim that Sokal was the total victor. Everyone thinks now and forevermore thinks of Social Text as a joke. But if you or I wrote a spoof, we could never get it published. Social Text published it because they were just thrilled that a physicist agreed with them. If we pretended to agree with them, they could give a shit.


John Quiggin 09.22.06 at 2:14 am

Not to repeat myself (hah!) but the real story isn’t that some earnest cultstud types got conned into publishing a transgressive hermeneutics of gravity.

It’s that a major corporation and the party running the world’s most powerful country can pull a similar con, on an issue of direct global importance, and get a free pass from people who claim to be interested in truth.


Harald Korneliussen 09.22.06 at 4:41 am

If the question is whether liberals can be anti-science or even anti-intellectual, then the answer is obviouly yes. Both Social Text type professors and good old-fashioned hippies exist. But the point is that the current US goverment has a lot more power, and is anti-science and anti-intellectual on a couple of very important points.


Crystal 09.22.06 at 11:09 am

The Enterprisers strike back!

Exxon’s anti-science stance has the potential to do a lot more damage than any cranky pomo English prof. (I must say that in all my English classes I never was put through the Lyotard wringer. I got to read Swift and Twain, who were, arguably, much funnier anyway.)

Exxon is a global corporation, and its fiddling with scientific fact is bad for the earth, and bad for us. And, as Ajay above pointed out, Exxon really has little to do with science. Yes, some scientists are corporate whores. But so are some English majors. I’m reminded of the Chris Mooney seminars, where it was pointed out that a certain type – known as the “Enterpriser” – is not so much pro-science as pro-technology. Exxon is a prime example of the Enterpriser “ooh, shiny technology will save us!” mentality which isn’t really science.


c .l. ball 09.22.06 at 11:13 am

Re #32, whose giving firms and politicians that reject scientific consensus a “free pass”?

The Sokal affair did not show that Social Text was a joke but that scientific reasoning and literacy was lacking on the editorial board (the editors couldn’t tell nonsense from reason, or worse, were willing to disregard nonsense as long as the theme matched their beliefs). And scientific reasoning and literacy is lacking more broadly in society. If not, Exxon and its political backers would be roundly rejected for denying a global warming problem.

Note that ExxonMobil — in the material that Ward quotes in his letter — uses a standard of asocial objectivity over expert consensus. In other words, Exxon says that expert consensus is not “scientific” only data that speaks for itself is. But data does not speak for itself, and that is where Exxon is deceitful because as #1 points out, Exxon is engaged in scientific enterprises.


JR 09.22.06 at 3:02 pm

33 – no, the point is that the people who should have been educated to believe that there is such a thing as truth, and that people who twist it for profit are con men, were educated instead to believe that there is no truth and anyone who claims there is is a con man. This leaves them defenseless when they run into genuine con men like Exxon. Now maybe that’s because they were imbued with a bastardized caricature of culture studies, but that’s what they got in their high-priced educations.

What has happened is that the influence of “the left” in the universities has created a class of educated people who have no belief in truth and therefore have no defense when faced with genuine liars.


george 09.22.06 at 3:10 pm

What has happened is that the influence of “the left” in the universities has created a class of educated people who have no belief in truth and therefore have no defense when faced with genuine liars.

Fascinating thesis. How has this influence been measured empirically?


Steve LaBonne 09.22.06 at 5:33 pm

Derrida and Lyotard, those frisky outlaws, were nothing in their skepticism compared to, say, Ernst Mach. And guess what? Einstein found Mach’s work, in spite of the skepticism about atoms, useful. I wonder why.

Then wonder no longer- I shall enlighten you. The reason is that Mach was a more than competent physicist, who knew what the hell he was talking about, and for whom Einstein had great respect.

P.S. Mainstream philosophy of science is practiced by the likes of Kitcher, Bunge, Laudan, Sober et hoc genus omne. Your comment does not contain the name of a philosopher of science (Latour is a sociologist).


Francis 09.22.06 at 5:40 pm

george: by the outcome of the two most recent US Presidential elections.


roy belmont 09.22.06 at 6:13 pm

Oh heck. “Vernacular” – that would be like, common, the people, how your average listener understands the term.
Science in that usage meaning the convoluted, multi-step processing of stuff into other stuff – like making plastic out of soybeans, or babies out of unfertilized ova.
Point of fact Ajay#6 I was aware even as I wrote that that there is a “pure” science, and believe it or not I’ve had close friends whose lives were aligned with that unbiased search for truth.
Are you working with the idea that there may be a metaphysical parallel here? That just as science on the ground has a Mengelian component that can’t be shrugged off or reattributed, religion has its perversions and untruthful practioners?
” …its fiddling with scientific fact is bad for the earth…”

This is a mixing of the very thing ajay’s trying to bust me for.
There is no moral weight to ultimate truth. Nothing is “bad” for anything else, because there is no moral center to anything. Exxon’s its own moral center, therefore when the truth is bad for Exxon, the denial of truth is morally sound. This same paradigm is in play across the current events landscape.
The petrochemical industry can be reduced to a cartoon avatar of a chugging smokestack rising out of a chaotic nest of pipes and windowless buildings. Can’t it? That’s got nothing to do with the truth. But science as it intersects our lives is a lot like that. That was the point I was trying to illustrate.
Exxon is science without religion as applied to the immediate value system of the present. Religion in that sentence meaning moral alignment with something outside the self.
There is no “bad” in the wiping out of the entire mammalian branch of the tree of life, until we get a moral center that has us in it. Again, Exxon and its drones have put themselves in that center and make their moral decisions accordingly. You can express regret that their blindness and greed are damaging something you find beautiful and necessary, but you’re not going to have a rebuttal to their “so what” until you get a moral center and alignment that’s greater than theirs.
Science, pure science, won’t bring you that. There’s no valence. An anemone, a crab, a sardine, a whale, the moon, the sun, the galaxy – all equally morally weightless, except to themselves. Without that alignment and that center.


bi 09.22.06 at 9:54 pm

The Left Caused ExxonMobil: Because Michael Moore is Fat!

And… so what roy belmont is saying is that it’s perfectly OK to distort the truth to suit one’s own ends. Thank you, roy belmont, you’ve just proven that you’re a baby-raping serial killer.

Here’s the deal. Systematically distorting science, misrepresenting science, putting words into science’s mouth, just so that one can earn profits that are more insane than one’s insane profits, is simply wrong, wrong, and wrong. Funding ‘independent’ groups to be one’s mouthpiece is wrong. And being short-sighted enough to destroy the same earth which we live on — possibly destroying ourselves in the process — what, that’s not wrong?


John Quiggin 09.23.06 at 12:04 am

I don’t think roy was saying what you implied bi. Rather that we must bring our own moral values, including respect for truth and for the environment to science – we can’t find the values there.

OTOH, jr certainly seems to be claiming that The Left Caused ExxonMobil, presumably because its spin merchants were corrupted by America’s 101 most dangerous professors.


George Williams 09.23.06 at 6:47 am

Re 39: Correlation is not causation.


roger 09.23.06 at 12:26 pm

Steve, obviously, a mention of the social studies of science is an attempt to find where jr.’s charge fits, since neither Derrida nor Lyotard wrote philosophy of science (nor do I think jr. has read a word of either philosopher, but that is neither here nor there. Ignorance is obviously an advantage in this debate). Philosophers who aren’t specializing in science do write about science, of course — for instance, Quine wrote, famously,

“As an empiricist I continue to think of the conceptual scheme of science as a tool, ultimately, for predicting future experience in the light of past experience. Physical objects are conceptually imported into the situation as convenient intermediaries — not by definition in terms of experience, but simply as irreducible posits comparable, epistemologically, to the gods of Homer. Let me interject that for my part I do, qua lay physicist, believe in physical objects and not in Homer’s gods; and I consider it a scientific error to believe otherwise. But in point of epistemological footing the physical objects and the gods differ only in degree and not in kind.”

Somehow, though, I’ve never heard the accusation made that analytic philosophy leads to the development of an “anti-science” cultural elite (except, perhaps, in Chomsky’s essay on Davidson).

As for mainstream philosophy of science, can you get more mainstream than Nancy Cartwright’s work on models? Nancy Cartwright isn’t inclined to quote Lyotard — they don’t do that at the LSE – but she did publish a famous book entitled, How the Laws of Physics Lie. Hmm, now, isn’t that interesting.

As for your idea that Mach, being a scientist, deserved infinite respect that we should never give to those Frenchy amateurs –well, many think Mach’s mockery of the atomic theory led to Boltzman’s suicide. Mach’s effects on science have been debated, but nobody debates that in many ways, especially in his belief that atoms were a myth, he had a powerful negative effect on physics.

So, here’s the case:
1. Lyotard and Derrida are introduced merely as names. Nothing they say is quoted, no attempt to compare what they might have said to what other, “mainstream” philosophy of science people have said — instead, they speak through the mouths of nutty English professors;
2. When attempting to at least get the charges right – which are, more properly, attached to Latour and the SST people — suddenly the ground shifts from English professors to sociologists, who can’t, after all, have a philosophy of science.
3. So, one pursues the avenue of the philosophy of science and finds it loaded (as, in my opinion, it should be) with a lot of statements that can only be construed relativistically, and a lot of statements, such as those by Quine, that are question the status of the sciences as radically as anything produced by that Devil Derrida. And at that point, the conversation lapses. As you should know, since you are citing him, Laudan is especially concerned with revision in science, which definitely makes problematic any idea of science as the linear accumulation of facts. It would be misleading in the extreme to say that Laudan believes that science is an advance from one truth to another – and his model has been accused of epistemic relativism by many other philosophers of science. So it goes. That debate is blessedly free of pundit-like smears.


Steve LaBonne 09.23.06 at 1:54 pm

I don’t know what you’re on about, Roger, but suffice it to say that I don’t subscribe to any of the straw men paraded in your rather odd message (I am not “jr”). It’s as true to say of Quine and Laudan as it is of Mach (who by the way was at least as much philosopher as physicist) that their views about science were/are worthy of respectful attention because those views were underpinned by real knowledge and understanding of science, so your feigned puzzlement was itself puzzling. If it matters, my personal philosophy of science, to the limited extent that I have tried to formulate it, is fairly close to Laudan’s version of pragmatism.


roger 09.23.06 at 2:34 pm

That’s nice, steve, especially about the straw men. Since, of course, the message you were replying to was a response to a straw man argument – or actually a non-argument — they aren’t of my manufacture.

This remark, however, seems to imply a straw man of its own — It’s as true to say of Quine and Laudan as it is of Mach (who by the way was at least as much philosopher as physicist) that their views about science were/are worthy of respectful attention because those views were underpinned by real knowledge and understanding of science.” Which amounts to saying, “their understanding of science deserves attention because they understand science.”

How nice for them — but not a compliment, I think, that Quine or Lauden or any of the names you cited would find very convincing. Bogus accolades like that ease us into the habitual ridiculous denunciation of post modernism, and so on.

Now, the real argument here re global warming is not that we shouldn’t be sceptical of scientific institutions. The history of the twentieth century is replete with official scientific institutions abusing science — suppressing and distorting information. The AEC is a perfect example — for forty years, it simply lied about the dangers of the testing of nuclear bombs.

But we know why they lied, and we can follow the suppressions. The bad faith in accusing climatologists of following an ideological agenda is that the interest, here, is very weak, and the actual institutions with material interests are, of course, the polluters. I’d say that your pragmatism is in fact the best way to regard the pronouncements of the scientists — not a bad faith skepticism, or a faith based one, and not a blind faith in Ph.Ds, either.


Steve LaBonne 09.23.06 at 2:42 pm

If continuing to read straw men into my comments floats your boat, then by all means, knock yourself out.


JR 09.23.06 at 7:39 pm

John Quiggin- no, I’m not saying that the “Left” caused Exxon, any more than Chamberlain caused Hitler. What I am saying is that skepticism tends to disarm people when faced with genuine liars. Professors who teach that what appears to be truth is really just power may think that they are teaching something radically subversive. But the practical effect is to persuade students that there is nothing to be gained in opposing power and nothing to be lost in abandoning a commitment to truth.

PS- I put the “Left” in scare quotes because I believe that many on the self-identified left in academia are not leftists at all. They are quietists whose lives and work are entirely outside any sort of practical politics.


JR 09.23.06 at 8:42 pm

John Quiggin – I’ve read your post again and since you’ve misunderstood me about as completely as humanly possible let me try again. Exxon doesn’t care about truth. It cares about profit. If truth stands in the way of profit, well then, Exxon lies.
There have always been liars who will sell themselves for money. “Leftists” in universities have nothing to do with that.

The question is, why are honest people of good will seemingly so powerless or feckless in the face of the liars of Exxon, Fox News, the Republican leadership, the WSJ editorial page?

Once upon a time there were intellectuals who knew the difference between an honest person and a liar. Now we have intellectuals who teach that there is no such thing as honesty. I think that that is part of the problem. If people don’t believe in truth, they are defenseless against falsehood.

PPS- the 101 most dangerous profs have nothing to do with it. My favorite blogger, Berube, knows a liar when he sees one. So do Eric Foner and Victor Navasky, among others.


bi 09.24.06 at 3:28 am

JR: Your just-so story sounds attractive, but in the end it’s still a just-so story. There is evidence, in fact, that relativism is much older than some group of English professors in universities, and is at least as old as ancient Greek civilization itself.

And right now, the problem isn’t that people aren’t challenging ExxonMobil’s lies, the problem’s that the challenges don’t matter much if the people with vested interests in perpetuating these lies currently hold the reins of power.

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