- This exchange first appeared on Adam Riggio’s blog “Adam Riggio writes”. On 3 April 2015, Adam and Steve Fuller discussed Steve’s latest book Knowledge: The Philosophical Quest in History. Here, Part Five , “Refuse Simplicity and the Status Quo”, looks at Chapter 4, “Epistemology as Philosophy of Science”, from the book.
I‘d like to talk with you about two things. One is to ask you a practical political question, and the second is to have a wider discussion about how philosophy of science and scientific practice influence each other. I’ll start with the practical political question first, because one of the first lessons in writing for the web is to headline your most sensationalistic point.
It’s about your discussion of Leah Ceccarelli’s concept of the “manufactured scientific controversy.” You make a lot of salient conceptual critiques of the idea that a scientific controversy can be authentic or inauthentic, and whether it is “natural” or “manufactured.”
Yes, in the common practice of science, there is never an absolute consensus where absolutely everyone agrees on every detail. The conception of “scientific consensus” that regards the conclusion of scientists as monolithic and total does not reflect how science is actually practiced. Such a monolithic field of agreement would no longer be science, but pure ideology.
But there’s a very clear sense of what a manufactured scientific controversy is that your chapter doesn’t cover at all. And like our earlier discussion of Left Creationism, your book suffers for not referring to it. It’s how you deal with climate change politics.
You say that there are two political reactions to climate change: attempts to stop it, and attempts to adapt to changes that are already past their tipping point. Well, you neglect the most dangerous third political reaction to climate change: outright denial. The politics of the mainstream Republican party in the United States that advocates either making no industrial change or doubling down on existing heavy-pollutant manufacturing and energy practices because climate change is a socialist conspiracy to expand government powers over the economy.
Even a politician like Florida governor Rick Scott, regarded as moderately right-wing, has fired people from his staff for even using the phrase ‘climate change’. Large numbers of people sincerely believe that climate change is the product of a conspiracy among the scientific community to write fake reports which would mislead the public into believing that Earth’s climate was changing and that human industry was an important contributing factor.
So here’s a perfectly sensible example of a “manufactured scientific controversy.” A group of petroleum and media industry billionaires grossly misinterpret casual email conversations among climate scientists to blast a bunch of messages at the viewing public that climate change is an idea that socialists and scientists have completely fabricated so that the public will hand the government direct control over all the Earth’s industries and economies.
Humans tend to have short memories and we fail to understand systemic causation. Add to that our tendency to think politically in conspiracy theories, and too many of us are best equipped to believe that climate change is a myth.
In this political environment, writing about issues of scientific consensus and the certainty of scientific knowledge without acknowledging genuine climate change denial is a serious detriment to your book.
Now that I have my rage out of the way, some more strictly philosophical ideas. The most interesting idea in this chapter is your spins on Thomas Kuhn and Karl Popper. I’ll contrast your interpretation with the way I was taught about both these writers in my first undergraduate class in philosophy of science.
Popper stood for the traditional view about science: there was only one scientific method, and it was shared by all practitioners of science, and this common practice led all scientists to think in the same way, using the logic of falsification. Kuhn was a revolutionary figure in understanding science, revealing that scientific disciplines change radically in their fundamental principles.
Science wasn’t a society apart from the temporal concerns of humanity, as Robert Boyle defined the community of scientists. They were people who organized in camps and arranged their inquiries and work according to framework concepts, ideas, ideologies.
Kuhn’s picture of science was described to me as revolutionary because it broke open the ivory tower of the lab. The institutions of science were no longer divided between the elite practitioners who kept the secrets of how their profession actually works from a proletariat who are passive in their ignorance and are thought to benefit from the scientific products that are made in an atmosphere of secrecy.
Yet you’re right to identify the inner conservatism of Kuhn’s idea, which I’ve suspected for a while, but wasn’t quite able to put into words. Kuhn doesn’t get rid of elitist borders, but instead changes where the elitist border is. Kuhn makes the historian / philosophers of science the elite because they’re the ones whose practice reveals how science really works and the revolutionary character of scientific development.
The scientists are now the ignorant proletariat, non-conscious practitioners of an institutional tradition who believe the lie that the entire history of science constitutes the building blocks of the current paradigm and contains no disconfirmation or positive alternatives to the modern official consensus.
More than this, Kuhn’s model of the history of science is inherently anti-democratic regarding historical change in general. There is no way in Kuhn’s analytic for people to work to bring about change themselves. We are instead left to plug away at an accepted consensus until returns diminish to a threshold of complete epistemic collapse. We then scramble for a new truth to restabilize our knowledge as quickly as possible. Kuhn leaves us with a vision of humanity that is passive and helpless before forces of social change that dwarf our powers. He offers us no way to empower ourselves in the face of this revelation.
What made me happiest about this chapter was your account of Popper, essentially making him into a virtue ethicist for scientific and wider knowledge practices. The logic of falsification and disconfirmation isn’t a descriptive account of knowledge, as my undergraduate course depicted him, but a prescription for the best scientific practice and thought. He was describing how good scientific practice should work, no matter the discipline, and in terms that could apply outside scientific institutions and in any problem of knowledge we encounter in daily life.
Part of what I like about your reading of Popper, and which makes me want to incorporate some of his ideas in my next big project, the political/metaphysical Utopias, is that there is always more to be found in a material history than a given account of that history. A given scientific discovery can change the meaning of what’s come before. It could knock an old idol down, or raise up a previously neglected figure in the history of science as a forerunner of the new discovery.
Our narratives of the history of science are the stories of how we came to understand the world as we do. When ongoing inquiry changes how we understand our world, part of what changes is how we understand our past. We literally have the power to rewrite history.
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It’s true that I don’t take climate change denial seriously. That’s simply because there is little to the denialist claims other than a kind of inductive scepticism with regard to inferences drawn from the generally agreed data. I don’t see a positive research agenda emerging from them in the way I do from the Young Earth Creationists (i.e. to show that geological timescales are radically wrong).
On closer inspection, so-called climate change denialists are less concerned with the intellectual point of showing that climate change isn’t happening than with pushing certain economic policies that the climate change agenda currently denies or makes politically very difficult. These typically turn on the future of the fossil fuels industries.
You may find it annoying that science is the battleground for this largely political-economic dispute, but politicians—abetted by activist climate scientists—are to be blamed for positioning science as a silver cross to brandish in the face of BP to end its petro-sucking ways.
While I agree that it would probably do us and the planet a lot of good to become more energy efficient, the ontology of climate change is largely an unhelpful distraction. As I argue in Knowledge, a properly philosophical perspective on climate change would take with equal seriousness that our best models say we’re due for global catastrophe in fifty years and that those models are likely to have been superseded in half that time.
I conclude that here pragmatism should take priority over principle. This is why I’ve thrown in my lot with the climate ‘adaptationists’ who have signed up to the Hartwell Paper (pdf), an LSE-based manifesto that argues for states to provide economic incentives for a radical shift in energy research and development away from fossil fuels.
This means transitional subsidies to big business, which has been so far unwilling to absorb the short-term costs of radically altering its infrastructure, despite the long term ecological and economic benefits. But let us not forget, while the oil lobbyists may be the ugly face of climate denial, they enjoy the tacit support of all those industrial workers—especially in the US automobile industry—whose jobs they protect.
So the adaptationist agenda must include a public-private commitment to retrain the potentially hundreds of thousands of displaced workers. If the sums for the adaptationist proposal can be made to add up, many of so-called climate change deniers would sign up to it.
Because I don’t think that climate change denial is intellectually serious on its own terms, the space is open to find some alternative terms for striking a deal that would benefit all parties concerned. Admittedly, the result may turn out to be the most aggressive state-based ‘creative destruction’ of the capitalist economy ever undertaken. It would be quite an achievement if it could be done without a bullet and before the Earth’s great coastal cities are wiped out.
On the Kuhn-Popper stuff, I first presented that reading of Kuhn as conservative and Popper as radical in a 30th anniversary review of the reception of The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, which I published in History and Theory in 1992. Out of that came two books and considerable notoriety, since even now people are not willing or able to make the Gestalt switch from the standard interpretation of these two guys.
I have always found this slightly surprising, especially if one follows the discussion in the landmark proceedings of their one personal encounter in London in 1965. Popper’s student and successor, Imre Lakatos, compiled the papers in 1970 as Criticism and the Growth of Knowledge, a very rich book of arguments and insights that I bought as an undergraduate at Columbia in the late ‘70s.
It led me to seek further degrees in the relatively new field of ‘history and philosophy of science.’ Perhaps the most striking feature of this book to today’s readers is the vast use of italics and scare quotes to make points. Back in the ‘60s philosophers were both emphatic and ironic. 
In any case, even a cursory glance of Lakatos’ book makes it clear that Popper believed that scientists aren’t doing their job if they are not challenging taken for granted assumptions, à la Galileo, whereas Kuhn cast scientists as reluctant revolutionaries who would much prefer a heads-down approach of empirical puzzle-solving. Popper basically saw philosophy and science as sharing a common critical orientation that takes consensus as no more than a way station on the path of inquiry, the more quickly superseded the better.
In contrast, Kuhn saw philosophy and science as fundamentally different, perhaps even opposed, activities. For him, science was about completing an already accepted world-picture (i.e. the paradigm). The world-picture had to fail on its own terms before scientists were licensed to seek alternatives. This is why even though nearly all the major conceptual objections to Newtonian mechanics had been articulated in his lifetime, it was only once Newtonianism faced its own empirical limits 200 years later that those objections acquired force in the hands of Einstein.
In the end, the difference between Kuhn and Popper was sociological: How best to institutionalize science? Does it require common agreement on an overarching theoretical orientation (Kuhn) or simply the means by which theoretical differences are adjudicated (Popper)? I’m clearly on Popper’s side.
However, Popper had a PR problem during the Cold War because of his staunch anti-Communism, which alienated him from the emerging academic (‘new’) left of the 1960s. At the same time, Popper, despite his friendship with Hayek (who brought him to the LSE from exile in New Zealand after the Second World War), resigned from the neoliberal crucible, the Mont Pelerin Society, because there weren’t enough social democrats on board. 
People, I’m afraid, have not been sufficiently sensitive to the nuances on the ‘left of centre’ side of the political spectrum. However, one thing is clear: Popper wasn’t a conservative, which is the party that supports induction as a political doctrine in the guise of ‘tradition’ (i.e. the past is entitled to self-reproduction).
His disagreement with utopianism was actually more limited, as his famous phrase ‘piecemeal social engineering’ suggests. It’s still social engineering – only it is subject to periodic checks so that no policy is ‘irreversible’ (i.e. immune to criticism). When the great social science methodologist Donald Campbell spoke of the ‘experimenting society’ in the 1960s, he had Popper in mind. But he was writing before ‘institutional review boards’ systematically restricted the sorts of experiments that could be performed on humans.