Saturday, September 08, 2012


What is the connection between female orgasms and climate change denial? This sounds like the start of a very dubious joke, but actually it isn't. The two were linked in my mind by a couple of very different articles that I read recently.

First up is a wonderfully savage review by Suzanne Moore of Naomi Wolf's new book about, what else, the vagina. There is a lot of malicious pleasure to be had in a stinking review of a book that probably deserves it. Moore set about putting the boot in in a way that would have been far more satisfying than any orgasm. She is particularly rude about Wolf's dipping into neuroscience, "more clueless than someone who has failed her chemistry GCSE but has two TED talks on her iPhone" (ouch!).  And continues,
Yet again we see neuroscience in the hands of the layperson being fused to very determinist ends. Thus neural pathways are formed, chemicals just do one thing, hormones rule. Actual scientists don't think so simplistically, however many rats they have tickled to orgasm.
So we are back in the morass caused by the misuse of misunderstood science; inexpertise leading to a simplistic, 'scientific' conclusion. It is a bad habit, trying to pick out bits of half-digested information to suit a predetermined theory and thereby claim some sort of scientific validity for it. The second article takes on the more serious issue of climate change denial and of a media tendency to abandon any requirement for a modicum of knowledge to help promote the mistrust of expertise by the inexpert. It is a very similar process.

Jay Griffiths writes
Society understands the architecture of academia and knows there are relevant qualifications in different fields, and the media accepts the idea of specialisations and accords greater respect to those with greater expertise. With one exception: climate science. 
When it comes to this academic discipline, it seems that if you are a specialist in public sector food-poisoning surveillance or possess a zoology doctorate on sexual selection in pheasants, editors will seek your contrarian views more avidly than if you have qualifications in climate science and a lifetime's professional expertise. The press is further littered with climate "heretics" almost all of whom have academic backgrounds in history, literature, and the classics with a diploma in media studies. (All these examples are true.) One botanist trying to argue that glaciers were advancing took his data (described as simply false by the World Glacier Monitoring Service) from a former architect.
What these 'sceptics' have in common is the self-image of being enlightened heretics, a Galileo complex. The problem is that their heresy is only lightly adorned by learning. In fact, they are repeating well-worn clichés that have been long disposed of and, though they see themselves as rugged individualists, they are really conservative conformists promoting a vested interest.

So let's think a bit more about expertise. We have a popular image floating around of the lone maverick genius. It doesn't really work that way. A flash of individual insight often can start the process off, but the accumulation of evidence prior to that has already pointed the way. The development of knowledge is as much collective as it is individual. This is why peer review is important. It doesn't guarantee that you are right, but it does point out when you are talking bollocks. This isn't an example of the wisdom of crowds, but of collective expertise harnessed to a common purpose. And this is why scientific consensus is important.

Of course expertise does not confer infallibility. Experts get things wrong, often badly. But that doesn't mean that they are invariably wrong, or that non-experts are more likely to be right. I have always felt that there is no necessary correlation between a position in an organisational hierarchy and expertise, but again that isn't to say that we should give equal respect to those with a smattering of knowledge leavened with a vivid imagination, because they are somehow more 'authentic' or demotic.

I like the way Griffiths ends up
The author has fallen victim to the Galileo fallacy. Just because Galileo was a heretic doesn't make every heretic a Galileo.
And what is more, Galileo was seeking to overturn dogma with data, research and observation. Climate change sceptics are trying to overturn data, research and observation with dogma.

In the meantime, here is an exasperated expert.

No comments: