Jack Stilgoe: Science and politics need counselling, not a separation

Posted: December 26, 2012 by tallbloke in Analysis, media, Philosophy, Politics, propaganda

An interesting piece in the Guardian by Jack Stilgoe marred by the use of the phrase “climate change denier”. Why do otherwise clearly intelligent people make fools of themselves like this? Perhaps as well as  “a new humility on the part of science in the face of public attitudes”, a  “a new humility on the part of the media in the face of public attitudes” wouldn’t go amiss either.

Science and politics need counselling, not a separation
Jack Stilgoe : 21-12-2012

piece by Brian Cox and Robin Ince in the New Statesman has excited that corner of the Twittersphere concerned with things scientific. Their argument is that, because science has been twisted and undermined by politicians, there needs to be clearer separation between scientific truths and political values.

I think it’s worth spending some time thinking about what’s going on here. As corroborative evidence, I’d also like to submit Royal Society presidentPaul Nurse’s recent anniversary address (pdf).

I welcome the recent involvement of Cox and Ince in a debate that has long been dominated by scientific grandees. They and Nurse are thoughtful people interested in the relationship between science and society, and they work hard to improve it.

Those of us who teach and write about science policy, the philosophy of science and the history of science can join a clichéd academic chorus of “it’s more complicated than that”. The historians can remind Nurse that scientists are not as sceptical of their own ideas as he would like us to believe. The philosophers can tell Cox and Ince that there is no single “scientific method”. The sociologists can point out that Nature (oddly capitalised, as @green_gambit pointed out) does not speak for itself. And the policy wonks can wryly observe that advocates of “evidence-based policy” seem to forget their mantra when it comes to science policy.

Such rejoinders are healthy and important, but they miss a bigger point. Cox, Ince and Nurse are fighting for the status of science. They are standing up for science in the face of an imagined enemy. My problem with their rhetoric is that it is bad politics. They are picking the wrong fight and giving the wrong impression about science. Their aim is to boost the credibility of science, but the effect is the opposite.

All three call for a separation between science and politics. Cox and Ince want “a place where science stops and politics begins”. Nurse wants to “keep science as far as is possible from political, ideological and religious influence”. But their own rhetorical tangles demonstrate just how hard this is.

Cox and Ince are right to say, “The loud criticism of climate science is motivated in the main not by technical objections, but by the difficult political choices with which it confronts us.” But they are wrong to equate the rantings of climate change deniers as “an attack on the scientific method”. To say such things only confirms the deniers’ suspicions that science is trying to close off its discussions. Science is strong enough to withstand and benefit from scepticism, even if that scepticism is more disorganised than scientists would like.

Climate science cannot be separated from climate politics, and this is a good thing. Nurse laments that scientists are “only human”. This is a good thing too. Many climate scientists are driven by a personal desire to describe and solve a big problem, and most of them are funded because their work is seen as politically important as well as scientifically interesting.


Cox, Ince and Nurse want science to matter to politics and the public. But they are too defensive. Nobody is suggesting, as Cox and Ince fear, that we abandon science. Those who claim to fight for science, by shoring up the boundaries around science, retreat from political relevance, belittling science and damaging its public credibility.

Read the full article:


  1. adolfogiurfa says:

    As the “confusion of tongues” is reaching a mathematical critical point, things are going to change dramatically of direction, so is it they need counseling or rather “extreme unction”? 🙂
    It´s a new world buddies and you are too old fashioned to survive!

  2. tallbloke says:

    There’s another piece in the Grauniad covering some History and Philosophy of Science as well. This one is by ‘science communicator’ Rebekah Higgit


    In which she breezily informs us that

    “the scientific evidence on climate change is clear.”

  3. clivebest says:

    Both articles- that by Brian Cox/Robin Ince and that by Paul Nurse are excellent. In the early 20th century there was a 99% consensus among physicists that the Aether existed. Maxwell’s equations had explained light to be an electromagnetic wave oscillating within a medium that permeating all of space – the aether . Anyone denying it would have been ridiculed. That is until Michelson-Morley actually set out to measure the velocity of the Earth through the Aether.

    Science must be kept out of politics, out of religion, and out of “interest groups” of any type. All scientific advances come only come from experiment – not from wishful thinking.

  4. clivebest says:

    To Einstein’s credit he wrote

    “Should the positive result be confirmed, then the special theory of relativity and with it the general theory of relativity, in its current form, would be invalid. Experimentum summus judex.”

    Can you imagine Dr. James Hansen writing that ?

  5. mitigatedsceptic says:

    I agree that the attempt to put science on a supra-human pinnacle is so misguided that it does more harm than good to the cause of science. Science is not only a human but also a social activity involving peer review and publication in select media. Science is now, as it always has been, dependent on patronage. It is inextricably intertwined with politics, commerce and ‘enthusiasms’ of various kinds.
    There are many ‘sciences’ competing for scarce resources. Some sciences are more plausible and reliable than others. None is beyond critical examination. One crucial difference between the sciences is the extent to which they speculate about causes that are beyond the direct evidence of experience and project how current causal relations will persist into the future. Another is the length to which they will go in promoting the importance of the phenomena they are examining.
    I think that Nurse should be asked a simple scientific question – “What evidence or argument would convince you so as to change your opinion (i.e. that man-made global warming is of sufficient importance to justify the kind of measures that threaten to make energy so unaffordable that industry is suppressed, employment opportunities reduced, economic recovery threatened and the health risks and energy poverty inflicted on millions)?”
    Nurse seems to be innocent of the fact that it was the threat to political stability and civil order that the coal miners’ unions presented to the state that prompted Thatcher to set up the Hadley Centre, NOT to discover the causes of man-made climate change, but to advise government on the measures to mitigate it – i.e. to provide a scientific basis on which to demonise the burning of coal and the dire consequences that will result.
    The science of climate change had political origins. The unions were demolished even before the Centre was opened and Thatcher herself derided the greenhouse gas narrative. Once the band wagon was set rolling, there was no stopping it.
    Climate science and politics are inextricably wedded.
    Nurse should be challenged “What scientific resources are being funded to refute the consensus opinion?”

  6. tallbloke says:

    Clive: yes, but…

    Einstein knew Shankland’s ‘rebuttal’ of his former PI’s work in 1955 was bogus, yet went along with it. Given the elevated position he was in by that time you can understand it from a human perspective. It falls short of his fine words to Schlossen from 30 years earlier though.

  7. donald penman says:

    We owe everything to science it seems then but would it not have been possible for science to make progress without benefiting the mass of the population as it does today but rather a small group at the top of society as it did before the modern era,Thus politics determines the type of science required by society rather than science determining the type of society we have.Who needs a TV anyway?
    As regards the question of the ether it seems to depend on if it can travel through solid matter or not.Most experiments that confirm no ether have more shielding ?

  8. Martin Cohen says:

    I’m afraid I think this is a very bland piece, and the Staggers original no doubt is worse. It is always as if Thomas Kuhn’s ‘revolution’ in the way we look at the history of science never happenned… instead we have this picutre of a grand edifice of knowledge with the last few pieces just about to be cemented in (climate sceptics permitting of course!)

    Thus, the Guardian relates that:

    “Cox and Ince are right to say, ‘The loud criticism of climate science is motivated in the main not by technical objections, but by the difficult political choices with which it confronts us.’ ”

    Not at all… not only at Tallbloke’s Talkshop, but throughout the Climate Sceptic world, I see people primarily motivated by what they see as ‘bad science’. It is a war of scientific methodologies more than a disagreement over political strategies. Myself, I try to publicise how bad the poltiical strategies are – biofuels, energy taxes, dieselisation, new nuclear… but little of this is the wellspring of ‘The loud criticism of climate science’.

    The piece completely fails to recognise or understand the political nature of scientific fact, even as it gives this rather PC nod at the political nature of scientific prescription.

  9. tallbloke says:

    Spot on martin, and a perfect moment to republish page 5 from Kuhn’s ‘Structure of Scientific Revolutions’

  10. Martin Cohen says:

    … (couldn’t resist joining on on this, futile though I know resistance will be to the orthodoxy!)

    The debate on the aether is one of science’s most fundamental and most ancient. Opinion has swung from side to side many times – ALL the scientists agreed there wasn’t such a thing one decade, and ALL the scientists assumed there was (and used it in their everyday work).

    Einstein himself is an example of this see-sawing, his 1905 theory dismisses it as ‘unnecessary’ but the General Theory resurrects it!

    ‘… we may say that according to the General Theory of Relativity space is endowed with physical qualities; in this sense, therefore, there exists an aether. According to the General Theory of Relativity space without aether is unthinkable; for in such space there not only would be no propagation of light, but also no possibility of existence for standards of space and time (measuring-rods and clocks), nor therefore any space-time intervals in the physical sense.’

    In a paper called in German, ‘Grundgedanken und Methoden der Relativitätstheorie in ihrer Entwicklung dargestellt’, published in 1920, he admits:

    ‘Therefore I thought in 1905 that in physics one should not speak of the aether at all. This judgment was too radical though as we shall see with the next considerations about the General Theory of Relativity. It moreover remains, as before, permissible to assume a space-filling medium if one can refer to electromagnetic fields (and thus also for sure matter) as the condition thereof.’

    Einstein’s supposed role as a cornerstone of science today is myth not reality. But myths are very powerful. That’s why, although, the MM experiment did not intend to do away with aether but rather to support one version over another, it has magically become the supposed ‘death knell’ of the aether.

  11. Martin Cohen says:

    Just so, Rog!

    Summarising, too, Kuhn says that ‘evidence’ alone does not decide theories: more than one theoretical construction can always be placed upon a given collection of data as we regularly see with AGW research… Even if problems and weaknesses with a theory begin to accumulate, he says, it is easier for the establishment, scientific, religious, political, to either ‘modify’ the original idea, or even to suppress the conflicting information that to abandon their established orthodoxies.

    And don’t let’s forget Paul Feyerabend who says Kuhn is a wishy-washy bluffer:

    “Pursue this investigation further and you will see that science has now become as oppressive as the ideologies it had once to fight. Do not be misled by the fact that today hardly anyone gets killed for joining a scientific heresy. … Heretics in science are still made to suffer from the most severe sanctions this relatively tolerant civilization has to offer [for] science has become rigid, that it has ceased to be an instrument of change and liberation.”

  12. clivebest says:

    Einstein’s theory of general relativity modifies the geometry of space-time. The angles of a triangle no longer equal 180 degrees. It remains one of only two revolutions in thought in the last century – the other being quantum theory. Space does not exist without Gravity and matter. They are intertwined. Before the big bang mathematically speaking there was no space nor time. Science though is never done.

    General relativity is tested every day by SAT Nav software. Particle accelerators could never work without including special relativity.

    “climate science” on the other hand is completely different. There is no fundamental science involved. It is more akin to kitchen sink physics.

    However, despite this it is fascinating and I am convinced that there remain to be discovered 1 or 2 basic principles that regulate climate on Earth.

  13. tallbloke says:

    Martin, indeed. See for example how Feyerabend is proved correct by the treatent of that modern day Galileo Halton Arp.

    He shows them many examples of two galaxies at the same distance with wildly differing redshifts.

    The institutional response: They deny him telescope time.

  14. tallbloke says:

    Clive, my thought is that Einstein was wrong that his theories fail if Miller’s experimental data is correct. There are frameworks which can accommodate both sets of results. The failure of science was to sweep Miller under the carpet instead of exploring what those frameworks might look like.

    This too is the failure of Climate Science – it should be investigating alternative theories and building models to test them. Instead we have a single theory which attempts to gain legitimacy by sweeping all other possible scenarios under the carpet.

  15. Brian H says:

    Anyone touting Nurse as objective and authoritative is beyond the pale.

  16. Martin Cohen says:

    “He shows them many examples of two galaxies at the same distance with wildly differing redshifts.”

    Interesting – I’d not heard about this…

    ‘What Einstein got wrong’ is kind of a hobby of mine.. his first ever scientific paper was wrong on capillary rise – he invented new laws of molecular forces – and it’s been downhill ever since for the fraud!

  17. oldbrew says:

    “The loud criticism of climate science is motivated in the main not by technical objections, but by the difficult political choices with which it confronts us.”

    No, they are building in unjustified assumptions to arrive at such a conclusion.

    Unless or until climate science decides to take known phenomena like the Medieval Warm Period seriously, credibility looks a long way off.

  18. adolfogiurfa says:

    @Tallbloke: ..”.two galaxies at the same distance with wildly differing redshifts.”: Science and Religion, or Science and Politics.
    The future solution of opposites: “As above so below”