If the sceptical “right” and doomsaying “left” are both trapped in reality-tunnelling confirmation bias, perhaps we should flee to the centre: the standard climate change narrative.  This is comfortable territory, staked out by our society’s primary epistemic authority, science.

The problem is, the dynamics that afflict the two extremes afflict the middle as well.  Over the last few years, a growing chorus of insider critics have been exposing serious flaws in scientific funding, publishing, and research, leading some to go as far as to say, “Science is broken.”

The dysfunctions they describe include:

  • Various kinds of fraud: some deliberate, but mostly unconscious and systemic
  • Irreproducibility of results and lack of incentive to attempt replication
  • Misuse of statistics, such as “P-hacking” – the mining of research data to extract a post hoc “hypothesis” for publication
  • Severe flaws in the system of peer review; for example, its propensity to enforce existing paradigms, to be hostile to anything that challenges the views of the reviewers whose careers are invested in those views
  • Difficulty in obtaining funding for unorthodox research hypotheses
  • Publication bias that favours positive results over negative results, and suppresses research that won’t benefit a researcher’s career

The system encourages the endless elaboration of existing theories about which there is consensus, but if one of these is wrong, there are nearly insuperable barriers to its ever being overturned.  These go far beyond classic Kuhnian resistance to paradigm shift – critics call it “paradigm protection.”  Former NIH director and Nobel laureate Harold Varmus describes it this way:

The system now favours those who can guarantee results rather than those with potentially path-breaking ideas that, by definition, cannot promise success.  Young investigators are discouraged from departing too far from their postdoctoral work, when they should instead be posing new questions and inventing new approaches.  Seasoned investigators are inclined to stick to their tried-and-true formulas for success rather than explore new fields.

It is easy to see how these dynamics might impact climate science, a politically charged field that receives billions of dollars of government funding.  Sceptics’ websites contain laments by climate researchers who are afraid to attempt publication of results that contradict climate orthodoxy because they do not want to be ostracised as a “denier”; professors telling of discouraging graduate students  from investigating inconsistencies in the data; and anecdotes about reputable scientists who lost funding and professional appointments after they issued mild criticism of official positions.

The dissident climatologist Judith Curry raises questions about the genesis of the scientific consensus around climate change:

The skewed scientific “consensus” does indeed act to reinforce itself, through a range of professional incentives: ease of publishing results, particularly in high impact journals; success in funding; recognition from peers in terms of awards, promotions, etc; media attention and publicity for research; appeal of the simplistic narrative that climate science can “save the world”; and a seat at the big policy tables.

All of this adds up to a kind of collective confirmation bias within science, the same cognitive handicap that so obviously afflicts many climate sceptics.  In other words, confirmation bias is not limited to those outside the establishment.  it is institutionalised within it as well, despite the system of peer review that is supposed to eliminate it.

In most controversies that pit a powerful orthodoxy against a marginalised heterodoxy, the establishment makes liberal use of scare quotes and derisive epithets like “denier,” “conspiracy theorist,” or “pseudo-scientist” to exercise psychological pressure on the undecided layperson, who does not want to be thought a fool.  These tactics invoke in-group/out-group social dynamics, leading one to suspect that the same dynamics might prevail within the scientific establishment to enforce group-think and discourage dissent.

Charles Eisenstein, Climate: A New Story