Fausse science

14 Jul, 2019 at 12:50 | Posted in Economics | 5 Comments

Un livre publié en 2010 par Naomi Oreskes et Erik M. Conway, traduit en 2012 sous le titre Les Marchands de doute (éditions Le Pommier), a magistralement démontré, au terme de plusieurs années d’enquête, comment de grandes entreprises, souvent soutenues par des groupes d’intérêt et des organisations farouchement hostiles à l’idée même de régulation, étaient parvenues à mettre massivement en doute les résultats scientifiques les mieux établis …

nyeDans tous les cas, les méthodes des semeurs de doute sont les mêmes : profiter du fait qu’il n’est scientifiquement pas toujours possible d’affirmer qu’un fait A est de manière absolument certaine, exclusivement et à 100 %, la cause d’un fait B … c’est-à-dire profiter de ce qui caractérise précisément l’éthique scientifique pour remettre massivement en cause les résultats de la science. Il suffit alors de disposer des voix de quelques scientifiques égarés, non spécialistes de la discipline, aveuglés par une idéologie ou plus rarement corrompus, qui soutiendront des positions contraires immédiatement surmédiatisées, de requalifier l’ensemble en « controverse » au sein de laquelle les différentes positions apparaîtront pourvues de la même légitimité, puis de focaliser l’attention, grâce au financement de chercheurs embarqués dans ces croisades, sur d’autres causes probables des problèmes …

Le chapitre VI des Marchands de doute, intitulé « Le déni du changement climatique », devrait devenir une lecture obligée pour tous les étudiants : il explique de façon extrêmement précise comment le rapport publié en 1983 par un comité constitué (habilement) au sein de l’Académie nationale des sciences américaine, dénommé Changement climatique : rapport du comité d’évaluation sur le dioxyde de carbone, a vu les conclusions des spécialistes du climat considérablement amoindries par deux parties rédigées par des économistes, dont le futur « prix Nobel » d’économie William Nordhaus. L’usage du raisonnement probabiliste permettait, en effet, à ces derniers d’affirmer que les changements majeurs se produiraient sans doute dans très longtemps, et qu’il était donc urgent, sinon de ne rien faire, au mieux de s’adapter, lorsque le temps serait venu, à un monde à haute température.

Dominique Méda / Le Monde


  1. I went on a hike last night in a desert National Park famous for its dark sky, which ended with a lecture on the night sky and an opportunity to observe some stars, planets and the moon thru a sizeable portable telescope.
    The conversation among the small group touched briefly on the phenomena of “flat-earthers” who are bound and determined to reject the discoveries of astronomy. I am not sure whether to believe in the existence of such people; what could motivate someone to perversely take on such an attitude? (Yet, I know some people reject the science of climate, of course, and a few embrace perversely defying it — google “rolling coal” to see how bizarre this can become.) And, the person who brought it up told a personal anecdote of a person, who looked thru a telescope at Saturn (which really did scarcely seem real when I saw it last night) and claimed deception — an image painted on lens or something — and stomped off in a huff.
    None of this is to comment particularly on the agents of business corporations and wealthy people lying and manipulating public opinion. It is just by way of observing that human ambivalence is a ground of all political opinion and identity. Individually, we feel everything about everything, for and against and indifferent — a chaos of emotions and ignorance and doubt. But, in a group, we specialize: some take one pole of ambivalence and others its opposite. Socially, we divide. This isn’t the result of manipulation, though it may be a principal lever.
    Groups of people can collaborate in the development of knowledge and judgement and be very productive in doing so. It is remarkable to me how sophisticated our understanding of science and technology can become when a productive focus is found, good judgment is fostered and discoveries build on one another. It is not the case that such productive collaborations produce consensus; those successful collaborations are driven instead by productive disagreement — people with differing prior outlooks but still committed to accepting reason and evidence working thru criticism. They figure out what they are disagreeing about and how to measure “objectively” what they are otherwise merely assessing subjectively and idiosyncratically.
    Groups of people can also believe all kinds of nonsense and make such beliefs the markers of belonging, excluding critical thinking and making unclouded judgment impossible.
    I suppose my point is that politics *is* a society thinking. People will disagree and that is necessary. None of us individually has an objective view from nowhere and we should not aspire to such a false ideal, nor should we think “our group” is right in its consensus and that other group is simply wrong about everything and stupid. (not overlooking corrupt and false intent, of course; i am not advocating naivete in the face of cynical manipulation by business interests).
    The centralization of economic and political power is making it impossible for society to think thru politics. Manipulation is a symptom or by-product. But, we should recognize that centralization is the root of the problem.
    In this political environment with excessive centralization of political and economic power, it is too easy to make the mistake of allowing centralized authority to argue for imposing a “right” consensus, an orthodoxy. That is what seems to be coming along with the means to surveil and control.
    The centralization of power will also be manifest in decentralized irresponsibility. What the rest of us think and do cannot matter. I am convinced that there is a significant element of irresponsibility entering into the operation of academia, news media and business in general as the political economy loses much of decentralized distribution of choice and control.
    My thoughts — too long for a comment and yet too short to be convincing even to me. Offered nevertheless.

    • Thanks for sharing your thoughts with us, Bruce. Appreciated 🙂

    • The promise of technology is that we can each live in a virtual universe that contradicts other universes.
      (Reading of your desert hike reminded me how two night ago I was sleeping out in the temperate rainforest, cursing the weathermen who had said no rain, hoping the small tarp I had nonetheless strung up over my sleeping bag – when you’re in the rainforest you learn not to trust rain predictions – would continue to keep me dry throughout the night …)

    • Great commentary Bruce, as always. I think you nailed it. There is a lot of talk about the concentrations of wealth. But there needs to be talk about the concentrations of power. And in economics it is about the domination and marginalisation of ideas.

      And as you say, we have centralisation of power, but decentralisation of responsibility. This certainly sums up the economics and finance professions. I do not see any introspection in the economics profession. Instead Fama and Sargent went on to be awarded “Nobel” prizes a few years after the crash.

      The worrying thing is that the general public can see through what economics and banks are saying and doing. This was clear during the Brexit debate when modellers at the Bank of England (no doubt straight out of MIT) forecast a per capital annual loss of income to the last penny. The ordinary person suspects that these models are nonsense and cannot possibly forecast anything, let alone anything to that degree of precision. If the BOE said “we cannot put a numerical figure on the implications of Brexit, but the costs in the short to medium term at least are likely to be large”, people might have actually been persuaded, because it reflects common sense and sounds more credible.

      I think the political implications of what the mainstream economics profession does is costly, another part of the problem of an elite that in the long run is only fooling itself.

      Unfortunately, I think we have been here before.

  2. This should be a must read for anyone who wants to understand current politics. In his ‘An Inconvenient Truth’, Al Gore also looked at the way Anglo media (used to) amplify denial with false ‘balance’, giving equal time to non experts as deniers as to climate scientists. This was not as true in Europe, where expertise was a condition for commenting on scientific matters. Increasingly, however, mass media has become straight out corporate propaganda.
    Her 5 minute talk here provides a quick summary and taster.
    ‘Naomi Oreskes: Organized Campaigns to Doubt Climate Science’ (2016) – https://youtu.be/kMqT16yZcHY

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