“Intellectual yet idiot”: the case of Stephan Lewandowsky

Drieu Godefridi (*)

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In a new paper, just published, “The ‘Alice in Wonderland’ mechanics of the rejection of (climate) science: simulating coherence by conspiracism”, Stephan Lewandowsky, along with two co-authors, states — for the umpteenth time — that climate skeptics are deniers, that “there is strong evidence that the rejection of climate science is primarily driven by ideological factors” (p. 2), maybe even psychological factors since their identity (p. 3), or worldview, is threatened by climate science, that “there is growing evidence for an involvement of conspiracist ideation in the rejection of climate science” (p. 4), and that the whole body of sceptical pseudo-science (pp. 4, 15, 16) is incoherent, thus nonsensical, since coherence is at the very definition of science.

Mr. Lewandowsky commits basic errors in reasoning that should see him immediately stripped of his chair in Bristol.

First of all, the idea that the critics of a dominant paradigm should be coherent among themselves, is not only false or ludicrous, but comical. At every step in the formidable progress of science we find a myriad of parallel even disparate challenges to the dominant paradigm. That is, before one of them finally takes over. Were all the critics of Newton, Kepler, Einstein or Heisenberg of undivided opinion? Or, take for instance, present-day particle physics where several theories vie to push forward the boundaries, theories that are perfectly coherent yet mutually incoherent.

Lewandowsky is conscious of this slight defect in his (only) argument since in the end he writes: “Our analysis was performed at the aggregate level; that is, we considered the incoherence of collective argumentation among a “community” of like-minded individuals as if it were a single intellectual entity. It is possible, therefore, that individuals within this community would only hold one or the other of two incoherent views, and that each person considered in isolation would not be incoherent. In that case, one could argue that there is merely a heterogeneity of views in the “community” of denialists, which might in turn be interpreted as being an indication of “healthy debate” or “scientific diversity” rather than incoherence.” (p. 16), only to reject it: “the argumentative incoherence that we analyzed in this article also arises within arguments offered by the same individual.” Lewandowsky then gives a few samples of such individual incoherences, and concludes: “This sample is far from exhaustive but is sufficient to establish the existence of argumentative incoherence at the level of the individual in addition to the denial movement in the aggregate.”

Having thus conceded the falsity of his argument, Lewandowsky tries to save it by explaining that somehow the incoherence of certain scientists reverberates throughout the whole body of sceptical climate science. Need we remind the 15-year-old who may read this text that there is not one scientist who has ever been perfectly coherent, and that it is truly fallacious to assert that incoherence is contagious, not only among individuals, but between individuals and theories.

The main example of incoherent thinking (at the “aggregate level”) given by Lewandowsky is this: “Another long-standing contrarian claim has been that global warming “stopped” in 1998. Although this claim is based on a questionable interpretation of statistical data, it has been a focal point of media debate for the last decade or more and it has ultimately found entry into the scientific literature under the label of a “pause” or “hiatus” in warming. Either the temperature record is sufficiently accurate to examine its evolution, including the possibility that warming may have “paused”, or the record is so unreliable that no determination about global temperatures can be made.” (p. 4). Did it occur to our expert in coherence that you can show the incoherence of a theory (its measurements) without accepting this theory (its measurements)?

Having thus shown that the argument suggesting a hiatus since 1998 — which is indeed a favoured theme of scientists sceptical of the dominant paradigm in climate science — belongs to the realm of ideological, conspiracist and psychiatric pseudo-science, Lewandowsky explains that “the theoretical coherence of consensual climate science does not prevent robust debate.” (p. 16). Of this robust, sane debate — as opposed to the so-called conspiracist pseudo-science of the aforementioned denialists suffering from a problem of identity — he gives an example: the hiatus. “One striking example <of robust debate inside the scientific community> involves the recent controversy about the so-called “pause” or “hiatus” in global warming in the early 2000’s. Some scientists have argued against the existence or special status of this “pause” (here the psychologist Lewandowsky quotes himself) whereas others have taken a contrary position. We therefore argue that science achieves its coherence through a constant self-correction process” (p. 16). Thus the “hiatus” is at the same time the ultimate evidence of the conspiracist delirium of pseudo-scientific sceptics, and the perfect illustration of robust science.

In a very recently published paper Nassim Nicholas Taleb defines the “intellectual yet idiot” as a bureaucrat paid by the taxpayer who “pathologizes others for doing things he doesn’t understand without ever realizing it is his understanding that may be limited.”

(*) Philosophiae doctor (Sorbonne), jurist (universities of Louvain & Brussels).

PhD Sorbonne

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