Friday, September 15, 2023

The new Climategate that wasn't


Climate-change denialists got all excited last week by an alleged revelation that the top science journals are bullying climate scientists into presenting the most alarmist versions of their research, and suppressing anything that doesn’t fit with a “climate catastrophe” narrative. The problem (this story went) has been exposed by a whistleblower named Patrick Brown, formerly an academic scientist who now works for a privately funded environmental research centre.


Sounds bad? Is this another Climategate? But it takes very little digging at all before a very different, and extremely strange, story emerges.


Let’s start this tale with Matt Ridley. In his column in The Telegraph, he tells us this:

Patrick Brown, the co-director of climate and energy at the Breakthrough Institute in California, has blown the whistle on an open secret about climate science: it’s biased in favour of alarmism. He published a paper in Nature magazine on the effect of climate change on wildfires. In it he told the truth: there was an effect. But not the whole truth: other factors play a big role in fires too. On Maui, the failure of the electric utility to manage vegetation along power lines was a probable cause of the devastating recent fires, but climate change proved a convenient excuse.


OK, wait – what? So Brown knowingly suppressed facts relevant to the conclusion his paper reported? Was this some kind of “gotcha” stunt to show that you can get any old nonsense through peer review, even at a major journal? Oh no, not at all. In his blog about the issue, Brown tells us this:

I knew not to try to quantify key aspects other than climate change in my research because it would dilute the story that prestigious journals like Nature and its rival, Science, want to tell. 

This matters because it is critically important for scientists to be published in high-profile journals; in many ways, they are the gatekeepers for career success in academia. And the editors of these journals have made it abundantly clear, both by what they publish and what they reject, that they want climate papers that support certain preapproved narratives—even when those narratives come at the expense of broader knowledge for society. 

To put it bluntly, climate science has become less about understanding the complexities of the world and more about serving as a kind of Cassandra, urgently warning the public about the dangers of climate change. However understandable this instinct may be, it distorts a great deal of climate science research, misinforms the public, and most importantly, makes practical solutions more difficult to achieve. 

Oh, people really don’t know any longer about the myth of Cassandra, do they? Cassandra’s prophecies were true, but she was fated not to be believed. Anyway, Brown goes on to say:


I wanted the research to be published in the highest profile venue possible. When I began the research for this paper in 2020, I was a new assistant professor needing to maximize my prospects for a successful career.


So he is telling us that he wanted to get a paper in Nature to advance his career and he figured that telling this partial, distorted story was the best way to achieve this aim.


Kinda weird, right? And not exactly the exposé story Matt Ridley implied. Rather, Brown seems to be admitting to having committed the unethical practice of keeping certain facts hidden, or simply unexamined, in order to get on in the academic world.


Well OK – but can you blame him if that’s the only way to succeed? I mean, it is still weird for him to come out and admit it, but you can understand the motive, at least – right?


Except… is he correct about this? His charge – “the editors of these journals have made it abundantly clear, both by what they publish and what they reject, that they want climate papers that support certain preapproved narratives” – is pretty damned serious: the editors of Nature and other top journals are curating the scientific message they put out. You’d imagine Brown would back up that accusation with some solid evidence. But no, it is all assertion. It seems it’s “obvious” that Nature editors and those of other distinguished journals are biased because Brown’s own papers have been previously rejected by said journals. What other reason could there have been for that, people, than editorial bias?


Still, Brown does cite one bit of evidence in his favour: he says that some scientists err on the side of using worst-case climate scenarios. “It is standard practice to calculate impacts for scary hypothetical future warming scenarios that strain credibility,” he says. And here he points to an article that (rightly) decries this tendency and calls for more realistic baselines. Yet that article was published in – good lord, who’d have thought it? – Nature, the journal that allegedly always wants you to believe the worst. I’m not sure this is really helping his case.


Brown apparently knows for sure that his paper would have been rejected by Nature if he’d included all the complexities, such as considering the other, non-climate-related factors that could have influenced changes in the frequency of forest fires. For example, if the number of fires has increased, perhaps that might be partly due to changes in patterns of vegetation, or of human activities (like more fires getting ignited by humans either deliberately or by accident)?


How does he know that the Nature editors would have responded negatively to the inclusion of these caveats, though? The scientific way would, of course, have been to conduct the experiment: to send the fuller paper, including all those nuances, and see what happened. But Brown did not need to do that, it seems; he just knew. We should trust him.


Even Ted Nordhaus, director of the Breakthrough Institute in California where Brown now works, has admitted that this counterfactual does not exist. So Brown’s claims are mere hearsay. (Why has Nordhaus weighed in at all, given that he was not involved in the research? I’ll come back to that.) 


On his blog Brown says that he omitted those caveats from the study because they would just get in the way of a punchy conclusion that, in his view, would maximize the chances of getting published in Nature:

In my paper, we didn’t bother to study the influence of these other obviously relevant factors. Did I know that including them would make for a more realistic and useful analysis? I did. But I also knew that it would detract from the clean narrative centered on the negative impact of climate change and thus decrease the odds that the paper would pass muster with Nature’s editors and reviewers.

The trouble is, these days Nature provides the referees’ reports and authors’ responses to published papers online. And these contradict this narrative. It turns out the one referee highlighted precisely some of the issues that Brown and colleagues omitted. He said:

The second aspect that is a concern is the use of wildfire growth as the key variable. As the authors acknowledge there are numerous factors that play a confounding role in wildfire growth that are not directly accounted for in this study (L37-51). Vegetation type (fuel), ignitions (lightning and people), fire management activities ( direct and indirect suppression, prescribed fire, policies such as fire bans and forest closures) and fire load.


And Brown responded that his methods of analysis couldn’t handle these other factors:

Accounting for changes in all of these variables and their potential interactions simultaneously is very difficult. This is precisely why we chose to use a methodology that addresses the much cleaner but more narrow question of what the influence of warming alone is on the risk of extreme daily wildfire growth.


In a very revealing interview with Brown for the website HeatMap, Robinson Meyer pushed further on this issue. If Brown agreed that these were important considerations, and the referees asked about them, said Meyer, why didn’t he look into them further? Brown says:

I think that, that’s very good that the reviewers brought that up. But like I said before, doing that is, then, it’s not a Nature paper. It’s too diluted in my opinion to be a Nature paper.

This is what I’m trying to highlight, I guess, from the inside as a researcher doing this type of research. Reviewers absolutely will ask for good sensitivity tests, and bringing in caveats, and all that stuff, but it is absolutely your goal as the researcher to navigate the reviews as best you can. The file even gets automatically labeled Rebuttal when you respond to the reviewers. It’s your goal to essentially get the paper over the finish line.

And you don’t just acquiesce to reviewers, because you’d never get anything published. You don’t just say, Oh you’re right, okay, we will go back and do that work for five years and submit elsewhere. The reality of the situation is you have to go forward with your publication and get it published.

On the one hand, this is all honest enough: peer review is something of a game, where referees tend to want to see everything addressed and authors take the view that they’d never be ready to publish if they had to do that, so they generally aim to get away with doing the minimum needed to push things past the reviewers. That’s fair enough.


But it is totally at odds with the story Brown is now trying to tell. On these accounts, Brown did not in fact omit the confounding factors because he thought they would complicate the kind of message Nature and its referees would demand. He omitted them because they were too difficult to include in the study. And far from being pleased by an incomplete study that supported the narrative Brown had decided the editors and reviewers would look for, the reviewers – one of them, at least – called for a more complete analysis. It seems then that the reviewer would have been more pleased with the more complete study. Brown is admitting that it was he who tried to push the paper past the finish line in the face of these concerns. 


Some climate sceptics have still tried to make this sound like a shortcoming of the journal and the reviewers: ah look, they didn’t push very hard for that extra stuff, did they? But this won’t wash at all. First, the authors were commendably upfront about the limitations of the study – the paper itself says

Our findings, however, must be interpreted narrowly as idealized calculations because temperature is only one of the dozens of important variables that influences wildfire behaviour.

For the referees to pass the paper once it included this word of caution is entirely reasonable. After all, Brown stands by it even now:

You might be wondering at this point if I’m disowning my own paper. I’m not. On the contrary, I think it advances our understanding of climate change’s role in day-to-day wildfire behavior.


In short, there is not a problem here, beyond what Brown seems now keen to manufacture. If, as he says, the paper is “less useful than it could have been”, it is clear who is responsible for that.


Note by the way that, in response to a Nature news editor (independent from the manuscript handling team) who raised this issue, Nordhaus (again) said “The reviewer did not raise an issue about "vegetation and human ignition pattern changes". The reviewer raised an issue about holding absolute humidity constant.” As you can see above, this is clearly untrue. Nordhaus is simply referring to a different reviewer – despite surely having all of the reviewers’ reports available to him. I’m going to be charitable and assume he didn’t read them properly. But you will have to forgive me if I suspect an agenda behind Nordhaus’s involvement in the whole affair.


Talking of agendas: back to Matt Ridley, who has mentioned none of this in his column. He claims that the episode proves that “Editors at journals such as Nature seem to prefer publishing simplistic, negative news and speculation about climate change.” 


Matt’s story suggests that the publication of Brown’s paper has exposed the fact that climate scientists are hiding facts from us that are inconvenient to their narrative about catastrophic climate change.


Well, Brown’s paper is hiding from us facts that suggests the problem he looked at might not be as bad as it looks. But is this because he is a climate scientist with the agenda of doing so? No, it is because he knowingly withheld those facts - seemingly, did not even bother to investigate them, although to be fair that might be because he was unable to. But does the publication of his paper suggest that other scientists were prepared to turn a blind eye to that? No, because one of the reviewers raised the omission as a problem. Does the publication of the paper show that indeed there is a bias in the literature whereby papers that present an unmitigatedly bleak picture of extreme climate change get accepted but those that are more nuanced get rejected? Evidently it shows nothing of the sort. The only “evidence” for that is that Brown says so. Matt has not challenged that assertion, or asked for evidence, but recycles it as fact.

Matt then echoes Brown’s line that “the problem is all solutions [to climate change] are taboo [in the scientific literature].” He says:

If I waved a magic wand and gave the world unlimited clean and cheap energy tomorrow, I expect many climate scientists would be horrified: they would be out of a job. 

It is hard to know what to say about this, other than that it is one of the most absurd things Matt has ever written (yes!). Climate scientists are in fact horrified by what is happening to the climate. So am I. Like them, I would be beside myself with joy if Matt were able to do this. (This is one of the reasons why I value work being done on nuclear fusion, which could ultimately provide a significant, clean source of power, albeit not soon enough to rescue us from the current climate crisis.)

Frankly, for Matt to say this of climate scientists is not just absurd but deeply offensive.

This idea that climate scientists have to play up global warming to protect their jobs is on the one hand risible and on the other hand a standard trope of conspiracy theorists: climate scientists have their self-interest at heart. It is really very peculiar that Matt and others seem to believe that if climate change ended, there would be no more climate. For that, folks, is in fact what climate scientists study. There are so many things left for them to study, so much we don’t know about climate. I imagine some climate scientists dearly wish they could study things other than global warming (and of course lots of them do).

What is ironic to the point of hilarity about the episode is this: Ridley and others are claiming that this is a story about how climate science insists of a simplistic narrative that ignores all nuance, but in order to do that they must create a simplistic story devoid of all nuance. The fact is that the story is deeply, deeply odd. For Brown’s version amounts to something like this:

Climate science is biased and broken and ignores complexities that don’t fit its narrative, creating a misleading picture. Meanwhile, I have published a paper that ignores complexities that don’t fit that conventional narrative and is therefore misleading. But the paper is in fact good and I’m not at all ashamed of it, and its conclusions still apply. But also it is also a deliberate partial falsification. I was forced to do this for career advancement, but only because I’d decided that was the case – I didn’t bother to submit the paper I should have written to see if my preconceptions were correct, and in fact I didn’t even try to do the work that would have required. The fact that Nature published the paper just shows that they only look for the simplistic narrative, even though their peer review process asked me to go into the complexities but I told them that was not possible and they and the referees accepted my explanation on good faith. So shame on Nature for publishing this poor work which is in fact also perfectly respectable and useful work, because I did it, but not as useful as it could have been if I’d done the other things that needed doing but which I didn’t do because I chose not to or couldn’t. And it’s all a scandal!

Sorry, it really doesn’t make any sense, does it? But there you have it.

Monday, September 04, 2023

Should we colonise space? How not to debate that question.

Software engineer, astrophysicist and human spaceflight enthusiast Peter Hague has commented on Twitter about my Guardian “Big Idea” piece assessing the notion of colonising other worlds. I debated whether I should respond, given that Hague’s critique is steeped in the kind of vituperative ad hominem attacks that seem to characterize a lot of the discourse coming from advocates of space colonization (something remarked on by Erika Nesvold, whose excellent book partly inspired my piece). But perhaps a response will serve to illustrate some of the challenges of debating the issues. So here goes.


Hague says:

Ball claims there is “a dismaying irrationality in the answers”, and then proceeds to quote mine and cherry pick answers without adequately demonstrating that they are in fact irrational. Or, in fact, being specific about what he means by irrational. It’s actually important, because whether some action is rational or not is entirely contingent on what you are trying to accomplish. Ball’s statement has embedded values, even though he leaves them unstated – perhaps relying on the Guardian audience to share them. In that case, ‘irrational’ just becomes a word that can describe more or less anybody who doesn’t share that worldview.


I have not quoted anything by Hague (unless he believes he is Stephen Hawking). I had no idea what Hague might or might not have said on the issue. I’ve simply no idea what he’s talking about there.


The irrationality I have in mind is illustrated by what follows, but also by the ad hominem aspects mentioned above. One might imagine, for example, that Hague would start by finding out something about the author of the piece he is attacking, which would have very quickly revealed that I am not a “Guardian writer” (unless every single person who has ever written in the Guardian becomes that by default).


Hague quotes me thus:

"The timescales just don’t add up. Climate change either will or won’t become an existential risk well before it’s realistic to imagine a self-sustaining Martian settlement of millions: we’re talking a century or more. Speculating about nuclear war post-2123 is science fiction. So the old environmentalist cliche is right: there is no Planet B, and to suggest otherwise risks lessening the urgency of preserving Planet A. As for the threat of a civilisation-ending meteorite impact: one that big is expected only every several million years, so it’s safe to say there are more urgent worries. The sun going out? Sure, in 5bn years, and if you think there will still be humans then, you don’t understand evolution."


He then says:

Ironically here Ball vindicates a point I have made myself. A century probably *is* a timescale for when migration off Earth becomes a significant contributor to resolving pressure on the biosphere. But this means we need to get started now, so that we can get to that point in a century. Doing so means we only need to juggle human and environmental issues for a finite time, and we don't have to just slowly wind down human civilisation.


Huh? Is anyone suggesting we must “wind down human civilization”? (Well I guess some might – you can always find someone saying anything. But it is hardly the default position.) Anyway, I don’t follow this “resolving [presumably meaning “relieving”] pressure on the biosphere”. Many forecasts suspect that human population will peak around 2075-2080, and then stabilize. I don’t see many arguments that off-planet settlement is needed to absorb an excess of humans – but presumably to make a real difference, we’d need to see a billion or so decamp on that kind of timescale. Is that likely to happen? I have to say it seems hard to imagine. At any rate, my point is elsewhere, specifically about the popular idea that an off-world colony would be a back-up for civilization on Earth going off the rails. The threats we currently face can’t credibly be extrapolated to the point where a human settlement on Mars (say) might plausibly be entirely self-sufficient. And in any event, the argument seems incoherent. It’s like saying that, because Johnny’s behaviour is wreaking havoc in his neighbourhood, the solution is to send him to the next town, where somehow he’ll stop being so antisocial.


Hague adds:

His complacency about asteroids is not shared by those who study them, and the argument about the lifetime of the Sun is not used as an argument for immediate settlement by anybody I know of, and he doesn't attribute it, so we can move on from that.


This is what I mean about rationality. Sure, we are right to want to monitor asteroids and meteorites because a Tunguska-size blast over a major population centre could be devastating. And bigger ones would be terrible indeed. But a blast so great that it poses a truly existential risk to the planet? I give specific figures for at kind of threat – the chance of it happening in the next couple of centuries, say, is minuscule. If you’re kept awake at night because of that fear to humankind, you have an impressive capacity for displacement. But does Hague address this? He does not; he simply tries to imply that the issue here is a lack of expertise.


Hague then quotes me:

"For some, the justification for planetary settlement is not existential fear but our innate drive to explore. “The settlement of North America and other continents was a prelude to humanity’s greater challenge: the space frontier,” reads a 1986 document by the Reagan-appointed US National Commission of Space, rather clumsily letting slip who it was and was not speaking for. But at least “Because it would be cool” is an honest answer to the question: “Why go?”"


And he replies:

This is a low blow. He is cherry picking a forgotten government document to try and lob a vague accusation of racism around. If he wanted to look seriously at the argument that there are parellels [sic] between the opening of the American frontier and the opening of the space frontier, he might address the work of @robert_zubrin, who has articulated this far better. There is no indication the author has even heard of Zubrin though, which doesn't speak well to his knowledge of the argument he believes he is rebutting.


OK, there’s a fair bit to unpack here. First, there’s the question of whether you really want to hear from someone whose argument goes like this:

“Anyone who hasn’t heard of Zubrin is probably not qualified to write on this issue, and I’m going to totally guess that the author hasn’t heard of Zubrin, so there you go.”


What’s even more absurd is that, when it was pointed out to Hague on Twitter that in fact I very much know of Zubrin (as he could have discovered without too much trouble), he says in effect “Well that proves my point! – he knew of him but didn’t mention him!” Specifically:


“Then it’s especially ridiculous that Ball ignores his advocacy in favour of skimming ancient NASA documents for some hook to launch his fatuous accusation. It’s possible that he has forgotten who Zubrin is, seeing as his interest in the subject is clearly surface level.”


Ah, so OK I knew Zubrin but perhaps forgot about him. Sorry, but Christ on a bike.


Also, about that “forgotten government document”: someone on Twitter kindly pointed out that it is on the contrary it is a significant text, whereupon Hague says Sorry for dissing the document! Bear in mind I was 5 when it came out. So how does this work? Should I be confining myself only to things that were known or published after Hague grew up?


Moving on, Hague says:

Now he takes a swing at Gerald O'Neill. Or, more correctly, he takes a swing at Don Davis for his famous illustrations of O'Neill colonies, given that the dismissal of O'Neills entire work seems to be based entirely off aesthetics and lifestyle - a lifestyle, by the way, that although it isn't approved of in the Guardian, migrants literally risk their lives every day for a chance at.


Sorry, what? Let’s come back to the point, yes?


And my point is that there is a long history of presenting life in space as utopian, in the case of those famous illustrations at the expense of all scientific credibility (just cut out a slice of the American natural ecosystem and plant it in a rotating space colony). I don’t see a response to that here.



At last we get to the meat of the objection:


"If you want to know what to expect from colonies established by “billionauts” such as Musk or Jeff Bezos, perhaps ask their employees in Amazon warehouses or the Twitter offices. Many advocates for space settlement are “neoliberal techno-utopians”, says the astrophysicist Erika Nesvold, who sell it on a libertarian ticket as an escape from the pesky regulation of governments. The space industry doesn’t talk much about such things. As Nesvold discovered when she began quizzing commercial space companies in 2016, ethical questions such as human rights or environmental protection in space typically meet with a response of “we’ll worry about that later”. The idea is to get there first."


Hague says:

Ball presents Nesvold as an authority, and not an activist, which is what she is - and gives her a platform to basically label "bad" labels on the enterprise.


So anyone who has a view different from his (even when articulated carefully, calmly and in a deeply informed way, as in Nesvold’s book) is dealt with not by addressing those arguments but by dismissing said person as a mere “activist”. You see what I mean about longing to see a more rational debate?


He says:

It’s not explained why space colonies being libertarian is bad, nor why they would be run like Amazon warehouses. This is just a collection of boo words for the particular audience of this paper.


I think Hague is having a lot of trouble distinguishing the piece from the platform in which is appears, with which he clearly has lots of issues. In any case, if a powerful person has an ambition to establish an enterprise, I’d be curious to see how they have run other enterprises in the past. Call me naïve, but I just have a hunch we might learn something from it. Sure, I can’t speak for anyone but myself when I say that I’d not want to be living on Mars under the aegis and whim of a Musk or a Bezos. I just feel governance is an issue some might like to think about.


Hague quotes me thus:

"If the notion of a “colonial transporter” gave you a twinge of unease, you’re not alone. Associations of space exploration with colonialism have existed ever since it was first mooted in the 17th century. Some advocates ridicule the comparison: there are surely no indigenous people to witness the arrival of the first crewed spaceships on Mars. But the analogy gets stronger when thinking about how commercial incentives might distort rights afforded to the settlers (Musk has floated the idea of loans to get to Mars City being paid off by work on arrival), or how colonial powers waged proxy wars in far-off lands. And if the argument is that these settlements would exist to save us from catastrophe on Earth, the question of who gets to go becomes more acute. So far it has been the rich and famous."


Then he says:

Correctly sensing he may be ridiculed for this argument, Ball tries to preempt this but then continues to make equally ridiculous arguments, simply because the word 'colonialism' is bad, and anybody using it must be planning to become the next East India Company. Reasoning by analogy is not valid.


I’m curious to know what is “ridiculous” here, but there’s no indication, so it is hard to know what to say. Personally, I think history has things we can learn from, so it is worth heeding it. I think that’s probably quite a common view among historians.


Hague goes on to quotes me:

"Perhaps the most pernicious aspect of the “Columbus” comparison, however, is that it encourages us to believe that space is just another ocean to sail, with the lure of virgin lands to draw us. But other worlds are not the New World; space is harsh beyond any earthly comparison, and it will be constantly trying to kill you. Quite aside from the cold and airlessness, the biggest danger is the radiation: streams of charged, high-energy particles, from which we are shielded by the Earth’s magnetic field. Currently, a crewed mission to Mars would be prohibited by the permitted radiation limits for astronauts. We don’t have any solutions to that problem."


He says:

In the single point where he makes any kind of technical argument, Ball immediately fumbles. It is not, primarily, the Earth's magnetic field that shields us from cosmic rays,


Well you know what, I think I’ll go with what NASA says here, as they actually send people into space.


…and they are not as lethal as he believes. If they were, every geomagnetic reversal would be a mass extinction event.


The possibility of mass extinctions associated with geomagnetic reversals has in fact long been discussed – many palaeo scientists anticipate that this might happen. But it has been hard to assess, not least because it is not clear to what extent the geomagnetic field really does drop to nearly zero during a reversal. Some studies suggest that, while the field rearranges, it remains substantial enough to provide a fair degree of shielding. NASA again: “During a pole reversal, the magnetic field weakens, but it doesn’t completely disappear. The magnetosphere, together with Earth’s atmosphere, still continue to protect our planet from cosmic rays and charged solar particles, though there may be a small amount of particulate radiation that makes it down to Earth’s surface.” During the latest reversal 780,000 years ago, the magnetopause may still have existed a considerable distance from the Earth’s surface. It’s also been suggested that the solar wind could itself induce magnetic shielding from cosmic rays in the absence of a geomagnetic field.


Humanity has, in fact, survived many of them.


The last known geomagnetic reversal was that one 780,000 years ago. The earliest known Homo sapiens fossils are around 315,000 years old. But whatever.


What does protect us is the thick atmosphere of this planet, and in that we see not only is the solution known it is blindingly obvious - mass. A few metres of rock on a Martian habitat will block the radiation, as will to some extent the atmosphere of the planet.


Yes, there is talk of building permanent settlements inside caves on Mars, or in empty lava tubes on the Moon. It’s a good sci-fi scenario: underground cities that never see the light. I’m not envisaging that those stories would be very rosy ones, but we can make up whatever we like, I guess.


As for NASAs limits - he does not cite a source so its hard to tell where he is getting this from,


Maybe he should read Erika’s book instead of just criticizing it.


but its contingent on travel time, shielding, and risk tolerance. The danger is not of some horrific case of radiation poisoning - its a small increase in the lifetime risk of getting cancer. Despite sounding scary, radiation is not really the top technical hurdle.


Again, I think I’ll go with NASA on this: in terms of health risks, it is absolutely seen as one of the major risks.


I don’t want to be uncharitable, but it does rather seem as if Hague is just making confident-sounding sciencey assertions that are out of touch with the facts, and assuming he’ll sound more authoritative than a “Guardian writer”. I do think there’s an interesting discussion to be had around, and responses to be made to, the points raised in my piece. But I’m afraid it’s not to be found here.


Sunday, August 07, 2022

The Spectator's review of The Book of Minds: a response


There is a review of The Book of Minds in The Spectator by philosopher Jane O’Grady. I have some thoughts about it.

First, it is always nice to have a review that engages with the book rather than just describes it. And O’Grady says some nice things about it. So I’m not unhappy with the review. 

But it does, I must say, seem to me a little odd, and occasionally wrong or misleading.

Odd primarily because it talks about so little of the book itself. But is more an exegesis on the reviewer’s thoughts. The review focuses almost entirely on the question of definitions of mind and what these imply for putative “machine minds”. There is barely any mention of the substance of the book: the account of how to regard the human mind, the discussion of the minds of animals and other living things, thoughts on alien minds, and a chapter on free will. I suspect the reader of the review would struggle to get any real sense of what the book is about. 

In terms of what the review does cover, there are some misrepresentations both of what the book says and of thinking in the respective fields.

O’Grady says that in defining a mind thus – “For an entity to have a mind, there must be something it is like to be that entity” – I am reprising philosopher Thomas Nagel, essentially implying that I am using Nagel’s definition of mind. But I am not. Nagel did not define mind this way, and I never suggest he did. So the suggestion that I have somehow misunderstood Nagel in this respect is way off beam. 

Besides, I suggest my definition as a basis to work with and nothing more. I state explicitly that it is neither scientifically nor philosophically rigorous – because no definition of mind is. One can propose other definitions with equal justification. But the key point of the book is that thinking about a space of possible minds obviates any gatekeeping: we do not need to obsess or argue about whether something has a mind (by some definition) or not (although we can reasonably suppose that some things do (us) and some don’t (a screwdriver)). Rather, we can ask about the qualities that then seem to define mind: does this entity have some of them, and to what degree? We can find a place for machines and organisms of all sorts in this space, even if we decide that their degree of mindedness is infinitesimally small. In other words, we avoid the kind of philosophical tendentiousness in this review. 

O’Grady writes: “To use quiddity of consciousness as a criterion of mindedness, as Ball does, excludes machines at the outset.” 

This is simply wrong. My working definition only excludes today’s machines, which is consistent with what most people who design and build and theorize about those machines think. I do not exclude the possibility of conscious machines, but I explain why they will not simply arise by making today’s AI more powerful along the same lines. It will require something else, not just a faster deep-learning algorithm trained on more data. That is the general view today, and it is important to make it clear. To make a conscious machine – a genuine “machine mind” in my view – is a tremendous challenge, and we barely know yet how to begin it. But it would be foolish, given the present state of knowledge, to exclude the possibility, and I do not. 

Of course, one could adopt another definition of “mind” that will encompass today’s computers too (and presumably then also smartphones and other devices). That’s fine, except that I don’t think most AI researchers or computer scientists would regard it as advisable. 

O’Grady writes: “Nor are ‘internal models of the world’ – another ‘feature of mind’ Ball suggests – open to outside observation.”

But they are. That is precisely what some of the careful work on animal cognition aiming to do: to go beyond mere observation of responses by figuring out what kind of reasoning the animal is using. It is difficult work, and hard to be sure we have made the right deductions. But it seems to be possible.

She asks: “And how could any method at all be used to discern if matter is suffused with mind (panpsychism)?”

Indeed – that would be very hard to prove, and I’m not sure how one could do it. I don’t rule out that some ingenious method could be devised to test the idea, but it’s not obvious to me what that might be, and it is one of the shortcomings of the hypothesis: it is not obviously testable or falsifiable. This does not mean it is wrong, as I say.

She asks: “But is the mind, rather than being any sort of entity, nothing other than what it does (functionalists’ solution)?”

Well, that’s a possible view. Is it O’Grady’s? I simply can’t tell – in that paragraph, I can’t figure out if she is talking about the positions I espouse (and which she quotes), or challenging them. Can you? At any rate, I mention the functionalist position as one among others.

O’Grady writes: “He misunderstands the Turing Test. ‘Thinking’ and ‘intelligence’ in Turing’s usage (which is now everyone’s) are not mere faute-de-mieux substitutes but the real thing. The boundaries of mind have (exactly as Ball urges) been extended, so that mind-terms which once needed to be used as metaphors, or placed in inverted commas, are treated as literal.” 

This is untrue. We have no agreed definition of “thinking” or “intelligence”. Many in AI question whether “artificial intelligence” is really a good term for the field at all. What Turing meant by these terms has been debated extensively, and still is. But you’ll have to search hard to find anyone knowledgeable about AI today who thinks that today’s algorithms can be said to “think” in the same sense (let alone in the same way) as we “think”, or to be “intelligent” in the same way as we are “intelligent”.

O’Grady writes: “Minds are themselves declared to be kinds of computer.” Yes, and as I point out in the book, that view has also been strongly criticized. 

She concludes that “Ball gives us an enjoyable ride through different perspectives on the mind but seems unaware of how jarringly incommensurate these are, nor that, by enlarging the parameters of mind, we have simultaneously shrunk them.”

I simply don’t understand what she is trying to say here. I discuss different perspectives on some issues – biopsychism, say, or consciousness – and try to indicate their strengths and weaknesses. I’ve truly no idea what O’Grady intends by these “jarringly incommensurate” differences. I explain that there are differences between many of these views. I’m totally in the dark about what point is being made here, and I suspect the reader will be. As for “by enlarging the parameters of mind, we have simultaneously shrunk them” – well, do you catch the meaning of that? I’m afraid I don’t. 

The basic problem, it seems to me, is that O’Grady has definite views on what minds are, and what machine minds can be, and my book does not seem to her to reflect those – or rather, she cannot find them explicitly stated in the book (although in all honesty I’m still unclear what O’Grady does think in this regard). And therein lies the danger – for she seems to be presenting her view as the correct one, even though a myriad of other views exist. Of course, I anticipated this potential problem, because the philosophy of mind can be very dogmatic even though (or perhaps precisely because) it enjoys no consensus view. What I have attempted to do in my book is to lay out some of the range of thinking in this area, and to assess strengths and weaknesses as well as to be frank about what we don’t know or agree about. To do so is inevitably to invite disagreement from anyone who thinks we already have the answers. Yet again I think this illustrates the pitfalls of books written by specialists on topics that are still very much work in progress (and both the science and the philosophy of mind are surely that). There is no shortage of books claiming to “explain” the mind, and many have very interesting things to say. But we don’t know which of them, if any, is correct, or even on the way to being correct. What I have attempted to do instead is to suggest a framework for thinking about minds, and moreover one that does not need to be too dogmatic about what a mind is or where it might be found. I hope readers will read it with that perspective in mind.

Saturday, June 04, 2022

What do we mean when we say that science is political?

In commenting on the commonly voiced view that “science is political”, Stuart Ritchie makes an excellent point: we must ask “And then what?” Stuart lists some of the reasons why the claim is made, and agrees with all of them (as do I).


Where he and I disagree is with “then what?” Stuart says “I don’t think the people who always tell you that “science is political” are just idly chatting sociology-of-science for the fun of it. They want to make one of two points.” Either they are saying “It’s inevitable; just accept it”, or “It’s actually a good thing.”


Now, in fact Stuart himself effectively agrees that it is inevitable – and given his list, it is hard to see how he could say otherwise. But he says this doesn’t mean we just have to shrug and say “This is the best we can do.” I think he is right, insofar as we can and should seek to eliminate the biases – both cognitive and ideological – that sneak into efforts to gain objective, reliable knowledge, in ways that Stuart himself has written admirably about.


But I fear Stuart has fallen into that same trap. In wanting to make his point, he is succumbing to a subjective belief without checking out whether it is so. I believe I am one of the people quoted anonymously (via Chemistry World) as saying that science is political - but do I really want to make one of those two points? No, I don’t.


Rather, I want us to recognize and examine the ways in which science becomes political. One of the most insidious of these is via those who seek to defend the status quo from allegedly “politicized” tampering. That’s the case for the article by chemist Anna Krylov that prompted my piece for Chemistry World, as well as thispiece for the journal in which Krylov’s article was published. Krylov’s piece is riddled with ideology, for example in her suggestion that reconsidering and updating scientific language and the individuals we choose to celebrate when social mores change is an impulse that comes from “extreme left ideology” and amounts to “spend[ing] the rest of our lives ghost-chasing and witch-hunting, rewriting history.” Her piece has been applauded by some who imply is that science is being “politicized” if its institutions implement affirmative-action programs to improve diversity. Such views assume that the situation we have now is simply the natural order – a totally apolitical state of affairs that must resist any politicized interference. How absurd, they say, to suggest, say, that Imperial College London was so named because the entire South Kensington complex of which it was a part was constructed from the fruits of an empire built on exploitation! How absurd to suggest that the fact that Imperial has five Black academics out of a total of 1600 has anything to do with social inequalities with deep historical roots, or indeed with the message that the very name of the college, or walls bedecked with image of white men, sends to people of colour who might consider applying there! Why should we imagine that the race and gender ratios in the sciences are anything other than the natural optimum for the progress of science? And so on. I wish people who have such views would expend some effort talking to students and staff of colour who are affected by this heritage.


I have no doubt that Stuart will see the absurdity of all that too. My impression is that he would regard efforts to correct these injustices as ways of making science less political, in the sense of being less shaped and compromised by the political and social injustices of the past. If so, I’d agree. Which is precisely why I felt it was important to call out those who wish to sustain a highly politicized status quo on the grounds that it is already somehow “apolitical”.


The pandemic has surely shown us how political science sometimes has to be. I suspect few would argue that scientists have a duty, especially in such extreme circumstances, to offer their advice to policy-makers. In the UK at least, some scientists have taken that to mean that they must offer such advice as objectively and accurately as they can, and accept this as the sole extent of their formal obligations. But it has become clear that, the moment science walks onto the political stage, it is inherently political.


For example, scientists were asked to provide modelling forecasts of how the pandemic was likely to play out if various policy options were implemented. They could have taken the view that their duty extends only to performing such modelling as accurately and reliably as possible, and conveying the findings clearly and honestly. This is certainly essential. But as members of the Covid modelling advisory have explained, they only modelled the scenarios they were asked to model. This does not – and did not – necessarily provide a scientifically satisfactory answer to the question the modelling was supposed to address. To predict the consequences of relaxing restrictions, say, it would be necessarily also to model the scenario in which they were not relaxed. This was not done, because it was not asked for. Should the scientists have anyway modelled that case and published the results with the rest? That might have been seen as a political act. But to not do so – and more generally, to not model all reasonable  policy options – could compromise the scientific rigour of the process. That too is a political decision.


What is the poor modeller to do? Damned if they do, damned if they don’t! But this isn’t the right way to see it. Rather, involvement in the political process comes means that “the science” is necessarily political – there is no longer an “objective”, apolitical position.


The same applied when the news broke of government adviser Dominic Cummings having broken lockdown rules with his Durham trip in March 2020. On that occasion, the government chief scientists were questioned by reporters for their views, and declined to comment on the grounds that they had “no desire to get involved in politics”. But Cummings’ violation of the rules was not purely a political matter, for it would obviously have implications for trust in governance and compliance with lockdown measures. By failing to affirm – as deputy chief medical officer Jonathan Van-Tam later did – that the rules applied to everyone, and that by implication Cummings should not have broken them, Chris Whitty and Patrick Vallance were making a choice with implications for public health. Their silence was, in other words, political too. Whether it was the right or wrong decision is another discussion; the point is that they did not have the luxury of an objective, apolitical position, as they seemed to believe.


Is it, indeed, really "apolitical" for the science advisers to remain silent in the light of the revelation that the prime minister, via the culture of governance that we now know he encouraged, was essentially playing them for fools all the time they were stressing the importance of observing lockdown rules? Will that silence truly serve the long-term status of the scientific advisory roles?


Very well then: this is pandemic science, and hard to imagine it could ever be free from politics. (That’s to say: some evidently do imagine this, but it is not hard to see that it is mistaken.) But surely most science is free from politics, or should be? The mass of the Higgs boson doesn’t depend on your political ideology!


Indeed not, and thank goodness. Some who fear the idea that science is political seem to worry that the Higgs mass might be at risk of being revised to conform to Maoist principles or some such. But here’s a real question. What if the CERN teams that tracked down the Higgs boson by 2012 had ceased collaborating with any Russian scientists on political grounds, slowing down progress to their goal? An outrageous thought? CERN has indeed just taken such a decision in the wake of the invasion of Ukraine. Was this right, or should science stay aloof from politics? The answer is not self-evident; I certainly do not profess to know what is right in that case. Again, a decision either way is political – because science happens in societies, and societies are political.


Research on climate change needs to be conducted as accurately and as free from bias and political ideology as possible. But what happens if its finding suggest that we face catastrophe if we do not significantly change our behaviour and energy economy, and yet political leaders ignore the warnings? Do scientists shrug and say “well, we did our part of the job as best we could”? One thing they absolutely must not do, of course, is to change their figures to make them even more alarming. But everyone knows that the impact of one’s research findings can be made more or less impactful by how they are presented. Are climate scientists right if they look for ways to make the dire implications of their work more evident and perhaps more alarming to the public?


The same is true for any scientific issue with political implications – embryo research and abortion, say, or statisticians speaking to issues of gun regulation. As climate change has shown, a bare and dispassionate presentation of the facts doesn’t necessarily have much impact. What then are the scientists to do to make their voice heard? Obviously, any distortion of facts, no matter in how noble a cause, ceases to be science. But should a scientist marshal the evidence to discredit an ideology that habitually traduces them? Again, I don’t claim to know the answer. But I do know that the question speaks to the broader responsibilities of science and scientists, beyond the simple (in principle) duty to get the facts as right as possible.


I don’t imagine Stuart disagrees with any of this, just as I fully support his suggestion that we must strive to make the results of scientific research as free from bias (including political) as possible. But that is the easy part. I don’t mean it is easy to do – far from it. But it is easy to see what the objective is, and how we can try to make it “as apolitical as it can be”.


It is all the rest that is the problem: how the scientific workforce is recruited, selected, promoted and celebrated; how we choose which scientific problems to work on (I don’t see how medical science can ever be free from political factors, for example in the choices of what gets prioritized); how scientists think about their social responsibilities beyond the narrow confines of the technical quality of their work – the uses to which it might be put, or how it might be abused, say; how science plays out within a capitalistic, market-driven political economy.  


I am not suggesting that we must shrug and accept that all this stuff is irredeemably political, far less proclaiming on whether this is a good or bad thing. The questions “Politics in science: more or less? Good or bad?” don’t seem to me to be the right ones. We must simply examine how politics impinges on science (and vice versa), be aware of it and not in denial about it, and think about whether or not we are happy with the answers, and how to change them if not. My big fear is that scientists, conducting their research as objectively and transparently as possible, tell themselves “Ah, now we’re truly apolitical, and free to just get on with our important work!” I wrote a book about where, in the worst case, that attitude can lead. It was called Serving the Reich.