Making up the facts about climate change?

Climate Change Factors

Upton Sinclair said

“It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends on his not understanding it.”

Let’s just try to understand a fairly straightforward question. I don’t mean straightforward as in ‘easy to determine’ , but as in ‘you’d think it might have a definite, clear answer’. Here it is:

How much carbon dioxide do volcanoes emit?

This seems exactly the kind of question we should be able to answer if we want to be able to say anything serious about climate change (see the top left box of the diagram). It also seems to be the kind of thing that scientific observation and measurement ought to be able to help us with.

Furthermore, it would in principle be perfectly reasonable to conclude that we don’t actually have an answer yet because it’s just too hard to measure volcanoes with existing methods and technology. A little humility never hurt anyone.

So here goes with the answer. Continue reading “Making up the facts about climate change?”

More on Open Access journals

Just a few links really, call it self-education…

There’s a new popular book out about some of the issues. Viral Spiral by David Bollier. (also exists as free pdf download).

And The Access Principle is a bit of a classic (if anything can be after just four years). Free pdf requires registration.

A real world case study I found illuminating, on the Canadian Journal of Sociology.

Read also:
Open access to publicly funded knowledge

#approvalmatrix – fourfold typologies make it to Twitter

Here’s an older post from the Savage Minds anthropology blog about Mary Douglas’s grid-group typology (the basis of the four cultures explored on this site). It’s basically a mashup of that typology and an alternative scheme deriving from Pierre Bourdieu (if he wrote for the New York Magazine, that is): highbrow/lowbrow; brilliant/despicable.

I like it because I’ve been very interested in the proliferation of fourfold schemes in the social sciences – and here’s another one. In particular I’m interested in whether these schemes are each as radically new as the author or creator always seems to think, or whether there’s some kind of underlying structure that makes superficially different formulations somehow connect.

This particular juxtaposition reminds me of Arthur Koestler’s understanding of creativity, which comes about where

‘a single situation or idea is perceived in two self-consistent but mutually incompatible frames of reference’.

If you’re interested, the approval matrix has been re-purposed and applied to Twitter posts at O’Reilly Radar.

Koestler, Arthur (1964) The Act of Creation. London: Pan. Quoted in William Byers (2007) How Mathematicians Think. Using Ambiguity, Contradiction and Paradox to Create Mathematics. Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 28.

The beetroot lesson – the politics of disgust


Martha Nussbaum has recently written a second book on the connections between visceral feelings of disgust and more abstract responses of indignation. As one commentator put it:

‘disgust can’t be reasoned with. Logical arguments do not make spoiled milk smell better.’

[Image: Darwin Bell]

I think this is precisely wrong. As a child I hated beetroot with a passion. But I convinced myself that if someone in the world liked it there must be something to like. After persisting, I found I not only liked beetroot – I loved it, and still do to this day. Happily the first time I tasted an olive I remembered the beetroot lesson and all was well. As it turns out, disgust can be reasoned with. And further, logical arguments do in fact make spoiled milk smell better. Here’s my logical argument: it’s sour cream. Continue reading “The beetroot lesson – the politics of disgust”

Why Psychology fails to explain the Global Financial Crisis

Listening to Australian historian Robert Mann’s recent lecture at the Melbourne Writers’ Festival on whether neo-liberalism has a future, I was struck by the deficiency of the rush to psychological explanation. In seeking to analyse the supposed inadequacies of the free-market ideology, there is an increasing tendency to rely on psychology as the master discipline, the new ‘commmon sense’ that will unlock the secrets of collective human behaviour. Just as the neo-liberals championed the perfectly rational economic actor, homo economicus, who as an individual is unrecognisable from any other perfectly rational individual, so the latest commentators attempt to correct and complete the picture by pointing out that this vision misses out humanity’s essential irrationalism, epitomised by a host of psychological quirks – which set the bounds for Kahneman and Tversky’s bounded rationality. But whether for or against the unfettered free market, these supposedly conflicting approaches share much more than they disagree on: namely a confidence that what goes on in our heads is what it’s all about. Continue reading “Why Psychology fails to explain the Global Financial Crisis”

Why do we disagree about Climate Change?

In his foreword to a recent collection on the social construction of climate change, Nicholas Onuf writes:

‘As a social constructon, climate change is no one thing. Instead it is an ensemble of constitutive processes, yielding an ever changing panoply of agents and insitutions, fixed in place only for the moment.’ Mary E Pettenger (ed) 2007:xv

Yet in the arguments about climate change, the subject of the arguments is often taken as a given. We forget that just as the carbon dioxide emissions are of human origin, so is the very concept.

Now Prof Mike Hulme, founder of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, has written a book about climate change as a social, cultural, political, religious and ethical phenomenon,rather than a ‘problem’ to be ‘solved’. In doing so he has drawn deeply from the well of Cultural Theory. The book refers repeatedly to the writings of Mary Douglas (especially Douglas and Wildavsky 1984), Michael Thompson (particularly Verweij and Thompson 2006) and numerous other cultural theorists, and has a Foreword by Steve Rayner. The book is much too stimulating and multi-faceted to summarise here, but in terms of policy implications the auther promotes Rayner’s idea of the need for ‘silver buckshot’ rather than ‘silver bullets’, and Verweij and Thompson’s idea of ‘clumsy solutions’ rather than elegant failures.

I’ve written from a similar perspective about climate change, and specifically on what we argue about when we argue about global warming.

Why we Disagree about Climate Change is a timely, wide ranging thoughtful and challenging contribution to the climate change debate. I think it will also stand as a highly accessible landmark text of ‘applied Cultural Theory’, much as Christopher Hood’s 1998 book on public management did a decade ago.  A review will follow.

The decline and fall of declining and falling

Edward Gibbon made a famous claim in chapter 3 of The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire that

“If a man were called to fix the period in the history of the world, during which the condition of the human race was most happy and prosperous, he would, without hesitation, name that which elapsed from the death of Domitian to the accession of Commodus.”

Not many people these days would be able to do this kind of thing ‘without hesitation’ (“ Oh, yes, 96 to 180AD, I remember it well…”), but Gibbon makes a good point: we organise our lives around a concept of human happiness and prosperity. It’s very important to us both within our national economies and or household economies to know whether things are getting better or worse, and whether this trajectory, once identified, is ‘normal’ or ‘exceptional’.

Gibbon’s intuitive opinion, ‘without hesitation’ was not only that happiness and prosperity were getting worse but that this had been the normal state of the world for a period of roughly 1600 years since the end of the Roman Empire. The former view was somewhat tempered by the latter. Since decline amounted to a long-term trend, it was nothing much to get excited about.

The industrial revolution made Gibbon’s historical reconstruction with its mood of nostaligia seem ‘ridiculous’ (J.C. Stobart). Not at first, since the dark satanic mills actually produced a decline in life expectancy, at least until roughly the middle of the 19th century. But it transformed the way people in England regarded the Golden Age. Now, with new and wondrous inventions appearing seemingly every year, it was increasingly obvious that the best was yet to come, not in the afterlife, as previously, but in the here-and-now or, to be precise, the here-and-soon. We are still living in this brave new world of constant progress and the pace of fabulous change continues to increase. Continue reading “The decline and fall of declining and falling”

How to choose the best online citation tools

Just as I finally get used to loving Zotero, it looks like Mendeley is set to claim my heart. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, these are on-line citation tools for academic research and writing. They use various different methods for collecting and manipulating metadata relating to books, journals, papers and websites – and then linking it all together automagically. They hold out the promise of automating activities that until now have been painstaking and laborious for researchers, and of creating new opportunities for collaboration that never existed before. But there is a down side. Continue reading “How to choose the best online citation tools”

Truth and Lies

Research such as this, exposing just how much we lie, surely calls into question Jurgen Habermas’s idea that speech is fundamentally oriented towards truth- telling.

Habermas seems to claim that truth precedes falsehood in the sense that lying can only take place against a background assumption of truth. In other words, we only lie with the intention of persuading the hearer we are telling the truth.

But isn’t the inverse possible too, that truth-telling can only take place against a background assumption of fiction? Surely we are aware that of the many, many things that language enables us to say, only a small subset of them is actually true? For this reason I think the ideal speech act is not the truth but the story.

It seems much more likely that the truth is no more than a subset of all the things it is possible to say. Language is no more concerned with ethics than art is (that is, it can be, but doesn’t have to be). In my opinion the ideal speech act is fiction.


Robert Feldman 2009 The Liar In Your Life: How Lies Work And What They Tell Us About Ourselves, London: Virgin Books.

Read more: Australian bushfires as a ‘Truth event’